skip to Main Content

We discuss all things relevant to: Best Practices, Journalists, Publicists, Roundups, Tech Events, Thought Leadership.

Coffee With A Journalist: Olivia Solon, NBC News

Coffee with a Journalist: Olivia Solon, NBC News

In episode 26 of the Coffee with a Journalist podcast, NBC News Editor Olivia Solon joins host, Beck Bamberger, to discuss her role, process, and outlook on the journalism landscape. As Tech Investigations Editor, Olivia works to unearth the hidden stories within today’s tech world. Listen in as she discusses her point-of-view surrounding her beat, unique relationship with PR professionals, and the tricky state of tech journalism today. 

Click below to listen to the full conversation and read below for highlights from the interview:

Her Work Inbox

Beck:

Tell us a little bit more about your inbox on the daily. Are you getting still because doesn’t matter seemingly your title, people still will get you all types of crap. Do you get a lot of pitches or is it mostly clean in there? What do you do to organize yourself?

Olivia:

I have to say my inbox has historically been a total shit show, I don’t know if I can swear on this show but it has been a nightmare. And since I joined NBC at the end of 2018, I made a really conscious effort to try and get myself taken off a lot of databases or at least to talk to the comms people I know and trust and say, “Look, I’m really not doing these kinds of stories anymore.” And so I still get quite a lot of pitches but I think most people and most of the companies I interact with know that I am unlikely to cover a lot of the stuff that they send me. But sometimes it’s just a kind of is out of interest. But then I get something out of  left field from someone I’ve never talked to, it won’t be a press release but it might be a tip.

Beck:

It’s a tip. Yeah. I was going to say. And I noticed your Twitter is open for tips. How often do you get tips though? Let’s also clarify, credible tips. Because I’ve heard other people getting like they get people who say, “I have an opinion on XYZ.” And you’re like, “Dude, you sit in the middle of Milwaukee doing, I don’t know what playing video games all day. You’re not a video game industry expert.” For instance.

Olivia:

Right. I get a lot of very sketchy tips. So I either get people saying, “I’ve got a tip.” And then they post a press release into my DMs, which is obviously not a tip. But I do get quite a lot of perhaps people who don’t come across as the most mentally sound people coming to tell me about some conspiracy theory that they’ve heard. But sometimes that in of itself is interesting. I’ll probably palm it off to some of my colleagues who are covering the dystopia beat.

Beck:

Wait a second. Wait a second. Is that someone’s actual beat or even like colloquially within you guys where you’re like, “Yeah? You’re dystopic.”

Olivia:

Yeah. They’re all the sort of queue and on staff and all the kind of anti-vaxxer stuff.

Beck:

Yeah.

Olivia:

But it has been useful using, I have Signal and I have my Twitter DMs. It’s a very kind of quick and casual way to determine if there’s a story or it leads to the beginning of a story.

How She Writes Stories

Beck:

You led me into my next best thing. So that is how a story comes to be. And I bet your answer is going to be different than other folks, which is just along the lines of well… And maybe give me an example if you care to. But what does it take to actually have the story get to the publishing mark? How many, sometimes days does it take, research? Are you thinking about… So some people have told me, “I’m thinking about something in the shower. And then I go like, I’m going to go investigate that.” And you get down a rabbit hole. And then it becomes this whole piece six weeks later. So sometimes it starts from there but how does it take or what does it take to get a story out?

Olivia:

Quite a long time in the sorts of stories we’re doing most of the time? I mean, there are some times when I’ll do quick turnaround news, like daily news kind of story but that will typically only be if it’s serving a bigger investigation we’re working on. So for example, I’ve been working on a few stories on the topic of child sexual exploitation online. And so I’ve done a few kinds of very quick stories about tools and technologies that law enforcement have been using because they kind of feed into a bigger thing that I’m working on in the background.

Olivia:

And so I’m still working on some things in that space. I have published a few investigations in that space as well. But I’ll give you an example of a story that I published I think it was last year now but it was about a facial recognition database, data set that IBM was using theoretically to reduce bias in facial recognition, which has historically been a huge issue. It is much more accurate at detecting white faces than black faces.

Olivia:

And so they launched this initiative to create this data set of diverse faces so that they could train better facial recognition algorithms. And it got this… The press release story was like, “Hey, look at this cool initiative from IBM.” But something that caught my attention in the press release or at least the way it was covered in the press was that it said they were using people’s photos from Flickr to build these data sets.

Beck:

Oh. Oh.

Olivia:

Yeah. And so it turned out that there had just been this, like… In fact, the entire facial recognition industry is built on these somewhat questionably sourced datasets. But it turned out that they had just used the Creative Commons license which allows people to republish photos on their blogs and stuff. They used that to just justify extracting the biometric data from a million people’s faces or a million faces from photos on Flickr. And so I just thought, that’s interesting. I wonder A, what the photographers think about that, B, what the subjects of those photos think about that. And C, does making facial recognition more accurately identify black faces make it fairer? Is that a good thing given the way that these technologies are used? And I think sometimes we conflate accuracy with fairness in a kind of societal context. And that’s certainly not the case. It just makes it a better surveillance tool for black faces if that’s the case.

Beck:

So in that piece, did Flickr know this? Or were they just completely oblivious?

