Charlotte Jee at MIT Tech Review on Finding Unique Stories and Working With PR and Tech Companies

Editor’s note: This interview is part of Mission North’s Inside the Newsroom series, which presents highlights of our regular AMA sessions with today’s top tech journalists.

Charlotte Jee didn’t set out to become a technology journalist, but her interest in politics led her to cover the intersection of technology and government years before she joined MIT Technology Review as a reporter in 2018. Charlotte has recently been named news editor at the publication. 

Her background includes studying politics and Russian studies at university, working at PR and polling companies and later gaining a Masters degree in political journalism. As well as working at Computerworld, Government Computing, and Techworld, Charlotte is the founder of Jeneo, an organization aimed at boosting diversity within the technology sector, for instance, by proactively recruiting women and other under-represented groups to speak at tech events.

MIT Tech Review has fairly well-defined beats for its reporters and editors, and, increasingly, Charlotte’s focus is mental health. The COVID-19 pandemic has been an ongoing hot topic for coverage enabling her peers and herself to learn a huge amount while also working on what might possibly end up being the biggest story in their lifetimes. “I don't think I would be the journalist I am now, if it wasn't for COVID,” Charlotte said. “So I guess I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn new skills, even though, if I had a choice, obviously, I’d prefer not to have had that chance.”

When we sat down with Charlotte recently in an AMA, she shared some thoughts on what makes for a strong print or digital story, the importance of exclusive or embargoed stories, and her frustrations with PR and overblown tech news topics. What follows is an edited version of that conversation:

MIT Tech Review has a print magazine, delivered six times a year, and also publishes dozens of stories online every week, which are then featured in The Download weekday newsletter that you edit. How do you determine which content goes where?

For print magazines, we decide on overarching themes, such as the computing issue or the mind issue. We will have the next six months, or even the next year, in print nailed down and we’ll take pitches from our team and from freelancers. For instance, I had an idea for the mind issue to write about what it’s like to undergo psychedelic therapy. We’re looking for good quality and interesting stories which fit within an issue’s theme.

With digital, we obviously keep a very close eye on the news cycle, with our real focus on what we can add to a story that people aren’t going to find elsewhere. We’re more interested in analysis and quirky takes on what’s happening rather than just churning out content. 

We’ll dip into the news cycle when we have something smart and interesting to say. We don’t expect the team to publish more than one or two pieces a week, so it’s a pretty leisurely pace compared to some other places. It means we end up with only the most engaging and best-quality pieces coming through because people have so much time to be immersed in what they’re writing.

"We’re more interested in analysis and quirky takes on what’s happening rather than just churning out content."

How important to you and your colleagues is receiving a story pitch which is exclusive or which carries an embargo?

I'm not saying a pitch has to be exclusive, but the chances of us being interested are much higher if it is exclusive. But honestly, less than 5% of our stories come via the PR route.

Pitching to Tech Review is hard. Our standards are really high and everything we publish will go through a lot of eyeballs to make sure that it's really up to scratch. So, a story has got to be unique, it’s got to be really interesting, and it has to have a wider implication. In pitching to us, you need to be able to summarize in one sentence why we at Tech Review should care about the story. I recommend that you think about what story we can tell that other people can’t.

"A story has got to be unique, it’s got to be really interesting, and it has to have a wider implication."

How open are you to having introductory conversations with founders or CEOs?

Yes, I’d be open if that discussion is laser-focused on my beat. That would be with someone working within mental health on something really cool and unique. Although I know that I’m not going to get anything from the conversation that I can print now, maybe six months from now, that company will loop me in on interesting stuff they’re doing that is cutting-edge.

In general, I think we are pretty strict with introductory meetings. Honestly, if we agreed to them, we could spend our entire work calendar just doing introductory meetings.

What do you find frustrating about interacting with PR people when they’re pitching you?

I am not bothered by getting PR emails. I say this at the risk of receiving a million now, but I genuinely don't mind. I don't receive a crazy number of them, and the ones I do, many of them are press releases or embargoed stories, and some of them are pretty useful.

But I do get a couple of emails a week where I feel that the pitch hasn't passed the common sense test. You look at it and, if you had your personal hat on, not your work hat, hopefully you would laugh at it. So, occasionally, I will see pitches where I would love to know the backstory about how that press release came to be.

I don't mind being pitched. I'll often say ‘No,’ but I'll try to say it politely. You have to recognize that people are literally just doing their jobs. I don't see the need for the kind of sarcasm that you get from some journalists towards PR people.

Which news topics do you feel have been overdone during the latter part of 2021?

Facebook has saturated everything recently, partly because of the really smart strategy by The Wall Street Journal and [whistleblower] Frances Haugen to kind of drip stories, and then there was Facebook’s rebrand as Meta. It does mean that the company has basically dominated the news cycle for a very long time now.

Covering Facebook is hard because it’s difficult to know what is the right amount and what is too much. Just because something is everywhere doesn't mean that it's unimportant. It is everywhere and it is important.

I’m not hugely inspired by a lot of crypto journalism. If you know someone who is covering cryptocurrencies and NFTs in a way that is good and not breathless, I would love to hear about it because that’s something I’m crying out for.

I think supply chain topics, like the global chip shortage, will continue to be huge. I would love a smart way into those stories that’s fresh and which hasn’t been done yet. We’re seeing some great journalism around the supply chain, but I feel like there’s more to be done there, for sure.

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