Emily Stewart is a business and economics journalist for Vox. She writes about a variety of topics, from Elizabeth Warren’s political roots to cryptocurrency.
Sge also authors a biweekly newsletter, The Big Squeeze, which focuses on the financial struggles of everyday people. She previously wrote for TheStreet and studied at Columbia University. Emily currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Hi Emily, welcome to Famous Writing Routines, great to have you here with us today! Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you ended up writing about business and economics for Vox?
I took a pretty roundabout route into journalism. I moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina right after college and wound up staying for about seven years doing a lot of different jobs — I worked as a receptionist at a gas company, then in marketing at a translation agency, then a Latin America-focused tech blog, and finally a fintech startup.
At the fintech startup, we had a contributed content deal with The Street, and one of the editors asked if I’d be interested in freelancing for them on my own. Eventually, that became a full-time job. There, I largely covered politics and, more specifically, Donald Trump, through a lens of business and economics — The Street is a business publication. I later landed at Vox, initially as a news writer on weekends.
Money-related stories were always a draw for me, in part because of my own personal interests, in part because of my work background, so I’ve naturally gravitated toward business and economics when possible at Vox. I think there’s often a sense that business and economics coverage is esoteric, or that it’s boring and dry, and I see it as my challenge at Vox to tell important stories in those arenas in a way that hits home and reaches audiences in a way that — if I get things right — is a good mix of informative, engaging, and, dare I say, even fun.
You have written about a variety of topics, from Elizabeth Warren’s political roots to the Beanie Baby market. How do you decide what topics to write about and what is your process for researching and reporting on these stories?
Obviously, sometimes the topics come from an editor or someone above. The Elizabeth Warren story, if I remember correctly, was an idea for me from Ezra Klein while he was still at Vox. Other times, the topics come from me — if I’m being honest here, the Beanie Baby story is one I’ve talked about wanting to do for years. I remember the ‘90s Beanie Babies craze well, and I’d always wondered what … happened to all of that. Things don’t go away just because they’re not in the headlines anymore.
Sometimes, topics to write about are pretty clear — they’re in the news. Other times, it’s not so clear, and that’s where it can be more fun to take a step back and think about topics I’ve always wondered about, or remember conversations I’ve had with sources and friends, or just observed in the world around me. It sounds kind of cliche, but I’m sort of always on the lookout for new ideas, and they can, genuinely, come from anywhere.
In terms of researching and reporting, I am a big proponent of picking up the phone. Google is my friend, but it is my friend in the sense that it helps me identify who I want to talk to for a story if I don’t already have a ton of ideas in mind. I ask sources who they think would be good to speak with and look at social media to find people discussing certain topics as well.
I don’t do interviews via email as a general rule unless there’s a real extenuating circumstance — it takes so much more time than a phone call and is just much less dynamic. The best way for me to report is to talk it through. Diversity in sourcing is really important and something that I try to be intentional about. Especially in business and economics, it’s very easy to talk to the same three white guys over and over.
Your newsletter, The Big Squeeze, examines the ways in which people are being squeezed under capitalism and the scams trying to exploit them. Can you share more about the inspiration behind this project and what kind of topics you cover in the newsletter?
I was traveling with someone a few years ago and one of us literally said, “That’s how they get you,” about something or other when we were walking into a restaurant. We started to talk about how that would be a fun idea for some sort of content — there are so many situations in life where really that’s the theme. I initially brought it up at Vox as a podcast, and we batted that idea around for a while, but eventually landed on the newsletter (and column on Vox.com).
The general way I think about The Big Squeeze is that it’s really any moment in the economy when you sit back and think, “That’s how they get you.” It’s not outright scams, necessarily, but things that, for lack of a better word here, feel icky.
As it’s developed, I’ve also come to think of it more as the way we collectively experience our lives as consumers, workers, investors, etc. and don’t always realize it. Existing in the economy can be really scary and lonely, and you’re never quite sure if you’re the problem or it’s the system. A lot of the time, it really is the system, or at the very least, a lot of people are having the same experience as you, and maybe you just don’t know it.
