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    Coffee with a Journalist: Caroline O'Donovan, BuzzFeed News

    Today on the podcast we sit down with Caroline O’Donovan, a reporter on the inequality team at BuzzFeed News. Caroline focuses on labor and the human condition. She’s been with the outlet since 2015 and was previously a reporter and staff writer at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University.

    During the episode, Caroline tells us more about how she approaches her stories, sheds light on the labor environment which she has uncovered through her reporting, her favorite kinds of stories to write, and lots more.

    Click below to listen to the full conversation and read below for highlights from the interview:

    CWJ View Transcription CTA


    Her Work Inbox 

    00:04:29] BB: Given that, and that's a specific focus, is your inbox crazy with pitches?

    [00:04:34] CO: You know, when I started out, my inbox was a lot crazier. I think that as I've kind of buckled down to a more investigative style of reporting, the pitches have somewhat slowed, but I still get the pitches that are like on the new cycle and stuff like that. You publish a big investigation, like I just did about this edtech company. And you get your pitches that are about other edtech companies that people promise you do not have the problems of the company that you just wrote about, that kind of thing. And there's your fair share of newsletters and other things that drift across the transom. I have to be honest, like I don't – I'm not the most fastidious email checker anymore. I’m actually just thinking about this.

    I mean, obviously, I have to look at all my emails every day, right? Because you get responses to public records requests, and you get tips.”


    Her Thoughts on Pitches

    [00:08:03] BB: Mm-hmm. So then, at this point, if you're getting those submitted to you and kind of people are knowing you more and more for that type of coverage, then are you then sourcing a lot of those tips and those insights from, perhaps, your inbox? Something as juicy as like that employee that wrote in? Is that happening a lot?

    “My favorite sources always download Signal, which is an encrypted app where I feel safe talking to them and makes me feel like I'm responsible and we can communicate clearly and often.”

    [00:08:24] CO: I mean, I don't think it's like happening to me every single day, right? I'm sure that there are people out there who are – There are journalists even on my beat who I think publish more frequently. And so I assume that they're probably getting a lot more inbound. Buzzfeed News also has a tip line. We try to put that into every story, right? So that's a system by which someone writes into BuzzFeed in general.

    “And then my colleagues who are in charge of the tip line for the day, or the week, or whatever, will forward those tips that way. So it's definitely – There's a reason that journalists put their email addresses and numbers and their Twitter bios, right? Like it's not a job where you're hiding from the public, right? You want to be open and available.”


    How She Writes Stories

    [00:02:35] BB: Okay. Let's talk about your focus of work, Caroline. I know, recently-ish, you used to be on the technology team. That has changed. Tell us a little bit about what the Inequality Team at BuzzFeed News is covering and focused on.

    [00:03:04] CO: Absolutely. So it is what it sounds like. Obviously, we're living in a time of nearly unprecedented economic inequality. There's no shortage of stories for us to cover. But we're trying to really break through and make an impact around issues of race, around issues of gender, around issues of economic disparity. I, obviously, still work closely with the tech team at BuzzFeed, which you should check out. They just hired a whole slew of new people. 

    [00:03:31] BB: They have.

    [00:03:31] CO: So it’s super exciting. And I love all of them. But when I came to BuzzFeed – Gosh, six, seven years ago now almost, it was to cover workers’ issues and labor in the technology industry. And I still do the same thing. So I'm doing it for the Inequality Team now. And who knows that when I started out, that meant covering the gig economy, covering Google, covering Amazon. I think what I'm really interested in now is kind of seeing how the trends that some of those companies started in terms of whether it's like algorithmic management, or whether it's gig work. How is that impacting legacy industries? So where's that happening? Maybe in government or in other industries, where you wouldn't necessarily expect to see it. But I still basically do the same thing I was hired to do six years ago, like to talk to workers and think about how technology and venture capital and all of that is changing the way that people do their jobs.

    [00:06:36] BB: Okay. Okay. So I'm sure this answer is going to be a bit different. I often will ask, where do you get your story ideas? Are you taking a walk? Are you getting it from a pitch? What is the likelihood of a pitch? Yours is more investigative? So where do you get the genesis of the stories you do?

    “The same as with once you develop a reputation around a certain topic, and I think this is one benefit of having the same beat for so long, is like people know to go to you, right? People kind of know what you're going to be interested in and looking for.”

    [00:06:57] CO: Sure. I mean, I think it's all – I mean, everyone's following the news cycle to a certain extent no matter what, right? So like I think that pitches and knowing what people are talking about and where the interest is, like there's always going to be value in that just as kind of a way to see what's going on out there. 

    I mean, where do I get story ideas? I think that, obviously, every journalist’s dream story idea is a tip from a source, right? It's that email that's just like – Like someone emailed me yesterday. I genuinely have no idea who this person is. And I don't know if they'll ever respond to me again. But I got an email from this sort of like anonymous email address that was like, “Hi, I'm a worker. I'm having issues in my workplace. And I thought you might be the person I wanted to talk to about that.” Like, “Boom!” That's the dream, right? Because I don't know what the company is going to be. I don't know what the problem is going to be. But my interest is definitely piqued by that.




    One thing you can do to connect with Caroline is to send your tips via signal or use legitimate humor within your email pitch. Make sure if you call, though, that you are mindful of her time zone. I always recommended first sending an email intro before you resort to picking up the phone.

    To gain exclusive insights about journalists you can’t find anywhere else, subscribe to the FREE Coffee with a Journalist podcast newsletter. Also, keep an eye out for new weekly episodes releasing every Tuesday!

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