Brit Morse is an Associate Editor at Inc. and covers the worlds of HR, public policy, and legal...
On today’s episode of Coffee with a Journalist we’re joined by one of Fortune’s newest writers, Megan Leonhardt. She covers the intersection of finance, policy and regulations. Prior to Fortune, she was the senior money reporter at CNBC and a writer for Time’s MONEY Magazine.
During the show, Megan shares more about one of her first jobs involving pitching, her new beat at Fortune, what information she wants from sources, and more.
Click below to listen to the full conversation and read below for highlights from the interview:
[00:02:12] BB: Well, Megan. You might have kind of a different answer to this. I’m going to be curious to see. We often ask folks right at the top of this, “Hey, how’s your inbox?” Now, with you being newly minted at Fortune, is your inbox absurd with pitches or how is it right now?
[00:02:29] ML: It’s actually for the first time in a very long time almost blissful, which is a weird word, I would say.
[00:02:37] BB: Wow!
[00:02:39] ML: Yeah. I feel like I used to – right before I moved, I think I was getting between a hundred and 200 emails a day. Every time I was out of the office, it was just a mountain to try to sort through. This were not necessarily all just like junk pitches. We’re talking – there were a lot of serious pitches that I needed to wade through. I did my best I will say to try to make sure that I let people know I was leaving. I sent emails, Twitter, LinkedIn, you name it. I really was trying to make sure that there wasn’t too much lost in translation.
But I will say that most of the folks these days are sending me pitches that I actually need, actually want and a lot of the clutter seems to have gone away. Either I signed up for way too many government emails, alerts and things like that or I did make sure I was very strategic about only signing up for newsletters and alerts that I actually needed right now. Maybe that helped declutter some things. I don’t know, but right now, it feels very, very decluttered from where it was earlier this year.
[00:03:41] BB: This is the first time I’ve ever heard this on this entire show of 60 plus episodes. My God! Well, how did you keep it organized at your previous position, which was at CNBC and you were there for a couple of years? Did you have a method to the madness that you’re going to try to instill for now your very clean inbox as it is now?
“I use the search function a lot. I also as I said have like a folder of running sources that I use. It is a bit of a mess. I just have it labeled sources. I don’t have like sub folders within that.”
[00:04:02] ML: I feel like I am kind of the worst when it comes to my inbox. It was really funny for a number of years, there was the big like inbox zero thought process. I thought I was doing it. I was like, “Yes! I’m at inbox zero. This is amazing.” Until someone informed me that inbox zero actually means you have zero messages in your inbox, not that you have zero unread messages in your inbox.
[00:04:24] BB: Exactly. I am zero unread, but I am not as that –
[00:04:27] ML: I am zero unread. I do have folders that I kind of throw things in, especially if I’m doing long-term projects and things like that. On a whole, I feel like I use a lot of like the flagging, and the pinning and things like that. Otherwise, I look at everything that comes through, I really do, I feel like.
[00:04:45] BB: Really?
[00:04:45] ML: One of my very first jobs was essentially to be a human filter for pitches and assignments, so I feel like I’ve always sort of had a good rain. I will say I’ve gotten a lot worst about responding to every email. I used to be very proud of the fact that I would respond to about 90% of all the emails that I got. That has gone by the way side over the years. I’m responding more these days because I have fewer emails in my inbox at Fortune right now, but I suspect that will also start to decline as the volume increases.
[00:05:15] BB: Just for folks to know, because reporter is quite vague. We were talking a little bit before we started, Megan. What are you looking for in terms of the pitches on what you cover?
[00:05:25] ML: My sort of beat that I’m working on right now is everything to do with the intersection of policy and finance, which is a huge broad swathe. I’m super excited about covering this particular beat. Basically, what that means is, looking at the regulations, the rules of the road that are coming through on both a state and national level and how they’re impacting folks on their financial level, as well as businesses on the financial level. We have a ton of regulations coming through, certainly over the past year with COVID, but even beyond that, that really, really are playing a huge impact on the day-to-day lives. A lot of times, we tend not to get into the details here, so that’s the fun part of my job. I get to kind of wade through the weeds and kind of figure out what’s important and what’s not, both on things that have passed, as well as proposed rules and regulations that are coming out, which of course is probably a little bit more scary for folks on the business side of things. Because some of this really do mean that you’ve got to shift a whole heck a lot of your business to comply.
[00:06:24] BB: Gosh! For example, for everybody. I like this one, grocery prices continuing to rise and no end in sight in what that looks like. Then you had child tax, credit payments, mortgage for parents. It’s definitely more like, okay, me as a consumer or me as a business owner, how does this impact me?
“If you can give me an expert that is pretty broad-based and can talk a bit about a lot of things, I think that can be really helpful and I will save that email.”
