Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Interview With Christopher Zara, News Editor at Fast Company | Walker Sands

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Fast Company senior editor Christopher Zara is not your average New York City journalist. He grew up in a working-class Italian-American family in Trenton. He was kicked out of high school and never went to college. He was addicted to heroin for a while. 

But that’s exactly what makes him so interesting: He’s different.

(photo: Jason Woodruff)

The New York media world is dominated by people with Bachelor’s degrees from elite colleges and universities. Most of the reporters and editors at your average Manhattan-based new media company are from middle class or old-money families. 

I worked in this world from 2008 until 2015, so I’m speaking from experience. 

Zara, who’s 53 years old, brings a different perspective, detailed in his new book, Uneducated: A Memoir of Flunking Out, Falling Apart, and Finding My Worth, which came out in May 2023. (ebook available from Little, Brown and Company for $14.99). 

The 272-page book is engaging, honest and funny. And it has a lot of insider information about the digital news publishing industry. Though the book has mostly been marketed as an anthem to people who don’t have college degrees, a large part of it chronicles Zara’s time working at New York-based news outlets.

From 2006 to 2012, Zara was the managing editor of Show Business Weekly, a scrappy trade outlet for the performing arts industry where he worked his way up from an unpaid intern (at age 35!) to managing editor, and where he held on to his job for years despite being routinely berated by the paper’s owner, who was also his boss, the aptly named Mr. Chieftain.

In 2012, after leaving Show Business Weekly to write his first book, Tortured Artists: From Picasso and Monroe to Warhol and Winehouse, the Twisted Secrets of the World’s Most Creative Minds, Zara took a job as a news writer at The International Business Times.

The International Business Times was a Manhattan-based startup that spent millions hiring journalists, including from The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. In 2013, at the peak of its influence, The International Business Times – which was known as IBTimes bought Newsweek in a bid for greater brand recognition. 

At the IBTimes, Zara rose up the ranks to become a deputy editor. He assigned, edited and wrote hundreds of news articles, and for a time was one of the site’s biggest rainmakers in terms of bringing in readers. He worked under Peter Goodman, a veteran journalist who made his name covering the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s, and who became international editor in chief of the IBTimes in 2014.

But not long after the IBTimes hired Zara and Goodman, things began to unravel. Accusations swirled that the company was run by a mysterious cult led by a controversial Korean pastor named David Jang. Staffers’ paychecks started to come late. Eventually, the newsroom went through a series of layoffs. Zara was let go in 2016, and the site’s offices were raided by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office a couple of years later, during an investigation into the company’s finances.

I sat down with Zara at a cafe near Fast Company’s headquarters in lower Manhattan to talk about his book, what he covers at Fast Company, how his team works, and what he likes (and doesn’t like) from PR and communications professionals. 

Here are some takeaways for PR, marketing and communications professionals:

Survey data pitched to journalists should be conducted by an independent third-party, and should not be too market-y.

Zara recently wrote an article based on a survey by a venture-funded customer experience platform, CallVU. The survey, which Zara learned about from a PR pitch, had found that people who need customer service would rather wait 11 minutes to speak to a human being than an AI chatbot.

“What was interesting to me was that the company said this was the opposite of what they expected to find,” Zara said. In other words, it was clear that this finding didn’t necessarily support CallVU’s marketing strategy.

For Zara, that was a good thing. “Surveys need to be independent,” he said. “We always check to make sure a company’s survey has been conducted by a third party.”

When it comes to awards, what matters is impact, creativity and diversity.

Many of us submit our clients for Fast Company’s various awards throughout the year. Although Zara isn’t involved in reviewing most Fast Company awards, he was involved in reviewing submissions for Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies (MIC) list. He says MIC is a massive effort that involves the entire newsroom.

So, what made a company stand out?

“We look at whether a company had an impact on its industry. Did it also make a business impact, or is there a potential for one? And is it recent, or did the innovation have a recent impact over the last 12 months? People send stuff that’s, like, three years old,” Zara said. He added that a company’s solution needs to be creative – after all, Fast Company’s whole thing is innovation.

And last but not least: “Diversity is important, too,” he said.  

Fast Company and Inc. are similar, but different.

“It gets a little muddy trying to differentiate the two brands,” Zara says. “But basically, Inc.’s core audience is entrepreneurs and small businesses. And it’s an older brand – it’s been around since 1979. Fast Company is newer, and is more focused on innovation, tech and design. We’re always talking about the future. For example, right now our audience is really interested in Elon Musk. Not every dumb thing he says on social media, but the innovations his various companies are creating. If Neuralink comes out with new research, for example, or if SpaceX has a successful launch – we cover it.” 

There are some topics that are of interest to both Inc. and Fast Company. Like workplace topics. “What’s the next ‘quiet quitting’ phenomenon?” Zara said.

He added that he and his team are interested in covering the new weight-loss drugs like Wegovy and Ozempic, the Google antitrust case, and, of course, what’s going to happen to TikTok.

But Fast Company’s audience is wider than you think.

Although Fast Company’s core readership is entrepreneurs and business leaders, it also includes anyone who’s interested in business, tech and design. Which is a lot of people.

“And when it comes to digital, our audience is anyone who might be interested in a given topic,” Zara said. “For example, in early May 2024, when we were covering the Apple stock buybacks, Techcrunch, Forbes, CNBC and everyone under the sun was covering it. There’s so much interest in the topic that when people search for it, they might land on a Fast Company article. And hopefully they stick around.”

Traffic is paramount. Zara said when he’s choosing stories, he’s always thinking, “Will this attract readers?” He said, “I have to say no to so many good pitches, because I just don’t have the time. For a quick hit news piece, my ideal story length is 300 words. And though we might grab something from an analyst note, we don’t always have the time to talk to someone and get a quote.”

Note: Walker Sands recognizes that advanced degrees are not a sole indicator of success and thus eliminated all mention of college or university degrees from our job descriptions as of Summer 2023. Job applicants are encouraged to apply regardless of educational background. Check out our open positions here.

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