Journalist Margie Manning
Master journalist Margie Manning sits down for a special episode of SPx. After three years transforming the St Pete Catalyst from a startup with a dream into a respected news outlet, Margie retired to take on a top leadership role with her church. In her many years covering Tampa Bay, she has told the stories that shaped the narrative of our lives, and we are a better community because of her voice. In this episode we hear her story and celebrate her successful career.
Joining me on SPx today is the venerable master journalist, and more importantly, 24-hours retired journalist Margie Manning. Welcome.
Thanks Joe. It’s funny to look at you from this side of the table.
I know like, “The gloves are off now, what’s going on?” We’re here to celebrate you, because you had an amazing career. You’ve been at the core of business journalism in the area, for many years, and doing great work even before that as well. So, I want to get your take on the state of journalism. I want to get your take on the state of journalism in St. Pete. But before that, I want to make sure people get a chance to know a little bit about you. And some of your history, and what brought you to this plateau of mastery that we’ve got to experience here at the Catalyst for the last couple of years. Let’s go back to your roots in Reading.
I went to University of Missouri, Columbia Journalism School, which at the time, and still is a very prominent journalism school. But I landed there by accident. I really wanted to be a Broadway star when I started college. I quickly realized, I couldn’t sing. I wasn’t going to be in the spotlight. So, I shifted gears. I was intrigued by – actually, do you remember the Patty Hearst kidnapping?
That story just captivated my attention. Not so much from the story perspective, but from the idea of the people who were on the radio, who were telling the story. I majored in radio journalism. That’s how I started my career, at a small radio station in northern Missouri, KIRX.
You’re talking about – I hear you say Broadway. And I hear you say, the radio folks telling the story. That lends us probably more on the performative side, and less on the journalism side. Is that the part that you enjoyed in the beginning? Then, was there a slow, gradual shift into appreciating the actual digging in journalism side?
That’s exactly right. I was very self-centered. I wanted to be the star or in the spotlight. But I quickly fell in love with telling the stories. I realized the story had a lot more ability to connect with people. And covered stories like a standoff of a young man who held a hostage in a cemetery. And covered stories about a notable banker who was accused in a Ponzi scheme in this small town, in northern Missouri. And discovered that I really enjoyed letting people hear the story unfold. Following the events, putting in the background so people had context for it. And bringing some resolution to it as well. It was very satisfying to be able to learn how to tell people about the events that are going on in their community, and what relevance it had to them.
It kind of makes me think of one of the interesting points of journalism is that with a traditional story, it’s usually the climax at the end. But with journalism, you have to say, “Here is the big news. Here is the biggest part of this story is, first line of the story, or second line of the story. From there, it’s supporting stuff. It’s a little bit reverse of a standard story telling method.
It is, and I think when it’s done well, you are telling the end of the story. But as you build a new story, you’re providing context throughout. You’re providing different perspectives from people who’ve participated in the story. A good writer will use their own expertise to providing that graph or sum-up for the reader, “This is why it should matter to you.” It’s a really unique construct when you’re writing a news story.
When you talk about the skill of the writer, the expertise of the writer. Obviously, the big underlying sentiment in journalism is objectivity, but you also need to understand that the readers need to receive the information in a way that’s pleasant, or else they won’t receive it. How do you find your creative space in there, in writing objective news stories?
I always try to distance myself from the story. Obviously, I have opinions – lots of opinions – about the things that I hear in terms of perhaps a business has made an announcement, about something they’re going to do, or the city council has taken some action. But I think I’ve learned through the years. And good journalists do this. That my opinions don’t really matter. If I try and dig into the perspective of what’s being said from each person who’s talking, it’s a much more compelling story. It’s a much more well-rounded story. That’s my aim, to let people know, this person may have this view of what’s going on. This person has this view of what’s going on. Here are different perspectives, a lot to think about.
Yes, I think that’s really key is, blending those perspectives. Because how seeing from the front, the back, the inside or above is the same house. And all the perspectives are technically true. They’re just different views of house. The cynics will say that objectivity is impossible. Others will say that, that’s just part of the job. That being a professional means just being able to do that. How difficult did you find it to maintain objectivity when you wrote?
I will agree, objectivity – complete objectivity is impossible. You’re going to pick and choose quotes and facts that each writer will pick those that seem pertinent to what they’re writing about. He may leave something out that somebody else would say is extremely pertinent. But the writer doesn’t see it that way. I think just trying to step outside yourself, remembering that the writer is serving the reader, not their own interest is, very helpful in trying to maintain as much objectivity as possible.
