On a platform: the life of a San Francisco Chronicle columnist


Her picture and by-line appear on the back page of the San Francisco Chronicle every Friday. In cafes around the city, thoughtful San Franciscans will turn the pages with buttery fingers, masticating on their bagels and cream cheese and forming opinions about the hot topic of the day.

Some are inspired to write back. As a columnist for the city’s major newspaper, Caille Millner gets to express her views on everything from the cosy to the controversial. And for many readers, especially as journalism moves online, that’s a gateway to a conversation.

That means a writer must have thick skin. It’s something Millner has learned ever since she had her first article published in her home town paper, The San Jose Mercury News, when she was 16. She wrote an article about racism at her school and quickly learned the backlash that exposure can bring.

Since then, Millner has forged a career as a quiet commentator, writing a memoir, The Golden Road, about her journey as an African-American in a suburban Hispanic neighbourhood of San Jose to the heights of Harvard and beyond, to living in Berlin and advising the German Chancellery on policy (if only they had listened!) to coming back full circle as a voice of the Bay Area.

In the modern surrounds of The Mill bakery, with the strains of Grimes playing in the background, she sat down with girlreporter.net to discuss life as a “girl reporter” for one of the most respected papers in the US – and show us what’s on her iPod.

What’s it like working at the Chronicle? What’s the buzz in the office like?

You can always tell when something interesting is going on because all of a sudden everybody’s running around a little bit and everybody gets really excited. At the same time we’re a newspaper and we’re going through all the changes that the industry is going through, dealing with questions about what we do with content, online, the internet, how do we sustain ourselves as a business. So we’re gathering news, running around and trying to figure out the big questions at the same time.

Are people excited or scared about what’s happening in newspapers?

It’s been going on for a long time so we’re not as panicked as we were five years ago. Things are stabilising and people are trying different things, paywalls, micropayments, clicks, who knows yet, but at least we feel like we have a basis where we can say, OK, things cannot get too much worse. We still have people who pay for the newspaper itself.

You have to pay people to create content. I was reading a study the other day that said that since online journalism has come out there has actually been less news reporting because so many people are just digesting what everyone else is saying. Of course, that makes sense. It’s a big job to find a story. I’m not sure what the answer is.

As a columnist, you’re putting yourself out there, so everybody feels they have a right to reply. How does it work with your column?

I talked to Meghan Daum, a columnist at the LA Times, before I started and she told me you’re not doing a good job unless people also dislike you. It’s not good to write a column that nobody feels anything about, and it’s true. People are weird, especially on the internet. I do feel like women columnists get it harder; the attacks on us are much more personal. A lot of [the San Francisco Chronicle] readers are older; they think that they don’t want to hear the voice of someone younger for whatever reason, so they tell me that. A lot of the time, they’re very personal, but I don’t take it personally anymore. But it is strange. They talk about what you look like; they say you could never know anything because you’re younger, you’re pretty…

What’s your process in writing a column?

It sort of depends on the week. I try to do a balance of things that are national and local. There’s a process of going out and looking for things, trying to contact people, sometimes praying that something falls into my lap. Sometimes things get decided at the last minute; sometimes they’re set up a long way in advance.

Is there a column that’s gotten the most response?

People will respond when you write about animals. They will respond when you write about technology, especially here. They’ll respond to polls, to questions. It’s funny because I never know what is going to get a response. A lot of times I’m surprised. I wrote a column about shopping in a supermarket and I got a big response from that.

What do you love about San Francisco?

Physically, it’s so beautiful. I love being close to the ocean. I love having the mountains nearby. I love the way the city looks, the hills, the parks, even just walking around my neighbourhood. I like the food, we have great museums. San Francisco’s a fairly small city, we have less than 1 million people but in a lot of ways we have amenities of a much bigger city.

I grew up in San Jose in the South Bay; it’s a million people but it’s fairly quiet. Everyone lives in their family homes and there’s very little to do, which is probably why I started writing because I was bored as a child. I always read and it was the only thing I ever wanted to do. If I’d known as a kid how difficult it was going to be I probably would have done something else. It’s hard to make a living as a writer. It was a real shock to me that not everybody valued books and writing as much as I did. It’s still a real shock to me. It probably always will be!

Do you have favourite writers?

I wrote my thesis on Jimmy Baldwin. I really like Henry James and Cormac McCarthy. I like the German writer W.G. Sebald a lot. And then journalists working today: Jon Lee Anderson, Rebecca Solnit, she’s a local author, she’s great, a really hard worker. Richard Rodriguez is another really wonderful local author.

Are there challenges particular to being a female journalist?

People are not as comfortable with the idea of women having authority, and being any sort of journalist or writer or creator of anything is assuming a position of authority so there’s a certain amount of hostility that goes along with that. That being said depending on what sort of journalism you want to do you it can be in advantage in that different people will probably open up to you than would open up to a man.

Do you think the internet has opened up more platforms for people to talk about feminism?

I think the internet has replicated most of structures that are already within our society. I think the same problems that you see at a societal level you will also see on the internet. And some cases worse because totally anonymous speech can be damaging, particularly to people who are marginalised. So, it’s interesting because the internet was designed to be this renegade platform where everybody would have a voice and what we’re seeing is a lot of structures and hierarchy around who gets to be seen who gets to be heard.

Any particular sites that you follow?

I follow all the news sites, I like tumblr a lot. There are a lot of new voices that have emerged on the internet, but I feel like we’re at a point now where things are becoming institutionalised. There are fewer channels to discover those new voices. Blogging is definitely over, which is a shame. We’re just seeing fewer and fewer people start and keep their own blogs. That individual blog platform is collapsing. I don’t like the internet becoming like television where everybody watches the same channel: an excessive amount of people only check about five sites, and two of them are Facebook and Google, exactly what you’d expect. So I would be sad about losing the internet as a place of discovery.

Do you have any favourite bands?

Here there’s a really great local band called The Tussle; I interviewed them. I’ve been listening to Prince. I’m always listening to Prince. I like the Divine Fits album that came out last year. According my iPod, I’m listening to Dirty Projectors, Jay-Z, Echo and the Bunnymen, Nina Simone and PJ Harvey.

So, go on, Internet, get opinionated.

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