Ruth Umoh at Fortune on the Need for Service Journalism, Live Events and Community Building

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.

Always top of mind for Fortune Leadership Editor Ruth Umoh are the issues that keep her C-suite readership up at night. Her team of nine journalists writes The Broadsheet and Modern Board newsletters, as well as features and trend stories on business transformation, breaking leadership news, and diversity and inclusion (D&I). 

Ruth joined Fortune in January after a year spent building The Filament, the first D&I issues newsletter-based publication targeting an audience of HR and diversity professionals in tech and finance. Previously, she was the D&I editor at Forbes, following a first foray into business journalism as part of the team at CNBC. Earlier in her career, Ruth was a producer for Rolling Stone, a digital politics reporter at the New York Daily News, and even dabbled in PR and advertising (which she hated!) during an internship at Clear Channel Communications.

During our recent AMA, Ruth shared what she learned from her year of startup life, where Fortune’s leadership coverage is centered and where it’s headed next, along with the ups and downs of working with PR professionals. What follows is an edited version of that conversation:

Which elements of your startup experience as editor-in-chief of The Filament are you bringing into your current role at Fortune? 

Working for a startup is a grind, but it’s so worthwhile. You’re able to wear many hats and dabble in many different roles. It’s really about skill building, which is why I decided to jump into the startup ecosystem in the first place. Beyond the phenomenal opportunity to learn firsthand about the business side of journalism, there are many other elements that are transferable to my role now, including supporting and working with my team of journalists, creating an editorial strategy and crystallizing a long-term vision.

At The Filament, I developed very close relationships with executive sources, including Chief Diversity Officers, Chief Human Resource Officers and Chief People Officers. I was hearing both on and off the record about their challenges, pain points and priorities. That intimacy helps in the story ideation process and creates a sense of familiarity so that when my sources weren't seeing something in the media that they thought we should report on, they felt very comfortable sliding into my inbox and providing me with insight.

Live journalism via an events team and building a community was huge at The Filament and it's similarly huge at Forbes where they just hired a community head. At Fortune, we have our Most Powerful Women Summit and our CFO Daily newsletter, which is creating a community around chief financial officers. We're seeing more of these communities for C-suite leaders spring up across the media industry. Newsletters have quickly become another avenue for telling stories in a very digestible way.

With live journalism and building community as the common threads, what do you see as unique in how the Fortune newsroom works? 

At Fortune, we’re primarily (but not exclusively) focused on public companies and the organizations on our Fortune 500 list. I define our core mission as service journalism to provide our audience with information and insights in a way that is impactful and meaningful in their day-to-day work. 

We hired a success team to focus on Gen Z and Millennial managers who aspire to enter the C-suite in the future. We also launched Fortune Well led by Deputy Editor Jennifer Fields to cover workplace wellness topics. 

I want us to be the definitive go-to source for what's front of mind for C-suite executives and board members, while also highlighting who's transforming business in innovative and avant-garde ways. Or conversely, who's falling behind their peers and why.

Which leadership topics continue to fascinate you and your readers?

Our audience is still looking for fresh insights about trends like hybrid and remote work against the backdrop of COVID-19, navigating the ongoing labor shortage, and D&I as a profit driver. 

We’re covering how our readers are grappling with a rapidly changing workforce and heightened external pressures, both societal and legislative. As companies move employees back to the office, no one really has the best practices in place. So leaders are looking to journalists for that under-the-hood look and answers to questions such as: How do you build culture in a hybrid or remote work environment? Or, how can you best your competitors when it comes to attracting and retaining talent?

The Broadsheet examines the challenge of bringing women back into the workforce. Other newsletters focus on how to manage burnt-out employees or remote workers scattered across the U.S. We’re picking slices of life and pieces of those trends and seeing how we can dig in and provide a snapshot of the cultural zeitgeist in business right now.

<split-lines>"As companies move employees back to the office, no one really has the best practices in place."<split-lines>

What are the differentiators that make one source rise to the top when you’re evaluating a story idea?

Subject matter expertise, big names and timeliness are key story idea differentiators. For example, we’ve all been following the Elon Musk/Twitter saga. Elon made a flippant remark in a tweet in April that when he takes over Twitter, he will end compensation for board members. That’s interesting because, right now, there are board members who get paid about $300,000 to only work about five hours a year.

Someone reached out to me and said, “I don't know if you saw this tweet, but I have an expert consultant who focuses on board compensation.” With that, we can look for a way to advance a compelling story angle. In this case, you have a big name, Elon Musk; a big company, Twitter; and something that's timely and trending on Google News which we can tap into for SEO juice.

We can provide our readers with something new and fascinating by digging into board compensation. We are able to explore a topic that's quite opaque, even for executives, because not all executives sit on corporate boards. 

<split-lines>"Subject matter expertise, big names and timeliness are key story idea differentiators."<split-lines>

What pet peeves do you have about working with PR people?

First and foremost, I hate when PR people confuse Forbes with Fortune, or worse, confuse me with another Black business journalist.


Beyond that, I’ll often get pitches from people reaching out with a trending topic or statistic, but who then offer a source who launched a product to address that issue. Automatically, we're going to say ‘no,’ especially if it's a new product. Unless a huge investor like Melinda French Gates or MacKenzie Scott is involved, it feels very self-serving to tie the product to a big issue like getting women back into the office for example. If you’re trying to sell a product or a platform, it's just not going to happen.

<split-lines>"I hate when PR people confuse Forbes with Fortune, or worse, confuse me with another Black business journalist."<split-lines>

How can we in PR make life easier for you and your team?

Look at what we've written previously and, for the love of God, don't pitch the same thing. I get pitches all the time saying, “I saw that you wrote about this yesterday. I have someone who can also talk about the very same thing.” Or, I have people who will say, “I saw that you wrote this piece on this subject matter when you were at CNBC, I have someone who can speak on it,” and I'm like, “Okay, it's five years later, I don't even cover that beat anymore.”

So again, it’s all about understanding the publication, its brand and its audience while also being well versed in our coverage areas. What we focus on isn't necessarily going to be identical to what The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg or Forbes covers. That said, my inbox is always open.

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