Biotech Boss: Andrew Pollack of The New York Times

Specialty Pharmacy Times interviewed Andrew Pollack of The New York Times to find out how a top biotechnology journalist covers developments in the pharmaceutical pipeline accurately and succinctly, all while keeping the interest of the reader.

Specialty Pharmacy Times interviewed Andrew Pollack of The New York Times to find out how a top biotechnology journalist covers developments in the pharmaceutical pipeline accurately and succinctly, all while keeping the interest of the reader.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

SPT: What does your daily “lead generation” process look like? What are some of your “go-to” sources in the field of biotechnology? What about sources from the pharmaceutical industry?

AP: I get leads to stories wherever I can. A lot of the routine daily news stories -- such as clinical trial results, a drug approval, or a corporate transaction -- come from press releases. We cover only a minuscule fraction of the corporate announcements made each week.

For features or more in-depth stories, there are various leads. I get a lot of pitches from public relations people. These rarely lead to good stories but I evaluate them. I also look at medical journals, trade publications, Wall Street analyst reports, blogs. I sometimes attend medical or investment conferences. Some of the best leads for stories come to some degree by chance. I am interviewing someone on one subject and he or she mentions something else. Now that we have a website, it is easy for readers to contact reporters. So I get leads from readers reacting to one of my stories, or from readers who think there is something we should cover.

SPT: As a journalist reporting on the pharmaceutical industry, how can you ensure that your sources give you genuine answers as opposed to canned, corporation-approved responses generated by a public relations firm hired by the company?

AP: I try to talk to the people directly involved in something, though that is not always practical. You have to also bounce things off other people and weigh them in your own mind. Not all corporate-approved responses are disingenuous. And not all sources outside the PR department are honest.

SPT: What is the biggest challenge you face while writing about science and/or the pharmaceutical industry?

AP: I find it difficult to say any particular challenge is the biggest. There are several: getting the best story ideas, such as those that would be worthy of the front page; finding the information; staying ahead of the competition; writing complicated information clearly and also succinctly, because newspaper articles are now usually shorter than they used to be.

SPT: Do you often draw from the same pool of industry professionals for comment, or do you try to reach out to new people in Pharma for each article you write?

AP: I try to vary the people I quote because I do not think The New York Times looks good if the same person is quoted in too many articles. What would readers think if the same Wall Street analyst, for instance, were quoted in every story about biotech? That said, some people are more incisive, more accessible, and more quotable than others, so there are some repeats.

SPT: Do you have a tactic when it comes to wading through clinical trial results? How do you make the decision whether a particular result would be valuable to report?

There are 2 main criteria I use. The first, and by far most important, is whether the trial result will affect public health and medical care. Is this the first drug for some disease? Is it a major advance over what is out there? Will it change the standard of care?

For that reason we tend to mainly cover phase 3 trials, because if the trial is successful the drug will get on the market and readers or their family members with that disease will be able to use the drug. A successful phase 1 or phase 2 usually does not mean the drug will get to market, at least not immediately. However, occasionally there is an important or amazing phase 1 or 2 trial we will cover.

The second criterion stems from the fact that I work mostly for the business section. Occasionally a trial result merits coverage because it has a big impact on a company and its stock. However, I rarely cover results just for that reason. There are many biotech companies whose drug fails in a trial and their stock drops 50% in a day. But most of our readers have never heard of the company to begin with and don't care that its stock went down.

SPT: What is something you have been surprised to learn during your research about Pharma?

AP: There is not one particular thing. But I think the big surprise over the last few years to a lot of people was the way pharmaceutical companies have covered up unfavorable trial results and engaged in a variety of unethical marketing practices.

SPT: Is it equally important to cover drugs that have failed as it is to cover drugs that are deemed successes? Why or why not?

AP: I think it is important for medical science to have records of drugs and trials that have failed, so that people can learn from them. Hopefully that will be taken care of by medical journals or by requiring companies to post results of all trials, including unsuccessful ones, on an appropriate website.

But I don't think it's as important for a general newspaper that serves the public. As I mentioned above, I am mainly interested in developments that will impact our readers and the public health. A drug that fails will not get on the market and won't change medical practice or improve health.

There are a few occasions, however, where I will report on unsuccessful trials because I perceive there is public interest in them, perhaps because anticipation has built up.

I covered the phase 3 failures in the last year of the Alzheimer's drugs bapineuzumab, solanezumab, and, just this week, Gammagard. That is because there is a lot of interest in Alzheimer's, a big unmet need, and sizeable corporate bets were made on those drugs. The failures also had implications for the prevailing theory of what causes Alzheimer's. The articles were modest, however. Had the trials succeeded, the articles would have been bigger and displayed more prominently because that would have meant a big impact on public health.

I also covered the failure of a Repligen drug for autism a few years ago because parents of autistic children had held out so much hope for it.

On even rarer occasions, a failure is important enough to make the front-page. One was the failure about a decade ago of the first phase 3 trial of an experimental AIDS vaccine. Another front-page article, written by a colleague, was the failure of Pfizer's “good cholesterol” booster, torcetrapib, because of the repercussions for the company and the drama of the company announcing it on a Saturday night.

SPT: Pharmaceutical companies are notorious for guarding company information closely. How do you generally work around their reticence? What methods do you employ?

AP: You have to dig. There can be sources outside the companies, such as doctors who work with them.

But there is actually quite a lot of information available. Many companies, even the biggest ones, now have to persuade investors that they have a good pipeline. So they talk about drugs in development, particularly those in late-stage trials, which, as I stated above, are the drugs we care most about. There are medical journal publications, clinicaltrials.gov, regulatory filings, and market research firms that can provide information.

SPT: What is the average time it takes you to compose an article, starting from idea generation all the way to publication?

AP: An article can take anywhere from less than an hour for a late-breaking news story to several weeks for an in-depth piece. I think I write around 80 to 100 articles a year of various sizes, which works out to about 2 a week.

SPT: Have you ever published an article you felt uneasy about? What were the reasons you felt this way, and how were those feelings eventually resolved?

AP: I am uneasy to some extent about many articles, at least when they are initially published. First, I worry that I might have made an error, even a careless one such as spelling someone's name wrong or a numerical mistake. I double-check everything and each article is read by 3 editors, but sometimes mistakes still get through. Sometimes I worry about whether I've been fair to people characterized in a negative way, and other times I worry if I've been tough enough on someone. And sometimes I worry if I've missed something important.

Usually these things are resolved in the day or 2 following publication. Usually no one reports an error or makes a valid criticism of the article. So I relax and move on to the next subject.

------------------------------------------------------------------------