Joyce Terhaar

From the Executive Editor: Reporters’ jobs are rewarding and challenging but also tedious and sometimes dreadful

Joyce Terhaar
Joyce Terhaar

Dining at the finest restaurants on company expense. Hanging out at spring training in Arizona. Taking a hike high above Big Sur. Sounds like the best of vacations, but it’s what some Bee journalists do to earn a living.

Pretty cushy sounding, right? Every time I read about Sam McManis’ latest adventure I think: I want that job. He explores the state looking for fun things to do so he can write about it for our California Traveler coverage and his Discoveries column.

It’s not all five-star hotels and spa pampering, though. McManis’ regular readers see where the glamour stops and the hard work begins because he freely shares his misadventures as well as the fun. His editors started including a “Will there be blood?” rating on his adventures because, with McManis, sometimes there is.

Reporters tend to be in the community spotlight more than others in our newsroom, and they have the jobs viewed from afar as the most fascinating. I asked a few to give me an insider’s look at what part of the job lives up to that standard and when the daily grind becomes, well, a grind.

David Siders covers Gov. Jerry Brown and politics. He spent the last two weekends at the Democratic and Republican conventions where he did a bit of everything: tweeted, broke news at Capitol Alert, took iPhone photos and videos for online and worked throughout the weekends on more in-depth stories, such as the piece looking at how the GOP candidates highlight the divisions within California’s Republican Party.

Why he loves it: “I like that I get paid to learn new things all the time and to be part of a team focused on a righteous cause: Find out what powerful people are doing and hold them to account.

“Covering Jerry Brown – or (GOP challengers) Tim Donnelly or Neel Kashkari – has a lot to do with how they and their politics connect, or fail to connect, with other people.”

Some might be turned off by this job because it can be an intense grind. “There’s too much varnish and too many staged events,” Siders says. “But moments of genuine engagement make up for it.”

Dining critic Blair Anthony Robertson couldn’t have a more different job, and while it comes with challenges, he said he realizes he can’t complain about it “lest someone overhear me and, for good reason, thump me squarely on the forehead.”

But the image of someone who heads out to eat at the finest restaurants, relaxing with friends and drinking good wine, doesn’t have much to do with this job. He is recording what he hears, tastes and feels, measuring food and service against the competition.

His reviews are direct and he’s learned that reader response will be equally candid because “food is subjective and personal, and people respond with great passion.”

So what does he do when he’s not reviewing restaurants? For starters, he doesn’t eat, so he can balance out the calorie load from eating out. He said he views his job as a privilege as he plays “a role in shaping the dialogue about the region’s restaurant scene.”

Investigative reporter might be the job title perceived as the most glamorous of all in a newsroom. As such, you’d think Marjie Lundstrom’s job would fit right into the plot of a binge-worthy Netflix series. Her reporting has exposed public and private people who abuse their power, and she’s often focused on protecting vulnerable children and the elderly. Her work has taken her into homes throughout the region and sometimes into dangerous situations. For one difficult story she read autopsy reports for 50 children, work she described as “dreadful.”

Yet the biggest challenge to her job might surprise you: “Tedium,” she says, including hours spent tracking down and copying documents or building spreadsheets or listening to audio recordings of public meetings.

Matt Barrows, our San Francisco 49ers beat reporter, could have used that same word when he wrote about his job, which includes traveling to games and interviewing NFL stars.

“The other day I pulled off what I call a ‘round tripper,’ ” Matt explained. “It’s when you get out of bed, go immediately to your computer and stay there until it’s time to go to bed again.”

Matt was referring to the NFL’s free-agency period, during which he is on the phone constantly, competing for news across time zones.

So why does he like this job? “Because those hundreds of phone calls produce one – maybe two – scoops, and those scoops feel fantastic.”

As a sports columnist Ailene Voisin knows, sports writers never have had a “conventional” lifestyle because of night, weekend and holiday events. Glamorous? Not when “too many hours are spent stuck in airports, trying to safely escape arenas, ballparks and stadiums in the wee hours.”

Voisin has a career filled with reportorial relationships with people many of us consider sports celebrities. Miami Heat President Pat Riley “told me back when I was a youngster, ‘the best journalists write what they see, not what they hear,’ and I have never forgotten that,” she says.

Writing opinion in an age of sometimes vile response on social media requires “protective shields,” she says, but with that approach “the job is rewarding and challenging.”

Sam McManis echoes his colleagues that traveling around California is indeed real work, during which he is “constantly on the clock, not lounging and sipping cocktails.”

“I have to shape a cohesive narrative out of sometimes disparate experiences – plus, how many different landscape adjectives can you use? – and interrupt other people’s true vacations by asking about their stories.

“Still, I must admit, people are right: It is a great job.”