Foon Rhee is a deputy editor at CalMatters, a nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism venture based in Sacramento, California. He started his career at The Charlotte Observer, where he spent 16 years as a reporter, before becoming a local news and state Capitol editor at The News & Observer in Raleigh. Rhee went on to become city editor and deputy national political editor at The Boston Globe and an associate editor at The Sacramento Bee. This interview was conducted by email.
Q. What is CalMatters, and what is its place in the news landscape in California?
A. CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers and explains California politics and policy. It was started in 2015, largely in response to a significant reduction in the number of journalists covering the state Capitol as daily newspapers retrenched.
Its mission hasn’t changed, but its place in the California news landscape has expanded as it’s grown and local and state coverage has declined and changed. Besides adding more reporters, editors, engagement and other staff, CalMatters has also increased partnerships with public radio stations, newspapers and other media and established a College Journalism Network. CalMatters stories are distributed to partners free of charge and republished often.
Except for the biggest breaking stories, we do not try to compete with daily newspapers or news sites such as Politico. We take a broader look at what’s going on in the Legislature, in state agencies and with the governor, both in policy and politics.
We try to give a sense of what impact all of that is having across California. And we try to find unreported or underreported stories. It’s a huge task, obviously, in a state of 40 million people that is far more diverse politically than it can look like from the outside.
Q. Describe your role there. What is your typical day like?
A. I’ve been here a little more than a month. I’m one of seven editors, including three deputy editors.
I work with a team of four: two political/policy reporters, a housing reporter and a general assignment reporter we’re about to hire. They cover busy beats. There’s no shortage of news, especially with a campaign to recall the governor about to start, and with affordable housing such an important issue.
Like most journalists, I’m working from home for the most part. I get my first cup of coffee and browse through a half dozen newsletters that wrap up what other media outlets are writing about.
We use Slack to communicate, though I often call reporters for that human connection. I usually have at least one virtual meeting a day and often more to plan coverage and consult with other editors and staffers.
I edit three to five pieces a week, of various lengths and complexity. Sometimes, I pitch in to edit newsletters, and we often update issue explainers and policy tracking pieces.
Q. How does copy editing and headline writing work at CalMatters?
A. We don’t have a copy desk. I’m the first editor on any story from the reporters I work with, and then a senior editor back-reads it. For more sensitive and complicated stories, it’s possible that other editors will also read them.
Reporters often suggest headlines. I tweak them, and so does the senior editor.
Q. How is editing for CalMatters different from other news organizations that you have worked for?
A. Because the kinds of stories we do, a lot more of this job is on the front end before reporters file their stories.
I spend much more time talking to reporters about finding the most interesting stories and setting priorities. Then once we decide on a story, there’s a lot of conversation about how to focus the story, how to structure it, photos, graphics and multimedia.
In my previous editing posts, I was covering much more breaking news, so I spent more of my time word-editing and revising stories.
Q. What advice do you have for journalists, including student journalists, who are interested in working for a nonprofit news organization?
A. My advice to young journalists interested in nonprofit news organizations really isn’t any different than what I’ve told others during my career.
Read widely, not just to add to your knowledge of important issues, but also to bathe yourself in great reporting and writing.
Listen, watch and learn from your colleagues. Try to pick up good traits and habits from exemplary journalists, while adapting them to your own personality and strengths.
Be open to opportunities, even if it’s not the exact job you may want. One door leads to another and another.
Be nice to people, don’t lie and don’t burn any bridges. Journalism is a small world and your reputation gets around. You never know when a particular person can help you get where you want. Or not.