Between Two Journalists
Alums interview each other about their experiences as journalists—and why news still matters
by Andy Larsen (Honors ’12) and Taylor Stevens (Honors ’18)
Go behind the scenes with Taylor and Andy, and listen as they interview one another for the “Between Two Journalists” story:
Andy Larsen (Honors ’12) spends his days with the Utah Jazz, while Taylor Stevens (Honors ’18) chases down elected officials and sits through public meetings. The two Westminster graduates, who both work for the Salt Lake Tribune, have had very different paths and experiences within the news industry—and now work in very different parts of the newsroom. In March of this year, New York Times opinion editor James Dao visited Westminster College as part of the Kim T. Adamson Lecture in International Studies series to speak on the role of opinion journalism in the era of fake news. Following his visit, Andy and Taylor sat down to interview each other about everything from the country’s changing media landscape to the role of local journalism in today’s hyper-partisan world.
But First Some Background . . .
Andy Larsen thought he’d be a math teacher.
Of course he was a basketball fan growing up, he says, but so are a lot of people.
In between classes for his math degree at Westminster College, he did some blogging on the side about the Jazz with SB Nation, the VOX blog for the Jazz, and an ESPN blog.
But the Utah native never imagined he could actually make money watching basketball games and interviewing the professional players until he got a media credential to the games. Then he realized journalism could actually be a viable career path.
Taylor Stevens was ready for her big shot.
Sure, she had been the editor-in-chief at her high school paper for a highly unusual two-year stint, surpassing the seniors above her. And yes, she had been well-trained by the communication and Honors programs at Westminster College, where she studied for four years—including another two-year stint as editor-in-chief, this time in charge of the Westminster Forum.
But her introduction into the Salt Lake Tribune came at a moment’s notice, when managing editor Matt Canham called, offering a job where Taylor would work on the paper’s political newsletter. It started the very next day. Stevens scrambled to rearrange her classes for the opportunity; the Tribune spot was also the third job she was working at the time.
She quickly took advantage of her chance and is now a full-time political and government reporter for the Tribune. She covers the government of Salt Lake City, as well as those of Salt Lake County and the cities that compose it.
The Salt Lake Tribune, first published in 1870, has a long history as one of Utah’s two primary newspapers, the other being the Deseret News, a publication owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But no period of time has been as tumultuous as its last three years.
In 2016, local businessman Paul Huntsman purchased the paper from hedge fund Alden Global Capital—an organization described as “vulture capitalists” by The Denver Post, one of the other papers under Alden’s control. In 2017, the Tribunewas awarded a prestigious Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on sexual assaults at Brigham Young and Utah State universities.
But 2018 brought significant layoffs anyway, when Huntsman announced that 34 staffers would be laid off from a staff of about 90, due to declining revenues. Then, in 2019, the Tribune announced that it would seek federal approval to become a nonprofit, supported by community donations. If approved, the Tribune would be the first legacy daily newspaper in the United States to earn that status.
Challenges of Being A Reporter
Andy: “What are the hardest parts of your job, as a government reporter, that you face on a day-to-day basis?”
Taylor: “Post layoffs—this is a very unstable industry and an unstable field—I absorbed two people’s jobs in addition to my own part-time job. One of the hardest things is that we can’t cover everything now. We have to have this much higher bar for what we can cover. Sometimes, because of this, it feels like we’re missing important things, or that we’re not adequately covering the community in a way that I would want to cover it.
“Every week is like, ‘Okay, there are 13 things worth covering, and you can do seven.’ We have to make really hard choices now.”
Andy: “How do you decide which seven stories you go for?”
Taylor: “We can’t cover things that are as isolated anymore. I have to think more about the bigger picture and the impact of the story I am covering. Right now, I’m covering a story about a gas-chamber euthanasia system in West Valley, and that’s a bigger-picture piece in that Utah is one of four states that still allows gas-chamber euthanasia.