I sometimes see objectivity happens at the expense of expertise. In that, you have to overlay this blanket of objectivity, because you don’t know who is trying to manipulate the narrative. The reality is that, everybody is manipulating the narrative. In the sense that, they have their own perspective. But most people aren’t doing it with that sort of, “We’re trying to fool you,” intention behind it. It seems like there are very few people that are really out there to scam in the way they share the information. The rest of the people share what they know. But it seems like, we have to discount or treat almost everybody as if they may be on the more manipulative end of things. Because, how do we ever tell the difference?
I think that’s where research is really important to combine with writing skills. If I hear somebody say something, and it seems questionable, or I read a statistic that seems questionable, I won’t write about it until I’ve researched it. Luckily, in this day and age, we have tons of tools at our fingertips that we can research almost anything. You mentioned expertise, and I think you build that over years and years. Sometimes getting burned by writing something that was not correct. Those two skills have to blend together.
I agree. Let’s pick back up. Last we left on our tangent, we were at the radio station. Let’s keep going from there.
I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri and had an opportunity to go back to St. Louis to work for what was then probably one of the most powerful radio stations of its era, KMLX radio in St. Louis. That was such an experience. I worked with lots of talented people. Big names that people would know like Jack Buck, Bob Costas, and Art Fleming – the former Jeopardy host, but other names people would never know. But people who are extremely talented reporters and writers. It was really the heyday of radio, especially in St. Louis.
We invented NPR pretty much before NPR invented itself, because we had all kinds of documentary series on. It looked at important topics. Things that radio won’t touch, for the most part anymore like public health and child welfare and conditions in jails. At the time, there was a policy in place called The Fairness Doctrine. Radio broadcast outlets were required to present a balanced view of controversial issues. When the Fairness Doctrine went away in the late 80s, so did a lot of the great radio programming, and radio changed. When the Fairness Doctrine went away, Rush Limbaugh started to rise to ascendancy. That was about the time I knew I needed to get out of radio.
I went to the St. Louis Business Journal. It was a big shift to go from radio, to a print publication. It was strictly a print publication at the time. I’d been developing an interest in business news, because I was doing a weekly program on personal economics on KMLX. Of course, personal economics and business news are two separate animals, but I wasn’t sophisticated enough to know that at the time I learned it. And really found a niche in business news. I loved it, because business is so important to so much of what we do every day. The jobs we go to. The way our employers will make decisions that affect our lives. The buildings they build in real estate news. The civic commitments that businesses are willing to make, it touches so many things. I became fascinated with it.
When you were doing the radio work, were you pre-writing what you were going to say or was it…? There was some writing happening there.
Yes, but writing for broadcasts is so different than writing for print.
What was the learning curve then to get into say, “Hey, here is how you do a business article?”
It was fairly steep. I had to learn not to talk in present tense, but past tense, how to put words in quotes. I had to learn how to take real notes, instead of relying on a tape recorder when I was doing interviews. But it was a great learning experience, because it helped me organize my thoughts a little better. Again, it was another step outside of myself, to put myself in the view of somebody who’s picking up a newspaper and reading it.
Business people could be strange animals. Especially entrepreneurs are a breed unto themselves. Did it immediately feel like a different language? But also, it’s a completely different value system in a way than with life and death and medicine or human rights or environmental issues. They do feed into that as well. But what does it seem like, coming in fresh to this business community?
It was a learning curve like I said. Initially, I was assigned to cover banking. Banking has its own very distinct jargon. I was lucky enough to have a banker who took pity on me, and sat me down. And said, “Here are the terms that you need to know, what they mean and why they are important.” When you hear it from somebody who’s deep in the industry, why it matters that a bank gets return on assets, it matters because the people who’ve invested in the bank want to know that their investment’s paying off. I think it was helpful to hear from the business people themselves, why they do what they do, why they’re passionate about it. That really helped with that transition from covering civic issues which have this obvious, public impact to the more niche business sector. Because that also has an impact, but you need to see it through business people’s eyes, I think.
Being on the frontlines like that, and being the lens through which the community really sees this business, was there an energy from these folks knowing that you were going to be that lens and be new to the business? Did you feel a pressure?
I wouldn’t say pressure. I guess I had good editors, a good publisher who coached me along. That’s also key, and at Time especially, the business journals. I would wager other publications too – had large enough staffs, that there was a lot of mentoring going on, coaching, hands on editing. Today, I think a lot of that is gone. Staffs are much thinner. Reporters are expected to do more of their own self-editing, but that wasn’t true at the time. That wasn’t the case at the time. I think all those things really helped ease the transition.
