Inside the Mind of a Journalist: James Cook, Business Insider

“If the pitch comes directly from the company, often it’s a lot more compelling.”

Disclose is about one thing: making news communication perfect for journalists and their sources. We’ve built Disclose based on conversations with countless industry pros — over lunch, in the office, on the street, at events, by email, and lately, on Disclose itself. While initially this was essential product research, the conversations we have offer such fascinating perspectives of the jobs of journalists and PRs that, just like our reason for releasing Disclose to the public, we realized we had to share a great thing with everyone else.

For the inaugural feature of our upcoming Interview series, we had a humdinger of a chat with one of our personal favorite tech newsmen: James Cook, Technology Editor at Business Insider. What started off as a civilized chat over tea quickly took a turn for the enthralling as James enjoyed the heck out of a slice of particularly moist slice of ginger cake while divulging scintillating insights into the world of a tech editor and his relationship with PR:

How has your day been on a scale of 1 to 10?

8! There’s been lots of news to report on. I had a nice little story — well not a nice story, an interesting story..! — about a company getting hacked. I’m always happy when there’s stuff for us to write about and get on the site.

Did you hear about that from the company?

Ooh, I can’t reveal my sources! I heard about it from someone connected to the company and we were the first to have the details. There’s this scam going around where criminals on the internet pretend to be the CEO of a company and email someone else to get all the information. What’s weird is you had it going around the London startup scene in about August — Skimlinks was targeted, and lots of other big London startups. You get emails coming in saying “Send me this money” and they just do it — they assume that it’s from the CEO.

Doesn’t the domain give it away?

Well they get similar domains and they just don’t check [the sender]. Now, it’s gone to the US. Snapchat gave out all its W2 tax forms to these people; Seagate, a data storage company, had the same thing; and now [the publisher of] FastCompany gave out names, addresses and tax information on all current, and some former, employees, which is a bit of an issue. So it’s a bit of a nightmare and we keep seeing it happening.

That’s surprising that that happens. You work in tech, you think you’d know better than to share that kind of confidential information digitally.

Well people don’t really know to check. I mean they know not to click links in emails, but they just assume that if it’s from someone that says [they’re] Evan Spiegel, they think “Whoa, it’s the CEO, I’ll do what he says”. I think that’s something I’m going to follow in the next few weeks to see if it continues, because it looks like it’s the same people doing it. So we’ll see if that becomes a thing. Like the Sony Pictures hack, or like the iCloud hack, [we like to] get in on the ground level and follow a story as it goes forwards.

How many pitches have you had so far today?

30–35. That’s a sort of normal day. I’m probably under-counting it because a lot of them I just hit ‘delete’ after reading the subject line. Actually, one trick I’ve found is if the subject line is in all caps — just delete it. You’re not that important to shout.

What’s the best pitch you’ve received today?

I had one pitch, which is a rather quirky one, about the son of the Lebanese Prime Minister who has a new app which allows you to behave online as you do offline. And he’s bringing a load of vintage comics to London.

What does that mean..?

See… I had a look at the website for the app, and the app looks… quite boring. But the pitch itself, there’s a lot of things going on there. So even if they just have an event, I want to just go to the event and see it. Because there’s something [interesting] going on.

So you’re intrigued?

Yeah. And I think intrigue is quite exciting. Also I had a pitch yesterday from a company called Facecake, which allows you to virtually try on makeup. Not the best pitch in the world, but there was a link saying “Try out Facecake”, so [I did], and virtually tried on makeup. It was intriguing and it kind of got me excited. I won’t cover it, but it got my attention — and I think that’s important. It doesn’t matter how good a company is, if you don’t get the journalist’s attention, then it doesn’t work.

What does intrigue look like for you?

For me, I’m always looking ahead to what I’ll write — and if I think there’s one little quirky angle that I can really go into detail on, then that’s great. I’m always thinking of what the headline will be, what the photo accompanying our article will be, how it will look on the site… So intrigue for me is where I see something like “virtually try on makeup” or “vintage comics”.

Is it about keywords?

I would say it’s [about] being unusual enough for us to get an angle on it. [For example]: another social network? Great. But if it’s a social network which has been invested in by a big US VC fund, then OK hang on, there’s the intriguing bit: why did they invest? [Or] why did [a US VC] make this investment in London? Peter Thiel invested in a lot of London companies — why? They pop up every now and again and for us that’s intriguing because we see that trend coming through.