“It’s also interesting because we used to live in a world where you got the paper, and you saw our editorial choices. The most important stories were there on the front page, and that’s how you were going to move through. Now people make their decisions separately from what we, ‘the experts,’ say is the news of the day. Yesterday, for example, I had a story on the front page that no one read online. Editorially, we decided this was an important story, but once it got out there, people didn’t read it. It’s interesting sometimes to see the disconnect between what we as the media think is something you should know about—this is worthy, it’s on the front page because it’s important—versus what people are actually going to click on.”
Andy: “I think that one of our responsibilities, quite honestly, is to say, ‘I know you’re clicking on this, but here’s something way better.’”
Taylor: “In a way, it’s democratized news coverage because you can click on whatever you want. But in another way, everybody’s missing so many things because their circles are small, and I think a lot of people now only click on what they see on Twitter or Facebook. It’s just a really interesting time. So much is changing, and that brings a lot of opportunities and also brings a lot of challenges. But I always hate when people say, ‘Oh, why are you journalists? News is a dying field.’ It’s a changing field. And hopefully you’ll help us keep it alive.”
Taylor: “We have very different beats. What are the challenges that come with covering the Jazz?”
Andy: “Right now, it’s the playoffs, and there’s a lot of different intrigue and a lot of different storylines that go into that. But there’s also this undying need of Jazz fans for Jazz coverage. So we just have to write about something, even if they’re just practicing, or even if they don’t practice, or even if they are literally just sleeping in their beds.
“And then of course, to some extent, the challenge is finding those details that are going to be interesting to people that don’t meet the surface: someone who is having something going on in his personal life that might be newsworthy—like Joe Ingles’s son being diagnosed with autism and how he’s dealt with that in relation to his basketball life.”
What a Journalist Sees That The Public Doesn't
Andy: “Anyone could live-tweet a city council meeting or a basketball game. What difference does it make to have an experienced reporter there?”
Taylor: “I don’t necessarily think that it needs to be me, but I think it needs to be someone and, ideally, it’s media. Any random person can go sit in a council meeting and live-tweet it, but does that person know the context, understand the bigger picture? That’s what we spend our time doing. Sometimes I feel like I know more about what’s going on regarding an issue in a city than the people who work for the city because I spend so much time delving into it. Sometimes we ask questions or bring something up that people who should know about it don’t know about it.”
Andy: “I think there is a lot of value in coming at something from the outside to see the big picture. With the Jazz, I get to talk to people at both the top end and bottom end of the organization to figure out what should be happening, what is happening, and kind of how those bridges are being gapped.”
The Role of Sports Journalism
Taylor: “What do you think is the role of sports journalism in such a rapidly shifting media landscape?”
Andy: “I love sports, and sports are interesting. I’m so glad I get to dig in and write about them and find new and different angles that do matter to people. But, from my perspective, if we’re talking about what actually impacts people’s day-to-day lives—and I know people love sports—throwing the sphere into the hoop doesn’t matter. It’s just a diversion from the stuff that does impact people: whether or not people can have housing or all these different topics that you cover.”
Taylor: “I would make an argument that our sports reporters drive traffic to the website and bring in subscribers to make us money on advertising. Then I can write stories that are important that maybe don’t get us as high of traffic.”
Andy: “It’s so goofy, and I kind of wish we lived in a world where people cared more about each other’s well-being and making our community a better place. But they don’t. They care about basketball.”
Thinking About Clicks
Andy: “How much do you consider page views?”
Taylor: “It’s kind of hard to feel like the story that you wrote mattered if no one reads it. But I’m also just, for my own sanity, trying to figure out how to find value in that. Even if only X number of people read something, that’s outside of my control and has no bearing on my value as a reporter or my value to this newsroom.”
Andy: “I’m not going to lie. I think about clicks when I’m deciding what people to talk to, what stories to chase. Some of that is our editors’ jobs, but I want something that’s going to be interesting to the most people. I think some of that is part of the sports mission, to just bring as many eyes in to keep the paper alive. And some of it is that if I am writing about something that doesn’t matter to people, then I feel like I’ve missed the boat a little bit and missed a chance to be relevant in a conversation that already exists.
