Mareva Brown spent 20 years as a newspaper reporter, with 14 of them at The Sacramento Bee. She wrote about many subjects, including schools, crime, troubled teenagers, foster children, domestic violence and other subjects. She won a number of awards for her work, including twice winning the Exceptional Merit Media Award (EMMA) from the National Women’s Political Caucus, the Child Welfare League of America’s Anna Quindlen Award and the Bill Farr Award from the California Newspaper Publisher’s Association / California First Amendment Coalition. She currently works for the California Senate and lives in Sacramento with her husband and three children.
AK: When did you decide to be a reporter and how did you get there?
MB: I took a high school journalism class and became hooked. I ended up being sports editor of my high school newspaper, then applied to journalism schools for college. During college, I also worked for a couple of different newspapers so I had experience by the time I graduated.
AK: What is a typical day like as a reporter? Is it an 8-5 job or are you on call all the time? What sort of deadlines do you have to deal with?
MB: One of the things I loved most about journalism was the fact that there is no “typical day.” Breaking news dictates what you do each day, from traveling to an earthquake or wildfire to covering a meeting about an important education policy decision to listening to courtroom testimony about a murder. Sometimes you can plan ahead; sometimes you can’t. Because reporters write articles to put on the newspaper’s website as well as the printed edition, deadlines run throughout the day – usually shorter versions of the same story are updated and posted on the web with a more in-depth story for the next day’s paper. Often daily deadlines are around 6 pm, but stories can be updated for the paper late into the night.
AK: How is “Breaking News” received at the newspaper and given to reporters to follow up on? How are stories assigned?
MB: Most stories are assigned by beats – in other words, reporters have areas like education or crime or city hall — that they are responsible for covering. Most breaking stories come in directly to the reporter because they are familiar with the beats already. So often, I would get a call at my desk or on my cell phone from a source, or an email saying that something was going on. The television is always on in a newsroom. Lots of times, people from the public will call the editors all day or night if they see something going on. If news tips come through editors, they typically are assigned to the beat reporter. Big breaking news stories – like an earthquake or some other huge disaster – often are assigned by seeing who is in the newsroom at the time. The idea is just to get people on site. As the situation unfolds, reporters with expertise will get pulled in to “do rewrite,” or write the main story, or to go to specific locations.
AK: How do you figure out who to interview at a “scene”? What are some tips for getting people to talk to you?
MB: On the scene of a breaking news event – for example a fire, or a car accident or an earthquake – there are a few key people that you want to interview. One is the person who is officially in charge of the scene – a police officer, fire captain or someone else. Sometimes officials have a spokesperson at the scene just to give information to reporters. Other important interviews would be with witnesses who can give you details about what happened. You also will want to talk to people affected by the event – for example the owner of a building that burned down — even if they didn’t witness the event.
AK: How do you make sure you’re safe when meeting in crime areas or with criminals?
MB: If I went to a breaking news story in an area that was unsafe, particularly after dark, I stayed near law enforcement officers when conducting interviews. Interviews in jail typically are pretty safe situations. But on the outside, I usually met strangers in a restaurant or coffee shop. I always let my editor know exactly where I would be and checked in before and after the interview, if I thought there was a safety risk. Whenever possible, I liked to work as a team with a newspaper photographer, which helps also with safety issues.
AK: How is being a writer versus an editor different at a newspaper?
MB: The main difference between a newspaper writer and an editor is that the writer is in the field reporting the news, gathering the quotes and verifying the facts. The editor helps guide direction of the coverage, suggests angles that the reporter might not be pursuing and double checks facts in the story. The editor also is in charge of making sure the story has answered all questions that can be answered, is on-time, and the correct length. Another set of editors takes the story from there, re-reads it, decides what page it will be on, lays it out in the paper, and writes headlines.
AK: Describe how you do long-term projects, such as the 12-month research project you did on foster children, along with breaking news stories? Is there a certain number of articles you are expected to write each week?
MB: Depending on other news demands, project reporters can either work full-time on the research or spend some time on projects and some time on breaking news. I usually blended projects and breaking news. There are no quotas – or a certain number of stories – that reporters must write in a week. Reporters are expected to be on top of whatever is breaking in their area. Some weeks, a reporter may write 10 stories and some weeks, they may write only one or two. Usually, if you are trying to juggle both tasks, the editors will bring someone else in to cover the daily stories when you are ready to write and edit the project.
AK: What skills are required to be an amazing newspaper reporter?
MB: Curiosity, clear writing, the ability to stay cool under pressure and being able to listen to your intuition.
AK: What was the most enjoyable part of being a reporter?
MB: Being a reporter is exciting: I got to fly in police helicopters chasing suspected bad guys, ride along with detectives on drug busts, track down former inmates on California’s death row who had gotten out of prison, hang out with firefighters on major wildfires, race to other major California disasters and dig through public records looking for clues to solve mysteries. It’s also rewarding: I got to shine a light on the lives of foster children, who weren’t being taken care of by the state, as they were supposed to be. I got to explain to women how to protect themselves from being victims, and to write about people who needed help in other ways.
AK: Tell me the most interesting story you worked on.
MB: It’s so hard to pick one. There were many, many stories that were fascinating for different reasons.
AK: Have your stories ever changed the system? In what way?
MB: A lot of times you don’t know the specific effect your stories have, but sometimes there is a clear result. For example, I wrote a story about a girl in middle school who was being threatened on her home answering machine by a classmate. The girl and her parents wanted to get a restraining order against the boy, but were prevented by a law that didn’t allow children to get restraining orders against each other. After the story a state Senator changed the law. Another time, a colleague and I wrote a series of stories about a teenager who died in a “camp” in Arizona that was a punishment for kids who broke the law. The stories showed that the counties in California hadn’t been making sure that kids they sent out of state to these types of camps were safe, and that the state wasn’t making sure the counties were doing their jobs. As a result, a law was passed restricting how children could be sent out of state to juvenile delinquency camps which stopped the kids from going out of state for a while, until the state could be more certain that children would be safe.
AK: Who has been a mentor in your life that helped you succeed?
MB: Mentors are so important for young reporters. The people who influenced me most were senior reporters. One reporter at a medium-sized paper told me early on that I had good instinct and should follow it. He also taught me that if people criticized me personally, instead of the content of the story, that the story was probably dead-on. Another mentor is a Pulitzer-prize winning reporter who was my first project editor. She encouraged me to look for the larger meaning in individual stories. Another mentor taught me that “why” is the most important question and usually the hardest to answer. I’m grateful to all of them.
AK: What advice would you give kids that would like to be a reporter?
MB: Let people talk, you may be surprised by what they say.