As a journalist, about half a dozen times a day I'm asked if I want to catch up for coffee, generally by someone who wants me to write about their business.
Usually I've never met the person and nine times out of 10 I'm not going to write about them. A cup of coffee is not going to change that.
If I'm going to write about your business, it's not because you're prepared to spend three bucks on a cuppa for me. It's because what you've got to say is genuinely newsworthy.
Now, don't get me wrong, I love having a coffee with mates, mostly on the weekend when I've got five seconds to breathe. But you're dreaming if you think I'll stop work to take hours out of my day during the week to meet you on the pretext that by doing so I'll be more inclined to give you column inches. I simply do not have time.
If I said yes to all the coffee invitations I receive I wouldn't have time to write my stories. Lunches are the same. Who has time to stop work and take two or three hours out of their day to eat lunch when you can eat a salad and drink a juice in under 10 minutes and get back to work?
OK, I do feel a pang of regret when I'm asked to lunch at a top restaurant and I have to decline. And usually when I do go to these shindigs I learn something new. But when I don't, I kick myself that I've wasted time I could have spent getting stuff done, time I'll probably have to get back by working over the weekend.
There's a school of thought that says you'll build a better relationship if you go and meet someone for coffee. And a little voice in the back of my head does whisper from time to time when I'm asked out for a coffee that if I go, in the future this person might have the scoop of my life and if I have coffee with them, they'll give it to me. But so far during my career this has never been the case and I doubt that's going to change any time soon.
Certainly, building relationships with sources is important as a journalist. Getting out of the office is also essential because breaking news rarely happens while you're sitting at your desk. Or if it does, it happens on your computer screen, not because you've broken the story.
But nine times out of 10, I will get just as much out of a person by interviewing them over the phone as I will sitting down with them face-to-face. In fact, I often find face-to-face interviews distracting. If I'm sitting at my desk doing an interview I can focus on exactly what the person is saying, rather than have my head turned by people walking past, what the person's wearing or the conversation the couple at the next table is having.
The same goes for press conferences. I'm not a general news reporter, so why would I go to a press conference to get a story every single one of my competitors is going to run? If I need to run a story like that - which is rare - I can use what AAP publishes.
There are two exceptions to my no coffees rule. I'll leave my chair to go to my interview subject if he or she is a) very old or b) very famous. But often these meetings don't involve coffee. Sure, I'm usually offered a cup of tea by someone senior I'm interviewing. But famous people rarely have time for coffee. They just want me to come in, do the interview and get out so they can get on with being famous.
I wonder how many hours are wasted by people going for coffee in the middle of their working day? The productivity problem might be solved by putting a stop to the coffee train.
In fact, it always perplexes me other people have time to go for coffee. I assume they don't have enough to do. Or maybe they're just looking for an excuse to stop work. Because I don't believe anything is ever achieved by chewing the fat while sucking down a cappuccino.
You might criticise me for being all about business and missing the point that having a coffee or lunch with someone allows you to connect on a human level. I understand this perspective, I just don't have time to indulge it.
So don't get offended next time you ask me for coffee and I decline. Rather than having a cup o' char, a much better use of your time would be working out what in your business is really interesting and sending me an email about that. Then put the kettle on and wait for my reply.
- Sydney Morning Herald
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