Having started her career as an intern at the newspaper she now heads, Trib Total Media Executive Editor Susan McFarland has worked to ensure young people still have pathways into journalism careers.
McFarland has overseen the newspaper during a period of great transition and success (the Keystone Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists recognized the Trib as “Best Overall Newspaper” three years in a row during her tenure). She plans to retire on Sept. 15 but took time to share some insights from her 42 years in the business.
AC: While technology has evolved over your career, how do you think that has changed journalism — and for better or worse?
SM: There is no simple answer. I think many of us have a love-hate relationship with the tech world. The rapid-fire changes in technology in our industry have helped us in terms of being able to connect more easily to information, our sources and our audience. It has given us deep insight into who comes to us for news and information, what keeps them coming back and what repels them. It has made us more demanding of ourselves and our staff, and it has made us more nimble in responding to breaking news, developing trends and shifts in audience wants and needs.
But although technology continues to give us tools that make us better and faster, it also has caused us to lose sight of some of the basic functions that lead to meaningful, impactful journalism.
There’s no substitute for doing in-person interviews versus email chats or Zoom sessions.
And, there is a feeling of being disconnected that a lot of us have experienced during this pandemic when impromptu in-person chats or brainstorming sessions with our colleagues were lost. In my career, some of the best ideas have resulted from those informal moments.
Of course, those of us in the mainstream media look at technology giving rise to those less-than-credible news outlets that have hurt the reputations of journalists who work so diligently to maintain high standards of integrity, honesty and fairness.
AC: How did you get your start in journalism, and do these types of pathways still exist for young journalists?
SM: Yes, those pathways definitely exist. So much has changed in this business, but the value of getting that hands-on experience never has diminished. In my case, I always had a fascination with the news business, but when I started working at the Pitt News while in college, I was bitten by the journalism bug and knew it was what I wanted to do. Throughout college, I looked for every opportunity to work in the business through internships and part-time jobs. Some of my internships weren’t directly related to journalism, but the experience I gained served me well. I was in the Congressional Internship Program and although I had no interest in working in the political world, that Washington experience gave me valuable insight into that world. I interned at KDKA-TV and although my interest was with print journalism, I learned so much from that experience.
My first job was as a reporter at the Trib. I thought I was just passing through, but 40 years later, I am still there and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I have had incredible opportunities, particularly in my last five years when it has been my privilege to serve as executive editor through some of the Trib’s most challenging, but transformative and successful times.
AC: What story or stories stand out in your memory over your career and why?
SM: Obviously, I have been involved in coverage of some of the most significant stories of our time. But the stories that really stand out are the ones that righted wrongs or acted as catalysts for change. Most recently, we did a project called The Tragedy at Brighton about one of the nation’s most deadly outbreaks of Covid-19 at a Beaver County nursing home. It was enormously difficult to break through the layer of secrecy and fear surrounding the story, but we did it and uncovered a series of missteps in the days, months and years leading up to the time when 73 people died and more than 300 were sickened at Brighton. Just after our stories published, we received a call from state officials stating that an investigation was being launched. Not long after, FBI agents arrived to seize documents at the site.
That’s the type of story that stands out in my mind and makes me proud to be doing what we do every day.
AC: What career advice would you give to a mid-career journalist about how to grow in this business?
SM: Get out there and find opportunities to do the work that you love and find good mentors who will give you a blueprint for success and help to clear the path for you. Align yourself with good people who know the business and are willing to help you succeed. Also, be willing to pay your dues for a few years. You need to learn your business from the bottom up.
AC: What are your plans for retirement and staying engaged with local journalism?
SM: My husband will be retiring at about the same time so we will be taking advantage of some newfound freedom to continue our travels and spend time with friends and family. Professionally, I will be back at the Trib in a part-time, advisory position doing the work that I love most, coaching writers and editors and developing some special projects.
AC: Where do you think local journalism is heading?
SM: Local journalism is our future. It’s what readers want from us, and at the Trib, our leadership at all levels is savvy enough to realize that. Our readers want to know what’s happening in their neighborhoods and in their schools. They want us to deliver the news they can’t get anywhere else about the most important issues in their lives. In our market, we know that our ability to provide a robust, comprehensive diet of local news is what will propel us to a successful future.
AC: What is something unexpected you learned from running a metropolitan news operation?
SM: I grew up in Western Pennsylvania and understand the diversity of the audience we serve, not only in terms of age, socioeconomic factors, ethnicity and cultural backgrounds, but also in terms of the demands placed on the media organizations serving the community. I was not surprised by this, but I do often feel challenged in attempting to serve all of these varied needs, many of which are constantly shifting. It is a balancing act, but it’s what makes the job so enriching.
Comings & Goings
While their two local news stations compete for ratings, WPXI-TV‘s Amy Hudak and WTAE-TV‘s Jim Madalinsky recently married. They actually fell in love while working at the same station in Rochester, N.Y., the Trib’s Rob Owen reports.
WPXI-TV‘s Aaron Martin recently announced on Twitter that he’s leaving the station and perhaps local television news. Patch’s Eric Heyl reports that Martin is moving to Miami to be close to his wife’s family.
Pittsburgh City Paper‘s Abbie Adams stepped down in June as art director, but not before leaving her mark, literally, on an office wall by spending her last day to create a city scene mural, which she posted to Instagram.
Several longtime, veteran Post-Gazette reporters opted to take the newspaper’s latest buyout offer, including business writer Joyce Gannon and environmental reporter Don Hopey.
The founding director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, Andrew Conte writes the On Media column at NEXTpittsburgh with support from The Heinz Endowments. You can find all of his columns here, and you can email him.