Meet your IPC: Melissa McGrath

Interviewed by John Miller

Age: 25

College: degrees in Journalism and Government and Politics from University of Maryland, College Park, Go ‘Terps!
Hometown: Grew up in Meridian (well, moved there when I was 9), and graduated from Eagle High School

Career Path: I interned a lot in college, at The Buffalo News (Washington bureau), Capital News Service (Washington, DC), and Frederick News-Post (Frederick, Md.) during college. I was hired at Idaho Statesman after I graduated in May 2005 and worked as a business reporter at the Statesman until January 2007 when I joined the State Department of Education.
Is that what you mean by career path? Or did you want my ideas on future?

1. You won Idaho Rookie Reporter of the Year from the Idaho Press Club, then promptly took a job working for the state. Was it tough for you to leave journalism so soon in your career?

It was definitely a tough decision. I still love the reporting process, but I was ready to try something new and couldn’t resist the great career opportunity that opened up. 

2. Now that you are inside a large organization, how are the inner workings different from your perception as a journalist?

Should reporters be more suspicious about what goes on in the inner sanctum, or less?
Well, I can only speak for my agency, but I think reporters should be less suspicious. I understand the need for the Fourth Estate to remain skeptical so I won’t tell reporters to stop. But I have never felt like I couldn’t be straightforward with the media on a topic. In the so-called “inner sanctum,” we simply strive to make the best decisions possible for Idaho students based on the information we have available.

3. As a PIO, do you automatically have to endorse the ideas or proposals of your boss? Everybody knows the struggle reporters sometimes face with remaining unbiased, how do PIOs balance their roles?

No, I don’t think you automatically have to endorse everything. Your job, first and foremost, is to be a communicator: To explain the proposal to the media and to explain to your boss how you think the media or the public will react. Luckily, I have never felt conflicted about endorsing my boss’s proposals so far. That’s probably because I agree with my boss philosophically when it comes to education issues.  I wouldn’t have taken the job otherwise.  I’m not sure I could work for someone I didn’t agree with.

4. Is there something you may have done as a reporter when tracking down information that now causes you headaches in your current role, when reporters do the same things?

Yes, several things.  The one that comes to mind is how reporters call other people in my agency for information, rather than calling me. I used to do that all the time when I was reporter. When reporters do it now, it’s frustrating because other people in my office just forward those messages to me. Unfortunately, they sometimes don’t forward the messages until later in the day.
By then, I have likely missed the reporter’s deadline.  It is always easier to just call the PIO. The other thing would be when a reporter calls and immediately demands to talk to someone with “some authority.” I try to do that anyway, but some reporters don’t give me a chance to say it first.  

5. What’s more difficult, being a PIO or being a reporter? Can you more easily leave the office “at the office,” compared to when you were a reporter?

I would say I feel more at ease now when I go home at night. Sometimes, I will worry about an email I sent or a quote I gave, but not nearly as much as I did when I was a reporter. I think it’s probably because I felt more rushed as a reporter. Now, I get at least a few more minutes to think things through.

6. Do you have any desire to return to reporting?

Not really. I really do love what I do now, and I am fortunate that I can still stay connected to the media through my work and through my friends.  Plus, I still think I do reporting every day. It doesn’t end up in the newspaper every day, but it’s my job to sit down and talk to the people in my office about their projects and programs until I understand it well enough to explain it to others.  I really am a pest at work.

7. What do you miss about reporting?

I miss that moment when I would finish the interview I had been waiting for all day and was finally able to sit down with a notebook full of quotes and a blank screen and begin the writing process. I used to love that moment, even when I was on deadline.

8. Have you ever caught wind of something in your office and said, “That would be a great story?” Do tell…

It has happened before, but only when I was at another meeting or at a social event, or even when I am just hanging out at a coffee shop or something. I hear something and then call my reporter friends and pester them to write about it. They never do. Maybe I’ve lost my sense for newsworthiness or maybe reporters are just busier these days.

I do recall one day when it snowed heavily in Boise last year for the first time. I woke up at like 6 a.m. with a voicemail from someone who had clearly misdialed. The message was from someone at ITD letting his co-worker know that ITD had the day off because there was too much snow on the roads. While I was getting ready for work, I said to myself, “What? How ironic.”

9. What do you most enjoy about your job?

I enjoy being more involved in policy issues.  As much as I love writing and reporting, I really like researching an issue and being involved first-hand in the discussions and decision-making process. Plus, I get to see how those decisions benefit Idaho students. What could be more rewarding than that?

10. Is it better to be on the inside or the outside?

I personally think it is better to be on the inside. I have always enjoyed shop talk and inside baseball and all that. I am really a geek at heart. But I certainly do appreciate that other people are willing to be on the outside.

11. Have you continued your writing, in the form of magazine stories or work for other publications?

Unfortunately, no. I would like to, but I just haven’t found the time yet.

12. You’ve now worked in two roles, as reporter and as PIO. What advice do you have for reporters, based on your experience? What advice do you have for PIOs?

For reporters: Please call. I hate reading articles about a proposal or initiative my agency has put forward, and the reporter never called me for comment. Or sometimes I still see articles that only cite one source. If it’s education-related, please call me. I will try to be your second source or put you in touch with someone who could be. So please call.

For PIOs: Be available. As a reporter, it would drive me nuts when I couldn’t get hold of the PIO. I would call, email, call the cell, or trying calling everyone else in that agency or office. It is always better to talk to the reporter, even if all you can say is “no comment.” At least you are trying, and I think reporters appreciate that.

John Miller is a reporter for The Associated Press in Boise, and is secretary of the Idaho Press Club board.