Whenever I’m looking for local news stories in New York, I usually find myself turning to DNAinfo over the metro sections of the larger daily papers. And when I want to know what’s going on in Harlem, where I live, I turn to Jeff Mays, one of DNAinfo’s senior reporters.
Over the last few years, Jeff has covered some of the major changes taking place in Harlem from the effects of gentrification, big business and the restaurant renaissance and he’s profiled interesting entrepreneurs and residents.
I recently caught up with Jeff to learn more about his role at DNAinfo, his pitch preferences and the things that inspire him on a daily basis.
Hashtags + Stilettos (H+S): What are your day-to-day responsibilities as a senior reporter at DNAinfo?
Jeff Mays (JM): I cover all aspects of Harlem for DNAinfo New York. That includes everything from the new restaurant opening and its impact on the neighborhood to politics and crime. I also like to write more in-depth pieces about topics that affect the neighborhood such as economics and development. I also cover major breaking news such as Hurricane Sandy and the Occupy protests.
H+S: What inspired you to become a writer?
JM: I’ve always been concerned with the lack of diversity among the people who report the news. Also, being that I’m kind of shy, I love having an excuse to ask people all kinds of questions. I also love the chance to be creative with my writing and to find the best way to tell important stories that affect people’s lives.
H+S: What types of stories, content or projects are you looking for?
JM: In my business, timing is of the essence. So I try to keep my ear to the ground about what’s going on in Harlem and I’m always interested in learning [something new about the community]. At DNAinfo, we also like to hear about people that are doing unique or interesting things. It’s one of the best ways to show the character of a neighborhood.
H+S: Despite what research says about the journalism profession, being a writer/editor is still a covetable position. What advice would you give to someone who wanted to follow in your footsteps?
JM: I always tell young journalists to give journalism a try because even if you decide it’s not for you there are so many good skills that you can take with you into your eventual profession. Knowing how to craft a good sentence, analyze information from disparate sources and conduct an interview are all skills that are applicable in other fields. I also advise young journalists that despite the multimedia age we are in, knowing the basics of how to find your own stories and report and write well will never be out of style.
H+S: What is the best career advice you’ve ever received?
JM: One of the best pieces of advice I received was from one of my first mentors Rochelle Riley who is now a columnist at the Detroit Free Press. I was a teenager and we were walking into the Dallas Morning News building in downtown Dallas where she worked at the time. I had never been to a professional newsroom and was pretty excited. She saw my face as we entered the building and said “Don’t be in awe of any newspaper or company you ever work for. When you walk through the doors, know that you belong and are just as good or better than anyone in that newsroom.”
JM: I definitely prefer e-mail. Preferably concise e-mails that answer all of the important questions.
H+S: When is the absolute worst time to send you a pitch?
JM: There really is no bad time if you are sending it by e-mail.
H+S: Biggest PR pet peeves?
JM: I do not like getting pitches that are being sent out to the masses and pitches that have no connection to the neighborhood or beat that I cover. If I’m getting pitches that are better suited to someone who writes about Queens, that shows me that the pitch is kind of a shot in the dark.
H+S: Name one thing journalists can do to have a better relationship with PR people?
JM: I think there has to be an understanding that we all have a job to do. I try to be open and not dismissive.
H+S: How can a PR person or brand get on your “always respond” list?
JM: I like people who are knowledgeable about things going on in the area I cover beyond their own projects. I’ll always listen to a pitch from someone who likes to call and share a little relevant gossip they heard at a business meeting or cocktail party.
H+S: Complete the Following Sentences:
My favorite inspirational quote is… My mom Yvonne Mays was a single parent. She would always tell me and my siblings: “Education is the key. Get in school and stay there until you get what you want. I don’t care if you have to be in school until you’re 40.”
I was also struck by reading some of the quotes from Nelson Mandela during the recent coverage of his death. “A good head and good heart are always a formidable combination. But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special,” is one Mandela quote among many that stood out for me.
I’m currently reading… I have this problem where I like to read three or four books at once. Right now I’m reading “High Price,” “A Chance to Win” by my friend and former colleague Jonathan Schuppe and the “New Jim Crow.” I just also read the entire Walking Dead comic book series to date.
My favorite book is… I still remember the chills I got while reading Richard Wright’s “Native Son.”
I had the most fun writing or working on… I’m most proud of work I’ve done writing about corruption in my former job as a reporter at the Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey. I’ve also enjoyed the opportunity to write about Harlem in a comprehensive way that people have told me was missing and that they enjoy.
iPhone, Android or Blackberry? I’ve taken slack from friends who were perplexed that I was actually excited about the new Blackberry Q10, the one with the physical keyboard. The keyboard makes me so much more productive by making it easier to type. I have written full stories on my Blackberry from crime scenes. I told my friends not to judge me until they’ve had to stand in the cold and try to type a story on a digital keyboard. That said, I also have an Android.
My 3 favorite mobile apps are… Does anyone still play Angry Birds? Anyway, I like Twitter, Google Maps, Instagram and Dropbox.
I have … unread emails in my inbox right now… Two. If it’s not something I’m going to read I delete it.
A fun fact about me is… After a freestyle rap battle with rapper and producer Wyclef Jean when I was in college, singer, rapper and actress Lauren Hill told me that I should pursue a career as a rapper. I chose journalism instead.