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.”
Jered: Welcome to this week’s episode of Coffee with a Journalist. Today, we have on a great guest, got some great coffee in our cups and have some really exciting conversation ahead. I’m Jered Martin. I’m the Co-founder and COO at OnePitch.
Beck: And I’m Beck Bamberger, also the Co-founder at OnePitch, the CEO of BAM Communications, and actually a former Journalist. So, this is fun because I get to now do the interviewing of some journalists. Today, we are talking with Polina Marinova who writes the most sought after V.C. emailer probably ever, probably of the world, and that is called Term Sheet produced by Fortune magazine. We are going to dive right in.
Beck: Polina Marinova is here with us today, Fortune Term Sheet. Yay! And we are in actually the Fortune offices in New York City.
Polina: Of course, I'm glad to be here.
Beck: Yeah. We don't have coffee, that's okay. As I was telling you like half the people don't have coffee. It's later in the day, it's kinda too late, you're too many coffees in so that's totally fine. But I'm so excited to be chatting with you. You just tweeted that it's been almost 19 years that you have been now in the U.S.
Beck: Let's go back, let's go back. Where'd you come from? Tell us everything.
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.
Beck: That's so neat. So then, so then, you become community manager at USA Today.
Polina: God, LinkedIn really…
Beck: Hey we do our research here, we do our research. And it says you also looked at the generated content submitted.
Polina: Oh yeah.
Beck: So, you had to do that. How was that? With the internet trolls and such. First, how did you get the job and then second how was that?
Polina: So, here is a fun story. And this is a perfect example that if you only judge a person based on their social media you get a completely distorted picture of what actually happened. So what actually happened- yeah, because this looks really impressive, like Red and Black, USA Today, CNN. Um, no. So what happened was I was the editor of my school paper. I was like, "I'm going to graduate, I'm going to have a full-time job, who wouldn't want to hire me?".
Polina: I graduated with this massive ego and then nobody wanted to hire me. So, the only offers I was getting were from these tiny, tiny newspapers in southern Georgia. Which, I will tell you, a lot of people give advice and their like, "It doesn't matter where you go, location doesn't matter as long as you enjoy your job." To me, location is everything because if you hate your life and where you live you will hate your job, you can't separate those two. So to me, I was like, "It's not for me, I'm really more of a larger market type person." New York was my dream but I never actually thought it was possible.
Polina: So, when I graduated with no job I moved into my mom's apartment and I lived there for a year. But during that year I was like, "What do I do for money, I need money."
Polina: So, while I was interviewing with jobs I had interned in college at USA Today and CNN and I was like, "Well, I’ll reach back out and see if they need freelance work." I'm young, I don't have experience but they were very nice. And a lot of them were taking vacation around the holidays, and they were like, "Sure, CNN is based in Atlanta, you can come here and do some things."
Polina: And USA Today was like, "Yeah, we have some stuff for you to do like on Twitter." They had a user-generated content arm at the time because this was 2013 user-generated content everybody thought that was the future, it wasn't, I don't think.
Polina: What ended up happening was I was living at home, I woke up at 6:00 AM, got to CNN at 7:00 AM, worked there from 7:00 to 4:00, and then got home and worked at USA Today remotely from 6:00 to 11:00.
Polina: But I was saving money, it was good but it was also crazy.
Polina: It was great.
Beck: Oh my gosh. Okay, so that was dual, yeah I can see because now if you do look at your LinkedIn you're like, "Oh wait a second, the dates are the same here. How did she work there and there?"
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.
Beck: Wow, oh! I want to hear how it compares to your current job. But let's save that, let's save that.
Polina: Yeah, okay.
Beck: We'll get into that because I'm sure you have commentators as well. Okay, so you were doing that but then you did get to New York, you were actually doing social media you were the social media editor at... How do you even say this? OZY?
Beck: Yeah, OZY. Which I've heard a little bit about but not too familiar. So then you were doing that, what did you learn there?
