Chris Cobler | Mentor

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MIJE Staff
February 23, 2014

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Chris Cobler has been the editor of the Victoria (Texas) Advocate since April 2007. A native of Topeka, Kan., he has worked for newspapers since graduating in 1982 from the University of Kansas William Allen White School of Journalism,. He was the first Donald W. Reynolds Nieman Fellow in community journalism at Harvard University. His newspapers have received the Robert G. McGruder Award for Diversity Leadership and the ASNE Diversity Pacesetter Award, and he has been honored with the Frank W. Mayborn Award for Community Leadership by the Texas Press Association and with the Texas Editorial Achievement Award for courage and community leadership by the Texas Daily Newspaper Association. Cobler serves as treasurer on the board of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas and is on the board of the Associated Press Media Editors. His wife, Paula, is marketing and communications director at the University of Houston-Victoria. Their proudest accomplishments are their children, Nicole and Paul. Nicole is a freshman majoring in journalism at the University of Texas-Austin, and Paul is a junior at Victoria West High School.


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Chris Cobler Q & A

Q: What are the two most important skills a journalist should have?

A: Journalists do so many things that it’s difficult to narrow the list to only two, but I’d have to start with curiosity and drive. Good journalists always want to know why the world works the way it does, staying constantly curious about what’s happening around them. The most mundane questions can sometimes prompt terrific news stories and features. You also can never accept the first answer but always keep probing for more.

That leads directly to the second critical skill: drive. As a cornerstone to our democracy, journalism demands the best from all who practice it. That doesn’t mean every story wins a Pulitzer by any means, but we always must remember how vital our work is to our readers. Whether our work ends up in a family scrapbook or takes down a president, it requires our best effort every day.
Q: What is the key to working well with your boss?

A: The key to any relationship is trust. Your boss needs to trust that you always put the company’s best interests first, and you need to trust that your boss is looking out for you. Trust in any relationship is earned. You have to build it with your boss every day by offering good work, communication and solutions.

I had a new boss once tell me that he instantly trusted all he supervised until they let him down. Of course, this was ridiculous. No one trusts strangers as much as they do friends or longtime colleagues. It’s no coincidence that the culture this boss fostered instead was one of distrust among everyone on the staff. He treated people like interchangeable parts of an assembly line. If your boss makes you feel like that, it’s time to start looking for another job.

Q. If you could have a do-over in your career, what would that be?

A: Too many to list here. Being a journalist is like walking a high wire without a net. We publish our errors every day for all the world to see. You can only do your best, learn from your mistakes and try to leave the world a little better place than you found it.

In terms of a more practical do-over for college students, I wish I had studied Spanish instead of French. I took French because it seemed romantic to my 18-year-old self. I didn’t have a mentor advising me to consider the demographic trends of our country and to use some of my time in college to study abroad for immersion in Spanish. Since college, I have taken a variety of Spanish courses to try to correct this mistake, but they haven’t been enough, much to my regret.

Q: What is the most important issue facing journalism today? 

A: We’ve almost milked dry our cash-cow business model. People still want the milk, but we are in the middle of figuring out new ways of producing and delivering it. I wish we could spend more time focusing on doing better journalism, but the reality is even the best reporting won’t matter if there’s no media company supporting and distributing it.

I would add that the same business challenges face TV, radio and other forms of media, too. News coverage of the digital disruption gets focused too much on newspapers, probably because TV and radio don’t do nearly as much original reporting.

My terrific editing professor at the University of Kansas, Dr. John Bremner, started our first class back in 1981 by asking us to name the first thing all newspapers had to do. My classmates and I came up with variations on noble reasons related to the First Amendment.

“No,” he boomed back at us. “It’s to make a profit.” A newspaper has to be a successful business first, he told us, for it to remain a government watchdog or a champion of the public’s right to know. Of course, in the 1980s, some newspapers were making 30 percent and 40 percent profit margins, so journalists could afford to remain in their ivory towers and ignore the business side. We no longer have that luxury.

Some of the most innovative work at a newspaper has always come out of the newsroom, so we should apply our best thinking not only to news coverage but also to new advertising, circulation and marketing ideas. We can do this and remain true to the core values of journalism.

The good news is we know our audience wants what we provide. You hear this loud and clear every day when you work at a community newspaper like the Victoria Advocate. Readers call, Facebook and tweet us constantly, reminding us we provide the nutrition that strengthens a community. Our slogan should be “Newspaper: It Does a Community Good.”

Our student panel from San Francisco State University submitted many questions. Chris Cobler selected several to answer.

Q. Do the writing rules in newswriting apply to sports news, or does sports journalism have a different format? Josue De Los Santos

A. Some of the best newspaper writing has always been done by sports journalists. When I was young, I wanted to be a sportswriter at Sports Illustrated like my idols Frank Deford, Dan Jenkins and Jim Murray. The best sportswriters access and articulate the human condition. Roger Kahn's beautiful book, "The Boys of Summer," is about so much more than the Brooklyn Dodgers.

