Emilie Ritter Saunders is a digital reporter for StateImpact Idaho, a new journalism initiative where NPR member stations in eight states work together to do in-depth, investigative reporting. Based in Boise, Emilie travels the state to explain how state issues and policy affect people’s lives, focusing especially on economic issues.
Being part of an trailblazing journalism initiative means becoming a media “Jill-of-all-trades.” Emilie tells her stories online. On the radio. In newsprint. And even making policy and economic stories visual through data. “I've had to learn an entirely new set of skills and ways to apply traditional storytelling on a digital platform,” she says. Which is exactly why her advice is to keep learning and to not be afraid of picking up new skills and technology. It's exactly what’s taken Emilie from internships with CBS Sunday Morning to Montana Public Radio Capitol Bureau Chief (at age 23!) to NPR.
“The challenges are what make my work invigorating and exciting.”
What is your typical day like, and what types of things do you do in your job as a multimedia journalist?
Every day starts with a look at the news that unfolded overnight or in the early morning hours. I scan Twitter, e-mails and various news sites before I leave the house for the office. This first-thing check-in lets me figure out how much time I should expect to spend on following up on developing stories. Because I'm no longer a general assignment reporter, I can pretty well set my own daily agenda. I've almost always got a long-term story I'm researching, collecting data on and doing interviews for. The bulk of my day is spent working on beat-specific Web posts and radio content, and getting StateImpact Idaho's content out to as many eyes as I can. That happens largely through social media.
My work is presented in many ways. Some stories are heard on the radio, others are published online and some are printed in newsprint. The medium I most often use is the Web, and I spend an increasing amount of time making policy and economic stories visual through data.
What was the path you took from graduation to your current job with NPR?
I started working for Montana Public Radio, an NPR affiliate in Missoula, Mont., in 2005 while I was still a student. For two years I anchored and occasionally produced a 30-minute local nightly news program. That was my first taste of working in public radio and I was hooked.
Two years later, I graduated from the University of Montana's School of Journalism. From there, I did an internship during the summer of 2007 at CBS Sunday Morning. Later that year, I was hired as a producer/anchor at an ABC affiliate in Kennewick, Wash. During my brief stint working in local TV, an amazing job opened with Montana Public Radio -- a full-time bureau reporting job based at the state capitol. I couldn't turn it down.
For more than three years, I covered the Montana Legislature, governor, politics and policy, the economy, environment and everything in between. Not long into the job, I started freelancing for NPR. Washington, D.C.-based NPR often relies on member station reporters across the country to freelance breaking news stories for their top-of-the-hour newscasts (they're called spots in NPR lingo). Slowly, my frequent spot reporting turned into the opportunity to do freelance feature reporting. In 2009, I was one of 20 member-station reporters NPR selected to be part of a professional training program centered on reporting on the economy. For 24 weeks, I worked one-on-one with an NPR editor to write, produce and edit top-notch economic stories.
One benefit of being a reporter at a small NPR member station in Montana is that there isn't much competition. NPR wanted more stories from the region, and through my economic training project experience, I was able to get more Montana features on national air.
In 2011, NPR launched its StateImpact project; its collaboration between member stations in eight states and NPR. The idea is to bolster in-depth, investigative reporting centered on certain topics. Boise State Public Radio was selected to house StateImpact Idaho and I thought it'd be a great opportunity to be on the ground floor of an exciting new journalism initiative.
What challenges keep you awake at night?
Some of it is silly stuff like, "Crap, did I remember to include that link in my webpost today?" or, "I need to get an edit on a post so it can go up first thing in the morning." But it's also the big picture stuff like, "Am I doing everything I can to make StateImpact Idaho a go-to resource for Idahoans?" and, "How can I reach a bigger audience and get important stories in the hands of people who will share them across their own social and professional networks?"
The benefits of being part of a new journalism initiative far outweigh the challenges. The challenges are what make my work invigorating and exciting. My brainpower is tested regularly and that's what I value most in a career.
What is the biggest personal sacrifice you have to make because of your job?
Balance. The news never stops. Even though I typically leave the office by 6 p.m. every evening, I'm tethered to my iPhone and am always checking email, Twitter and various news sources. I've been very fortunate in my current job with StateImpact Idaho in that we aren't covering daily news in the same way I was as a general assignment reporter with Montana Public Radio. But I'm still a news junkie and being informed is paramount in this job.
What do you feel is the biggest challenge for women today?
A challenge I've often dealt with is being taken seriously by the people and institutions I cover. I became Montana Public Radio's capitol bureau chief when I was 23. I'm 27 now and I sometimes feel like my age and my gender make me work harder for professional respect.
What are some of the rules you live by?
I value the golden rule most: treat others how you'd like to be treated. In an industry that can be very competitive, I also value collaboration. Journalists have an obligation to inform their audience. In an age when some newsroom staffs have been cut to bare bones, I think it’s our duty to work together for the public good.
What qualities do you look for in fellow colleagues and team members?
It's so important to like the people you work with on a daily basis. I've been very fortunate in all of my reporting jobs to meet and work with people who are just plain cool and interesting to be around.
I find I do my best work when I'm around people who are innovative, smart and driven. My job with StateImpact Idaho is focused largely on digital reporting, but my background is in traditional broadcast. So, in the last 18 months, I've had to learn an entirely new set of skills and learn ways to apply traditional storytelling on a digital platform. That wouldn't have happened without the pushing and teaching from my colleagues across NPR's StateImpact network.
What advice do you have for women who want to get involved in a role like yours, or with NPR?
Public radio is a great place to be right now. The audience is growing and stations across the country are experimenting with new ways to reach listeners on air and online.
I'd seek out the NPR member station in your community to see if there are opportunities for internships, jobs or volunteer positions. I'd also recommend resources online like the Knight Foundation, the Poynter Institute and Nieman Lab.
For anyone in journalism school, or perhaps is a journalist who wants to become more marketable, I always recommend broadening your skill set. There are countless platforms to tell stories on today -- learn some new technology. Whether that's learning to build websites, programming for news apps, sharpening copyediting skills or turning a print story into a radio feature, always keep learning!
Where do you see yourself five years from now?
I'll still be writing, researching and telling stories. With the speed of technology advances, I wouldn't be surprised if I'm learning an all-new platform for meaningful journalism.