From tip to print: how I scored my Google exclusive for The New York Times

The New York Times building in New York, NY ac...
The New York Times building in New York, NY across from the Port Authority. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In an era of 24/7 media coverage, it’s not easy to get a scoop. But it’s far from impossible.

I did it with my Google story that ran in The New York Times four days ago. It was the paper’s 5th. most emailed and 5th. most viewed story for many hours. picked it up and got 1,000 more views within hours.

So how did I get this story as mine alone — and how can you, an equally ambitious writer, do something similar?

It started, randomly, when I attended an eight-day silent Buddhist retreat in July 2011, a birthday gift from my Buddhist husband, which I wrote about for Marie Claire magazine.

One of the visiting teachers there was an extraordinary woman who I saw at once might be both a kindred spirit — albeit 20 years my senior — and a terrific magazine story in her own right. I asked for a private meeting with her, which was the one time we were allowed to speak.

She told me she’d been working with Google to help engineers develop their emotional intelligence. Boom! That’s a story.

I stayed in touch with her over the fall when she mentioned Meng, (the subject of my Times piece and a Google engineer), was writing a book and was someone well worth media attention. Story value confirmed.

I then reached out to his publisher and to Meng himself, letting him know that I knew personally two people he admires and has worked with. Done. The story was mine, he said.

Not so fast. Months of negotiation ensued between me, his publisher, the book publicist and the Times. Months.

I also faced major surgery and recovered enough just in time to fly to Mountain View to report the story with enough time to write and and edit it.

Google isn’t known for being a chatty sort of place, so getting access to half a dozen employees and two days on campus required some arm-twisting as well. I spent two intense days on-site, conducted more interviews by phone, wrote it and went through at least six revisions as the story passed through various editorial hands and questions.

Here are some things I did that could help  you snag and lock down a great story of your own:

Take a risk!

I didn’t even want to attend the Buddhist retreat for many reasons and went into it very reluctantly. But I went and learned a lot and met some truly amazing new people there.

Put yourself out there

I was nervous asking for a private meeting with this woman. What if she didn’t say yes? What if she didn’t like me or my ideas? You don’t know until you try.

What is the story? Can you sum up in one tight sentence?

An experienced reporter sniffs a great story right away. Even if you’re on staff, you’ll have to persuade your editor to let you write it. If you’re freelance, as I am, you’re asking for a big space and the budget to send you far away to get the goods. You’ve got to pitch it persuasively.


Without it, you can’t get a scoop.

Passion for your idea

If you’re not super-psyched to do the piece, how can you persuade your editor?

A clear understanding who you need to interview and what you’ll ask them

You may have very little time in which to get your reporting done.

Persistence and tenacity

It took many months of calls and emails to get this story nailed down. I have more than 100 emails in one folder alone from my contact at Meng’s book publisher.

A terrific editor

You need someone to green-light your idea and make sure it gets the art, photos and play it deserves as it competes for space with all the other stories on that site/newspaper/magazine.

A clear idea of the scope of the story

How many words will it really need to be well-told? Do you have to travel? How cheaply can you do that? How are the key players in this narrative and will each of them speak to you? How much time will all that require — and do you have it or can you get it?


I don’t write about tech. I don’t cover Google. I’d never written a story quite like this one. But I understand, and deeply value, mindfulness and meditation. That was enough to launch me. I’d figure the rest out as I went.

And I did!

“I failed!” How Google teaches its staffers to breathe deep — and cope

This is one of the huge welcoming signs for Go...
This is one of the huge welcoming signs for Google plex in the silicon valley. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s a story you won’t read anywhere else in the world — my exclusive interview with Chade-Meng Tan, employee number 107 at Google, whose new book “Search Inside Yourself”  was released this week. The story is in Sunday’s New York Times, on the front page of the business section. It’s now up on their website.

It’s about a super-popular course there, which Meng created and has taught since 2005, in mindfulness and meditation. In an environment that drives employees hard to achieve all the time, all the while remaining “Googly” — friendly and collegial — anything to help control stress, frustration and emotion is a helpful tool.

I sat in on one of the SIY classes and learned a lot about myself!

Here’s an excerpt:

One exercise asks everyone to name, and share with a partner, three core values. “It centers you,” one man says afterward. “You can go through life forgetting what they are.”

There’s lots of easy laughter. People prop up their feet on the backs of seats and lean in to whisper to their partners — people from a variety of departments they otherwise might have never met. (Students are asked to pair up with a buddy for the duration of the course.)

In one seven-minute exercise, participants are asked to write, nonstop, how they envision their lives in five years. Mr. Tan ends it by tapping a Tibetan brass singing bowl.

They discuss what it means to succeed, and to fail. “Success and failure are emotional and physiological experiences,” Mr. Tan says. “We need to deal with them in a way that is present and calm.”

Then Mr. Lesser asks the entire room to shout in unison: “I failed!”

“We need to see failure in a kind, gentle and generous way,” he says. “Let’s see if we can explore these emotions without grasping.”

Talking about failure?

Sharing feelings?

Sitting quietly for long, unproductive minutes?

At Google?

I snagged this story when I met a woman who had worked on the class with Meng and who told me about him. Immediately intrigued, I stayed in touch with her and discovered he was going to publish this book. In December 2011 I negotiated an exclusive with his publisher.

I flew from my home in New York to Mountain View, where all the tech firms are based, including Google — about an hour from San Francisco. I spent two days on campus in the Googleplex, which offered me an intimate glimpse into a company most of us know primarily as a verb, whose logo appears on our computer screens worldwide.

The campus is almost unimaginably lush, with every conceivable amenity. There are primary-colored bicycles available and at the entrance to each building are bike helmets hanging on the wall. There are umbrellas for those who prefer to walk. There are 30 cafes offering free food. Heated toilet seats. Apiaries. Swimming pool. Volleyball court. Ping pong tables.

The basic idea, as those of you who follow tech firms know, is to keep all those bright ambitious employees working without distraction — so there are on-site laundry rooms and the day I arrived even a large van containing a mobile hair salon.

While it knows a great deal about all of us who use it, Google, as a corporate entity is not chatty, so the level of access I was granted was unusual. I spent two full days and interviewed employees from different departments. It was interesting to see the contrast between the lovely, spotless physical spaces inside and out — including labeled grapevines and a community garden — and to hear how much Google expects/demands of its staffers, typically hired after an intense and grueling interview process.

The single most compelling memory? It’s not in my story.

Sitting on one of those Japanese heated toilet seats — and seeing a plastic folder on the wall beside me, with a (copyrighted) one-sheet lesson in it, part of their program called Learning on the Loo. Yes, really.

The photos, which are fantastic, are by San Francisco based freelancer, and a friend, Peter DaSilva. I loved having the chance to watch him at work.

The photo editor was Jose R. Lopez — my husband.

Great story and lots of fun to report and write. I hope you enjoy it and spread the word!

Here’s a 54 minute video from Google of Meng talking about his book.