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Exit Interviews: Sara Simon

I suspect the source of so much problematic behavior in this industry is a predatory response to … steadfast young dreams.”


(Jessie Zeng photo)

About this series: Exit interviews are a way for organizations to seek honest critique. This occasional series offers feedback for journalism as an industry, through observations from news nerds who have recently left the field and still love it. People with space to share truths that can prompt difficult, necessary conversations to help us create healthier newsrooms. For more insight on why people—particularly journalists of color—exit journalism, we can’t recommend Carla Murphy’s “Leavers” Survey highly enough.

Sara Simon began her journalism career as a web developer at Vermont Public Radio. She later worked as a software engineer at The New York Times, then moved fully into a reporting role as an investigative data reporter with Spotlight PA. In September 2020, Sara joined The COVID Tracking Project, where she’s been focused on data quality efforts, and she’s currently preparing to head to graduate school to study the history of U.S. government technology.

What drew you into journalism in the first place?

Back in 2014, I was attending a code school, and my peers were almost all trying to transition into tech-industry engineering jobs. I was open to that path and started applying to those kinds of positions, but I found myself struggling in interviews. I didn’t know how to articulate why I was applying to random software companies, and I didn’t care enough about code itself to be a convincing candidate. I cared more about what code could do.

Because of support from my family, I didn’t need to prioritize a tech industry salary, so I redirected my search toward more mission-driven work. That’s how I landed in journalism: I didn’t need to factor in money, so I looked for a job that aligned with my interests. The privilege in having that kind of support is awkward and difficult to talk about, but it’s a conversation the industry should be having.

When I saw a job posting for a web developer role in public media, it felt like the stars had aligned. It was a technical job where my work could make space for all sides of me—my art-school background, my English degree, my desire to share my technical process with the public. I think that’s what hooked me. I felt that my individual perspective had the potential to bring something wholly unique to the work.

Can you tell us about your best day on the job?

There was the day I drove out to a small, rural courthouse to interview a judge. When we sat down to begin the conversation, he offered me a copy of a hefty report about the very subject of our interview, and I told him I’d already read it. I will never forget the shock on his face, and I think part of me, too, will always wonder why he didn’t expect me to arrive prepared.

I’ll also never forget how it felt to push back against a spokesperson who sent a complicated scientific paper in defense of a weak argument. That I was able to point to its flaws felt, at least in that moment, worth the weekend I’d just spent reading a mountain of scientific literature.

I don’t say this lightly, because craving the feeling of demonstrating I’d done the reading is precisely what led to my burnout, but I’ve seen far too many people in this industry encourage the pretense that a journalist’s job is simply to find “the experts” and report out “the facts.” Instead, I did my best work when I knew the source material well enough to fully engage with it and well enough to grapple with difficult questions about how best to approach what I learned.

One hope I have for the industry—especially for local news—is that newsroom management might provide reporters with the time it takes to build this kind of expertise.

Where were the hard parts for you in this work? What did your organizations have the hardest time getting right?

My brain’s been deep in COVID–19 data for much of the past year, so that’s the example I’ll give. The conversation in newsrooms from the start should have been focused on how best to communicate what these numbers can mean, what they cannot, and when and why they might change. Instead, it felt like newsrooms across the country just immediately spun up their own dashboards and data visualizations. I will never understand why.

Projects like these require immense planning and foresight. To do them responsibly, they need people equipped to regularly vet the data and to keep up with the pace of ever-fluctuating data definitions.

Bare minimum questions that need to be asked: Over the course of the weeks and months that we expect to run this dashboard, how can we convey urgency each day? How can we humanize these statistics? Do we fully understand how these numbers are being compiled, and if we do not, are we comfortable flying with the consequences of us potentially missing crucial context?

More practically, too: Are we willing to staff this project appropriately on evenings, weekends, and holidays? What is our plan for deciding when to shut it down, and what message might that inevitably send?

I think news organizations have a tremendously hard time asking these questions and too often find themselves leaping immediately to the work—consequences be damned.

How did you decide it was time to leave the newsroom? What did that process look like for you?

A moment of clarity came when I realized I would much rather spend Election Day serving as a poll worker than as a journalist. I am grateful to all journalists who cover elections with rigor and context, but working the Pennsylvania polls and helping swing-state voters to participate in a free and fair election was the right decision for me.

I never grew up wanting to work in news, so in a strange way, it wasn’t too difficult to leave. It would have been a much harder decision had that not been the case, and I suspect the source of so much problematic behavior in this industry is a predatory response to those steadfast young dreams. When this is all you’ve ever wanted and worked for, what’s the big deal if it’s got a few flaws?

Leaving became very easy for me when I was able to identify a different opportunity that would allow me to use many of the skills I’ve worked hard to develop—writing, research, data literacy, data strategy, relationship building, narrative building, cold-calling, sleuthing, big-picture thinking, thinking on my feet—just in a slightly different setting.

Journalism skills are so obviously transferable, and it’s a shame that this industry has managed to convince generations of bright people otherwise.

Can you envision yourself returning to journalism full-time?

Absolutely—but not immediately, and only in the right context. I will not go back to a newsroom that doesn’t regularly reflect on past work and that doesn’t proactively address mental health. And I don’t think I’d go back to a newsroom where new projects are easily and regularly spun up without pragmatic discussions about what, in turn, needs to wind down.

I don’t know quite what newsrooms will look like in five years, 10 or 20, but that doesn’t scare me because I’ve never seen a set path for myself. That’s the double-edged sword of these newsroom technology careers—there’s already no established path. Should the right possibility pop up, I can see myself eager to find a way back.

If you could snap your fingers and raise one conversation in every newsroom, what would we be talking about tomorrow?

The word that comes to mind is reflection.

The bread and butter of journalism sits in explaining the present, and we’re building better awareness about planning for the future, trying to understand where we’re headed.

But for the industry to actually serve its purpose, we need to take deliberate steps to build reflection into our process. We need to be engaged in sharper, more honest, more rigorous conversations about the historical effects of our work, and we need to be engaged in them constantly.

Practically speaking, the industry needs to reimagine what it means to be qualified to do this work. If a reporter cannot engage in thoughtful conversations about race, they are simply not qualified to serve as a reporter covering politics (or housing, or education, or climate change… the list goes on and on). If a transportation reporter does not approach America’s infrastructure with a deliberate focus on history, they shouldn’t be on the beat. If an editor feels uncomfortable digging into data and science, they are unqualified to work on stories about the spread of a novel coronavirus.

These ideas challenge how the industry has long viewed who “gets” to be a journalist. But they are necessary steps to take in building public trust.

Credits

  • Sara Simon

    Sara Simon began her journalism career as a web developer at Vermont Public Radio. She later worked as a software engineer at The New York Times, then moved fully into a reporting role as an investigative data reporter with Spotlight PA. In September 2020, Sara joined The COVID Tracking Project, where she’s been focused on data quality efforts, and she’s currently preparing to head to graduate school to study the history of U.S. government technology.

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