“My editors value impact stories” – Recode’s Jason Del Rey on Evaluating His Success

I think his colleague Peter Kafka introduced us? Or at least that’s my best guess for how Recode’s Jason Del Rey and I started hanging out a few years back. Jason rocks the Commerce beat but his reporting chops are only the start of my admiration. He’s a dad to two young kids and it’s been fun seeing that side of him develop. In fact, I ask about it below and Jason’s answer is a great reminder about the importance of us all seeing one another as humans. So here’s Five Questions…

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Asa Mathat for Vox Media

Hunter Walk: The way media companies make money (or measure success) can sometimes be inconsistent with what I think leads to good reporting. For example, page views and being “first” versus in-depth analysis. How does Recode measure a reporter’s contributions? How do you know if you’re doing a “good job?”

Jason Del Rey: I have quarterly check-ins with our managing editor, where we discuss my goals for the coming quarter, what I accomplished in the previous three months and how I can improve. My editors value impact stories—articles that typically start a conversation and/or serve as a jumping-off point for a lot more coverage on a specific topic within a beat.

Oftentimes, impact stories are well-read. And if they’re not, there’s usually something that went wrong, whether it be the headline or some other part of the packaging. It’s important to try to suss out what that is.

Impact stories don’t just come overnight, though. They are usually the result of a steady stream of smaller reports on a topic, which are also important for a site like Recode to maintain momentum and freshness each day. The never-ending battle I have with myself is how to best balance the newsier items with the big, step-back impact pieces. It’s not a science and, when in doubt, I ask one of my editors.

HW: Continuing with the “making money,” Recode has a very valuable event businesses alongside their site. You run Code Commerce, which relies upon getting interesting tech folks to serve as guests. How do you maintain objectivity in your reporting given these potential conflicts?

JDR: My reporting and writing is what has gotten me to this point, and is what will hopefully allow me to enjoy several more decades in this profession. Most smart people in the industry realize and respect that, and will sit down with me onstage whether they view my coverage as “positive” or “negative,” so long as they believe it’s well-researched and fair. There are exceptions, of course, but you won’t see them on my stage. It’s a big industry and I don’t have time for that strain of BS.

HW: Similarly you’re a conscientious reporter but also maintain friendships with many of the people in our industry. Has that put you in awkward situations? You and I are close—how do you think I’d react if you came out with a really negative piece about one of our portfolio companies?

JDR: I’m friendly with lots of people in the industry, but I spend the vast majority of my non-work time with my family and with my friends that I’ve known since college or earlier. I don’t know that that’s intentional, but it probably does help me avoid some awkward situations that clubbier reporters may face.

As for you, I think you’d understand it if you thought the piece was well-researched and fair. You’d be surprised how many times someone on the wrong side of a harsh story sends me a text that says something like: “Sucks you had to write that, but thanks for being fair.” You should try it sometime!

HW: You’re a dad now. How has having kids changed your approach to work generally?

JDR: Is there a word limit on this? The first thing that comes to mind is how I judge the people I interview. I’ve always been a reporter who over-analyzes everything about a subject the first time I meet them: What is their tone with the waiter at the cafe? How real was their apology when they show up 15 minutes late? Why did their body language change when I ask about their co-founder?

I still think reading people is a really important part of the job, but I now understand that I’m not seeing their whole life in front of me in a 30-minute meeting. Maybe their one-year-old threw up on their shoulder on the way out the door. Maybe they’re in the middle of a rough patch in their marriage and they’re not being cold—they’re just distracted. In short, I probably give people the benefit of the doubt much more than I did pre-kids, even though I still bring a healthy dose of skepticism to every interview.

The other thing I certainly have had to adjust is how and when I get my work done. I work as hard as I ever have but I refuse to work a ton on weekends if it’s not a breaking-news situation. That means being much more productive during weekdays than I may have been earlier in my career. It also means working on stuff later on weeknights than is ideal a lot of the time.

HW: When a source leaks news to you, how do you decipher what their motivation might be and how does your estimation of their trustworthiness factor into how you use that information?

JDR: A lot of times people tell me or it is just obvious. If I can’t figure it out, I just ask. Either way, knowing someone’s motivation is crucial to weighing if and how to use the information they are sharing.

Trustworthiness is critical, too. I, like other reporters I respect, probably have missed out on stories because it’s coming from a source I don’t know well or don’t fully trust. On the other hand, that approach greatly reduces the chances of getting duped, looking like a fool, and ruining my credibility. If you want to have a long career, I think this is the way to go.

Thanks Jason! Follow him on Twitter!