Victoria Song, a consumer tech reporter at Gizmodo, joined us on the Coffee with a…
Today on Coffee with a Journalist, we’re joined by Shayla Love, a senior staff writer for Vice. Shayla covers stories about science, health, and the mind. Prior to Vice, she was a news reporting intern at Stat News as well as a features intern for The Washington Post. She also has a master’s degree from Columbia University in science, environment, and medicine journalism.
During the episode, Shayla shares specifics about her beat and coverage, how she keeps pitches and trending news on her radar, her favorite exercise activity, and more.
Click below to listen to the full conversation and read below for highlights from the interview:
Her Work Inbox
[00:02:47] BB: I like it. Including, I’m looking at a couple here, but you have something on just the LSD, something about masks with how people look different. There’s Ooh, I feel yours is a particular area where you go down a rabbit hole like 20 articles later, you’re like, “Wow, I’ve learned a lot.” So that’s great. How is your inbox? How do you keep it clean or not? Actually.
[00:03:09] SL: Yeah, so I am an inbox zero person.
[00:03:12] BB: Okay.
[00:03:13] SL: Which means that I don’t like to have a bunch of unread emails around all the time. This means I’m an obsessive deleter because I do get a lot of PR pitches, a lot of them are irrelevant to the topics that I write about. I’m just somebody who can’t have that read number on the email app. I can’t see that it makes me crazy. I’m somebody who really is constantly pruning my inbox. I use a lot of filters to make sure that the things that I’m looking for can be seen immediately when I want them to be.
[00:03:45] BB: Wow, so you’re on the other side of the spectrum today. I also recorded with Rebecca Jennings who’s at Vox and she is the crown winner. 70,000 unread emails or something that I even forgot the number of – but wow. So then you have the opposite side of the spectrum where it’s ruthless to get to zero. How often does it get to zero by the way?
[00:04:03] SL: So right now I just pulled it up. Right now, I have two unread emails.
[00:04:07] BB: Two.
[00:04:08] SL: Which came in within the last three minutes.
[00:04:11] BB: Okay.
[00:04:12] SL: I do get a lot of emails every day. I wish I could present this as something noble, but instead it just really irritates me to have a bunch of emails. So it’s really almost a flaw that I must always be in there pruning, like it’s an obsessive gardener always trimming the hedges. So right now, I have two. One is like an internal email and then one is it looks like a press release thing. I’ll probably delete both of them.
[00:05:28] BB: Then for filing, because you mentioned that just a second ago with keeping your inbox all nice, improved. Do you go back and search for things from six and a half months ago? A pitch, that you’re like, “Oh, yeah, that thing.”
[00:05:39] SL: Oh, yeah, definitely. So because I keep my inbox so clean. I think that’s one of the benefits of doing so because everything that’s in my inbox is something that I want to be there and that I might want to look at later on. I don’t have to – when I search for like, let’s say, Psilocybin, which is the psychedelic ingredient, and mushrooms. I’m not going to get a bunch of like nonsense. It’s going to be everything about psilocybin that was important to me, so that I can go back and look at it if I need to.
Her Thoughts on Pitches
[00:04:37] BB: I’m on your page. I’m the same. I’m constantly in there. Clip, clip, clipping away because a lot of it is junk and then a lot of I don’t have to do anything about it. Yeah, I feel you on that. Are there ever pitches you receive that you respond to?
[00:04:50] SL: Yes.
“You can’t just be constantly frantically waiting for the story to appear. You need time walking around, you need time reading fiction, you need time letting things marinate and seeing the connection between different topics.”
[00:04:51] BB: Okay.
[00:04:52] SL: It is rare, but I will say the ones that I’ve responded to our press people or comms people, sometimes academic in institutions who know my work really, really well. They either know I’ve written about the subject before and this is a follow up to a piece that I’ve written before or it’s regarding, let’s say, a scientist whose work I’ve written about before, and it’s new work of theirs. Those have been the few instances in which it’s been like, “Oh, I’m so happy to know about this.” I’m going to respond right away. I want to write about it because it’s like telling me something that I would have written about if I had come across it on my own. So it does happen.
