Kate Galbraith started her reporting career in the 1990’s in Sarajevo, including an assignment for which she flew on a military aircraft.
In 1997, when I was graduating from Harvard University and eager to start a career in journalism, I sought advice from Bill Kovach, then the Nieman Foundation curator.
Start at the bottom, Bill told me. Get a job at a local paper, covering school board meetings. Maybe in a place like Keene, New Hampshire. Be diligent, then work your way up.
I’ll never forget how my heart sank.
I was a college student, full of dreams. I had spent the previous summer in Sarajevo, helping out with an English-language news service written by Bosnians. I wanted to report on the world. Refugees. Soldiers. Cities rebuilding after war. The real issues. The last place I wanted to be was Keene, New Hampshire.
Now, nearly 15 years later, I’ve moved on from the "real" issues. I don’t cover school boards, but I gladly attend meetings of the just-as-dull-sounding Public Utility Commission of Texas. How much will electric rates will go up? Where will transmission lines be erected? Who’s mad about it? Yep, that makes me a great party conversationalist.
Journalism holds many surprises. We all know that. It’s why we keep at it. But to me, the biggest surprise of all is how happy I am in a job that my younger self might have disdained. I’ve been lucky enough to have had a variety of experiences. I’ve worked at The Economist, then The New York Times, and now The Texas Tribune. It occurs to me that my career is going in reverse, from global to national to local. Yet to my mind, I’ve ended up in the most exciting place in the news business.
After graduating from Harvard, I ignored Bill’s advice and flew back to Sarajevo. "I’m a freelance writer with nothing to write," I thought to myself as I watched other journalists gather stories. One day The Chronicle of Higher Education, to which I had mailed my one legitimate clip before I left, called to inquire if I would go to Kosovo, a site of worsening tension between ethnic Serbs and Albanians. I did and ended up covering various issues in Eastern Europe for them. It was great.
Soon after, I spent several years at The Economist. One beat I held was covering insurance and fund management. I put on suits and met global finance executives in London. But fundamentally, I’m an American, and I wanted to move home, especially in the wake of 9/11. I felt I was learning about the world but knew nothing of my country.
Eventually I ended up at The New York Times. I’d written plenty of letters over the years to various people at the Times and never gotten a response, until one day in 2008, things worked out, and I was in. "Your name sounds familiar," the human resources person told me as she escorted me around the building. Well, yes, I wanted to reply—remember all those voice mails I left on your machine?
The Times was a dream job. I grew up reading it at the breakfast table. And I was covering a hot topic: clean energy. But a year and a half later I got laid off. It hurt.
I had known how shaky the newspaper industry was, however. So I had a Plan B. It was to drive back to Austin (where I’d spent a few years previously with The Economist) and beg my way into a job at The Texas Tribune. I had read about the launch of the Tribune several months earlier. It sounded great. A new nonprofit website in Texas covering important policy issues. As it turned out, they needed an energy writer.
At The Texas Tribune, I feel like I’m at the forefront of a great media experiment. We don’t have the strictures of a big news organization. My colleagues do data reporting and mapping that blows me away. We cover the hell out of the Texas Legislature. We’re holding our first Texas Tribune festival in September, featuring policy debates among state bigwigs, and we’re sharing a Knight Foundation grant with The Bay Citizen of San Francisco to develop an open-source news platform for publishing news.
Our specialty is serious journalism—not the frilly stuff. (Although, admittedly, it doesn’t hurt that Texas is inherently lively, what with Transportation Security Administration anti-groping legislation, prayers for rain, vocal birthers—those who doubt President Obama’s American birth—and so forth.) It’s heartening to see other news organizations similar to the Tribune emerging around the country and providing a new path for journalism. Local news is where a lot of innovation is happening.
For me, there are also personal benefits to reporting at a more local level. I’ve enjoyed getting to know a community. I run into my sources at Tex-Mex restaurants, on the running trails, and even in the cowboy-boot shop. It’s actually nice.
Another major perk is that I am not oversolicited. When I worked at the Times, I was terrified of answering my office telephone. Public relations people called nonstop to tell me about the solar panel that was going to save the world or the new must-have green toothpaste. So I’d Google the area code before I took a call. Oh, 701? Yes, I’m expecting you, North Dakota. 312 again? Go away, Chicago.
At the Tribune, my phone rings far less often, thank heavens. For the most part I deal only with public relations people from Texas, not the entire country. And the Texans sometimes call me with genuinely useful tips, perhaps because they know me better.
But the most important thing, of course, is the reporting itself. And I’ve come to realize that local news is the frontline of all news. National or international papers often take their cue from local reporting and put it into a broader context. Oh, Texas passed hydraulic fracturing disclosure legislation? Well, California is thinking of doing the same thing, and Wyoming and Arkansas recently crafted rules on this, too. It must be a trend!
The Internet makes such things easier. It takes five seconds to plug your trend of choice into Google News and see what emerges. Solar panels are getting stolen in Newport Beach, California? Funny, that’s happening in Napa, too. And Palm Desert. All it takes is the smallest paper reporting on a topic, and the word will get out to the world.
So I say, bring on the school board meetings. And the Public Utility Commission. Maybe electric rates are going up all over the country, but someone else can figure that out. I’ll focus on Texas.