On October 20, the Piedmont High School Journalism class interviewed Matt Richtel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter and best-selling author. Richtel was on campus to address students in the second annual “Safe Driving Assembly” and to talk with parents about the distracting and addictive effects of technology. In between the student assembly and parent education program, Richtel had dinner with the Journalism class.
The 24 Journalism students researched Richtel in advance and were prepared with questions. Treating him like any other person they might interview for the Piedmont Highlander, their first questions were about the correct spelling of his name and his preferred gender pronoun. They quickly moved on to questions about his career path, and the differences between good and great journalism, among other issues.
Originally from Colorado, Richtel studied rhetoric at UC Berkeley and journalism at Columbia University. His first reporting jobs were at The Peninsula Times Tribune covering the city of East Palo Alto, and later at The Oakland Tribune. He now works for the New York Times but lives with his family in San Francisco. In 2010, Richtel won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the science of the human brain, the impact of technology on attention, impulse-control, and decision-making, the fallacy of multi-tasking, and the hazards of using cell phones while driving. His reporting stimulated widespread efforts to curb distracted driving.
The students’ questions covered a broad range of topics, including the relative value of studying journalism in graduate school as opposed to working as a journalist, the difference between objective reporting and editorial writing, and the ethics of reporting offensive content. Richtel answered the questions, told stories, and offered advice about careers and work-life balance. He emphasized the importance of knowing oneself and having sympathy for all people and all viewpoints. He said that having other outlets for his love of writing, such as writing mystery stories and song lyrics, has been an important counterbalance to his professional work as a journalist. He also said that some of the greatest stories come about from the simple act of listening without expectation or judgment.