Meet Your IPC: Emilie Ritter Saunders

Emilie Ritter Saunders has lived in Boise since 2011, when she was hired by NPR’s StateImpact. In 2014, she joined the Idaho Press Club state board, on which she currently serves as secretary. Saunders, a Montana native, has worked in both television and radio, and recently shared her perspective on social media, storytelling and the future of journalism.

Where were you born? 
Great Falls, Mont. Raised in Missoula, Mont.

Where have you worked?
I started working for my local public radio station, Montana Public Radio, during college. I anchored a weeknight newscast for two years, and did a little reporting and producing. After graduation, I took an internship with CBS Sunday Morning in New York City. That four months was an invaluable education. At the time, the show was understaffed and interns were treated more like production assistants. I was helping to write features, researching, and PA-ing on shoots. It was also invaluable in that I knew I could never call NYC home, dashing my dreams of working for CBS 60 Minutes.
After that internship in late 2007, I moved to Kennewick, Wash. to start a job as a TV news producer and anchor. I lasted a short eight months before Montana Public Radio called to let me know they were looking for a capitol reporter. I was sold.

From 2008-2011 I was Montana Public Radio’s capitol bureau chief. It was my practical education. I learned how to turn a feature and two spots in a day, chase lawmakers around the capitol, dig for enterprising stories, and started to file freelance pieces for NPR, National Native News and Reuters.
By 2011, NPR’s west coast bureau chief suggested I apply for this new NPR pilot (then called Impact of Government), StateImpact. I was excited to be part of an experiment, and build something from the ground up. I moved to Boise to be part of StateImpact Idaho’s two-person reporting team. It was an invigorating (and sometimes tears-inducing) endeavor. It taught me more than I ever expected, and when the project came to a close in 2013, I felt we left behind good reporting for the people of Idaho.

In 2013, I formally became part of Boise State Public Radio’s newsroom by becoming the station’s digital content coordinator. Now, I manage digital content on web and social platforms, edit, report, work on special projects, and am a fill-in show host.

What is the most memorable story you have covered?
That is the most impossible question because I’ve covered such a wide range of topics and met so many interesting people. The stories that stick with me most are the stories that I think about weeks, or months after the fact. Politicians, celebrities and local heroes are fun — but it’s the stories about regular, everyday people that keep me motivated.

Like… The jobless Idahoans who let me into their lives — for a whole year — during a very challenging time — to document their journey to find work. The Idahoans living with mental illnesses who are struggling to get the care they need. The Franciscan nuns in Montana who saved all their money to put a wind turbine in their yard to power their small home. Hearing the world’s oldest man, Walter Breuning, 114, tell me what it was like the day his family got electricity. Arriving at the scene of a tragic airplane crash that killed 14 people headed for their ski vacation. Spending the day with a group of women who, for more than a decade, have made quilts and homegoods to donate to women and children who arrive each week at a Montana shelter for people who are abused. Meeting a rancher who turned his family homestead into a dude ranch and becomes a natural-bearded Santa Claus each winter just to pay the bills.

These stories are all inspiring and meaningful in their own ways. These stories — often untold — are why I’m in this.

What is the biggest challenge facing journalism today?
The bottom line. I’m part of the generation that demands instant gratification, freebies, and more for less. That’s tough for our business. I think the biggest hurdle journalism faces is convincing the audience that high-quality reporting isn’t just essential for democracy, but worthy of paying for. Being part of the public radio model gives me a unique perspective because we rely on our audience to pay for the work we do. More than half of Boise State Public Radio’s budget comes from listeners. That’s huge. But costs are increasing, newsrooms need to grow — not shrink — and it takes a big commitment to find and keep good journalists, the journalists who produce the content listeners don’t mind paying to hear.

What, in your opinion, will the future look like for radio journalism?
Public radio isn’t going away, but like all mediums it is grappling with a changing landscape and learning how to be nimble. Public radio’s audience is growing, which is a great thing. We face challenges from the Pandoras of the world that offer in-demand listening — no terrestrial radio required. My parent network, NPR, has done a fantastic job of innovating and proving time and again that if the content is quality, people will continue coming back for more. NPR One and NPR on iTunes Radio are perfect examples of that innovation.

Radio journalists can’t just be expert audio storytellers anymore. We need to know how to take a picture, shoot video, write for web, engage on social, and create data-visuals. It’s a tall order, but it’s also exciting to see how endless the possibilities really are. Still, the basics haven’t changed. Today’s radio journalist still must be a top-notch writer, an engaging interviewer, and have the ability to tell stories that connect with the audience.

You’ve done a lot of social media outreach for Boise State Public Radio. Any tips? 
Yes, I manage the day-to-day posting on all our social platforms plus work on overall strategy. We are playing catch-up, because the station hasn’t had that kind of focus put on digital content until very recently. My advice: find your voice. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Be transparent. Be kind.

Tell us about your husband. What do you two do for fun?
Fun fact: my husband and I actually met in preschool. No, I didn’t know at 4 years old he’d be the one, but we did look pretty cute standing together in our t-ball team photo. This also is proof of why it’s important to be kind to everyone, you never know when they’ll reappear in your life. We both work — a lot — but love getting outside and exploring Idaho.

What do you hope to accomplish on the Idaho Press Club board?
I hope I can be an advocate for freedom of the media, and continue the tradition of pushing for more government transparency. I’m always up for talking shop, and I hope I can meet more members and be a resource for people interested in public radio and digital journalism.