How She Writes Stories
[00:01:50] BB: Yeah, we’re excited. We’re going to jump into your inbox in just a second, but as you are Senior Reporter, sometimes I think people can get confused or think, oh, let me just pitch anything under the sun. So we’ll talk about that in a second, but tell us a little bit about the focus area you have.
[00:02:08] SL: Sure, sure. That’s a great point because almost every reporter that I know and that I work with has a narrow focus on things that they write about. We call these beats. So my beats are focused on health, science, psychology, mental health, and all of these fuzzy areas where those things overlap. So in practice, that means I write a lot about feelings, emotions, how people are feeling, but also the study of those feelings that I write about psychedelics quite a bit, I write about the intersections of philosophy and mental health, history, and mental health. So all of those interdisciplinary areas that regard the mind are basically my beat.
“So in practice that means I write a lot about feelings, emotions, how people are feeling, but also the study of those feelings that I write about psychedelics quite a bit, I write about the intersections of philosophy and mental health, history and mental health.”
[00:06:07] BB: What inspires you to do a story?
[00:06:37] SL: Yeah, so I’m a features writer, which means that generally, I’m not writing news. I don’t write about –
[00:06:42] BB: Yeah, you’re not breaking.
“I’ve curated my Twitter following to be like people who are doing in my opinion, really interesting work again, interdisciplinary in the fields of like, neuroscience, mental health, philosophy, psychology, stuff like that. I try to read the work of my peers because sometimes fellow journalists write about really fascinating topics.”
[00:06:43] SL: Yeah. I’m not writing about the fact that something just happened. I’m usually synthesizing a lot of different ideas together or it’s a topic that I think is really important for people who are interested in that field to know about. So for me, a story idea is really kind of this coming together of many different things happening in a way where I’m like, oh, there’s a bigger picture here. A good example might be my psychedelic coverage. There is a big for-profit industry popping up with psychedelics. A lot of psychedelic patents are being filed. This is something that I’ve been writing about quite extensively.
So for me, I can’t write a news article every single time there’s a new psychedelic patent filed, there’s like 1000s of them. Also, that’d be a very boring story. There are like news feeds for information like that. For me, I can synthesize a bunch of different events where patents are being challenged, where people are asking questions about patents all into one story that has an overarching theme. So for me, it’s always about finding that overarching theme, and like that narrative within a bunch of events that are happening out in the world. That’s how I think about the framework for a story that I’m going to approach.
[00:07:55] BB: Do you ever find too, I’ve heard this from people that they’ll just be looking at their inbox and in a week, weeks’ time there will be six emails, six pitches that are about something that’s the on this particular topic. They’ll go, oh, ha, maybe there’s a trend going? Or maybe there’s something here and that the collective of the pitches informs an interest if that makes sense. Do you ever find that? Does that happen at all? Are people sending you mushroom ideas?
“So then I read the study, and it was actually way more interesting and complex than a lot of the other media articles that were being written about it. All the other headlines that I saw, were reflecting the same thing. Too much free time is bad for you.”
[00:08:24] SL: Yeah, I mean, I since writing about psychedelics, I get a lot of psychedelic PR pictures. The tricky thing for me is that when they come from for-profit companies, even though they’re saying something really cool is happening. Of course, they’re saying that about their own company. There’s always something for me where it’s like, it’s not my job to be a publicist for somebody else.
[00:08:45] BB: Exactly.
[00:08:46] SL: I’m always trying to look underneath the promotional piece of it to think, what’s the underlying thread there? So for me, it might be looking at my inbox, wow, like five people are telling me that they are pushing through patents for psilocybin for obesity this week. That’s whether or not that’s great, or works or whatever is a side note, but I can think this is something a lot of companies are pursuing. So maybe that’s a topic that I’ll write about generally if I’m seeing that a lot of people are doing that.
Shayla’s coverage is undoubtedly different than most journalists we’ve interviewed. It doesn’t go without saying that Vice is also a unique outlet in terms of its coverage. The good news is that Shayla gives actionable takeaways for grabbing her attention and numerous ways to connect on a story idea.
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