This episode of Coffee with a Journalist is joined by Heather Somerville of The Wall…
On this episode of the Coffee with a Journalist podcast, Sissi Cao joins host, Beck Bamberger, to talk all things journalism. Sissi is a business reporter for Observer covering major news and updates around the power players in business, from tech to finance. During their conversation, Sissi dives into her inbox at Observer, stories and features resulting from pitches, and how tech know-how is impacting future journalists.
Click below to listen to the full conversation and read below for highlights from the interview:
Her Work Inbox
Beck Bamberger: Yeah. I’m going to imagine everyone’s like “Shoot, got to make my own coffee.” Well, I’m not drinking coffee, but I have my sparkling water here, so we are good. First, I’d like to ask you, Sissi, just about your inbox? How crazy is it in there? How do you keep it under control with pitches?
Sissi Cao: So my inbox, every morning I wake up to probably more than 100, 150 new emails from everyone. Most of them are, they include PR pitches, some alerts, some just regular newsletters, and just office emails from my coworkers and sources I’ve been in touch with. And there’s also some submissions from people I don’t know. They want to write for us.
BB: Oh, you get those?
SC: Yeah. I get those, too. I guess, Observer has a pretty small editorial team. So everybody, even though I’m not the editor who manages these things, but people somehow find my email and send those my way.
BB: So then you just forward those along, or what do you do to organize those 100-plus emails that come to you?
SC: I try to carve out maybe like 15 minutes, every two hours throughout the day, just to clear at least the first page of my inbox. So delete those things I don’t have to open, and see if there’s anything being flagged or starred, so that I need to look right away.
For those submissions, I tend to take a quick glance at it. And then if it’s something, I’ll forward it to my coworker.”
But if not, sometimes I reply to them, sometimes I don’t have time to do that, to be very honest. So yes, that’s kind of my system. But sometimes, that’s not enough. So I would spend some time Sunday evening to go through my inbox so that I can start fresh on Monday.
SC: Or like maybe Wednesday night, like once or twice a week, I need to spare some time.
How She Writes Stories
BB: Okay. Well, speaking of stories though, and where they can come up and evolve, keeping in mind, of course, Sissi, that you are writing in the tech vertical, and you do speak about or talk about some of the biggest tech companies there are from the SpaceX’s to the Amazons and so forth, do you ever get stories published that originate from a pitch?
BB: Oh, okay. Tell us about that.
SC: Yeah. About a pitch, let’s see. You were talking about like less household names.
BB: Yes, maybe some startups, mm-hmm (affirmative).
SC: Yeah. About two years ago, I got a pitch from a PR that I had no contact with. It was a first-time outreach. She pitched me this very interesting idea of a startup in Michigan that’s working on a technology that freezes your STEM cells. So for example, if you’re 50 and you’re worried that your knee is going to fall apart in 10 years, you can extract some STEM cells from that part and freeze that with the company. They charge you a fee. It’s kind of similar to egg freezing service, but the technology is less mature in that specific area of science. So they are pioneering that, and just started offering those services around the country.
SC: I was heading to a tech event. I believe it was TechCrunch Disrupt in September, and the founder would be there. So we just arranged an in-person interview in San Francisco. And we chatted about like, what technology is, how it works, and some ethical questions. Like, if you have like a 50-year-old knee in this fridge for 10 years and you get it back, you get a new knee when you turn 60, how old are you exactly? What if it’s not a knee, it’s like a more essential organ or something else? So there’s a lot of interesting questions.
BB: I’ve never thought of that in terms of, especially in a future setting where lots of body parts can be interchanged like a car. How old is it?
SC: Exactly. That’s a question that comes up a lot in these biotech companies, especially those with a very clear consumer angle. Yeah, so I ended up doing a feature of that company, and that actually did really well on our site. Yeah, that’s just one example.
BB: That’s a great example, though. That not only got a story out of that, but you actually got to meet in person and you got to actually see the founder and all those great things. So there you go.
I try to meet the person I interview as much as I can, because we are in New York. A lot of things are happening in this area. I do my best to make in-person interviews happen. Yeah, but not this year, obviously.”
BB: Yes, I’m looking forward to the return of that time. That’ll be fun, where you could do an interview in a bar and have a drink. Oh my gosh. It sounds so fantasy level at this point. It’ll be back, and I kind of predict that it’ll be like a roaring twenties comeback, where people are going to be crazy in fashion, in gluttony. Probably it’s going to be a raging economy. Anyway, we digress. We digress. That was a good answer. Let’s see. Thanks for ending that. But, oh, that can kind of walk us into this next part, which is word associations, which I do love.
Her Thoughts on the Future of Journalism
BB: That’s a perfect holiday book to like set yourself up for success, I feel. Sissi, what do you think is the future of journalism?
SC: Yeah, that’s a tricky question. Because that seems to be the question we’re trying to answer like collectively in this profession, every day. Yeah. I feel like on a more practical note,
I feel like the future of journalism might be increasingly consolidated as what we are seeing with tech consolidation in Silicon Valley, smaller startups getting absorbed by bigger brands, eventually become a big newsroom that has everybody from different parts of the media ecosystem.”
I think the format is also something I think a lot about. Now there’s, podcasts seems to be a very recent thing that, it just started taking off a few years ago, to replace videos and web stories. So I look forward to seeing what’s going to happen there, like in either podcast or more of multi-platform storytelling techniques. I don’t have an exact answer just yet.
BB: Me neither, and it seems like, God, there’s just more content, or the same content, but then packaged this way, in this format, in this thing. And you’re like, “Oh, my God.” I am in a crisis of content, personally.
SC: Exactly. I remember when I was in grad school in, that was 2014, we had this new class, or they even developed a track for, just for creating interactive web stories, these really fancy, like New York Times visualization of how a storm passes and what’s the impact on New York and Boston and so on. It’s kind of a new type of storytelling based on top of data. Some people call it data journalism, some people call it interactive storytelling. A lot of journalists nowadays actually need to take coding classes in college, to, at least understand the basics of it, even though you’re not creating those pages yourself. That’s also going to be one of, part of the future, when writers get more technical and just get more and more comfortable with computers.
Because having working this industry, I know a lot of writers still have this very old school mindset that, “I’m not good with computers or math. I just write good stories.” But maybe one day, this is not enough.
BB: Yeah. I would say increasingly, it’s not, especially if you’re going to be covering like enterprise, big companies, stock portfolio news, things like that. I mean, you have that finance background then coupled with the journalism background, which is so, I imagine, pragmatic in so many ways. I haven’t heard too many people talk about more what you’re alluding to, which is this hybrid of skills, and that what you need to bring more to the table. You need to be better than just, “Oh, I can tell a story or I can make it succinct and understandable and alluring.” But also, “I can interpret multiple ways of a story from a data perspective, from a stock analysis, from an IPO synopsis, from all.” I mean, all of these other ways that you could do it, from a visual standpoint. Just, wow. It’s becoming more demanding on journalism or journalists, I believe.
SC: Yeah, because everybody is a journalist with the tools they have.
Sissi, like many others, is constantly seeing the evolution in communication mediums. As she notes, podcasting is a medium that’s taken the media by storm. Check out our article, PR 101: 3 Tactics for Leveraging Podcasts for Public Relations, to learn more!