[13:11] a shift in energy, because half the time you want something from them. You want that information. They may be reluctant to give it, depending on the nature of the story. The other half of the time, they may be coming to you saying, “Take this information.” So, it’s always a back and forth on which way the information wants to flow.
Two though, a good reporter, there is still that performance element to it. A good reporter is not going to just go up to somebody and say, “I’m a reporter, give me the story.” You learn how to socialize with people. At least, I learnt how to socialize with people. I’m an introvert, and I had to learn that. Maybe it comes more naturally for other people, but you learn. You become, not friends with your sources, but you learn what’s driving them and how to communicate with them, how to speak their language. How to know what they’re interested in sharing and how to coax out of them even a little bit more than they’re interested in sharing. It’s a give and take to some extent. It works best – I have found – if the reporter is also willing to share a little bit about themselves too. I’ve talked to people about my family, when it had absolutely nothing to do with the story, or shared some holiday event or something like that. But it can’t be just a one-way relationship. It has to be two ways. I really wish I would have learnt that a little sooner. I think I would have been a little more successful.
All the evidence I have is that, everything you’ve just talked about needs to stand up over time as well. Because, if you’re going to be a long-term member of a community, which as you grow trust over time, gives you more access and lets you do your job more effectively. Certainly, you had to have felt the outpouring of appreciation and love as a retired peer, and everybody from business leaders to political leaders. And they all stepped up to show their appreciation.
That was nice.
Yes, that’s evidence that you did that just right.
Thank you, Joe.
We’re now in St. Louis. At what point do we get an irresistible hand cream for ice cream? Are we close to that yet?
Yes. So, 911 happened, which caused – I think – everybody, to rethink what they were doing in life, including my husband who was working for Mastercard which had a large operation center in St. Louis, who always wanted to be an entrepreneur. We’d been coming down to the St. Petersburg area for our vacations for many years, because his family had relocated here. We were out at Madeira Beach, visiting one of our favorite spots, Candy Kitchen, when we saw a little sign in the window that said, “Franchisees wanted.” My husband’s entrepreneurial bug kicked in big. We pursued this opportunity, and eventually became a franchisee of Candy Kitchen with our own startup on treasure island. I decided I would help him with that. I’d been writing about business for many years. Now it was time to be a business person myself. I quit journalism for not quite 18 months, several months. Went into this retail business with him. Doing everything from building out the interior of the store, to setting up the accounting system, to learning how to make ice-cream.
Eventually, when I came down here, I did talk to the Tampa Bay Business Journal which is a sister publication to the one I worked with in St. Louis. I talked to the Tampa Bay Times. I talked to the then Tampa Tribune. Nobody was really interested in me. So, I just worked for a while at the store. Then I got a call about six months later from the Tampa Bay Business Journal, asking if I was still interested. And I was. As it often happens with people who switch jobs, our healthcare benefits under COBRA are running out. So, it was useful to be able to have healthcare again. And went to work for the Tampa Bay Business Journal in March, 2003.
I felt like the skills I had started to build at St. Louis Business Journal just kicked into hyper drive down here. I don’t know if it’s because I took some time off and had that real-life business experience. Albeit, a small business, but real-life experience. I’m not sure why. But I feel like once I got to Tampa, I was able to expand into so many more areas of business coverage, ask deeper and more insightful questions. I think a part of it too though, had to do with technology. Because, in the early 2000s for us with the dotcom growth, so many more resources became available to everybody, but also journalists. And that was very helpful too.
I think a lot of times, when you cut loose of something – because if you start somewhere, right? And you come in fresh, even though people turnover, and even though you grow in your career, there’s still the roots of when you were just new, and coming up in the world, or always there, and reflected on the people who are on that journey with you. When you cut loose and come here, the whole slate is wiped clean. You can be more reflective of who you actually are at that point too. I have some of those sorts of, “Oh, I remember when.” I still get that here, because the people that saw when we first started our businesses. They were very small. We were doing little cute things to a lot of people in the community. That those roots will always be there. I think cutting lose gives you then that fresh that lets you bloom into where you should be.
Yes, because when I started at the St. Louis Business Journal, I was a novice print reporter. When I came here I was an experienced one.
That’s right. People treated you that way. You felt the way people treated you, which is a good lesson for everybody to make sure that they get treated where they are now, not where they were in the past.
That’s exactly right. I hadn’t thought of that. Thank you.
All right. So, let’s walk through almost 15 years.
