deborah petersen.social media editor.writer.guide

Unraveling Social Media One Tool at a Time

Goodbye to my fellow journalists


When I was a young newspaper reporter I was once assigned to a story about a teenage boy who had committed suicide.  Or, at least most people thought he had taken his life. It was not the most important story of my career as a newspaper journalist, but it is worth revisiting today, my final day at the San Jose Mercury News and the Bay Area News Group.

We’ll get to that later.

I joined newspapers in the pre-Google era. Today I end my newspaper career as the first Senior Editor of Mobile and Social Media at the Bay Area News Group. I helped launch the news organization’s debut iPad app, and served as its editor.  I have spent the last two years overseeing social media strategy and teaching social media classes to my fellow journalists. I am proud of the digital newsroom we have created.

I started my career at the Hartford Courant in Connecticut in town news, a trial-by-fire training ground. If you got the story wrong, you heard about it first thing in the morning when you made your rounds to city hall, the police station, the town clerk.  Most of us were not homeowners or parents at the time, and so we spent plenty of evenings over beers laughing at how much importance the townspeople we covered placed on mundane things such as trash pickup.

Still, we were smart enough to realize that these town meeting debates over issues such as Christmas trees in schools, and golf courses being turned into malls were about so much more. They touched the core of basic American rights: freedom of speech, property rights, and freedom of religion.

The wisest journalists weaved this context into their stories, and they still do. Many of the talented journalists which I have had the honor to work with have moved on, but many of them remain, creating work that still stuns me with its depth and elegance.

Later this month, I will begin a terrific job at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, but as one of the few female managers at the San Jose Mercury News , I feel a bit guilty leaving behind a newspaper whose leadership is much less diverse than when I arrived here in 2006.  We lack diversity in gender, race, experience and youth.   Therefore, I cannot depart without urging those of you who have any inkling that you want to become a manager to stand up and ask for a seat at the table.

I would not have gone from an assistant city editor at the San Jose Mercury News to eventually become Features Editor had I not raised my hand for a part-time position in the department. When the landscape changed and they needed a full time editor, they came to me.  And some of my best work at the Hartford Courant: “Ballouville: Poverty with a View” came after I told my editor that I wanted a writing job the newspaper had been planning to eliminate.

Now back to that boy who shot himself. He lived in a small city in Connecticut which once had thriving factories. The factories closed, and anyone who had the means left too.  The fact that a teenage boy had committed suicide probably was not high on the radar screen at the time. There was one problem with this scenario. The boy had been killed with a shotgun, in the chest. His arms were not long enough to commit such an act. Soon, his killer would be tried in court.

One morning, I found myself standing outside the home of his mother. Most reporters have been here, standing in the face of a difficult interview, fighting the urge to flee.  I had been doing this long enough to have been turned away many times before.

I steeled myself, notebook in hand, and knocked on the door.  A middle-aged woman answered the door, and invited me to join her for muffins at her kitchen table.

The woman opened the door because she had a story, and a journalist asked her to tell it. In the end, that is what journalists do.  They tell stories.

Whether you are a writer, editor, photographer, graphic artist or a social media editor, it is your job to tell stories, especially those that have not been told before.  I know you will keep doing that, and I am proud to have done it for so many years.

7 comments on “Goodbye to my fellow journalists

  1. Kim Lucey
    September 5, 2013

    Thank you. I was at one of those doors myself yesterday, and behind it was a woman with a story to be told. Yet, it never gets any easier to knock on that door.

    What an inspiring read this morning. Best of luck in your new endeavors!

  2. MaryEllen Fillo
    September 5, 2013

    Deb Petersen….A fellow journalist who always did it all the right way. Good luck with the new career. MaryEllen Fillo

  3. Lee Foster
    September 5, 2013

    Deb, take it from me, you can take the girl out of journalism, but it’s much harder to get journalism out of the girl! it will be many a year, if ever, before you can look at a news story without thinking about how you would have done it differently — and of course so much better! I can’t imagine any other career that gets so completely under your skin as to become part of your DNA. Wishing you much luck at Stanford!

  4. Amy Nixon
    September 5, 2013

    Best, Deb. Lovely piece. You’re always a reporter at heart – can’t get away from us that easy! Amy Nixon

  5. Cathie
    September 6, 2013

    I wish you the very best Deb…
    “It always is harder to be left behind than to be the one to go…”
    ― Brock Thoene, Shiloh Autumn …Cathie Gatison, Oakland Tribune

  6. Bernie Davidow
    September 7, 2013

    Terrific note, Deb. Thanks for yet another good read. Congratulations on the new job, and best of luck going forward.

  7. Pingback: Goodbye to my fellow journalists | Views-Essays-Debates

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This entry was posted on September 4, 2013 by in Uncategorized and tagged .
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