As senior social strategy editor for The New York Times, UCI alumna Sona Patel manages social media at one of the top newspapers in the world. But before she began leveraging the power of Twitter and Facebook to change the way we read and write news, Patel was an Anteater (literary journalism and Spanish ’06) learning the ropes of reporting as editor-in-chief of the campus newspaper, New University. She’ll return to her alma mater June 15 to be the School of Humanities’ commencement speaker.
Here, Patel discusses the trajectory of digital journalism, what it’s like to forge a career in modern media and how UCI prepares aspiring reporters for it all.
Q: When you left UCI 12 years ago, social media hadn’t taken off yet, and the media revolution we’re now familiar with – away from traditional print and toward digital – was just beginning. What were your expectations for a career in journalism when you were a UCI student, and how did they change after graduating?
A: When I was a student at UCI, I had my sights set on a traditional career in print or broadcast journalism. I honed my writing skills as a literary journalism major, my editing skills as the editor-in-chief of New University and my broadcast skills as a reporter for Irvine Community Television. I held internships at the Los Angeles Times and the Orange County Register that focused on reporting and writing. It wasn’t until I started my first professional reporting job that I saw digital journalism creeping into newsrooms. Fortunately, I participated in a couple of digital journalism fellowships early in my career that helped prepare me for the digital future that has pretty much taken over our industry. Those fellowships were a total wake-up call.
Q: What has your career arc been like? How does it compare to the future you envisioned when you left UCI?
A: I always imagined I’d be a beat reporter … but [a few years after graduating], social media was starting to influence how we consume, share, create and talk about the news. I was fascinated and decided to try my hand at it. I went from being a beat reporter to an online editor managing my newspaper’s website. And I started getting into social media and teaching myself the ways of gathering and distributing news online. From there, I moved on to become The Seattle Times’ first social media editor and was able to do a lot of cool things in that newsroom. At that point, I knew I’d never go back to traditional reporting.
Q: What’s it like to be senior social strategy editor for The New York Times?
A: I start every day at The New York Times wondering how I ever got the chance to work here. I began my career at The Times in 2012 managing our social media accounts, but I’ve since taken on a bigger role working with section editors to tell stories using our readers’ experiences and voices. Times readers play a huge part in helping shape our news report, so I’m always looking for ways to bring them into our reporting.
Q: How do you see social media affecting journalism in the future?
A: Things are changing rapidly, so it’s hard to say. Aside from the role that social media has already been playing in journalism, I think social platforms are going to further force newsrooms to be more responsive to their readers. For years, newsrooms have churned out stories without paying attention to what people said about them. Publishing a story was sort of the last step in its life cycle. Now it’s the first step. Social media is pushing us to be part of the conversation happening around our reporting. We can engage, or we can stay silent.
Q: How do you think UCI’s literary journalism program – and your time at New University – prepared you for a career in media?
A: Being a literary journalism student helped me hone my writing skills and think about story conception. I’m indebted to my instructors and mentors for coaching me on how to come up with good story ideas and develop my narrative nonfiction abilities. No matter what you know about digital journalism or social media, solid news judgment and strong writing skills are the bedrock of any journalism career. And being editor of New University was definitely baptism by fire! We didn’t have an adviser, so I was forced to make decisions on my own or with my staff. I think it really helped me remain calm and collected during stressful situations – a quality that has helped me in every breaking news situation.
Q: What are your best memories of UCI?
A: When I was in college, I couldn’t wait to graduate, but now I look back on my undergraduate years and remind myself how lucky I was to have learning (and socializing, let’s be honest) be my full-time job. I think the further you get into your career, the harder it gets to carve out time for professional development. I loved the camaraderie and diversity at UCI. And I loved checking out new student groups, attending events at the Bren and catching shows at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.
Q: Do you have any advice for graduating seniors looking to break into journalism in 2018?
A: This is such an exciting yet challenging time for journalism. When I graduated, I felt that traditional reporting was my only career path. That’s definitely not the case anymore. So my advice for a graduating senior looking to get into journalism would be to keep your options open. Find out what you like, and learn whatever you can. At the same time, build up a team of mentors in the industry who can help you navigate a career path. Having strong journalism skills is important, but so is learning how to negotiate, advocate for yourself and seek out opportunities. And most importantly: Don’t be afraid to reach out to people in the industry to gather insights and advice!
Q: Finally, how does it feel to be invited back to your alma mater as a commencement speaker?
A: Honestly, I’m feeling major imposter syndrome! But really, it’s such an honor to come back to one of the world’s foremost public universities and impart some wisdom and well wishes to this year’s graduating class.