Editor’s Note: For our “Perspectives” series, which talks with New Orleans-based journalists, pod-casters, documentarians, and photojournalists about their place and role in the journalistic world, Barri Bronston was interviewed by Ishanya Narang about Barri’s work in journalism, and why she changed career paths.
Who: Barri Bronston
What: Assistant Director of Public Relations at Tulane University
What you should know: “You take the good with the not-so-good.”
Q: When you did work in journalism, what themes tended to draw you into a story and what do you make of these topics’ relations to your experiences?
A: I had a number of different jobs when I worked at the Times Picayune, but my favorite job was being a parenting writer. I did a lot of feature stories and human interest stories. I did any topic dealing with teenagers and children — everything from bullying to teenagers coming out as gay.
I tackled some really tough subjects, but one of the best parts of the job was actually that I didn’t just talk to experts. I talked to people that were going through [the experiences], like families whose kids were being bullied, or talking to teens whose parents disowned them because they were gay. I got to meet so many interesting people through thousands of interviews.
What I like about feature writing is there is a little more creativity. When I use the word ‘creativity,’ I’m not talking about making things up obviously, but there is a little bit more of yourself that goes into these stories whereas when I cover news, so often the news stories are just straight news stories. They were really interesting as well, but not like human interest stories.
Q: So when say you do feature stories, do you think journalists can be too invasive sometimes when gathering information?
A: I think you can be too invasive. I think it’s a real fine line, and I think you have to have the right personality to be able to deal with some tough subjects.
I’ll give you a really good example. This was one of the first stories that I ever was involved in covering. In the summer of 1982, we had a big plane crash in Kenner. Everyone on board was killed. A flight crashed in a neighborhood. Long before cell phones were around, we would carry little pagers, beepers; and my job that day was to go to the airport and interview relatives of people who had died. Talk about the ultimate ‘invading someone’s life.’ I still considered myself fresh out of college. I was around 23 years old at the time, and I did pretty good, I have to say. I was respectful of people. I went up to people and introduced myself. I expressed my condolences. I said, ‘I have a few questions, I totally understand if you don’t want to talk to me. It’s totally fine.’ Most people that I spoke to, talked to me. I think it was because of how I approached them. I wasn’t pushy or super aggressive.
I’ve covered funerals before, and that’s another tough subject. There was this funeral that I covered where it was a high school football player who died. He was fatally injured making a tackle one night. It was one of those super super sad stories. This kid that had everything to live for, and so there was a lot of media coverage of that. Fortunately, the parents in this case were very welcoming. They recognized the fact that I was going to do right by their child, and I just observed everything, interviewed some of the friends of the boy, and the story turned out really well.
But those kinds of stories were really hard to do. Anytime you’re dealing with any sort of tragedy, it’s difficult. I don’t miss that. There’s a lot of things about my job that I miss; there are a lot of things that I don’t miss. Those kinds of stories, I don’t miss at all. But, you know, it’s part of being a reporter. You take the good with the not-so-good.
Q: I wanted to know how you define “alternative” in terms of journalism and how do you see your work fitting or not fitting in the alternative?
A: I’m sure you’ve read about all of the newspapers that have been letting people go and cutting back. Newspapers all over the country are doing that. There are so many of us former journalists out there. I think it is because of the move to digital.
I’m not sure I have a definition for ‘alternative,’ but what has happened is completely different from the journalism that I grew up in. I was a newspaper person. You didn’t have the Internet, so you didn’t have 24-hour news. Not just from the traditional news outlets, but there’s so many other other outlets now. It can be super confusing because you don’t know.
I tend to trust the big news outlets but so many other outlets have come out, and it’s hard to know who to trust sometimes in terms of who to believe and not to believe — what’s true and what’s not true.
One of the things when I was in the paper, we were starting to move to this. After Hurricane Katrina happened in 2005, it was a hard time for people in New Orleans. People got moved all over the place, in terms of the newspaper, in terms of jobs.
I was assigned to cover education, and I had to work in our bureau in Kenner. We would go cover stories, and if there was a big story breaking out with the school board at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, I had to write a post for the website, and tweet it out. But my boss said, ‘You have to write that now and then you can update it, you can change it. Just put in what you know now.’ I remember him saying,’Don’t worry if it’s not right. We can always correct it later.’
That was so against everything I had learned. I want to be sure of what I’m putting out there! But it was all about being the first.
That whole thing was a real turn off to me. I don’t wanna say they didn’t care, but they wanted to be first with everything, and this is really how things have changed. I never in my life had heard someone say, ‘Don’t worry if it’s wrong. We can always correct it later.’
At that point, I knew I was ready to move on to something different. When I think about how it is now compared to how it was then, it’s a whole new world. Twitter didn’t exist, Facebook didn’t exist, and that’s how it’s changed, I think.
Q: So going back a little bit, before you started journalism, how did you know you wanted to be a journalist?
A: A couple things. I loved to write. As far back as middle school, I wasn’t that great with numbers, but I was also a good writer. My Girl Scout troop took a tour at the Times Picayune. I remember going through the newsroom. This is in the days of typewriters, so no computers, and everyone was typing. All you heard was the clicking of the keys, and it was such an exciting atmosphere. That just seemed like so much fun and something that I could do. That combined with my love for writing just really convinced me that that would be something good to go into. I did end up majoring in journalism in college. [I] went to University of Missouri in Columbia. It’s very unusual to know what you wanna be when you’re in high school.