Polina: Yes, so here's the thing it's so ironic that I now cover venture capitals and startups because pre-2014 I had no sense of what a startup was. So, when I was in Atlanta desperately trying to get to New York, as you can see from my experience at USA Today and CNN, people were looking for social media roles. Those were the only jobs that were open. Even though I liked writing and I like journalism social media... I was 22…
Polina: You're young people just assume Pinterest, Instagram, whatever. So I was like, "Hell, I'm going to play to this." and that's what I did. I was like, "I'm young, I know social media." even though I'm probably not the best person for that. But I learned it, I was like, "I'm going to go all in." So, I saw that as a ticket to get to New York so I started applying to positions that were social media related. And OZY was hiring and the way I learned about them was from a Fortune article. Fortune had written about their fundraising.
Polina: Yeah, so I was like, "Oh, they must be legit if Fortune has written about them." So it was a startup, right? It's still a startup I think they're doing well. But I, at the time, interviewed there- I think it was a year, I think they had been around for a year- I didn't see it as a startup, I didn't know what that was, but I was like, "This is a job and it's a job in New York."
Beck: So real quick-
Beck: ...what was the New York thing?
Polina: I don't... it just…
Beck: What made you... did you visit as a kid and you were like, "Oh my god!"?
Polina: No, I visited with my friend a few weeks before I totally became obsessed with it. To me, coming from Bulgaria, New York kind of symbolizes freedom and the American Dream. All these mushy, vague things but it just to me it's the ultimate place where there's life, and media, and whatever. And that's where I wanted to be. I did not want to be in south Georgia, nothing against south Georgia just I did not want to be there.
Beck: Okay, so then you're there, you're there for a couple of months but then now full circle, Fortune happens.
Beck: How did you get that job?
Polina: Again through social media. I came in-
Beck: Social media for the win.
Polina: I interviewed, I came in as a social media editor because Fortune had just spun out of... or Time Inc. had spun out of Time Warner and so they were building the website. And they needed a social media person I was like, "I can totally do this, I was at a startup, we move fast, I learned..." You know like, you just…
Beck: You played it up, you played it up.
Polina: Yeah, yeah. So they saw that I was hungry and I would learn so I came on as a social media editor in 2014, end of 2014.
Beck: And now you are the editor of the daily, the editor-in-chief.
Beck: The editor of Term Sheet. Which is basically the Bible scripture that every V.C. and anyone adjacent in the venture capital startup community reads. I mean that's…
Polina: Yeah, no pressure or anything!
Beck: No, no pressure. And actually fun story, I saw you, I met you, remember? The day before you entered in that role.
Polina: I do remember.
Beck: That was a scary moment.
Polina: That was a very scary moment.
Beck: Because that's a big deal.
Polina: Yes, yes. So, I don't know it was a winding road within Fortune to get here but it was just basically a lot of times I would get asked to do things I didn't know how to do but I still wanted to do them. So I would say yes and then figure it out. With this, I got a little lucky because I was already helping with Term Sheet when Erin was writing it. She was writing the top and I was helping with the deal section. So I kind of learned who some of the players were through reading her column, understood how a deal's put together, basic things. But then you kind of start getting into it and it gets more and more interesting because you do know the players and you do know how it works.
Polina: And then when she left I took it on and that was two years ago now, which is pretty crazy. But yeah, it's just the daily anxiety of waking up and not knowing what you're going to write about and that people are counting on that for their jobs is the most terrifying feeling in the world.
Beck: Wow! Has it gotten better?
Polina: A little, but I still have a pang of anxiety, like this morning I was like, "I genuinely don't know what my opinion is today." So, I had to look around and try to figure out what was the most valuable thing for that readership. But yeah, over time people write in and they definitely tell you if you got something wrong and how to improve. So again, that's helped me.
Beck: So, back to that comment then about USA Today Tweet that went sideways. Now you're getting probably input from billionaires, V.C.s who collect millions, probably even the founder themselves, and how things are structured. We can talk about the pitching and all that stuff in just a second, with the P.R. people. But what is that like to get the feedback, probably on a daily basis?
Beck: What is it like?
Polina: Oh, it's great! I love it. Even the most, the absolutely most critical comments, I'm like, "Wow, thank you" because normally if you know the person you probably wouldn't say anything but they're like, "This is a random person who sends me a newsletter, I'm going to tell them exactly what I think." I find so much value because it's not biased, they don't know me as a person. So, I don't get offended by, you know, this absolute... of course you can get offended over things that are just like, "This sucks." because that's not helpful.
