Media Minds: Anthony Zurcher

Media Minds: Anthony Zurcher

At Red Fan Communications, we strive to accurately gauge public attitudes towards business and technology by keeping a close eye on the most powerful influencers, including bloggers and editorial contributors that have their fingers on the pulse of American readers – good public relations relies on it. That’s why we wanted to interview Anthony Zurcher, senior writer and editor for the BBC News blog Echo Chambers, one of the most diverse and authoritative blogs of today. Anthony highlights the best in opinion journalism from around the world and analyzes the state of play in debates about everything “from social media to scholarly journals, Kansas City to Kathmandu.”

With over 20 years of journalism experience, Anthony is equipped to provide insightful editorials and commentary on politics, human rights, the environment, science and technology. Anthony is a great writer due to his ability to capture imaginations while providing valuable insights into the minds of his many followers. His ability to relate to readers has garnered him a strong following with whom he regularly engages. Red Fan had the opportunity to interview Anthony and learn the value of a career in journalism beyond the pressure of meeting deadlines.

What makes a good story?

A good story is one that informs and engages. It sheds new light on a subject while being written in a way that keeps a reader engaged. Interesting and vapid is a bad Buzzfeed article. Informative and boring, and no one will read it. You might as well be writing in your personal journal.

What story in your career are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of a something I wrote about the late, great Molly Ivins. It was very cathartic to be able to relate what an incredible friend and colleague she was to me and my family. The piece was sent out shortly after Molly’s passing to all the newspapers that ran her syndicated column, and hundreds of them published it. The responses I got from Molly’s fans all over the country were heartwarming. She touched so many lives with her work and her words. She’ll always be an inspiration to me.

How did you get your start?

Thanks to an alumni connection at college. One of the founders of the student newspaper I worked for is the head of a newspaper syndication company. He gave me a job in the industry right out of college – although it was in sales, not writing. When an editing position at the company opened up I applied, and they let me transfer, much to my relief. I never was cut out to be a salesman. I don't handle rejection well, and I hate asking for money.

What's your biggest pet peeve as a writer?

I’ve got a lot of pet peeves, including poor grammar (it’s vs. its), repetitive word usage, lengthy paragraphs, an overreliance on clichés, un-engaging ledes, and the slow death of the conditional tense, but my biggest gripe is probably run-on sentences.

What story do you wish you would have been able to cover or do you hope to be able to cover?

I wish I could have covered the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism. It wasn’t exactly the end of history, as some predicted, but it was a monumental, once-in-a-generation event that, for change, was joyous, not tragic. I'd love to be able to cover the World Cup one day. I started out doing sports journalism for my student newspaper, and I'll always be a sports reporter at heart.

Why is journalism rewarding to you?

I love the variety and intensity of the job. Every day is a little different, and every story immerses you in a new world. It can be a lot of work, and the deadline pressure will often push you to the edge, but it's never boring.

When did you know you wanted to be a journalist?

I fell madly in love with journalism in college, writing for my student newspaper. I very quickly realized that I fed off the energy and camaraderie of a newsroom, and I ended up spending more time writing for and hanging out around the paper than I did in the classroom - and I have the GPA to show for it.

What interview experience stands out in your mind and why?

Part of my duties when I worked for the newspaper syndication company was as a ghostwriter. I once interviewed former Senator Bob Dole in order to gather information for a few sample columns that we would then show him as a way of convincing him to sign a contract with us. He was a lot funnier and more personable than he came across on TV and the campaign trail, and he told some great stories that, sadly, he didn't allow me to use in the column. (He ended up deciding not to write for us, by the way. You can make a lot more money doing Viagra commercials.)

What famous historical figure do you wish you could have interviewed and why?

I’d probably opt for someone from ancient history, like Aristotle. Everything we know about him comes from his writings. I’d be fascinated to be able to find out what he was really like as a person. How would his views on science and philosophy translate into a sit-down conversation?

What makes you tick and why do you do what you do?

It may be surprising, but I find writing hard. I struggle with it. Sometimes I obsess over little things, and spend way too much time trying to get a sentence or a phrase just right. But when I’m done, and when I pull an article or a blog post together and it really flows well and has an impact ... there’s no better feeling in the world. Creating something with value, even if it’s just an assembly of words that disappears from view in a matter of days, is rewarding. Not all my work gets close to that level. Probably not most of it. But every so often being able to pull it off - that makes the efforts worthwhile, and that’s what makes me tick.

What's a day like for you and how do you decide on your sources -- when there are so many to pull from?

Part of the challenge of writing a blog is that every morning you come into the office and stare at a blank screen. It's a big, empty pit that needs to be filled with words.

I usually begin the day by talking with the BBC News website editors to see if there are any topics they want me to cover or any special requests from higher-ups in London. At 9:00 there’s a staff meeting, where about 20 of us gather to talk about what various members of the bureau - television, radio and online - have planned for the day.

After that, I start reading through major US newspaper opinion pages and websites like Salon, Slate, the Federalist, the National Review and the Atlantic to see what folks are writing about.

I’ll also spend some time looking through my Twitter and Facebook feeds to see if there’s anything that’s generating social media buzz.

Once I’ve settled on a topic, I’ll gather all the interesting pieces of opinion I’ve found about it and try to synthesize that into an analytical piece somewhere in the neighborhood of 600-900 words. I’ll also often write, or assign to another writer, a “What in the World” grab bag style post, with a collection of shorter summaries of interesting columns and opinion pieces from US and foreign media.

Then there are other projects I occasionally get involved with including radio and video segments, longer feature stories, breaking news, etc. There are very few dull moments.

You define yourself as a surveyor of opinions? Do you get a lot of reactions from your articles online?

A lot of my blog posts have an active comment section, and when I write about a subject that’s particularly provocative or interesting, I’ll get hundreds of response. The BBC also has a Twitter following in the millions, so whenever they sent out a link to something I’ve written that includes my handle, I’ll get flooded with notifications.

I always find it interesting trying to figure out what types of stories readers respond to. Sometimes I write something I think isn’t all that interesting, and people love it. Other times I think, “Hey, this is great,” and it’s greeted with crickets.

How much time do you spend on social media per day/per week and how has it benefited your reporting?

A lot. I don’t think I’d be able to do my job, reporting on and analyzing interesting commentary and opinion, without Twitter. At the very least, my job would be a lot harder and the range of outlets that I cover would be significantly narrower. I’m checking my Twitter and Facebook pages pretty regularly throughout the day, as my friends and those I follow often discover interesting tidbits that I would otherwise pass by.

If I had to add it all up, I’d say I probably spend a couple of hours a day sifting through social media to generate story ideas and research topics I’ve already decided to write about.

We greatly appreciate Anthony’s contributions to journalism and rely on his insights to shed light on the public’s attitudes towards current events. Anthony’s writings allow us to have a greater understanding of the world and ourselves by uncovering the human elements that most affect the lives of his readers. There is no doubt that his articles will continue to provide valuable information and cultural relevance as his readership increases in size. Make sure to check out Echo Chambers to view more of Anthony’s articles online.

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