“Behind the Byline” introduces you to those who write stories, take photos, design pages and edit the content we deliver in our print editions and on pressdemocrat.com. We are more than journalists. As you will see, we are also your neighbors with unique backgrounds and experiences that proudly live in Sonoma County.
Today we introduce you to Elissa Chudwin, one of our online producers.
My career, in some ways, was an accident.
I took a journalism class in high school because I was desperate to drop out of an art class where I thought the teacher didn’t like me.
The class had just completed a self-portrait project that featured mosaic squares in several shades of one color. If done correctly, the squares have blended together to create our facial features as you stood at a distance.
Or, if you were me, the yellow squares have blended together to look more like Pac-Man. And this picture was hung in our school library for everyone to see.
I was completely mortified.
This – along with the lack of finesse in my work and the realization that I often couldn’t tell purple from blue – led me straight to the guidance counselor’s office. There I begged to be added to any elective course other than art the following semester.
I ended up in Mrs. Galloy’s journalism class as a junior.
It didn’t take long for me to develop a passion for journalism. I was a curious, observant, and to be honest nosy kid, all of these skills that came in handy when I started my career.
I especially liked the idea of sharing the stories of people whose lives I thought were far more fascinating than mine. Journalism seemed to be the only socially acceptable way to ask strangers dozens of questions without being intrusive.
And looking back, I was collecting stories long before I entered this classroom.
I am the only grandchild who has not met my maternal grandfather, a Marine stationed in the Pacific during WWII.
He died a few years before I was born. Because of this, my grandmother insisted that I know him through his stories. I spent countless weekends listening to her tell how they met and what she knew from her time as a parachutist.
My paternal grandparents, who are Jewish, moved to Germany in 1948 when my grandfather, a medic in the US Army, was stationed there.
I couldn’t understand what it was like to live in a country so soon after his former government’s main goal was to wipe out people who were like them.
Without knowing it, my grandparents were my first interviewees. If I thought they were overdoing it or a timeline didn’t match, I would ask follow-up questions until I felt the story made sense.
I’ve learned that sometimes even the most obvious questions have surprising answers.
My grandfather once said that he was more afraid of meeting troops from the Soviet Union than Nazis in Germany because many were just as anti-Semitic.
When I told my family I wanted to be a journalist, the only person who seemed surprised was me.
I enrolled in the University of Missouri with no idea whether I could handle the long hours or even find a job after I graduated.
My first job, however, was to work for a weekly newspaper series near my hometown of the Chicago area. About a year later, I moved to Dallas to work for a neighborhood magazine company. There I mostly wrote stories and interviewed everyone from a 100 year old Holocaust survivor to a reality TV producer.
I was in seventh heaven.
But around this time, I also became more interested in the digital side of things and why some stories worked well online while others didn’t.
It was then that I moved to Santa Rosa to become an online producer at The Press Democrat. You can see my signature, but most of what I do is behind the scenes.
Sometimes I decide where the stories end up on our website homepage or what a headline says. Other times, I design the digital presentation of a story or respond to readers on social media. (Please be kind.)
I also help monitor North Bay Q&A which gives readers the flexibility to submit questions on anything and everything related to the area.
Engagement is a buzzword that’s probably overused in journalism, but all it entails is that journalists interact directly with the communities they cover and share the stories they need most. .
I think asking readers what makes them curious or what challenges they face only makes us better journalists. And I hope that part of what I’m doing will help more people see themselves on our site and on our pages.
I don’t forget how much confidence it takes to share a piece of your life with a complete stranger or to have your friends, colleagues and neighbors read it.
I can’t guarantee that I always do my job perfectly, but I can promise that I am listening when you tell us what we have done well and what we can do better.