Hot Off the Press: Katelyn Polantz, National Politics and Supreme Court reporter/producer (PBS NewHour)
I’ve never been willing to call myself a writer. The process of putting words on paper feels unnerving and uncomfortable to me, like running a highlighter across my intellectual weaknesses. In high school and college, I became a master procrastinator on term papers. In my career, I’ve focused on gathering strong reporting and research so the writing becomes the least painful step of the process — a final assemblage of the work in progress rather than the overarching burst of insight. My time at a newspaper, The Roanoke (Va.) Times, and at the PBS NewsHour has helped me grow as I write, especially as I read others’ exceptional works, such as from my colleagues, and from pros at the New Yorker, Washington Post and the New York Times. Still, it’s that deadline pressure, the ticking clock that forces me to share my discoveries with an audience, that makes me press on.
I wrote in my previous answers here about the perks that come with this job — witnessing history, yada yada. It’s not just that. The true joy in journalism doesn’t come until you’ve created something that shares those moments with others. I may never get used to the anxiety I feel before writing a first sentence. But I hope I’ll always get satisfaction from telling a great story in full.
– Katelyn Polantz
1. What has been the highlight of your career?
Every day is a new highlight. In my four years as a journalism professional, I’ve milked a cow, met a Supreme Court justice and tried dozens of things I would never have had the ability to do otherwise. I can only hope the true highlights of my time in journalism lie in the future.
2. You have experience working in print media. What has your experience working in broadcast media been like? Any similarities? differences?
Journalism and the values you need to create it well are the same in both mediums. You have to have strong ethics, a good sense of story and unabashed curiosity.
Making television is a much more collaborative process than working a newspaper beat. In some cases, producing 10 minutes of television can require skills and input from a half dozen people or more. In newspapers, you often find a story, clear it with your editor and execute. Before pursuing a career in either medium, it’s good to know whether you work better independently or on a team, and that you’re willing to work in an industry where you may have to do both.
3. Many people get their first working experience in their future careers in college. What advice would you give college students interested in being a reporter or editor?
Don’t allow yourself to have something to fall back on. A theater teacher I had in high school told me this when I considered pursuing a career on the stage. Would it be OK for me to double major in theater and, say, education, in case the tough route as an actor didn’t work out? No, he said. If you position yourself to have a backup plan for when your prospects look grim, you’ll fall back on it. I’ve found the same is true in journalism. You have to make a “trust fall” into the career. Eyes closed, arms crossed, and at peace that you’ll land somehow unscathed. This profession is a tough career to get into and a strenuous one to keep, with long, erratic hours, low pay and regular peltings from your readers. But if you’re committed to your goals, you can find a way to succeed. Journalism is not a job. It’s a vocation. You may have to eat cereal for dinner and give up Christmases with your family. You may forget why you wanted to do it in the first place. But if you forge on and keep the three P’s (politeness, patience, persistence), you’ll eventually get where you want to be going.
4. What is the future of the journalism industry?
Bright! Journalism will survive, and I hope the worst days for the newspaper industry are over. The ways that people consume and expect news will change, and the chasms between types of media will grow smaller. At the same time, media consumers will have richer, more thoughtful experiences with journalism.One example of this is social media’s ability to engage and act as a “self-cleaning oven.” When a tweet containing breaking news goes viral, it’s likely concise, catchy and may contain a photo or link. The content producer — often a newsperson — behind it must have had those communication methods in mind. And if it’s not from a newsperson and the tweet contains misinformation, the journalists and hive mind of the Internet will find and correct it quickly. Ben Smith, editor in chief of Buzzfeed, discusses this theory often when referring to the social web and to his site. There, reporters deliver information and news packaged in a catchy, visual way, and when they have a misspelling or inaccuracy, their readers let them know, and an update follows quickly.
You pay think this example seems petty or degrading toward quality. It’s not. Social media has the good judgment of the crowd on its side — and that crowd is exceptionally likely to embrace important, thorough and fascinating reportorial work.
5. What is your favorite thing about being a member of the news media?
I love that news is a lifestyle. This past summer, I worked on PBS NewsHour’s political team covering both the Republican and Democratic national conventions. I’ve never worked harder or slept less. And in doing both, I felt great. I had produced a number of stories for our website on convention participants and leaders, worn a live-streaming camera-helmet for marathon spot-reporting and witnessed the spectacle of political history. I relish the opportunities I’ve had in journalism — especially the stories I’ve been able to obsess over, the sources with whom I’ve shared important moments, and the issues I’ve watched until they reach a resolution. Every day is a challenge and an adrenaline rush, and that’s wonderful.