Polina: So, when people genuinely... for example, in the beginning, I was very nervous to offer my opinion so I would just kind of do the news and then over time people were like, "I really like the analysis portion of this because I can get the news anywhere. And I want to know, based on the people that you've talked to that you know, what do you think based on all that information?" So it's like an informed opinion, right? So that's helpful, that's constructive. And I think you can't go into a job like that and expect that people should trust you and feel like you deserve their respect. I was acutely aware of that so when I came in, I started doing a series called Five Questions With a Dealmaker so that I would talk to these incredible people, I would hear their perspective, and then talk to somebody else who completely disagrees with their perspective and then be able to form my own. So that's how you earn credibility and you build trust with a community like that.
Beck: So interesting that you didn't want to shed the opinion. Did that feel like you weren't being journalistic in that sense?
Polina: It's hard for somebody who's been taught their entire life facts, facts, facts and don't fricking include yourself ever in anything to go to more of a blog type style where you're like, "Well I think this, and based on this I think this." That's just completely new for me.
Beck: Wow. Okay, so let's talk about the pitching etcetera because we talk about pitching, publicists and how to deal with them. What's your inbox like?
Polina: Oh god. It's like exploded. And you know I was thinking about this recently, so when I first joined Fortune I would get no emails, obviously, because I didn't do anything that important. But because of that and because I was jealous of the people who got all these important emails I was like, "I'm going to make myself important." So, I literally signed up for so many Listservs that now I cannot get off of.
Polina: It was just like, "Do you want to be on the list for EnterpriseTech?" I'd be like, "Of course I want to be on the list for Enter...". And so I did all of that and now I get unnecessary amount of those emails but also pitches.
Beck: What's the volume we're talking about?
Polina: Oh, so in an hour probably 100. If I don't check it in an hour... yeah.
Beck: Oh, okay now do you read every one?
Polina: I do.
Beck: You do?
Beck: Okay, so this is an interesting thing because we have some people that I talk to on this show that do read every single one-
Beck: ...religiously and then we have some people that just do the mass delete dump and they just-
Polina: Oh no, I can't do that.
Beck: Oh okay, so how do you logistically manage that?
Polina: Yeah, I have folders. So if it's somebody I need to respond to I'm like, "Respond to, put them in that folder." I have a newsletters folder for newsletters that I should be reading and then-
Beck: I should be reading.
Polina:...and then another one for Term Sheet deals so when people send me deals I put them in that folder and then I go through them to make sure I didn't miss one. You can't do the mass delete because, you know, what if it's something important.
Beck: Yeah, that would be my anxiety.
Beck: What if that's the scoop that you didn't have, that you didn't know.
Beck: But then what do you do with just totally off the mark, totally dumb…
Polina: Like the mass email?
Beck: Yeah, what do-
Polina: I just delete those, I can't... Like if it's something completely unrelated like, "Here's our retail federation." Or whatever, it's not applicable to me, no point.
Beck: Got it. Do you ever respond to people?
Polina: Oh yeah, all the time.
Beck: Oh okay, to bad pitches you mean?
Polina: Oh yeah.
Beck: Oh, oh, oh okay! So everybody watch out Polina's gonna come back to you!
Polina: No, they're not mean but…
Beck: Just, you know, a nice response. Okay so when you see, when you get a bad pitch and you have, let's say, a bandwidth of 10 seconds to send some reply.
Beck: Maybe 30 seconds. What do you say? Just, "Hey not my interest. Hey thanks but just take me off."
Polina: Yeah, just a quick no.
Beck: Just a quick no.
Polina: It's the same thing V.C.s do, right? It's better to give a quick no than a slow no. Is that how it goes?
Beck: Or no answer, so you think maybe you're alive maybe you're not I don’t know, I’ll keep pitching.
Polina: Exactly, yeah. So if it is genuinely a personalized email like, "Hey Polina, I've been reading this I think you might be interested in this." I literally just responded to somebody and I said, "Hey, this is not at all in my wheelhouse but thank you for thinking of me. Let me know if you have funding news." You don't want to burn everybody who accidentally sends you a pitch that maybe doesn't relate to you. So, yeah, when I was at the startup, the OZY, I was also doing some P.R. marketing. So I know what it's like to be on the other side, it's not fun. But everybody is just trying to do their job, so.