[00:06:42] ML: Yes. I’ve also been working a lot on sort of the COVID beat, and this is something that I think most writers and reporters have touched at least in some form or fashion over the past year. But I’ve been working a lot around what this latest surge means for businesses, for colleges, for consumers as well. It’s obviously pretty wide spanning, but I feel like – up until May, even into June, I feel like we are all pretty much like, “Yes! Fall! We’re getting back to business. It’s all going to be good.”
[00:07:11] BB: Oh, yeah. It’s just been a fantasy.
[00:07:12] ML: Now. that doesn’t seem to be the case, so there is a lot to report there, and figure out what’s going to happen. Then of course, we still got a lot of folks that are dealing with actual symptoms of COVID or long COVID, God forbid. I did a couple of pieces around that.
[00:07:27] BB: I saw that.
[00:07:27] ML: That’s not a fun situation to be in. I really do sympathize for the folks that find themselves there. It’s a tough road and it’s a tough road too for companies to kind of figure out how to be flexible for these employees, how to be sympathetic and supportive. But at the same time, you’ve got a business to run and you need folks doing their jobs, so what does that look like, really fascinating.
[00:07:48] BB: Oh my! I also like to ask folks, how do you get the inspiration for some stories, because sometimes people writing random things that look totally not of their beat or – did it come from a pitch? Were you taking a walk? Do you have any ways you get inspiration? Are you pulling something from the Senate floor to say, “Okay. What’s the latest thing coming down the pipe?” or “What’s going on in California?” How do you curate the stores you’re going to do?
[00:08:19] ML: I definitely do get some of the ideas from what’s going on on the Senate floor, the State House floor for sure. Those are probably a little bit more straightforward pieces, sometimes they’re just daily explainers or second day pieces. The longer pieces that I do are usually kind of things that are in the zeitgeist or sort of percolating. I feel like I’ve done a lot of pieces around, as I said COVID. Some of those are just questions that kind of have been popping up as we’ve all been going along this route and trying to figure out, “Okay. Well, what does this mean and how is it impacting?”
I feel like some of the stuff I do too, it’s based on other stories. Maybe I’ll do a quick hit on a company and I found something kind of interesting in the details of their disclosures or whatnot. That kind of leads to bigger stories. I feel like I’m working on one right now that kind of came out of that. I was kind of curious about sort of technology that they were using. Now, I’m going down the rabbit hole.
[00:09:20] BB: Yeah. Would you say if you have to give a percentage, convert pitches to stories?
[00:09:27] ML: Like actual pitches that I got from PR folks?
[00:09:29] BB: Yeah, some people have said, yeah, they’re like 4%. Also, it’s like, the pitches don’t work basically. But some people say, “No. I save them for months and months. I come back to them. I use them for like trend spotting.” I’ve heard that as well, which is interesting. If you’re just sitting there on your inbox, you’re like, “Oh! Wait a second. Seven people this week have pitched me on this new AI retail technology. Hmm, maybe there’s something going on with that” or it could be some regulation that maybe you weren’t aware of, but now suddenly, it’s popping up through an aggregate of pitches, let’s say that make you spur something. Do you ever have kind of conversion to story from pitches?
“...if I’ve done a ton of work on a project or a piece, I’m not going right back the next day, or even the next week, or the next month.”
[00:10:05] ML: I do and I kind of put pitches in different bucket. I will say that there is the pitches where they’re usually giving me a source. They’re saying, “Hey! I have this expert source,” whatever. Those are kind of pitches that I will save. I have a folder. It’s sources folder. I will dump folks that I think might be useful down the line into that kind of folder. Then when I’m looking for something in particular, I usually go through there. If I don’t have anyone in mind and just scroll through quickly. I also then get the sort of pitches that are more survey or data-heavy pitches. I do a lot of stories that involve surveys or data collection, things like that. I find that those are usually really great pieces, especially with lots of charts. I’m a sucker for a good chart.
Those pitches, those actually have a fairly high conversion rate with me, either I am like, “Yes” and it’s kind of a green light or I’m definitely not. It kind of depends on the methodology of the survey or whatever is going on there. Then there’s kind of the pitches that are the – I call them idea pitches, so they’re usually something where they’re talking about a specific trend, or an idea works or some of them are super convoluted and I can’t really follow them. Those have a very low conversion rate. I would say single-digit.
I almost never get feature ideas or things like that from a pitch. It just isn’t – it usually isn’t there. I feel like sometimes on a very rare occasion, it will spark an idea that will then eventually go down the road. But I kind of feel bad, but sometimes you get this idea spark, right, and you want to give people credit for. But what they talked about or whatever is not really where you’re going with this or in fact, maybe you’re doing the exact opposite. It’s a very rarely do I actually connect on those kinds of pitches.
In Megan’s new role at Fortune, she is still covering some of the same topics however there are new changes that have come working for a new outlet. Deadlines are important, data is crucial, and know that if she doesn’t respond to your initial email chances are she isn’t interested and doesn’t want to receive a follow up.
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Brit Morse is an Associate Editor at Inc. and covers the worlds of HR, public policy, and legal...
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