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This week’s episode of Coffee with a Journalist features none other than Polina Marinova of Fortune! She sits down 1:1 with our host, Beck Bamberger, and talks about the Term Sheet, her itch to move to NYC, her start as a community manager and so much more.
As a writer, Polina Marinova has a diverse background in the journalism space with solid experience to back it. Working for publications like USA Today, CNN, and now as an editor at Fortune Magazine, Polina is an accomplished veteran writing about all things finance-related. Reporting on deals and dealmakers, Polina is the author of Fortune Magazine’s daily newsletter, “Term Sheet.” Don’t worry though, you can catch her on the weekends writing her weekly newsletter, “The Profile.”
Polina: Yeah, so, I was born in Bulgaria and in 1999 my parents won a Green Card lottery. At the time, I’m not sure if it’s still going on, but there was a Green Card lottery where you apply to go live in certain places. And then there’s a lottery and then if they select you go through this year-long interview process to kind of prove that, if you are selected to immigrate to the United States, you have a place to live, you’ll have a job, etcetera.
Polina: So, I was eight when that happened and then we went through the entire process and in 2000 my parents and I moved to Atlanta, Georgia from Bulgaria. Which if you don’t know English and then you get hit with the Southern accent it’s like whoa!
Beck: How, and you don’t have a Southern accent I’m obviously noticing, how did you manage that?
Polina: To learn English?
Beck: Yeah. And did you think oh wait they speak differently than others, let’s say, newscasters? Like did you notice that at some point?
Polina: Yeah, so it’s really interesting how your brain works. I still remember going into my fourth-grade class and the kids were speaking and my brain kept trying to make it sound like Bulgarian and I was like, “Oh my god, was that a Bulgarian word?”. But over time, obviously, you learn. I was in the SOL class where you- English is a second language for about two months I think.
Polina: But the best thing that happened was my teacher saw that I wanted to learn so I started with reading these baby books to basically learn the words, right? And then she saw that I liked reading so she sent me home with thicker and thicker books and then I would just sit there with the dictionary and I’d be like, “okay, let’s translate what this is about.” It was tough but it was also an excellent learning experience.
Beck: Oh, and you had a teacher who really saw-
Beck: The potential in you and wanted to foster that. Oh-
Beck: God, I feel that there’s, I mean I have so many great teachers in my life and a lot of people I know have a teacher, someone, it was their second grade or their ninth grade. That teacher that you’ll never forget.
Polina: Her name was Ms. Jackson.
Beck: See! I knew it. Oh, it’s so great. Okay, so you were in Georgia and then you got into the University of Georgia, you were the editor-in-chief there-
Beck:… of the student paper, The Red and Black newspaper. Wait a second, The Red and Black newspaper, what is that about?
Polina: Those are the school colors.
Beck: Those are the school colors?
Polina: It’s very creative.
Beck: Oh man, that’s, ew. They might need to rebrand. Okay, did you know, “Hey I want to go into journalism” or how did you get into that role?
Polina: Yeah, so it actually goes earlier than that. Both my parents were chemical engineers coming from Bulgaria I thought I would be very interested in doing chemistry, or researcher, or anything in that space. So in high school, I was on the science track so I took biochemistry and organic chemistry in high school, which I would not recommend for somebody like me.
Polina: So, as I was doing that I kind of realized I really, really enjoyed writing the research papers a lot more than actually doing the experiments and trying to figure out… I could not tell you a single thing about organic chemistry, that is really sad. So, I went through that in high school, middle school, and elementary school I was really, really shy. I think it probably came from not speaking the language, kind of feeling like an outsider.
Polina: In, I think it was tenth or eleventh grade, I joined the school newspaper because my friend was doing it. I was, like, “Oh this is fun!” I like writing, I like researching, I didn’t necessarily like talking to people but it kind of forced me to. I was like, “This is my job, I’m a serious journalist in high school. I’m going to go and I’m going to interview these administrators and these people.” So, that helped me get out of my head and stop being so awkward and shy. So I really, really liked it! And then I was the news editor of my high school paper and then the University of Georgia had an excellent newspaper, one of the top in the country, so I started working for that paper as a freshman all the way to my senior year.
