Katherine Ann Rowlands works as the East Bay Metro Editor for Bay Area News Group, which includes the Contra Costa Times, Oakland Tribune and San Jose Mercury News and their web sites. She leads the coverage of local and regional news concerning local government, crime and courts, health care, science and the environment, and demographics and immigration.
Previously she oversaw state and regional coverage for the Contra Costa Times, including the Sacramento bureau during the Schwarzenegger years. A native of Berkeley, she grew up in the East Bay before earning degrees from Macalester College in Minnesota, the London School of Economics in England and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York.
She started her reporting career at Bay City News Service, a local wire in San Francisco that provides breaking news reports to media throughout the region, and covered City Hall at the Antioch Daily Ledger. She also worked oversees as a freelancer in the Netherlands and for the Economist Intelligence Unit in Honduras.
She is currently President of Journalism & Women Symposium, a national group that supports the professional empowerment and personal growth of women in journalism and works toward a more accurate portrayal of the whole society. She lives in Oakland with her two teenage children.
Rowlands was interviewed by Ben Leinen, a junior studying journalism at the University of Iowa.
Ben Leinen: Why did you become involved in journalism?
Katherine Ann Rowlands: Newspapers, radio broadcasts and the nightly TV newscast were part of my family’s routine and keeping up with current affairs was a core value. As a student, I thought journalism would be the most interesting, exciting and rewarding profession I could choose because you get to learn about so many different people, events and trends and then tell the rest of the world what you discovered. Thirty years later, I can say that I was right. Every day, I learn something new and get tremendous satisfaction working with such smart, curious and witty colleagues. What other job pays you to ask nosy questions, travel to far-away places and spend time studying whatever piques your curiosity in the interest of telling a good story? It’s also a great privilege to work as a journalist because you make a real difference in people’s lives.
BL: How do you define journalism today?
KAR: Journalism is about telling stories and relaying information that can inform, entertain, shock, surprise and comfort those who read, view or listen to those stories. The really great stories are the ones that inspire people to act.
BL: How has technology influenced or affected your career?
KAR: For good and bad, I am wired into the news and the office 24/7 with my blackberry always at my fingertips — a far cry from the early days of calling it quits and heading home after finishing my City Council story. Technology allows me to monitor news from around the world all the time and from anywhere and enables me to reach the world just as easily when there is a story worth sharing, whether that be an election result, a multiple homicide or the score of a high school basketball game. It has also changed the way we do research and present information. Keeping up with the changes means we have to learn new things every day, whether that be tweeting to call attention to breaking news at an Occupy Wall Street protest or using Facebook to find friends of someone who died or mining a database of public salaries to research a watchdog story on the waste of taxpayer dollars. The tools available for storytelling on the web are advancing all the time, giving us new ways to present maps, data and visuals that make it easy for readers to manipulate and interact with the news in a much more dynamic way. But journalism is still fundamentally about telling stories and relaying information that is useful or interesting to an audience.
BL: How will technology affect the future of journalism?
KAR: Speed and access are the two biggest impacts of technology on journalism. Information is available instantly now and that puts tremendous pressure on media to be first, sometimes at the expense of accuracy. And just about everyone with a cell phone can now act like a reporter, leading to a flood of information that bypasses traditional gatekeepers. That puts pressure on traditional media to prove the value of the extra credibility, analysis and expertise they bring to news coverage. We could end up with very different sets of audiences depending on whether the news consumer is looking for quick hits or deep knowledge or highly specialized information. I believe there is room for all of those but the competitive economics of journalism will make it difficult for everyone to survive.
BL: What’s one word you would use to describe the status of women in journalism today?
BL: What roles will women have in future journalism?
KAR: Women will hold every role that men do, but it will be important to push for equal representation in areas like management and technology where the numbers consistently fall short. That can be done through mentoring and promotion, but education about the value of diversity in the newsroom is important, too. Groups like Journalism & Women Symposium (www.jaws.org) work to make that happen with networking, training, support and education.
BL: How do you view equality today?
KAR: I was lucky to have parents who gave me the confidence, encouragement and education to pursue any career I wanted. And I certainly pass that message along to my son and my daughter, both of whom have expressed interest in becoming journalists. But the assumption that girls can grow up to hold just as many positions of power and influence as boys never really matched reality. Newsroom surveys that measure gender and racial diversity bear that out, showing little if any progress over the last 30 years. And a recent conference by the International Women’s Media Foundation that drew women from all over the world to discuss issues of equality highlighted the phenomenon across borders. Equality is still an ideal, not a reality.
BL: What is your favorite memory over your career?
KAR: Just one? Probably the time a senior reporter told me that as an intern I couldn’t possibly handle covering a big federal trial in San Francisco on my first week. I did.
BL: What advice would you give to undergrads before entering the field?
KAR: Learn to write well. Read everything. Be willing to write the obits, cover night cops and go to the city planning commission meetings to learn the ropes. All those basics — and a good mentor — will serve you well over the long haul.
BL: What hurdles have you had to jump in your career?
KAR: By far the biggest challenge has been juggling the life of a journalist with raising children. I took my one week-old baby to a Board of Supervisors meeting so that I wouldn’t miss either the baby or the story.
BL: What is objectivity to you?
KAR: Being fair and accurate in your reporting and presentation despite your own initial assumptions about what the story might be.
BL: Does it still play an important role in media today?
KAR: Absolutely. It’s what makes a story credible.
This is part of a series of profiles of JAWS members by University of Iowa students. For a complete listing, see this page.