Olivia:

So yeah, it’s like this sort of everyone… In fact, lots of big recognition researchers have known about this for years. The entire machine learning kind of image recognition industry and research is built on just sort of scraping the internet for photos mostly. In this case, Flickr had actually bundled all these photos together, 100 million photos in fact, and just said, “Any researchers, if you want to use these pictures, go for it.” And so IBM had only done what many other researchers had done before them but then they were specifically extracting biometric data from the faces in that dataset. And I think in the interim, Flickr had been sold to another company that’s now it’s called SmugMug.

Beck:

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Olivia:

But anyway, that was just like the start of a story. And it involved quite a lot of digging and it involved finding people whose faces and photos were in that dataset and asking them how they felt about it. Some people were fine about it but most people wanted some kind of option to opt-out.

Beck:

Yes. Of course.

Olivia:

And then we got a tool that allows people to know if their photos were in the data set as well. We got a leaked copy of the data set, which we weren’t meant to have considered it was supposed to be for academics and they would give it to us. And so we got one and then we built a tool that lets people know if their photos were in there.

Beck:

Wow. What I love about this is you’re the person who’s like, “Yeah. I’m going to take that press release. And I’m going to dig in there and find something and find the kernels of a great, huge story that is totally not what you were telling me about in this press release.”

Olivia:

Yeah. Yeah. So that’s what I mean about sometimes the comms people aren’t super. I mean, I do pride myself on being fair and I want to make sure my stories are accurate and I do have good working relationships with companies, even when some of my reporting might seem fairly antagonistic. But I always give people a lot of time and I’m very open to making changes to stories if they seem to be inaccurate or.

Beck:

If inaccurate. Yeah. Fantastic. I love this. This is just so different than the usual responses as some people are like, “Yeah. I delete all my pitches. I never look at anything.” Or like, “Yeah. Never send me a press release or anything like…” You’re like the opposite of the digger.

Olivia:

I mean, I’m not inviting a flurry of press releases but I do find…

Beck:

No. I’m sure you’re not.

Olivia:

I do find there are people who I have known for years who understand that I’m not necessarily going to write up the latest product tweak but they might say, “Hang on. We’ve noticed that there are some bad actors trying to manipulate our platform. It’s a new type of attack.” Or, “Here’s a consumer issue that we’re seeing coming up.” And particularly for an NBC audience, it’s obviously a very mainstream audience. And so I have definitely had to kind of kernels the stories that way.

Her Thoughts on the Future of Journalism

Beck:

Gosh. Okay. So we alluded to this just a little bit but what’s your take on the future of journalism? You did just say bloodbath. So maybe it’s not positive but that’s okay.

Olivia:

So it’s been extremely depressing. I mean, it’s been happening for years, but it has been extremely depressing to see so many colleagues laid off. I mean, not NBC colleagues specifically but as in, in the industry laid off in the last, well, few years and accelerating in recent months because of the pandemic and the ad revenue kind of crisis. But at the same time, over the last few years, in terms of tech journalism, I’ve seen some of the best tech reporting since I got into tech. And so, I mean, I’ve been a journalist since 2006, professional journalists since then. And I think some of the best reporting has happened in the last few years.

Olivia:

What does seem to be happening particularly in the US is this consolidation of power media players and then the sort of dying off of local journalism, which I think is a huge shame. But the stuff that’s being produced by those that are continuing to make money or at least scraped together money, I think is incredibly powerful. So it’s weird because there’s simultaneously some of the best work happening but also the outlook is not super encouraging for having a diverse media landscape in the future.

Beck:

Yeah. I hear you on that. If you had to go back and when you said, and as mentioned here, I see it on your LinkedIn profile. So back in 2006, right before the crash, you got into your career. Would you tell yourself still, “Yeah. Go down this path. Go do journalism.”

Olivia:

I absolutely love my job. I think it’s so fulfilling. I don’t see it as going to work every day. It’s something that I just enjoy doing. I love talking to people. I love digging into and uncovering information that’s not easy to uncover. I’ve been offered… There’ve been many times when I’ve been approached to go either to do a comms job or do some kind of internal thing at a tech company. And I’m just not there yet. I mean, ask me in a few years’ time, maybe there will be some point when I’m just desperate to get out or I get laid off and I’m ready for it. But at this point in time, I can’t think of anything else I could do. No. I can think of other things I could do. I can’t think of anything else that I would love doing as much as I do.

Beck:

It’s so great to hear that and consistent with many people I’ve spoken to who are like, “There’s nothing else I could do. So this has to be it.” And I kind of love that because like, what a calling.

______

Media relations are key to a successful and sustainable career in PR and journalism. Like Olivia mentioned, even in her beat, building relationships between journalists and PR professionals can yield stories and opportunities that are extremely valuable. Learn more about building relationships, raising awareness, and growing sales in our blog The Three Main Objectives of Media Relations!

Also, be sure to follow us on Twitter and subscribe to our podcast for news and updates on the latest articles and episodes about everything PR and journalism.

Mathew Cruz

Mathew started at OnePitch in January of 2020 as a Marketing Apprentice. He currently serves as the SEO & Content Marketing Specialist handling content creation from social media to the OnePitch blog. Mathew studied Integrated Marketing Communications at San Diego State University. In his free time, he loves creating art, visiting museums, and traveling.

Back To Top