Suzanne Tobias is a reporter and columnist at The Wichita Eagle. Her primary beat is covering the Wichita public schools. In this interview, Tobias discusses her job and the newspaper’s recent move, and she offers advice to aspiring journalists.
Q. Describe your job at the Eagle. What is your typical day like?
A. I cover education for The Wichita Eagle and Kansas.com, with a primary focus on the Wichita school district, which is the largest and one of the most diverse in our region. School finance has been a huge story in Kansas for the past decade or more, as the Wichita district and others have sued the state over education funding.
I enjoy the variety of stories on the education beat. On any given day, I could write about teacher contract negotiations, concealed-carry guns on campus, discipline in schools, refugee students or a new strategy for teaching math. When the Kansas Legislature is in session, I collaborate with our Statehouse reporters to cover education policy news; during the slower summer months, when teachers and students are out of school, I try to work on big-picture investigative or data-driven stories.
My typical day starts about 7:30 a.m. or earlier – partly because I’m an early riser and need to get my own kids to school, and partly because it meshes well with school schedules and allows me to better reach sources. I generally post at least one story to our website before noon, updating it throughout the day if need be, while also juggling weekend stories and at least one longer-term project. I check in with my editor at least briefly each day, either in person or via email.
Every other Monday I cover the Wichita school board, which meets in the evening, so I start a little later those days. I try to head home by 5 or 5:30 p.m., but I usually take my laptop with me in case news breaks and I have to cover that from home.
Q. The Eagle recently moved. What is it like to leave a newsroom behind and move into a new one?
Moving to a new building this past spring was exciting, exhausting and a little emotional. The Eagle had been at its previous location since 1961.
As our primary focus evolved from print to digital, we moved our printing operation to a sister paper in Kansas City and downsized significantly. That meant the old place had lots of unused, unneeded space. We moved just a few blocks up the street, but the new office has way more modern amenities and energy. It’s brighter, with balconies off the newsroom that overlook Wichita’s Old Town Square. Television screens throughout the newsroom broadcast breaking news or website analytics.
The move was a great excuse for a lot of us to ditch old junk and start fresh. The old building is being demolished to make room for a new business. While I thought I’d be sad – we posted a huge “-30-” on the out-facing windows when we left – I think the new place means progress for our company and the community.
Q. You are active on Twitter. How do you use social media as part of your work?
A. I began using Twitter in 2008, before most of my editors and colleagues really knew about it or realized what a great tool it could be. I have a loyal cadre of followers – mostly teachers and parents – who thank me for live-tweeting Wichita school board meetings so they can keep track of discussions and debates.
I regularly use Twitter and other social media to find or track down sources, to flesh out tips, to gather input and to share links to my stories. A few years ago, a random tip from one of my Twitter followers – that a Kansas student’s disparaging tweet about Gov. Sam Brownback angered the governor’s staff and landed her in the principal’s office – resulted in The Eagle’s No. 1 story of the year for online page views ().
Q. You have worked at the Eagle since graduating from N.C. State University in 1990. That’s unusual in a highly transient profession. What has kept you in Wichita?
A. It’s funny, because when I moved to Wichita from North Carolina, I swore to friends and family that I would be here for a couple of years and then try to get a job at one of the papers back home. Part of the reason I stayed is that I met my husband (an Eagle photographer) here, and we bought a house and started a family.
But more than that, this newspaper offered so many opportunities to try new things, cover various beats and keep things fresh. Over the years I have covered general-assignment news, city government, military and education. I tried my hand at editing, supervising a seven-member education team. (I learned that I much prefer reporting and writing.) I was part of The Eagle’s first foray into online journalism. I flew with the Blue Angels. And I started a weekly column on parenting and family life, which I still write.
I’ve been here 27 years, and I still love what I do because my job and our industry keeps changing. And have you seen a Kansas sunset? Seriously, they rock.
Q. What advice do you have for aspiring journalists?
A. First, don’t let the haters get you down. Journalism is a necessary and noble profession, and one that’s just as important now as it ever was.
It’s also a pretty awesome way to make a living – being nosy, getting the scoop, writing it down, telling all your friends and neighbors. No matter what your passion might be – politics, science, sports, movies, books, business, food – there’s some kind of job in journalism that will let you explore it. Also, journalists are some of the smartest, funniest people you’ll ever meet, and working around them every day is good for the soul.
Oh, and READ. That’s my primary advice for aspiring journalists: Read, read, read, read. Readers make the best writers.