Almost, yes. Boy, I covered some amazing stories at Tampa Bay Business Journal. The biggest shift during that time though, was of course from being an all-print publication to becoming a combination print into general publication, with pretty much 24-7 news demands. It was gradual over time, but it went from being a nine to five, Monday through Friday. There were several weekends involved and nights. That’s okay. I love that, but it does put a different perspective on the way you write things. What was interesting while I was at the Tampa Bay Business Journal, I think the biggest shift was from being a strictly print publication, to being a combination print in digital. The nature of the business changed with that. In many ways, a good way. We had closer connections with our readers through various events, and a lot of opportunities to be together in person. It also though shifted the nature of what we were writing. I think we lost a little bit of depth in there. I think there was a little more interest in getting short, quick stories online. Not so much the depth that had originally drawn me to print in business journalism.
Social media, just in general played a big role in that. Because now the average person, if you know someone, and they come something with, “You won’t believe what happened to our cat.” Just because you know them and they’re able to get to you and write that in a post. Then they get benefit from the attention that comes from that too. It just really funneled people and incentivized people to do that sort of thing. People didn’t expect much more than that. For a long time, people had to follow what they thought was getting the attention. But overtime, I don’t know if that stood up really. If eventually people got burned out by the headlines. And now are back to seeking for more depth.
I hope that’s the case. I think that’s what we have been doing here at Catalyst. There is a hunger for people to get multiple perspectives that can only presented in an in-depth story. I hope that more people are realizing that they need to sieve multiple perspectives in order to make up their mind about an issue.
Where we ended up with that is, some number of people came back to wanting that. But also, there are tools out there for non-news organizations to give that depth as well, and the specifics. Because, if I care very much about an environmental issue, I may want to listen to a person who has studied that their whole life more than a journalist. And now I can. I could watch them talk for two hours on YouTube or whatever. That is maybe more compact, but still a more important role for the journalists to be the glue that stitches together all of the happenings in a way that sees what the sum of all the parts end up being.
That’s exactly right. I think that yes, you can watch somebody you really respect and believe in on YouTube. But you may not get another perspective on that. That’s where good, long form journalism does come in.
But the other side of that is that, it makes it harder for bigger organizations to really thrive in the way they used to. Because, that need can be served to some extent with our compact staff. We’ve managed to do it pretty well. St. Pete with two and three full-time employees, the one big thing we lose is the even longer form of investigative journalism. Again, I don’t know that the financials dictate that. Someone can just carve out for six months, and really get deep into something and win a Pulitzer for it. That’s the one thing I don’t think that anybody’s figured out yet is how to keep news of the investigative type at the local level.
That’s true. And when I say long form journalism, I’m talking about maybe a 1200-word news story which, at a lot of publications would be the cover story for a week. Whereas, here we routinely do those. I should clarify that’s what I’m talking about with long form journalism.
Going back to that collection point, I think also that as we talked about the rule that was in place way back when…
The Fairness Doctrine.
Back then probably, a lot of it was just A or B. Today, is ABCDEFGHIJ, because all the different perspectives have evolved so much, and have those channels. Like the YouTubes to let themselves grow into something viable. Again, that comes back to the role of the journalists stitching together those 12 perspectives into one piece. That’s hard to do and form into words.
That’s exactly right. You hit on it totally.
I guess I love to hear – coming from such a long history of journalism, whatever you call that. The business journalism is traditional journalism kind of into this weird experiment that we had or we have at the Catalyst. I would say largely, you dictated a lot of what it is too. But how did you experience that when you first showed up?
The reason I decided to make the move was, because Joe you said to me, “If you find an interesting business news story, you go cover it.” It is so freeing for a journalist to be let out of a box. Because so many places – news outlets you’re told, “You cover this kind of story.” Just the trust that you have in me. That if I found it interesting, readers would find it interesting. That was an amazing thing. I think it’s true. I’m kind of not an extraordinary person, kind of a usual person. If I find it interesting, I think a lot of readers do find it interesting in all honesty. We kind of made it up as we went along. I knew how to write a news story. You knew how to position it so it looked great on a digital platform and to invite comments to it. We kind of melded our skills to make it work.
One thing I remember resonating with you. I felt was that being drawn to make the community better. Because I didn’t come at this from a traditional journalism background, obviously. I came at it from a community building intention. I figured, we can tell these stories, even if they’re tough conversations. We can have the tough conversations, but we can do it in a way that is additive or we’re saying, “Hey, let’s have this underlying…” almost replacing it, we’re still objective, but our underlying theme is, we’re all in this together. We’re all working to make things better. We’re going to disagree, but if we can tell the stories in a way that have an energy of alignment, versus an energy of shaming or exposure or whatever.
