I recently had the opportunity to sit down with my former colleague, long-time reporter, editor and real estate finance expert, Albert Yoon. Al is currently a Real Estate Editor at Insider, Inc., but when the pandemic broke out, Al and I were both journalists at Debtwire, covering the financial debt markets with a daily deadline.
In our conversation below, Al shared his thoughts on how the internet, social media, and the pandemic changed the news industry – and shared some thoughts on PR.
You’ve been a reporter and editor at a number of different places. Can you give me an overview of your career so far?
I've been in journalism since 1989. I started at my hometown newspaper in Connecticut and worked at a couple other small-town newspapers, and then I moved to New York to start a financial news writing job in 1994 at the Bond Buyer. From there, I worked at Reuters, then Bloomberg, then back to Reuters, to The Wall Street Journal, to Debtwire, and now I’m at Insider. You name it, I’ve been there.
What do you do at Business Insider?
I’m one of three real estate editors. There's a senior real estate editor and a real estate investing editor. And the stories can vary from luxury real estate stories to institutional investors buying single family rental properties. We recently wrote a story about a real estate agent and how he excels at cold calls in order to compete with all the other agents where he is in Florida. So, there are many different kinds of stories that go to different types of audiences.
You have been through a few iterations of how the industry has changed – having started in the 1990’s and started at a local newspaper.
Yes, and one of the most interesting things I remember is when I was at Reuters in the mid-to-late-90s and the internet wasn’t much of a thing then – people just got email a few years earlier. So, I talked to my college publication about how the internet was changing reporting and I remember I naively said ‘oh, nothing’s really changed, I’m still getting information the traditional way.’ It's not that I was wrong. It's just that it didn't see the enormous changes that were ahead.
How much were you surprised by how the industry changed, in terms of advertising, staffing, and budgeting?
As a reporter you don't really think about who's paying the bills, you just write the stories. But as the years went on and the internet became more popular and small-town newspapers started cutting staff, it became abundantly clear that we had to start thinking about who was paying the bills. And it can actually be a little bit disturbing when that wall between sales and news starts to break down.
Social media changed the reporting landscape. It's a tool now used many journalists. Do you use it in any sense and how do you feel about your reporters using it?
The reporters [at Insider] use social media a lot. It’s a great way to be in touch with the consumer and know what they're talking about, especially when it comes to real estate, finding a house, house frustrations, etc. Personally, I pretty much just stick to LinkedIn and make sure I'm following the right people and watch their postings. In terms of a reporting tool, LinkedIn is fabulous for messaging, I’ve gotten a lot of sources that way.
When it comes to PR, how do you or your reporters use PR professionals? Do they like to go around them or are they useful?
I think reporters basically appreciate pitches. Of course, there are too many pitches, but people in the PR business understand that. But focused pitches to the right reporters usually get a response. Now there are some PR agencies that seem to throw everything against the wall to see what sticks. That gets pretty annoying, so you ask to be taken off some of those lists.
And the pitches that you get, how many are relevant to you, and how many are way off the mark? What would you like to see done differently?
I would say two-thirds of them are pretty relevant. With the good ones, you can tell that the PR person is up on the news, reads Insider and knows the types of stories that we publish. And then other times you can tell that these pitches are stretching it a little bit, in terms of the impact that this company or this subject matter will have. And my number one wish is that PR agents everywhere strike the word “innovative” from their language.
So, when the pandemic started, how long did you think we would all be doing the work from home thing?
A few months, like most people. There was a lot of speculation that we would be back to work by the summertime. But that was two years ago…
And what was the hardest part about getting stories and finding sources during the worst of the pandemic, especially when it first started?
The one thing about the pandemic that has been really hard with journalism is not seeing people, being one on one. There are phones, but nothing is better than a face-to-face meeting in terms of getting the goods and understanding one another.
For me, actually, the hardest part wasn't the day-to-day, it was not meeting new sources. So how did you meet new sources during that time?
Frankly, I haven't met many new sources. I really did have to sort of rely on people that I had known.
You’ve told me that Insider is flexible on where you work from, but for journalism do you think reporters should be in a professional newsroom? What does the future look like?
I think some in-person presence is helpful in terms of teamwork and camaraderie. But remotely we've embraced direct messaging systems and Slack and video meetings aren’t too far off from the real thing. And in the future, I think a lot of people will continue to do the hybrid thing, come in for a change of scenery and see somebody's face once in a while. But unfortunately, I think that newsrooms permanently changed, and to me it's a little sad.
My final question is, if you look at the entirety of your career, and these kind of markers in time – when technology changed things, or the business model changed things, or the pandemic change things – what was your favorite era, in terms of working environments in journalism?
Definitely working for the Eastern Express in Belvedere. New Jersey, in 1990. It was in a small, smoke-filled room because one guy was a chain smoker. There were three of us, this chain smoker in his 60s, me and a young woman who moved from Alabama and didn’t know anyone. That felt like old-time journalism.
Larissa Padden is an account director in New York