Topics-wise, the world is a bit my oyster (within reason). I’ve covered coding bootcamps, interview processes, airline fees, bottled water, and mandatory overtime, among other areas. People intuitively know what things in the economy just feel a little off.
In your newsletter, you also touch upon the impact of economic systems on people’s time, hearts and minds. Can you share some personal experiences that you have had or seen that highlight this impact?
So relatively recently I wrote about marathon interview processes, the feeling many jobseekers have had that the whole charade is interminable. You go through multiple interviews, take different tests, give presentations, and the list goes on. Much of the time, the back-and-forth lasts for months, and it can feel completely ridiculous.
I was really shocked at the response to it — I got tons of emails from readers talking about their own experiences looking for jobs. A lot of them were real horror stories, which is not fun to hear, but it also was a sign I was onto something — again, a lot of the time, people really do feel so lonely in this stuff, that it’s just happening to them.
The economy is, ultimately, personal. It’s about people. We make a mistake in treating it like it’s some abstract thing that happens at us or around us.
Can you tell us about your reporting routine? What does a typical day look like for you?
My routine has become … less routine … over the past few years, thanks to the pandemic. There are a few constants. I let my editor know what I’m up to for the day early in the morning. I generally have CNBC on in the background during the day (a habit from The Street). If I’m having a hard time getting the writing going, I have a handful of tactics to kind of get the juices flowing — I pace around a little, I pick up, I brush my teeth, I squeeze in a workout.
The typical day really varies, depending on what I’m working on. The most fun days, for me, are the reporting days, the ones where I’m calling a bunch of people and chatting. If it’s for something newsy, that can also add an extra bit of urgency and excitement.
I usually take notes while I’m on the phone — my notes can look a bit wild, as I kind of color code things in a way that only makes sense to me. I put notes on my calendar as reminders of when to call people that I should be a little more disciplined about. A few years ago, I literally put “thing” on my calendar and obviously to this day have no idea what I was supposed to do.
Writing days can feel a little more daunting, and sometimes I’ll reserve some of that time for nights and weekends when fewer people are online and everything feels a little quieter and more relaxed. (It’s not my best habit.) I’m not a big outliner, for better or for worse. Sometimes I’ll jot down a few notes of general directions before writing, but a lot of the time, I just write things how I feel them.
I would like to go back to the office more, but it’s tough, if only because there aren’t a lot of people there. I’m hoping that eventually starts to pick back up.
I’d love to know about the books you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favorite recent reads?
I am currently reading Candy House by Jennifer Egan, because it was my book club book and I … failed to read it before that. (It was my first time at this book club and I did not make the best impression by not reading it, alas.) Someone recommended American War by Omar El Akkad to me last year, and I really loved it — it’s dark but just beautifully written and really turns some things on their heads in terms of how Americans understand the world order. I am also an Allie Brosh fan and last year finally got around to Solutions and Other Problems, which I really enjoyed.
What advice would you give to aspiring reporters out there who are just starting out on their journey?
Have fun, and don’t worry about your career so much.
I didn’t get any fancy internships in college and instead worked at a local bar. After college, again, I left the country. When I moved back to the United States, I spent a lot of time concerned that I’d be behind everyone else, work-wise, that I had not taken whatever the correct path was supposed to be. Over time, I’ve come to really appreciate that I did not stay on the straight and narrow. Work will always be there, a lot of life experiences will not, especially when you are young.
I should say here that the media is not … doing awesome. It’s a volatile space, nobody really has a great handle on a successful business model, and there are constant cycles of pivots and layoffs and failures. So, you know, be prepared for that. And I think it also makes the above point of having fun and not worrying so much about work more salient. There’s nothing you really can do to insulate yourself from the ups and downs of the industry entirely.
What does your current writing workspace look like?
Okay so I write from my couch. I don’t have a desk or anything, and I think I’ve tried writing at my kitchen table a handful of times. So, my writing workspace looks like my living room because it is my living room. It’s not a setup that would work for everybody (and if I’m honest, there’s now a little divot in my couch where I sit every day that I do not love), but in the times of the pandemic, it works for me. I tend to be a “write from anywhere” person.
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