So it’s not just crazy things. It could be big names attached to projects, or totally new ideas…

So if it’s endorsed by somebody credible?

Yeah that’s a big thing for us. Although, often we get people saying “Mark Zuckerberg’s tried our app” and that’s a complete lie. You get a lot of startup CEOs claiming things that just aren’t true because they really want to stand out, and journalists can see through that, and we do that research — I mean, not everyone does, but good journalists do.

And the Lebanese app — was that intriguing because he was the son of the Lebanese [Prime Minister], or because it was online/offline…

The online/offline thing didn’t interest me; it’s just marketing copy. I mean, “Behave online as you do offline” — that means absolutely nothing. But they threw in these little things that they realised might get our attention, and it works.

Pitching “x amount of users for a B2B scalable Hadoop solution” doesn’t mean anything anymore because we see that all day, every day. But throwing in these little things which we can pick up on — it does the job. And from that you delve a bit deeper into the app and try it.

Can you think of the worst PR pitch you received lately? or did you just hit ‘delete’ straight away…

I had one shortly before I came here which said “Hi James, I found you on Twitter replying to another tech journalist’s tweet” — and a link to the tweet — “I couldn’t find anyone else at BI, you were the only person I found… then I found your email so I thought I’d drop you an email.” And then there was some stuff about the app, and it didn’t really do anything new. It’s just the way it was pitched.

Obviously you’re nervous when you pitch journalists. I used to pitch journalists for a living and it’s scary, because you don’t get replies and you think you’ve failed. But you’ve gotta be confident and step up and extol the virtues of the app. If you’re nervously saying “Oh, I found you… I hope it’s OK…” Walking backwards into a pitch, trying to be shy about things doesn’t really work.

I’ve always said the best pitches we get are directly from the CEO. For example, there’s a company that we covered — we had the pitch from the PR agency and it was really, really boring. But thankfully I knew the CEO and I emailed him and said “Look, what does this really mean?” and he sent me an email back within five minutes and I really wanted to write about it. In the end we wrote about it, we did a long profile of his company — just because the CEO pitched it better than the PR people because the CEO lives and breathes it every single day. The PR people live and breathe it for an hour every day. For us, if the pitch comes directly from the company, often it’s a lot more compelling.

That’s really interesting, because I think a lot of startup founders find it quite daunting to reach out to journalists themselves; firstly because they haven’t got the network, and secondly because they’re not confident enough to do their own PR. But you would rather hear from the founder, or someone from the company, than from a PR that they’ve hired?

Almost always. I’d say our interviews with big companies — from emailing COOs, CMOs — they might not be as responsive as a PR person, but they get what you’re trying to do because they work in the same industry. And I think often, PR gets in the way.

We did a talk for Gorkana a while ago — basically it was a room full of PR people, and they asked me “So James, what advice would you give to PR people?” and I said “Get out of our way.” Someone was really offended by the talk and they complained about me, but I genuinely think that PR can get in the way unless it’s a PR person who really takes the time to know their clients… and a lot of them don’t. A lot of very small PR companies with three or four people who only have a select network of clients — those are a pleasure to deal with. Big PR agencies, global companies, you don’t get the full sell from them.

One big VC fund in London, whenever they invest in a company, they say “Fire your PR people; just do it yourself.” And that’s an easy way to save money. Now, that’s not a catch-all solution for everyone — I’m not saying that would work for everyone — but a lot of the time, if you’re just starting out and you’re Series A or whatever, just get the CEO to email 20 good journalists you’ve met at events. Meeting journalists is very , very important. I’m far more inclined to respond to their pitches, and talk to them, and want to cover them because I’ve got that contact, I’ve got that communication. And they’re just better at selling their own company than a PR person.

Any advice for PRs, then?

So I’ll go back to my first ever job, when I was 15. When I had free time from school I used to sell houses, as an estate agent. Legally, I couldn’t sell houses, so I had to get my colleagues to do the paperwork — but I could show people around. And the worst thing is when [they ask] “What council tax band are we in?” and you don’t know. And often then the person you’re showing around the house doesn’t want the house anymore because the agent doesn’t know [what they’re talking about]. So if someone pitches you and [you ask] “What does this do? How secure is this? Can I encrypt my data? How many people do you have in London?” and the PR person is like “Oh, I need to go back to our team in the US” or something. Well, then I’m not interested, because you haven’t got those details ready.