Beck: Everyone is just trying to do it. Do you also then get, I would imagine, the pitches from V.C.s?
Beck: How are their pitches different, if at all?
Polina: So, you mean coming from a V.C. directly?
Beck: Yes, yes. Like a partner, "Oh, I'm a partner at so-and-so firm."
Polina: Oh! Yeah.
Beck: Do you get that?
Polina: I do. You know the best ones are like, "I'm an incoming analyst at this V.C. firm will you put me in the People section?". Which, absolutely. It's really sweet that people who- these college kids are reading Term Sheet and they think this is a big deal to be, well you know…
Beck: It is.
Polina: Yeah, but I do get pitches in terms of, they're actually pretty good because as a V.C. they know like they know, right, they know-
Beck: Know what you cover.
Polina: Yeah, they're not going to do something totally off base so they're usually like, "Hey, we have big funding round coming up." Or like... or if it's somebody I met, that's like the best. Like you and I, if we've met before it's just so much easier. So like, "We talked last time, here's what we have coming up, or this is a trend I'm seeing and you should maybe look into it."
Beck: So trends you're seeing.
Beck: Fill us in a little on what you're looking for. Obviously, funding news, trends you're seeing.
Beck: Thought you might be interested in this. What do you not want, by the way, so people are very clear on that.
Polina: I don't want, if you're a founder, you have a company, you have a new app feature, I'm not interested in that. Wherever money, whenever money is flowing in and out, I'm interested in that. But like app features and things like that, probably not. But yeah, and any scoops or if you see wrong doing you should probably let somebody know even if it's anonymously. We have a tip box, so that's helpful.
Beck: Okay, so if you see dirty work in the V.C. space, got it.
Beck: You also have another newsletter.
Polina: Oh yeah.
Beck: The Profile. Which I love and I read every Sunday because it's juicy, you can get lost in it big time. What spurred you to start that and what is it, so people know as well.
Polina: Yeah, The Profile is basically every Sunday I compile a bunch of profiles on interesting people and companies that are really deep dives into what makes that person who they are or what makes that company what it is. And I read a lot just in general but it's really, you know... The Profile was basically my prerogative to kind of prove that there's still really, really good journalism out there. Because I feel that now that newspapers are no longer really a thing, like print newspapers, there's nobody telling you like, "Hey, this is important and this is really, really good." It's just if you don't have any sort of direction you can get lost in the sea of Twitter and the Internet. And there is so much crap out there it's hard to sort. So, basically what I'm doing is I'm sorting, "Hey this is a really, really good profile that you maybe want to know."
Beck: Yeah, and you also give context to it.
Beck: "Here's the why, here's what I liked about it." It's helpful, it's curated, I like it.
Polina: Thank you.
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.
Beck: Bring it back. So then the future of journalism, positive?
Beck: Where do you think it's going?
Polina: Oh, journalism in general?
Beck: Sure, yeah, just in general.
Polina: I think there will be a lot of consolidation, I think players like The New York Times, Fortune magazine, all of this, they will continue to do well just because they focus on the quality instead of the quantity of things. As long as you produce quality work people will always come back. If you're just trying to play a numbers game it will eventually run out. So I think we're going to see a lot of consolidation and a lot of... with a lot of paywalls going up a lot of people are going to actually realize like, "Hey, maybe I have to pay to get some quality." Which you should.
Beck: Yeah, I don't know why this is a perplexing thought, frankly, to a lot of things. But that's a whole other longer conversation than we have time for today. So just, thank you Polina! Thanks for spending time with us today. Where should we follow you, by the way, on Twitter?
Polina: Oh, Polina underscore Marinova (@Polina_marinova).
Beck: Got it. Thanks so much.
Polina: Thank you.
Jered: Thanks for tuning in to this week’s episode of Coffee with a Journalist featuring Polina Marinova from Fortune. If you're a journalist who loves coffee or a publicist who loves this podcast, we would love to hear from you. Head to onepitch.co to drop us a line! Until then, lets end bad pitches and start great stories.
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