I wasn’t sure how that would map over to traditional journalism, which a lot of times is exposés and things like that. That’s why I was so happy with how we melded is that, you naturally took to being able to tell the story by doing it in a way that built people up. Even again if it was a tough conversation, but if you’re having a conversation with someone. And they know you have their best interests in mind. Here we’re thinking the community as a whole, people are going to buy into it. That in turn starts a positive loop of them helping us do better work because they have that trust. And they do feel like they’re in it with us.
I gave you a perfect example, that very last story I wrote for Catalyst. It started with a very tough conversation. There are five neighborhoods in south St. Petersburg where fewer than half the households have access to high-speed broadband connectivity. That means it’s tough for those people who don’t have it. During the pandemic, it was tough for them to go to school, because after school was online. Tough to apply for a job. Tough to get healthcare. You had to see your doctor online. That’s a hard conversation to have. It’s hard to have it without blaming those people who for whatever reason can’t afford. That’s the reason they can’t afford to have that high-speed connectivity. But there are groups out there that are working to address this. You help me find one of them, digital inclusion working group which is a combination of the Innovation District, Deuces Live, and a whole bunch of other organizations working together on this. That told readers that there are ways to address these community problems, our community issues in a positive manner that benefits everybody. I think that’s the kind of journalism that Catalyst is doing best.
I like it. I agree with them. So, what do you see as you look forward to where journalism is going? I’m here hoping for some advice for me. What else do we need to do better as an industry, as the Catalyst? What do you see – because you have such a long history in the business – that worries you and what gives you optimism?
I think something that journalism needs to do, and is doing very well, including at Catalyst is to continue to broaden perspectives. Specifically, so many people who have risen to higher levels in journalism still are White people, a lot of White males. So, not all. I think journalism needs to be much more open to people of color who bring their own perspectives, their own view of the quotes that are important should go back to what I said earlier, the facts to include. I think that would really benefit communities to be hearing stories told from the perspective of people of color. It’s happening. I think it needs to continue to happen more. I’m glad we have Waveney who writes for us every week. But what gives me hope is the enthusiasm I see of young journalists, who are coming into the profession with great technical tools. Tools that I had to spend years learning. They just know, they’ve grown up with them, and without a lot of the biases that so many older journalists have brought into the conversation.
If we look at social media in the media sense. You can go on YouTube to mention YouTube again, and see movies or shows or whatever you call them that people have made in their bedroom that are as sleek as Star Wars was, 10 years ago. By essentially giving tools, best practices and a platform and some incentives, the individual has been able to really do things that have unleashed creativity at a granular and wonderful level. Now you see the sub stacks of the world obviously. At Catalyst I’ve mentioned that we’re aspiring to build these tools out so folks can contribute. Do you see a world where individuals – given the support and the tools, and the best practices – can be social journalists and have a tapestry of many of those working in concert together?
Yes, and I still think there is value in formal journalism training, in learning how to ask questions, how to see from other people’s perspectives what’s going on. I think there is more responsibility on a reader or an audience of a video platform to realize that what they’re seeing – perhaps from an individual – is not the whole story that they might be getting from a legitimate news source. I guess my bias still tends to be on organized news sources.
There is great information out there. But I think it comes with realizing – on the part of the consumer of that information – they have a responsibility as well.
That makes sense. So, what’s next?
I’m in a way going back into business, but for a non-profit. Actually, for my church, I’ll be president of the board of trustees at my church for the next year. Which will be another interesting experience in helping running a non-profit organization, faith-based organization. That will be keeping me busy for a while.
Sounds wonderful. I’ve said it many ways, but I want to put it on the record here on SPx that we could not have gotten the Catalyst to where we have without you. You’ve taught me pretty much everything I know. Bill taught me a few things. You untaught me some of that stuff which was great. Just kidding Bill, but you taught us how to be a news organization. You’ve taught all the young journalists that we brought in, how to be a news organization. You’ve evolved wonderfully to help us be a news organization that can be positive which I really – until a couple of years in – didn’t appreciate how rare and wonderful that was that you were able to make that transition and support that mission, while still being totally legitimate in our practices. I think that was a real lucky break. I will always appreciate that.
Thank you, Joe. And what’s next for Catalyst?
What’s next for Catalyst is a grand vision of building a platform and providing all kinds of amazing tools to our schools, and our neighborhood associations and our artists. So that they can put their content onto the platform. And we can get people back to wearing their local hat. Get them away from some of the more divisive ideologies that are really driving the bigger platforms. And let us celebrate news feeds with our local schools, our local neighborhood associations, our local non-profits, our local artists and have that take a little bit of our mindset time to balance out some of the bigger stuff. That’s what’s next for us.
That’s exciting. I’ll keep reading.