Or if someone’s raising funding so I say “Great, can I talk to the CEO?” and they say “No.” Well… then it’s just going to be a press release on our site. But if I can talk to the CEO about the strategy, or what the money’s going to be spent on, what the company’s story is, for us, then, that’s a really unique, interesting story. But if you just want [us] to put up two paragraphs saying, “so-and-so’s company has just raised money”…

If I could give them advice, it would be to have that kind of information, facts ready. Have people ready to interview, offer them up and be proactive because journalists are…we’re lazy, because we get so many pitches coming through. We have to pick and choose, so when we do express an interest, give us what we want and come through with the facts. It sounds like common sense; but you’d be surprised at how often that doesn’t happen.

What would make your job as a journalist easier?

One way [is for PRs] to read the journalists you pitch. Now I know that isn’t always possible because PR people have to pitch a lot of journalists. But having an idea and an understanding of what I’m interested, personally, in and what the site covers… There’s nothing worse than being pitched enterprise Hadoop software — I’ve never covered that, I’m not going to cover that. Now my relationship with you as a PR person is hurt because you’ve come to me with something that I think is irrelevant. So the next time you pitch me, I’m going to be less inclined to listen.

The best pitches I get are from PR people who really understand what I write — “James, I haven’t talked to you in two months, but this one is one for you” — and you know that they read everything, they follow you on Twitter, they understand that I like music streaming, security, the London startup scene. In terms of making our jobs easier, read our coverage and understand where your clients, your company can fit into that. Again, that sounds like common sense, but it doesn’t happen.

It’s the signal to noise ratio. If we can cut down on the noise and just have the three or four pitches every day that really matter, that’d be great. And it’s our job to do that. And if the PR person can help us do that, they’re more likely to get coverage, because we want to work with them. There are PR people I’ll always listen to if they email me, if they call me I’ll always take their calls, because I know that they’ll have what we’re looking for and they’ll understand and give us [what we need] so that we can do things in a timely manner, and it’s a pleasure to work with them. And there are certain companies that I know that we’ll cover them, and they’ll drag their feet, and it’s tough to work with them — and we’re less inclined to write about them. A lot of big companies operate like that. It’s just what happens.

I suppose if you’re a PR, what you should keep reminding yourself of is, “I’m supposed to be able to do this job better than the client I’m representing. And if I can’t, then why am I doing it?”

Yeah. You pitch for a living, and if the CEO can send me a two-sentence email that gets my attention better than yours, it’s an issue.

I think people have twigged that long emails aren’t always better — we’ve gone past that now. There was a time when you’d get six paragraphs — well, that’s a press release, that’s not an email. Whereas now they’re like “Hey James, this company’s raised money, here’s what they do, do you think it’s interesting?” It’s in the way you frame it, and the way you communicate it.

What do you look at when you’re deciding whether to write a story?

I’d always try to do an evaluation of the company to figure out if it’s interesting — would I use it? am I personally interested in it? If it’s “no”, but I still think it’s important, then I’ll plow on with it… A lot of companies raise a lot of money but I personally wouldn’t use them, so then I have to find a way to make it interesting.

The way that I always work is to figure out the headline before I start writing — because if you can’t come up with a really good, compelling headline, then it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to get our readers interested. “So-and-so raised 8 million”… That’s not a headline. “This company is expanding to all these markets, here’s why they do things differently” — suddenly, you get a bit more excited.

What are the tools you’re using to help you do their job, and what are their shortcomings? What’s not working for you?

Email is still an issue. I subscribe to a lot of daily emails, or weekly tech roundups — that’s an area that can be improved a lot. We’re trying in part to remedy that by using RSS and Twitterbots, and RSS integration in Slack to get real-time stuff. A lot of people have moved away from it but we still use it religiously. A lot of journalists still use RSS — we might be the only people that still use it — because it’s having that real-time alert. It’s no use to us if we see it at 4pm on a Friday in a weekly round-up. It’s having immediate breaking news, and having a trusted source where we know that every time we get a notification, we’re going to write it. There’s no noise, no spam — it’s, “OK, this has happened, we need to write that, who’s going to write that”. We’re still trying to solve that problem. Hacking together Slack integrations is OK, but we’d rather be able to do that in a more trustworthy way.

As told to Meera Innes, 8 March 2016, London