As part of PRSA’s mission to advance the PR profession—and the professional—PRSA’s San Francisco Bay Area chapter recently introduced its Meet the Media Q&A series, where chapter members interview leading Bay Area journalists for insights into their coverage and pitching preferences. Here’s a look at the first two in the series:
Owen Thomas, Business Editor, San Francisco Chronicle
In this Q+A, PRSA-SF Bay Area chapter president and Wise Public Relations West Coast managing director John McCartney spoke with Owen Thomas, Business Editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, to learn more about the work he does on a daily basis and to find out about his hobbies and interests. Here’s an excerpt:
Tell us the story about how you got into journalism?
I gave the long version to Pacific Standard five years or so ago. The short version is that I kind of stumbled into it sideways. I knew a little HTML in the mid-’90s, which was enough to get me a couple of webmaster gigs at magazines. At the Red Herring, an influential business and technology publication in the first dot-com boom, I started getting tips from friends working in the early Internet industry. My boss told me I should just write those stories. From there, I became the Herring’s first Web reporter. And that took me by turns to Time Inc. and Gawker Media and NBC and now The Chronicle, with some startups in between.
How does working at the Chronicle differ from the other media outlets that you worked for?
When I came here, I was more focused on the similarities: We break news at the pace of Web publications I’ve worked at, and we bring design and copy editing and photography together to deliver a polished product like magazines I’ve worked at. The difference here is the clarity of mission: Our editor-in-chief, Audrey Cooper, says we cover the city whose people change the world. That’s why I came to San Francisco two decades or so ago, and that’s why I love what we do.
What’s your technique for getting scoops and how do you like to work with sources?
I’m mostly out of the scoops-and-sources game as an editor, but I love working with my reporters as they build out their sources. I occasionally get a good tip from a network of contacts I’ve built up over my career, but I mostly hand those off to a reporter. Back when I was writing more, it was pretty simple: Show up, ask questions, think about the answers, ask more questions.
What are some of the media trends you’ve observed that will have long term effects?
Across the industry—and I’d include newer media businesses every bit as much here—we still haven’t digested how to use analytics to shape editorial coverage. Right now, I think of analytics as a useful gut check, a way to take the temperature on your performance. But analytics don’t yet offer any answers to the question of what we should cover next. That will change.
Marisa Kendall, Housing Reporter, The Mercury News
In this Q+A, PRSA-SF Bay Area communications director and Hollywood Agency PR lead Brooks Wallace spoke with Marisa Kendall, Housing Reporter at The Mercury News to learn more about the work she does on a daily basis and to learn more about her hobbies and interests.
How did you end up in journalism?
I’ve wanted to be a journalist since I was 16, when I got my first internship at my local weekly newspaper: The Wellesley Townsman in Massachusetts. From then on, I kept working to make that happen, getting more internships, writing for and editing my college paper (The Eagle at American University) and finally getting my first job.
You’ve covered everything from tech startups to crime to housing. Which do you like best?
I’ve enjoyed all the beats I’ve covered, and I think what I like best is that variety. I like starting a new beat that I know little about, and spending time learning about the subject and getting to know sources. Each beat I’ve worked had its pros and cons. When I covered crime, it was pretty typical for at least one of my interviews each day to cry. It was a very emotional beat, and I also sometimes had to deal with the friends and family of crime victims directing their anger and grief at me.
Covering tech was much less emotional, but it was fascinating to learn about the new technology being dreamed up in Silicon Valley, and get an inside glimpse into the lives of the people who make it. Now that I’m covering housing, I’m dealing much more with every-day people and their emotions again, while also learning all about the economics of the housing market, zoning rules, and everything else.
How does covering San Francisco differ from South Florida, where you got your start?
One difference is the public records laws in California vs. Florida. Florida’s Sunshine laws are some of the best in the country, and gave us access to a treasure trove of police and government records. California doesn’t have such easy access, which can make gathering information more difficult.
How do you like to work with PR professionals? How do you like to be pitched?
Emailed pitches specifically tailored for the beat that I cover, and for my audience, are usually the most effective. Phone calls really never come at a good time.
Funniest/most memorable pitch you’ve received?
One of my co-workers once got a pitch that basically said: “I enjoyed reading your story about (insert grisly murder or crime he had recently covered), do you want to write about this cool new beer coozy?”
These interviews originally appeared on the PRSA San Francisco blog; reprinted with permission.
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