In one of our most in-depth interviews, prolific writer Adam Popescu talks about the media business, how tech might be too big a beat for any writer, and how the topic of power continues to fascinate him and inspire his writing.
1. What publications/ outlets are you currently reporting for?
I write a lot about digital culture for a new magazine and web daily called Smashd. I also recently began freelancing for the Washington Post, and I’ve got a couple big stories coming there that I’m excited about. I also have material on the way for Playboy, TechCrunch, the Daily Dot, and others.
Of late, I’ve written for magazines that include the MIT Tech Review, Pigeons and Planes/Complex, Cosmopolitan; I’ve also done a few on-air pieces for the public radio show Marketplace, plus tech fare for The Verge, Scientific American, Playboy, and Fast Company. Being a freelancer means having a diverse set of publications and editors to work with. It’s the only way to make it work. It’s too easy to bash the medium, to be defeatist, but that lack of quality, original reporting has also created an avenue for strong voices to emerge. If you can cover a story differently than the masses—if you can be on the ground, look and see it for yourself, whatever it is—the work will be informed beyond what the masses can pull from a press release, or steal from a rival’s post.
2. What topics/ beats/ stories are of special interest to you right now?
I’m very interested in the dark side of technology—what is our digital addiction really doing to our minds, our bodies, our behavior, our relationships? A lot of tech writers don’t want to touch this topic. Not only does it require research and real digging, but it’s dystopian. Many like to bang the drum that any innovation is a positive, even if it can make life more complicated than we’d care to believe. Yet for me, I find this topic more fascinating than the typical startup story with an inexperienced 21 year-old with no clue about leadership or how lucky they are to get funding. Do we really need any more social networks, more mobile wallets, another influencer marketing, or subscription service?
I’m into the wildcards, the outliers, the people who weren’t supposed to make it, the ones who beat the odds and somehow won. Or maybe they didn’t, but they were changed and molded in ways that forever changed them—in ways we all could learn from. Those are the people I find most fascinating to write about. It’s not about money, necessarily, it’s about experience. I’m very interested in power. People who have gained it, people who wield it—and I’m interested in sifting fact from fiction, exploring who these people really are, beyond the public perception and facade. Over the past year I’ve spoken to a very eclectic group that includes the Dalai Lama, Snoop Dogg, Tyler Oakley, Stan Lee, Sophia Amoruso, Jerry Heller, Tech N9ne, Ev Williams—each can be called a success, and each have walked a singular path, but each have lessons that anyone can appreciate and benefit from.
I used to be a tech writer. When I was at Mashable, and before that at ReadWrite, I wore that badge pridefully. Now it feels like a limitation as opposed to a title. Recently, the journalist Christina Farr, who I’ve met before in San Francisco, and think is a strong and honest professional, tweeted a question: is technology too broad a beat? That’s a question and sentiment I think anyone who’s spent real time covering tech—or any beat—would respond with an emphatic “Yes!”.
I’ve covered and continue to cover digital entertainment, Internet culture, online celebrity and the growing feudalism the web has bred, but the truth is, tech is apparent in everything we do, every industry. So as a journalist, a medium of information, to limit yourself with such a broad descriptor is like saying you just cook with one ingredient. The best of us try to integrate the digital theme into all of our work. Beyond tech, I write about travel, I interview authors, rappers and artists, entrepreneurs, heads of state. At the same time, I also write about urban wildlife, the environment. The real thru-line is that I’m at a point where I’m fortunate to be able to write about topics and people I’m genuinely curious about. And I think when that happens, the work can only benefit from that interest.
3. Why did you become a journalist?
I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Both my parents are writers, writers who were able to raise two kids in West LA, my parents gave me big shoes to fill. And they always encourage me to make the attempt. Growing up, I tried writing comics, short stories, derivative attempts at fiction. When I was 17, I completed a full-length feature screenplay. I got very close to optioning it, or so I told myself. All the while, I thought I would drop out, sell it and have it made. Shows how realistic I was…
The truth was, you have to be a bit touched by fire, a little (sorry, let’s face it, extremely) ego-fueled to believe that you can make a career in the arts. And as a teen, I was arrogant and unrealistic enough to believe I could do it. But it would take years to come even close to whatever “it” is.
