Deez Interviews: Max Tani on competing for scoops without losing your mind and covering the media itself

Happy Friday, Deezers! Today’s interview is with Daily Beast media reporter Max Tani, who talked about the rather meta nature of reporting on reporters, cultivating sources, and the trick to competing in such a fast-paced beat. Enjoy! 

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Before the Daily Beast, you were largely covering politics. What attracted you to media reporting?

When I was at Business Insider, a lot of my job was news aggregation. That meant reading and thinking a lot about other people's reporting. I found myself forming opinions about who I thought was good and who wasn't, and I'd sometimes reach out to those reporters to try and advance the story. 

Occasionally those interactions led to small media scoops, which surprised me and went straight to my head (I'd never broken any news before, and the rush of sharing info that most people didn't know was extremely satisfying). I realized that I liked talking to other journalists and smart people in media much more than talking to whatever random mid-level GOP staffer would give me the time of day. So I kind of sneakily started doing a lot of media/politics stories at BI, and it went from there. 

It's an interesting and frankly pretty dark time to be in media right now between the continued collapse of the industry and the fact that we have a president who seems to care as much about watching cable news and criticizing the media as he does his actual job. The days can be crazy or depressing, but they're almost never boring.

Does it ever get like, very meta?? Reporting on an industry that's largely full of, well, other reporters?

Totally. It's a strange experience sometimes. The best thing about media reporting is everyone knows the rules and how it works (you don't have to explain to anyone what "on background" means). Most media people are also natural gossips, so I think it's probably easier to get info than on most other beats.

People also get what's newsworthy and what isn't; I regularly have sources tell me "well, if I was writing the story, I'd emphasize THIS part," which I actually find pretty helpful. 

But it cuts the other way too: People who know and work in media are often the most scrupulous and critical readers. If you mess up or misinterpret one tiny word (never happened to me, of course) you can turn a whole news organization or media network against you. And reporters have long memories for that kind of stuff! 

I'm also curious about how that affects the way you cultivate sources. When your sources are people in the industry, how does that change the relationships you have with them?

It's inevitable that this beat, more than others, is inseparable from your personal and work relationships. Everyone you deal with is either someone you've worked with before or someone you could work with in the future (though admittedly I've probably burned a few of those bridges along the way, so there are fewer possible future employers than maybe I'd like). 

Much of my social life also involves people in media. So I try to be honest and up front if there's a potential perception of conflict, have conversations with my editors about how to navigate tricky situations, and not allow friendships to influence how I cover a story. Ultimately, the principles are the same as any job in reporting: Try to be fair, but not to get taken for a ride by people with bad intentions or who aren't telling the truth.

Ethical concerns aside, I think I also try to remember to be human and not lean too much on people who don't see me as a media reporter first. For example, I have a close friend at another media org who I've known since before we were both in journalism. He was confused recently when I published a story about his company without reaching out to him about it. I told him essentially that I didn't want to risk blowing up his spot if it was revealed he was the source, or putting him in a weird position. Because ultimately maintaining our friendship meant more than whether or not I got a scoop people were going to forget about in a day. It probably would've been fine if I did, but I wanted to be extra cautious.

Some of the most interesting and busiest days of my job can be the worst days of the lives of people I actually know pretty well (I've unfortunately covered too many layoff stories to count), so I try to keep that front-of-mind and remain empathetic and sensitive when I'm going about the reporting process.

Much of media reporting seems to be based on scoops and deep sourcing — it all sounds very competitive! How do you handle that pace?

It can definitely be...exhausting. The beat rewards scoops, and there are admittedly days when I want to coast or when I feel like I have nothing to work on. I think the best way to continue to generate exclusive info without losing your mind is to find a niche within the niche and focus on that, instead of worrying about getting scooped by chasing everything.

I used to drive myself crazy wondering how other reporters got certain things, and tried to replicate their sourcing. But I realized I'm much happier and have had (modestly) more success focusing on what I do best: trying to develop relationships with rank and file staffers at media orgs, and working my way from there. 

I've accepted that I most likely won't beat the WSJ to a scoop about a media deal — that's their bread and butter, and their sources and editors both want and expect to see that type of news in the WSJ — but I can advance media stories in different, meaningful ways that other outlets undervalue or can't get.

What audience do you have in mind for your reporting?

I know my audience is almost entirely people in media and media obsessives. I'm not going to argue that everyday people should care about a staffing shakeup at a news organization, or a leaked email of a crazy media boss losing it on their staff (as interesting as I personally think that is). 

But I think there's a very legit reason why we see such a huge appetite for media stories. As democratized as our media landscape is today, news organizations and journalists still have an incredible amount of power to influence the course of events. The way the media covers a story, and the decisions behind how the media covers a story, can have a major impact on people's lives. It can be insider-y, but it really matters!

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Don’t forget to follow @maxwelltani on Twitter, and have a good ol’ weekend people!!


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