Meet the Media Q+A: Owen Thomas of the San Francisco Chronicle
As part of PRSA’s mission to advance the PR profession and the professional, we bring you the Meet the Media Q+A series. In this Q+A, we speak with Owen Thomas, Business Editor at the San Francisco Chronicle to learn more about the work he does on a daily basis and to find out about his hobbies and interests. Owen is also a member of the NLGJA Northern California Chapter.
Tell us the story about how you got into journalism?
I gave the long version to Pacific Standard five years or so ago. The short version is that I kind of stumbled into it sideways. I knew a little HTML in the mid-’90s, which was enough to get me a couple of webmaster gigs at magazines. At the Red Herring, an influential business and technology publication in the first dot-com boom, I started getting tips from friends working in the early Internet industry. My boss told me I should just write those stories. From there, I became the Herring’s first Web reporter. And that took me by turns to Time Inc. and Gawker Media and NBC and now The Chronicle, with some startups in between.
How does working at the Chronicle differ from the other media outlets that you worked for?
When I came here, I was more focused on the similarities: We break news at the pace of Web publications I’ve worked at, and we bring design and copy editing and photography together to deliver a polished product like magazines I’ve worked at. The difference here is the clarity of mission: Our editor-in-chief, Audrey Cooper, says we cover the city whose people change the world. That’s why I came to San Francisco two decades or so ago, and that’s why I love what we do.
What’s your technique for getting scoops and how do you like to work with sources?
I’m mostly out of the scoops-and-sources game as an editor, but I love working with my reporters as they build out their sources. I occasionally get a good tip from a network of contacts I’ve built up over my career, but I mostly hand those off to a reporter. Back when I was writing more, it was pretty simple: Show up, ask questions, think about the answers, ask more questions.
What are some of the media trends you’ve observed that will have long term effects?
Across the industry — and I’d include newer media businesses every bit as much here — we still haven’t digested how to use analytics to shape editorial coverage. Right now, I think of analytics as a useful gut check, a way to take the temperature on your performance. But analytics don’t yet offer any answers to the question of what we should cover next. That will change.
In your estimation, what do you think is the biggest media story of the past decade?
The rise of automated advertising.
How would you improve the news industry?
I’d look at our subscription and ad products with a tech product lens: I think we still make it too hard to buy an ad or a subscription. Those are revenue levers within our control.
What are some of your favorite hobbies and interests?
I am a history nerd. One of the most interesting books I read recently was a memoir by the British naval attaché to Sweden during World War II (take a look at a map and consider the irony of that position).
What makes for a good story?
Characters and conflict.
Any questions that we didn’t ask that we probably should have?
Why yes, you should follow my dog, Ramona the Love Terrier, on Instagram: @ramonaterrier.
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