Susan McFarland, Executive Editor of Trib Total Media, began her career as an intern at the newspaper she now runs.
McFarland ran the paper during a period of great transition and success (the Keystone Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists named the Trib Best Overall Newspaper for three consecutive years). She plans to retire on September 15th but took the time to share some insights from her 42 years in the business.
AC: As technology has evolved over the course of your career, how do you think it has changed journalism – for better or for worse?
SM: There is no easy answer. I think a lot of us have a love-hate relationship with the tech world. The rapid pace of technological change in our industry has made it easier for us to access information, our sources, and our audiences. It has given us an in-depth look at who is coming to us for news and information, what makes them come back, and what turns them off. It has made higher demands on ourselves and our employees and it has made us more flexible to react to the latest news, develop trends and develop changes in the wishes and needs of the audience.
But while technology continues to give us the tools to make us better and faster, we’ve also lost sight of some of the basic functions that make journalism meaningful and effective.
There is no substitute for face-to-face interviews versus email chats or Zoom sessions.
And there is a sense of separation that many of us have experienced during this pandemic when impromptu personal chats or brainstorming sessions with our coworkers were lost. In my career, some of the best ideas came from these informal moments.
Of course, those of us in the mainstream media consider the technology leading to those less-than-credible news outlets who have hurt the reputations of journalists who work so diligently to maintain high standards of integrity, honesty, and fairness.
AC: How did you get into journalism and are there still such paths for young journalists?
SM: Yes, these paths definitely exist. So much has changed in this business, but the value of that hands-on experience has never diminished. In my case, I’ve always been fascinated by the news business, but when I started working at Pitt News while I was at college, I got caught in the journalism virus and knew this was what I wanted to do. Throughout my studies, I looked for every opportunity to work in the company through internships and part-time jobs. Some of my internships were not directly related to journalism, but the experience I gained was good for me. I was in the Congressional Internship Program and while I had no interest in working in the political world, this Washington experience gave me valuable insights into that world. I did an internship at KDKA-TV and although I was interested in print journalism, I learned so much from this experience.
My first job was as a reporter at the Trib. I thought I was just passing through, but 40 years later I’m still there and I wouldn’t have had any other way. I’ve had incredible opportunities, especially in the last five years when I’ve had the privilege of serving as the chief editor of some of the Trib’s most challenging, yet transformative and successful times.
AC: What story or stories did you remember during your career and why?
SM: Obviously, I’ve been involved in reporting some of the most significant stories of our time. But the stories that really stand out are the ones that rectified injustices or acted as catalysts for change. Most recently, we ran a project called The Tragedy at Brighton about one of the deadliest Covid-19 outbreaks in the country at a Beaver County nursing home. Breaking the layer of secrecy and fear surrounding history has been tremendously difficult, but we did it, exposing a number of missteps in the days, months and years before 73 people died and more than 300 fell sick in Brighton. Shortly after our stories were published, we received a call from state officials informing us that an investigation was being initiated. Not long afterwards, FBI agents arrived to seize documents at the site.
It’s the kind of story that stuck in my mind that makes me proud to do what we do every day.