More newswriters need to be more like these legendary sportswriters rather than vice-versa. Fortunately, the rise of narrative journalism has led to this happening. Of course, the challenge for all writers who want to be great is you have to do the reporting -- the work to get there. Literary or sports journalism is not a license for flowery, empty writing. You have to get the goods -- and that's hard.

What's exciting is how many writers still strive for this excellence despite the challenges we face as an industry. The best conference I've attended in years is the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference because of the passion packed into every session. George Getschow, conference and writer-in-residence at the Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism, talks about building a tribe of storytellers. That tribe is flourishing at the Mayborn because the conference nurtures our human craving for storytelling. That desire existed in biblical times and will remain long after the digital age.

Q. How often do you use Twitter, Facebook, or other social media sites to find sources or to get information for a story? Emily Daly
A. We use Twitter and Facebook daily to connect with sources for a variety of stories. Personally, I have about 5,000 Facebook friends, plus another 200 more followers. Did you know Facebook won't let you have more than 5,000 friends? On Twitter, I have almost 1,600 followers. All of this is an excellent way for me to quickly reach and get to know better some of our readers.
My personal accounts supplement the newspaper's Facebook page, which has more than 11,000 likes and its Twitter account, which has almost 5,000 followers. We also have Pinterest, Tumblr and Instagram accounts. This instant reach helps us on stories ranging from breaking news to finding the biggest Beatles fans in the region. When it comes to breaking news, our readers tip us off to what's happening better than our police and fire scanner, which law enforcement has increasingly locked down during recent years.
In one recent example, a woman living in a remote town about 50 miles from Victoria told us via Facebook about a house fire on a Sunday night. She even emailed us a photo of the house in flames and a link to the real estate listing for the vacant home and told us about the family's history there. While still doing our traditional reporting, such as calling the volunteer fire department to confirm details, we promote this level of sharing by our readers. They're everywhere we want to be.
My personal Facebook account also works well to develop a deeper relationship with many of our readers. I regularly get people around town telling me they know me through my Facebook page and thanking me for updating the community about what's happening. Recently, we even had one of my Facebook friends offer to start writing a regular column about Tejano music. Although her husband had served before on our Hispanic Reader Advisory Board, I'm certain she wouldn't have stepped forward with this wonderful offer if she hadn't gotten to know me more through Facebook.
Q. I have certain viewpoints on things. Is it hard to remain neutral as a journalist? Does it become difficult or less interesting when you have to write about things that you have strong viewpoints on, while still remaining unbiased? Brandy Miceli

A. We all have strong opinions about certain subjects. We wouldn't be human if we didn't. The difference for a journalist is that we're trained to look at issues from many sides. We have to learn to keep our opinions in check and seek out the counter-narrative.

One of the best ways experiences I had as a young editor was when I started writing editorials regularly. The process of forming and writing a strong opinion revealed to me how many of our news stories were missing key information. I couldn't write three supporting arguments for our editorial's thesis because the story didn't cover enough bases.

One good formula for editorial writing is to include the main counter-argument to your opinion and then refute that. Our news coverage often didn't provide this other side, so I would end up doing additional reporting for our editorials. This practice helped me become a better line editor.

This is a long way of saying our opinions are useful to us as journalists. We should be passionate about what we report and write. We also have to report in enough depth to see far beyond our own noses. The more experience I've gained, the more open I've become to other views. I consider it to be one of the great joys of journalism that we get paid to learn from others.

For news consumers -- and aren't we all that at times? -- this is a good article on going beyond the myth of objectivity:

Q. How hard is it to get a job in the journalism industry? Can you attribute some of your success in the industry to any connections you may have had? Or, did you work your way up the ladder solely through hard work and determination?  

A. A good journalism school, the University of Kansas, helped me get my first internship at the Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal. That led to my first job there after graduation. My journalism school also helped me find my first entry-level editing job at the Sioux Falls (S.D.) Argus Leader. I can't stress enough how important internships are to getting started in journalism.

Once you're in the business for a while, you discover just how small the circle is. The good work you do and the connections you make will carry you to new opportunities. When I was looking for a family-owned community newspaper after an unhappy, brief stint in a corporate office after my Nieman Fellowship, my old boss, Bill Patterson, told me about the opportunity in Victoria. I had worked for Bill a dozen years earlier at the Denton (Texas) Record-Chronicle, and he was gracious enough to help me make the connections with the family owners in Victoria. When I interviewed in Victoria, I met then-general manager Barry Peckham. Although our paths hadn't directly crossed, we knew enough mutual colleagues that we almost immediately could talk in a friendly, familiar way.

I never understand why anyone would intentionally burn bridges. Every person you work with or for could become the one who helps you take the next step in your career.



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