When it comes to the lives of journalists, no two are the same. Each journalist has a unique story, process, and perspective. Introducing our “Journalist Profile” series where we ask journalists from leading outlets questions to take a peek behind their story-crafting curtain. Our inaugural journalist profile features Sissi Cao, Business and Tech Reporter at The Observer.
Read below to learn about how Sissi crafts her stories, manages her pitches, evolves her journalism and more:
Give us a brief explanation of your role?
As the business and tech reporter for Observer’s Innovation vertical, my day-to-day consists of reporting news from some of America’s most exciting tech sectors, such as electric cars, self-driving, space exploration and lab-grown meat (as well as diamonds).
My day usually starts with a quick meeting with my editor about news of the day, story pitches, updates on recently covered news, and leads on potential stories. Throughout the day, besides writing stories, I often talk to sources via phone or email. And before the pandemic, I spend a day or two every week attending industry conferences and press events, as well as, conducting in-person interviews.
What kinds of stories do you write?
My portfolio ranges from 300-word news hits all the way to 3,000-word features. My most common stories are news pieces, analyses and profiles of a specific company, entrepreneur or executive—what we love to call “industry power players” at Observer.
Occasionally I’d venture outside of my regular beat and write stories about art, lifestyle and entertainment when the subject is of my personal interest.
How do you compile sources for stories?
For a typical story, I would start with a list of 3-5 sources for initial outreach and find more if needed. They can be industry professionals, commentators, academics, research organizations or government agencies.
Like most journalists, I have a list of sources and PR I keep in touch with regularly for certain stories. When I need to find new sources for a topic I’m not familiar with, I usually start with Googling as much published content about it as I can to get a sense of what has been written about it and who are the top experts and go from there. I also use reporter tools, such as Qwoted and Sqoop, to find relevant sources.
There are a thousand ways to find sources. And the strategy largely depends on the type of story you are working on and how much time you have. But I think the bottom line is to find compelling voices that can bring multiple perspectives to a topic.
What does your inbox look like?
Every morning I wake up to about 100 new emails in my work inbox. They include everything from news alerts, newsletters, press releases, PR pitches, research reports, government data release, company emails and sometimes readers feedback.
And they keep coming in throughout the day. I try to allocate specific time between reporting and writing stories to deal with emails, so I don’t get distracted. Sometimes I’d spend one or two hours on Sunday night to clear my inbox so I can start a new week fresh.
How many pitches do you receive on a daily or weekly basis? Do you utilize pitches when writing your stories?
I receive between 30 and 50 pitches on a daily basis, not including persistent follow-ups on previous pitches :). Unless the subject line is clearly irrelevant, I actually read most of them and do utilize those resources when I see a good fit for a future story or one I’m already working on.
In fact, some of my most-read stories come from outside pitches. In 2018, I wrote a story about a biotech startup that offers a stem cell freezing service so that people can slow down the aging process for certain parts of the body. I discovered the story when a PR approached me when I was covering that year’s TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco.
Another hit story on Observer, in which I interviewed one of the authors of “Billion Dollar Whale,” a book by Wall Street Journal reporters chronicling the 1MDB financial scandal, also came from a pitch, by the book’s publisher.
Yes. An obvious change is that I receive a lot more pandemic-related pitches now, as COVID-19 has rattled almost every aspect of our lives.
For example, lately, I’ve been getting a lot of pitches about how retail companies are doing business differently to adapt to a post-pandemic world. I also get regular pitches about workplace sentiment, such as studies and surveys showing tech workers’ expectations on layoff, permanent remote working, and fleeing Silicon Valley.
Absolutely. Before the pandemic, my stories were mostly about activities within the tech industry. Since the coronavirus outbreak, a big portion of my daily coverage has shifted to workplace, economy and healthcare—especially vaccine development.
Early in the pandemic, reader interest was heavily skewed toward content about face masks and testing kits. My reporting focus gradually shifted to the economy and personal finance news (because of the stimulus bill). And now, given the pandemic resurgence and multiple vaccine candidates entering final testing phases, attention is back to vaccine development and when we can go back to normal life.
Do you think the relationship between journalists and PR pros is improving?
I would say yes, at least in my coverage area. Before the pandemic, I could easily find fun media networking events near me organized by PR people. I find these face-to-face events really helpful in building trustworthy and lasting work relationships between journalists and PR.
Of course, such relationships have become more difficult to maintain now that we are physically distanced from each other. But I’m seeing PR firms doing more work through digital means, whether it’s organizing virtual events, putting more work into email pitches or doing live events on Twitter and Instagram.
Cultivating a solid relationship with PR professionals is important as a journalist. Understanding their perspective is key in facilitating mutually beneficial partnerships. Learn more about the PR side of media relations with our series, Public Relations Profile, where we talk with PR pros about their day-to-day routines and how they communicate with journalists like Sissi. To start, check out our article PR Profile: Christin Yates, Yates Communications as Christin breaks down everything from her start in PR to how she spots trends in the industry.
Also, don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast, Coffee with a Journalist, and listen in on our weekly chats with leading journalists from outlets like Ad Age, Business Insider, NBC News, and more!