Q: You were in journalism for many decades, and you’ve now switched over to public relations at Tulane. How did you make the decision to switch?
A: Good question! That’s probably the easiest question you’re going to ask me. Times Picayune let me go.
Since 2012, they’ve gone through several rounds of layoffs. I was in the first round of layoffs. 200 people from throughout the newspaper — from reporters to photographers to editors to people in advertising — were let go.
Even a couple of years before that, I could see the writing on the wall. I thought there was a 50-50 chance that I could be one of them. Because I had been there for so long, I was on the higher end of the salary scale, so a lot of the older people had to go. They did let go some younger people too. I think some people sued them for age discrimination; I wasn’t one of them.
They gave us a nice severance package, so money wasn’t an issue, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought, ‘You know what?! I’ve been there for 31 years. Granted I had different jobs there, but I had still been there for 31 years.’ It was time for me to do something else.
I had always thought that public relations would be the next thing for me. A lot of former journalists do go into public relations. Tulane was a big part of my life growing up, so I just thought ‘It would be so much fun to work with Tulane!’ I saw there was an opening. Someone from PR was moving to a different department. I applied for this job and after a series of interviews, I ended up getting it.
My boss wanted to hire former journalists because he knows that they know what makes a story. Because we used to be on the other side, and now we’re on the PR side. So we have a good idea of what we can hopefully convince journalists to write about.
I think there were 217 people applying for this job, because there were a lot of people like me that had gotten laid off. It was the strangest thing applying for a job. I had to put a resume together, and I had been at the Times-Picayune for 31 years. My daughter was still in college back then, and she helped me put the resume together.
Honestly, I really thought I was going to retire from there [the Times-Picayune]. I liked it, I enjoyed my job. I figured I’d retire, and it didn’t quite work out that way. But it worked out well. Fortunately, the Tulane job came through. I’ve been here now since December of 2012. It’s really fun.
Q: What do you think is similar between working in journalism and now in PR?
A: This isn’t really the same, but I do like working with the media. Whether it is a television reporter or a newspaper reporter, most of them know that my background is in journalism, so I think there is a respect there.
In general, media typically don’t like PR people, and I get that; I totally do. I was in that boat. I had some obnoxious PR people that were constantly calling asking to do stories. I knew when I got into PR that I would not be an obnoxious PR person.
The journalists feel comfortable calling me whether they’re looking for an expert, or if I have a good story I can call and ask them if they can cover. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they just don’t have the staff to do it. If they don’t want to do the story, you just have to try not to take it personally.
The way I develop a story is very similar. The whole process of working with photographers to get the right graphics and photographs to go with the story. I liked that when I worked at the paper.
Q: Did you observe any differences in your perceptions about journalism before, during and after you were working with Times Picayune?
A: Well, one of the differences I have noticed after is that they are often requiring reporters to do everything, not just the reporting. So they’re coming in with their big cameras. You never used to see that.
Before I left, the changes were coming. For instance, I’d go out to cover a story, and I would bring my laptop but you would have to find a place to plug in and write the story. Or you would text it to the office and let them know what’s going on and they would convert it into a story.
Before the Internet, you covered your story, wrote your story, and it was in the paper the next day. There was no getting on the Internet. To get the newspaper the next morning and to see your name, whether it was the front page or even if it was inside, it was always a thrill. My parents loved it. Everyday they would look for my byline. Once the Internet came along, it just wasn’t all that exciting anymore. There was something about that old, traditional way of putting together a newspaper that was really exciting at the time.
For the longest time, I would cut my stories out and save them until it got to the point where it was too much. I can find almost everything online now. I don’t know, that was a thrill for a long time.
Q: How do you think your experiences have been shaped by your gender as a woman?
A: One thing about working at the Times Picayune for the longest time is that you weren’t seeing any women being promoted to higher positions. There were no unions or protests or anything like that, but we formed a big group of women at the Times Picayune to make sure that they knew how we felt about the fact that women were not being promoted.
It was all just white men. So people of color weren’t being promoted either. Eventually, that changed. More women started being promoted.
As a female journalist, I was much more conscious of some of the inequities between between men and women. As result, when I looked for sources for interviews, I made a conscious effort to seek out women as well as minorities, particularly in fields like science, medicine, engineering, etc. I think back then it was the tendency of journalists to seek out male experts when there were equally qualified female experts.
Also, if a woman didn’t push for advancement, chances were you wouldn’t get it. As I mentioned, back in the 80s and 90s, there was very little advancement for women and minorities.
Q: In that context then, would you say that the coming of news on the Internet has been good for journalists or not?
A: Now that I use Twitter and Facebook, I just think people have to be careful of what sort of news outlets they’re using because there’s so much out there that’s made up. People need to be really careful about what outlets they’re putting their trust in. I enjoy being on Twitter because that’s where all stories break now. They don’t wait for the 5 o’clock news to come on. I’m on Twitter a lot. But again, if it’s the New York Times or the Washington Post, I do tend to trust them more. But there’s a bunch of blogs out there and websites that you just have to be careful with.
This interview was completed for the class Alternative Journalism, which is taught by Kelley Crawford at Tulane University. The interview has been edited and configured for publication.