After high school, I went to Santa Monica College. Junior college. I was lucky enough to transfer after only one year, and ended up going to Pitzer College, where I graduated with a BA in creative writing in 2006. But I still had no idea how to write, and that attitude shined through both personally and in my work.
After graduating, I spent a few years banging my head against the wall, alerted to the realities of the world: terrible jobs, humbling work. Washing dishes and bussing tables at restaurants, working as a bank teller, filing, sorting mail, temping. I spent a lot of time feeling like an outsider. Which can be a good thing as a writer—if you can survive in the interim, and get enough to build your craft. Still, 100% I’ve had to learn the hard way on many things, but in a strange twist, it’s helped me.
I started writing “professionally” around 2007, traveling on assignment through Central America and Europe for travel websites. But I had no idea what journalism was really about, and I wasn’t making any money from my work, certainly not enough to sustain myself. So I kept clocking hours at those shit jobs, dreaming of more. Some years passed. Where once I was too immature to take advantage of the opportunities in front of me, I was now willing to do anything to get a career as a writer. So I applied to graduate school. But nobody wanted me, my grades were too inconsistent, a dubious life narrative. By the grace of nothing short of a gracious—and comical—higher power, the great University of Syracuse admitted me into their journalism program in 2009, and my entire life path changed at that moment.
Loans and moving to isolated (and cold) upstate New York aside, the experience brought me around other like-minded people, and I learned the craft and skill of journalism from trained professionals. That year was the best and most strenuous education I could possibly hope to gain.
In 2010, I returned to Los Angeles with a newfound confidence and focus, and things really began to change for me around that time. Journalism is a stressful career, there’s no doubt, but it doesn’t have to be miserable. I’m living proof.
4. What stories (or project) of yours are you most proud of and why?
In 2013, I traveled on assignment to Mount Everest, covering the humanitarian and waste problem for the BBC. Along the way, I hosted the world’s highest live Twitter chat, a social media first. And my book (in-progress), Climb High Sleep Low, was inspired by the trip, and became part of the Penguin Random House Twitter Fiction Festival.
In 2014, I traveled to the Canadian Arctic to report on the annual polar bear migration for Outside Magazine, Gizmodo and Marketplace Radio. Around that same time, I wrote a controversial piece calling out the founder of Reddit for allowing the proliferation of guns sales on the website he created, a story that earned me a lot of enemies and got me into trouble from a variety of powerful groups and people, but one that needed to be done, and one I’m very proud of.
Recently, I’ve reported from Cuba about the nascent tech scene and explored just how locals can run an Internet business without Internet.
5. What’s the best pitch you ever got?
The best pitches are those that show you’ve read a reporter’s work. That address them respectfully, with their name. If it seems like you genuinely read the work, and didn’t just send out a form pitch saying “Dear Reporter,” no matter what the pitch is, I will respond. The best PR are those that work with journalists—they’re the gatekeepers, not the enemy. And journalists are always looking for good stories, so feed them those, but don’t overwhelm them. They’re under no obligation to respond, let alone cover your client, so don’t be too pushy, and don’t expect magic if there is none in the pitch.
The worst pitches are the PR blasts that get my name wrong, the outlet(s) that I write for, emails that are blatantly cut and pasted as if their sender’s computer was on fire, filled with mismatched fonts of all sizes and styles. Ask yourself: would you respond to that pitch?
6. What was so good about it?
The best pitch is not even a pitch. Take a moment to reach out if you appreciate a reporter’s piece, they love that. It’s a great way to build a relationship and establish a toehold for when you do have something to pitch.
7. What are some tips for people who want to pitch you a story?
If I’ve just covered a topic, it’s not the right time to pitch a similar subject. Give me something great to run with, get me excited, get me access, then get out of the way and let me perform. When it’s time to interview a source / client, the best material, and the best story will be one when the PR is not in the room. Hangers-ons are inhibiting to both parties. It’s unlikely we’re talking state secrets, and if there’s something a subject shouldn’t take about, prep them before. Trust your clients, don’t crowd them.
8. When do you prefer to be pitched? How much lead-time, or what days/times are most appropriate?
Please no pitches via social media. Email me if you have something good. Really good. Good enough for me to want to drop everything. If you have that, shoot me a note: my address is my full name at gmail.
9. What’s something most people don’t know about you?
My mixed media collage art has been exhibited in galleries in Italy and California. Comic book legend Stan Lee, and current L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti currently have my work on display in their offices.