Beck: Yes, I see three years 9 months or so. Dang! Did you just apply for it or what was the selection process for that? Because that is a renowned paper for colleges.
Polina: Yeah, they had a pretty rigorous recruitment process. You had to attend a recruitment session, they gave you information, and then, I believe, you had to have a resume, you needed to have some clips, I think. And I had my high school newspaper clips to show. And then, like I said, with that teacher in elementary school, there’s always people that kind of see potential in you when you don’t see it in yourself. And those are the people who give you the opportunity and carry you through. So there was a lot of that at the paper because the University of Georgia is a large state school I wasn’t in a sorority or any sort of organization. That to me was the place you could make friends and have interesting conversations with other people. So it became kind of like a place where me and my friends hung out. And then… yeah.
Her Lessons From National Newsrooms
Beck: Wow! Okay, what did that teach you with being in national newsrooms or with national organizations?
Polina: Yes, okay, so a few things. I learned a lot, I also learned that I probably am not the best, for my skill set, to be at such a large place because I get lost in the mix. I need people who will sit down and mentor me and there were some fabulous people at those places, it’s just everybody was so busy it’s hard to be like, “Hey! Me, me, me!”, you know? So you needed to be able to do whatever you were asked however you were asked, which I really appreciated because that taught me a lot. But I’ll never forget at USA Today for some unknown reason they trusted me with their Twitter account during the Winter Olympics. They were like-
Beck: Wait, what?
Polina: Because I had worked with them before they thought they could trust me, which you know…
Beck: They’re like, “She’s young, she must know social media.”
Polina: Which I did, kind of, but I didn’t know sports. Which is, you can know social media, but it’s USA Today they’re known for being great for sports coverage etcetera. So I had a day where it was like luge, the events were not the big events. But I was like, “I can handle this.” I remember working out of a Starbucks and I’m like, “Okay, what should I Tweet about now?” So, I was watching the live stream of the Olympics and somebody won, it was bronze, but it was a U.S. person who won the… I can’t even, I don’t know the terminology. But it was a bronze medal.
Beck: Bronze, yes, yes.
Polina: So, I tweeted, “Yet another win for team U.S.A.” and then people freaked out, they were like, “How is bronze a win? Are you crazy?” And I was like, “Oh, okay.”
Beck: Oh, wow.
Polina: So, it was interesting because, obviously, nobody knew who was behind the Twitter account but I learned like, “Hey, maybe you should check everything” because people will come after you especially if it’s an account with millions of people.
Beck: Well, the Internet.
Polina: And yeah, the Internet.
Beck: Oh wow, so what happened to that tweet?
Polina: I don’t know, I don’t even know if it was a big deal, I just remember the hate and the anger from the Twitter universe. But it was really fun.
Would She Do It Again?
Beck: And now, Polina, if you were going to do this again, go down this rabbit hole of being this student newspaper editor, going to CNN, going to USA Today, now you’re here at Fortune. This whole trajectory, I mean, would you do it again?
Polina: Yes. I would because I think at this point I intimately know how the media industry works, there’s a lot that’s good with it and there’s a lot of problems. And with the amount of noise and the amount of new players coming in, there’s probably even more problems then we realize. And now, as we’ve seen with Facebook and some of these larger giants, are they a platform, are they a media company? It’s just, there’s so many things to address.
Polina: So, I would do it again just because as much as people love to hate on reporters and the media, the media especially, it’s not like one whole thing. I would do it because I love- being from Bulgaria which was a former Communist country where freedom of speech was not a thing, where a lot of my family has like… I just feel very strongly about freedom of speech and being able to tell the stories and give people a voice. Give people a voice who don’t have one, that’s my ultimate idealistic thing, but it’s just a lot of people have strayed too far from that and now I think it’s time to bring it back.