“I guess I want to write about things that are already relevant—or they will be relevant if I write about them, if that makes sense. So, I am either shedding light on something that people don’t know about or continuing the conversation about something they do.”
On Being a Journalist
Andy: “Why did you become a journalist?”
Taylor: “You get to be curious, you get to ask questions, and you get to learn something every day that you wouldn’t have known otherwise. But, also, part of it is that I see my work as if I’m a proxy for the community. I’m a proxy for you because you can’t get to the Salt Lake City Council meeting because you have six kids, but you still need to know what’s going on. Or I’m a proxy for you because you stood in line at the Elizabeth Warren campaign event, but you couldn’t get in. So I’m going to tell you what she said because I was there.
“We are offering a service of helping people understand their community and make informed choices. I cover politics, so my stories can help readers make informed choices about who they’re paying with their taxpayer dollars and who they’re electing to public office. That part of my job is really gratifying.
“And then, on the day-to-day level, I think it’s fun. I get to ask people questions that if I was not a reporter, I wouldn’t get to ask.”
Andy: “It’s really fun. It’s really interesting. I’ll say that. Even just in my little world of basketball, I get a chance to be curious about something every day and dig into it. I can ask the people who are making those decisions questions and find out about something.”
Taylor: “I know math can be a pretty lucrative career, while journalism is a notoriously low-paying field. Do you ever regret your choice?”
Andy: “What would I do with more money? I don’t know; I guess all the good-money things that people do. But from my point of view, this is an interesting life to lead. I think it’s personally rewarding. You do get to fulfill your sense of curiosity every day, which I think was one of the things I liked best about going to school—and I like getting to do that in my job.”
Taylor: “When I left school everyone was like, ‘Oh you’re going to be back in school right away; you’re going to miss it.’ No, I don’t because I’m learning every single day. You read reports and then you write a story about them. What is more school-y than that?”
Andy: “I would make more as a stock analyst or whatever, make a hundred thousand dollars, and I would have a cool house but...be sad and bored.”
Taylor: “It’s a lot of work, but I love it. I feel like once a week—or at least once a month—my job requires me to do something I’m completely uncomfortable with, something that’s terrifying. But then I’m covering Elizabeth Warren, and she’s a legit presidential candidate. There’s so much personal growth in this job.”
Taylor: “What’s your main tip for people on how to be better news consumers?”
Andy: “One of the things that drives me crazy—and this happens not only in sports but everywhere—is aggregation and how much content out there that is shared is just a second- or third-tier source of what happened. You see this all the time where TheNew York Times did some original reporting and then put it in a really good, well-edited and reviewed article, and then Wired or whatever will take the most juicy paragraph from that article and quote it in its own article and then you know Mother Jones or Breitbart or whoever will take that article and talk about whatever. Just getting to that primary source is so important in terms of getting the context of what’s going on and getting something closer to the truth.”
Five Ways to be a Savvy News Consumer:
- Expand your news network. Read from a variety of sources to get a fuller picture of a story from multiple angles.
- Try to get your news from firsthand sources, from reporters who were actually in the room. It’s best not to depend on aggregated news outlets that you’re getting content from thirdhand.
- Remember that you are not a passive participant. As a consumer, you tell news outlets what kind of content you find valuable with your clicks. If you want investigative pieces to continue to exist, you need to read investigative pieces.
- Subscribe to a news organization. You’ll get better content when people are paid for their work.
- Read beyond the headline before you share on social media. If the information seems suspect at all, it’s best to repeat tip number one. If you can’t find the content anywhere else, it may be bad information.
About the Westminster Review
The Westminster Review is Westminster College’s bi-annual alumni magazine that is distributed to alumni and community members. Each issue aims to keep alumni updated on campus current events and highlights the accomplishments of current students, professors, and Westminster alum.