Welcome to Journalist Spotlight, where we go behind the scenes with a journalist and ProfNet user. This installment features Katie Bo Williams of The Hill, whose work has also been seen in The Atlantic and The Washington Post.
If you’re a journalist who uses ProfNet, email firstname.lastname@example.org and you could be featured next.
A graduate of the University of Virginia, her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Discover, Nautilus and others.
Her “bread-and-butter at The Hill is making the legislative process, as it relates to cyber law, accessible to the general interest reader.”
We talked to Katie recently about her career path from horse racing over to journalism. Check out the Q&A with her below.
Where was your first professional job in journalism?
I covered horse racing at a daily called The Saratoga Special. It’s a small team that tells the kind of Damon Runyon-style stories that make up a lot of great sports writing. I still miss doing the boots-on-the-ground feature work I got to do there – and I had a once-in-a-lifetime editor that taught me to pay attention and trust my own voice.
For many years you worked in the thoroughbred racing industry. What was that like and how did you make the switch to becoming a journalist?
Unreal is probably the best shorthand. Racing is an exciting business, full of interesting characters and stories. I spent four years living out of a suitcase, working with horses in barns all over the world. You can’t beat watching the sun rise over the Hunter Valley in Australia, drinking a bad cup of instant coffee and turning out a bunch of young horses to stretch their legs.
But as always when you are working with a living animal, there are incredible highs and lows. Horses will break your heart – they lose races, they get hurt, they bite. It’s why people cry when they play “My Old Kentucky Home” over the loud speakers at the Derby every year – because to get there is such a fragile dream.
I loved the animal and I loved the game, but I think I fell in love as a writer, not a sportsman. I was in it for the stories and when I felt I had told my share, I hung up my tack. I was lucky enough to snag an internship with Nautilus and went to starve in New York City (as you do). My first story for them was about a genetic test used to determine whether a racehorse will be a sprinter or a stayer.
And I can still give you a good tip for Keeneland if you need one.
What type of stories do you focus on the most?
My current beat is the politics of cybersecurity, although I’ve also written about criminal justice, gun legislation and health care.
From a personal perspective, I’m particularly interested in the big, unanswered questions. Cyber is still an incredibly unsettled theater, from a geopolitical standpoint. We don’t know what constitutes an act of war. What are the rules of engagement? And a lot of lawmakers are still scrambling to educate themselves.
My daily bread-and-butter is making cybersecurity policy accessible to a general audience. If it doesn’t have a Capitol Hill angle, I’m usually going to pass.
Are your stories assigned or do you pitch story ideas?
I pitch my own ideas.
Is there something you like best about being a journalist?
I’m not the first journo to say this and I won’t be the last, but I like being paid to learn. I want to know everything. More specifically, I like the “zone” you go into when you’re structuring a story – putting the building blocks together in a way that helps a reader understand a complex topic is an exercise where I can lose my sense of time.
What advice to do you have for those in PR or anyone else who may want to pitch you a story idea?
Know my publication! Nothing bugs me more than getting a pitch that doesn’t have anything to do with politics or policy – it says to me that you haven’t even looked at TheHill.com. So, for example, product pitches or “how your organization can avoid being hit by malware” are almost never a good fit for me.
What should they always do and never do?
Don’t offer me unnamed sources – I’m usually on a tight deadline and am hesitant to agree to “Do you want me to connect you with a source that can talk about this?” I want to know who he or she is before I commit time. I also pretty much immediately delete offers of “cybersecurity experts.” It’s too vague and suggests to me that you don’t know what I’m looking for. I say yes to “threat researcher who specializes in ransomware,” for example.
Always: Know the news cycle! I often mine source offers I get when I’m working on a story on a tight deadline – if you know what story broke that morning in the security world and pitch me a relevant source, that’s a resource I advantage of.
Think like a journalist. When I’m looking for sources, I’m looking for someone to answer unanswered questions. The more tailored the pitch – “This guy can talk about x, y and z” – the more likely I am to talk to your source.
Further to that point, be aware of where your client fits into the larger narrative of a given news story. For example, does he or she have a vested interest in supporting one side of a debate or the other? Here’s a really simple example: The CEO of a company that makes an encryption software offering expert commentary on the encryption debate. It doesn’t mean I never talk to those people, but it can help you introduce a source to me in a way that’s useful: “This guy can talk to you about why cryptologists believe back doors are so bad,” for example.
How can someone approach you in order to develop some sort of work relationship?
Coffee, coffee, coffee! Always best to meet someone in person.
Do you use social media and what is the best thing about it?
Twitter. It tips me off to angles, questions, problems that I might not have seen about a particular story. It’s like having a 24/7 focus group I can tap.
Can you tell us about one of the most memorable moments you’ve had in your career?
Seeing a story with my byline on it lead the front page of The Atlantic was pretty damn cool. I spent an hour and a half on the phone with a bounty hunter for the story, and it’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever written.
What advice do you have for new journalists and even for those who aren’t so new to the field?
In my first months working for a daily, I was laboring over an 800-word story, tweaking every word, moving grafs, rewriting my lede 50 times. My editor told me to stop. “Just write it as well as you can in the time you have, then write the next one. It will be better. Then write the next one. It will be better.”
It has always served me well in a daily environment. Don’t get sloppy, but don’t kill yourself on a single story, just keep writing. Produce a volume of content. Each one will be better than the last.
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Evelyn Tipacti is a audience relations specialist at ProfNet. She is a former broadcast journalist with years of experience behind the television camera and radio mic.