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Welcome to the second episode of Coffee with a Journalist featuring some of the most popular and coveted journalists covering the tech industry. This week we had the opportunity to sit down and share coffee with Abrar Al-Heeti from CNET and talk about how she established herself early-on, her big move to San Francisco, and how she loves incorporating anecdotes in stories.
Her Journey to Journalism
Beck: So, tell us about how you thought of journalism as a career, or something at least to, “Hey, I want to get a degree in this,” and then we can talk about the PR part.
Abrar: Yeah, yeah. So, I have a sister who is 11 years older than me, and everything she did was an example for me. She was my role model, she still is, and she was getting her degree in journalism when I was a kid, and so I’d always loved writing, and I always needed a way to kind of figure out how to write, and make money in some way.
Abrar: And you know, I figured journalism is a way to do that, and that kind of planted the seed for me, and that was like an outlet for me to be able to do what I wanted to do. So, that was a huge motivation for me. Yeah, and so I actually started off as an English major when I was an undergrad, but on the first day, on my orientation day, I told my advisor that I would probably switch to journalism at some point, and I in fact did about a year, and a half later.
Abrar: So, just made the jump, and I sat there in my Intro to Journalism class, and there was just one day when I was like, “Yeah, this is what I’m doing.” It was just like, clear as a bell, just like instantly it was like, out of nowhere it was like, “Okay, I need to apply to switch into journalism,” and it had always been in the back of my head, but there was that definitive moment where it was like, “Okay, this is it.”
Beck: And do you remember what was the lecture, or the talk, or the …
Abrar: You know, I should, but I think there was that element of like, we had been talking about the kinds of things that you do as a journalist, how you’re getting up, and talking to people, and doing things. So, I don’t remember specifically what the topic was, but it was more of that like, ‘Yeah, I want to be active, I want to be out there, I want to talk to real people. I don’t want to just read something that was written 200 years ago’, you know?
Abrar: So, I think all of those pieces falling together had really clicked for me, and I was that kid that sat in like the front row of that giant 200 person class, just because I was like, ‘I need to take it all in.’
Beck: We all know that student.
Abrar: Yeah. Yup, and we usually don’t like ’em, but that was me.
Beck: Hey, that’s all right, and you also then were an intern at the paper.
Abrar: Yes. I was.
Beck: Okay, so that’s where you got your feet wet.
Abrar: Exactly. So, I interned at the The News-Gazette, which is the local paper in my hometown. That was probably one of the most critical elements of helping me develop, and learn as a reporter. It was such an excellent experience. You know, you get to hop in your car, and drive to whatever part of town that you need to go, and talk to people, such smart, and kind editors, so that was really, really helpful to me, and that was, you know, besides the student paper, which was also I think without working at the student paper, I wouldn’t have learned half of what I learned, just ’cause it was practical knowledge.
Abrar: And then to transition into a paper where the editors were seasoned editors, and you know, they’re adults, and we were all students at the paper, and we all did our best at The Daily Illini, but when I went to The News-Gazette, it was a real paper where I got to just dive right in.
Her Work Inbox
Beck: Then in your inbox, with all the pitches you do receive, and especially if you’re just kind of, I mean, the array that you do is so huge. Oh my God, what is it like in there? Is it just publicist mayhem from hell?
Abrar: It’s pretty heavy, yes. I think people who have worked in journalism longer obviously are probably envious of my inbox. I’m sure it’ll get worse as we go on, I’m sure, but it’s hard to kind of pick out, you know, what’s interesting to me, or what I’m able to do, just because there’s only one of me, and I wish they were more, and so I do my best to really pick out what is most interesting to me, or what’s most feasible for me to cover, but that’s definitely a challenge for me is kind of weeding out the best things in there.
Beck: I mean, how do you do that? Is it just, “Let me take a look at the subject line real quick?’ ‘Is it a name that I know?”
Beck: What do you do?
Abrar: So yeah, a lot of times, it comes down to the subject line. If it’s like something that is completely irrelevant, I’m just going to click that box, and “Mark as read’, I’m not even going to open that message. So obviously, that’s a deterrent if it’s something that isn’t even what I…
Beck: Now interesting. You don’t just trash it, or spam it, you mark it as ‘Read’.
Abrar: Isn’t that weird?
Abrar: It’s weird, I wonder if I’m like an email hoarder, like I don’t understand. Maybe I’m scared to throw something away, ’cause it might come in handy, even though I’m 99 % sure it won’t.
Beck: There seems to be some people who will just trash, bam, okay, but then there seems to be quite a conglomerate that holds them there, because what if I need to search really fast on whatever that tech company was, blah, blah, blah.
Abrar: Exactly. What if I change my mind?
Abrar: Yeah, yes.
Beck: ‘Marked as read’.
Abrar: ‘Marked as read’, I know. It’s, yeah, it’s an interesting habit I know.
Her Take on the Future of Journalism
Beck: And then related to that, this is one of the questions we like to close, and wrap up with is the future of journalism. What does that look like from your perspective?
Abrar: That’s an excellent question that I wish I knew I had a good answer to.
Beck: Well, and it’s a very wide question. So, many people take it many ways.
Abrar: Yeah. Okay, well I’ll think of it this way. I would like to think that we have more diverse journalists in the industry. I would like to think that more people perhaps like me think, ‘Okay, people like me aren’t being represented the way I want them to be represented, and so the only way we’re going to change that as if I dive in, and I have my byline on something, or I have my perspective on something’, and so I would like to think that it becomes something that’s open to more people that is more appreciative, and understanding of different people, and is more welcoming, and accepted and just a better place for more people to have a voice, because that’s what journalism is about, voice for the voiceless, right?
Beck: Yes. Well, we’re going to end it there.
Abrar: Yes. Mic drop, right?
Thanks for listening to this week to Coffee with a Journalist featuring Abrar Al-Heeti from CNET. For more, be sure to follow us on Twitter! If you’re a journalist who loves coffee or a publicist who loves this podcast, we’d love to hear from you. Head to Onepitch.co to drop us a line. Until then, let’s end bad pitches, and start great stories.