Matt Brooks is food digital editor at The Washington Post. He previously worked at the Post as a sports reporter, blogger and editor. In this interview, conducted by email, Brooks discusses his role as a food editor, his transition from sports and some of his favorite things to eat.
Q. Describe your job. What is your typical day like?
A. As the digital editor for The Washington Post’s Food department, my role is a hybrid between an assignment editor, a web producer, a digital project manager, a social media strategist and a liaison between Food and the rest of the newsroom. Of course, digital strategies and responsibilities are constantly evolving here, so by the time this publishes, there’s a chance everything I’ve said will be moot.
What do I do all day? Eat.
Well, that’s part of my day. I always start my morning by checking web traffic reports from the day before and scheduling out a few early tweets on our @WaPoFood account before I head into the office. Once there, I open way too many Google Chrome tabs and check real-time traffic to see how our stories are performing in search and on various social media platforms.
I’ll scan buzzy food news websites and Twitter and pitch a few quick story ideas to our writers, then work on editing newsy posts or restaurant reviews. In this role, I’m often the ambassador to the editors who run our national homepage and the main Post social media accounts, so whenever we publish a story, I’m pitching editors on appropriate platforms to get promotion beyond our own Food channels.
We have a few weekly meetings where we analyze stories that generated significant traffic and try to figure out why others with potential didn’t perform as well. In Food, we have a weekly brainstorming meeting to generate more ambitious story ideas.
And about that eating: We have a food lab where our recipes editor and other members of the team are constantly testing recipes and cooking up all kinds of fun stuff. Tuesdays are food lab photo shoot days, which means there’s always a ton of tasty food for the offing. I never pack a lunch on Tuesday.
Q. You previously worked in sports at the Post. What are the similarities and differences between covering sports and covering food?
A. The food is the biggest difference. There are always snacks in Sports, but in Food, it’s gourmet, restaurant-quality, composed dishes. Not a bad perk.
The pace is very different. I spent nearly 10 years either frantically filing (as a reporter) or frantically editing (as an editor) live-event stories with hard nightly deadlines for the web and our three print editions.
Sports also has its own full copy desk, so the workflow is rapid — because it needs to be. On either end of that workflow, there’s a substantial adrenaline rush associated with those deadlines, no matter how seasoned you are.
In Food, we’re always working ahead, since the Food section is a weekly in print, and we’re not as tied to events. That generally affords more time to consider when and how to publish a story, who our intended audience is, and how our designers and photo editors can work with us to make our bigger pieces resonate.
Our content is wide-ranging, from recipe-driven columns to long features and enterprise stories to newsy blog posts about the craziest new fast-food trend. There’s a calendar rhythm to covering and editing sports. In Food, things can be very different week to week.
The jargon and style are also quite different. I went from three-pointers, RBIs and 5-under par rounds to pâté, cronuts and frosé.
Q. You are a 2007 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. What skills you learned there do you use today, and what new ones have you picked up?
A. I could ramble on about everything I learned inside Carroll Hall (the building formerly known as the School of Journalism and Mass Communication), but here are two things that really stuck with me:
- Never stop asking questions, because the next one you ask will be the one that makes your story. When you’re reporting a story, always seek out one more source. Get one more person to confirm the account your original source provided, ask smart follow-up questions and make sure you’re providing an opportunity for the other side to be heard. When you’re working on a story that’s competitive, being first is important, but if you’re able to provide more depth and context while also considering the all-important question of “Why should people care about this?” your story will resonate with a wider audience. As an editor, always ask your reporter that extra question to make sure the facts are air-tight and that he or she has covered all the bases before you publish.
- Be nimble and capable of adapting on the fly. A key component of my reporting class with Paul O’Connor involved him lobbing scenarios at us to see how we’d react on the spot. (“So you’re the new metro reporter in Red Wing, Minn. You have no friends, until you start dating the mayor’s daughter. Life is good. Then you find out the mayor is embezzling money with the help of the mob. What do you do?”) I never made it to Red Wing, but that type of thinking has come in handy more times than I can count. You never know what’s going to happen on a reporting assignment, and as an editor, you have to be prepared to deal with people missing deadline, technology crashing and all manner of disasters. On one of my first deadline football game coverage assignments for The Post, my CCI-issued laptop battery crapped out, and I didn’t have the right key to get into our satellite bureau in the Northern Virginia suburbs. So I ended up filing two game stories for two different zoned editions of the paper while sprawled out on the floor of a gas station. You just never know.
As for key skills I’ve learned since graduating … building relationships across a newsroom is paramount. No matter the size of the publication, people up and down the chain need to be able to communicate effectively and efficiently and share ideas to execute high-quality journalism. Reporters and editors shape the written content, but our collaboration with designers, graphics editors and developers is what takes a great story and turns it into a memorable visual experience on your desktop, cellphone, Instagram, Snapchat and so many other platforms.
Understanding and valuing your audience is another skill we’re constantly trying to hone. When we come up with a story idea, we consider whether we’re targeting search or social audiences (or both), and that helps us choose an appropriate headline. Should it be SEO-driven or fun and conversational?
Engaging with those audiences is also critical. David Fahrenthold’s incredible series of stories about Donald Trump’s charitable giving (or lack thereof) was fueled by Twitter crowd-sourcing, and his followers helped him uncover information that ultimately resulted in a Pulitzer Prize.
I’ve also learned how to be flexible and willing to get outside my comfort zone. I always wanted to be a sports columnist, so I covered and edited sports for The Daily Tar Heel and applied to dozens of sports jobs after college. When I didn’t land any, I worked as a temp in classified advertising at The Post for a few months, then wrote about sports for a hyperlocal website at (the then-separate) washingtonpost.com, then served as the editor of a several blogs, then worked as an SEO specialist and national sports aggregation blogger. I applied for a job as the high school sports editor on a whim, was stunned when I got it and spent the next five years working crazy hours and learning how to run my own department.
If you’d told me six years ago that I’d be an editor in the Food department, I wouldn’t have believed you. But here I am, and I love it.
Q. What is your ideal meal?
A. In this job, I’ve had the opportunity to eat some incredible meals and try several creative, funky dishes. I recently reviewed a gnocchi dish with kimchi ragu; zucchini bread topped with a foie gras spread and bee pollen; and a burger slathered with pimento cheese and topped with a fried green tomato.
But as yawn-inducing as this might sound, I will never turn down a good pulled pork sandwich — Eastern North Carolina style, of course — and the couple of times a year I’m able to get back down to Chapel Hill, my first stop is always at Allen & Son or Bullocks.
We just published our annual D.C.-area barbecue rankings, and while there are some very solid Texas-style shrines to smoked meat here, it’s nearly impossible to find a top-notch chopped pork sandwich. (Perhaps addressing that void will be my post-journalism calling.) So give me a proper pulled pork sandwich with a peppery vinegar sauce, crunchy coleslaw, hush puppies and fried okra, and I’ll be content.
I’m also a sucker for perfectly seared sea scallops and Peking style duck.