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At the Helm of News Fix

Dan Brekke

If you visit KQED.org on a regular basis, chances are good that you read News Fix — one of our website's top three most-viewed pages. And while the news stories come from a variety of sources, the byline visitors see most often is that of Dan Brekke.

My conversation with Dan may go down as the most ambulatory and noisy interview in On Q history. Not only did we move twice inside the KQED building, when fire alarms began to wail, we and all of our colleagues had to evacuate. We finished the interview on a street corner while waiting for the SFFD to arrive and give us the all clear.

Dan took over as the News Fix blogger and editor in the fall of 2013, after six years as an editor for KQED Radio news. But his career in journalism goes back a bit further than that. He's worked in media "ever since Nixon's first term, when newspapers were still using hot type . . . . I went into a newsroom for the first time when I was 18," he recalls. "I'd graduated early from high school and I had a chance to work as a copy boy at a newspaper in Chicago. It was so long ago that little was thought of the practice of the older employees calling us 'boy.' They'd say, 'Boy. Copy.' Just like in the movies."

While a student at U.C. Berkeley, Dan worked at the Daily Cal and later "at a little paper in the East Bay." He wound up at the Examiner for about 12 years through the mid '90s, and then went to work at Wired just as it was starting its own news service.

"My introduction to online journalism happened when I was at the Examiner with [KQED Public Radio News Director] Bruce Koon. There was a strike in November 1994, and one of the things that the union journalists did was publish a strike paper online. (If only the newspapers had seen the significance of this at the time.) I remember I was filing an election-night story about East Bay election results and someone was describing to me over the phone the HTML tags you needed to put before and after every paragraph."

"I am a breaking news kind of person. I like the adrenaline." A salient example — the [2011] tsunami in Japan — happened early on in the life of News Fix. "I was watching live pictures late at night and thought, "that could come here." So I went online and looked for tsunami forecasts and, sure enough. So I did a post about that sometime before midnight and kept going most of the night. We got so much traffic that night, it brought the site down. We saw the same degree of interest during the BART strike. If you can establish yourself as a go-to source for this kind of information, people will come. Lots of people told me that they were reading our updates every night to see if the trains would be running."

How would you describe the sensibility of News Fix?
It's an evolving site — or news service. I'm not sure how to think of it, exactly. There's a short list of things — natural disasters, public disturbances — that people now instinctively go online to find out about. That's the service part of New Fix. The site part is that we have a lot of content being produced in the KQED News department that's looking for a place online. And right now, News Fix is the best way for most of that information to get in front of people.

I think News Fix, or any other KQED blog, has to be seen in a larger context. For instance, when we post something on News Fix, if we're lucky, we are on the right story at the right time and we show up at the top of Google search results. That's a very effective way of drawing traffic. But we don't control the Google algorithm, so we have to think of other ways of getting the news out.

We have to Tweet our best material out. We have to be on Facebook. And the ways we choose to use social media have implications for what News Fix will look like. For instance, right now we're in the middle of a drought. So we started a Tumbler of drought pictures.

Hopefully, over time, it will become a crowd-sourced portrait of the drought in California and I'd like to be able to guarantee that we are a go-to source for drought information.

Like I said, it is evolving. You have to see what the audience is responding to and try and understand how they are using the information. This is a very diverse and demanding region to cover. People here are sophisticated. They have sophisticated B.S. detectors.

Is there a particular direction you'd like to see News Fix go in?
I think the long-term vision for everything we are doing online is to establish ourselves as authoritative about certain issues — especially local ones. One example is the housing affordability crisis in San Francisco. We came up with the rubric "Priced Out" for our coverage. Also, during the very serious cold snap in December, we did a very quick-turnaround project — going out and talking to people on the streets. We didn't get into the larger context of homelessness. We just wanted to ask, "What was your day or night like?" Something like that doesn't change the face of American journalism, but I think it is important to think about what other voices are out there. And that's something we can do for our community.

On the lighter side, what are some blogs that you follow?
There's a law clerk in Springfield, IL., who has a blog called Disarranging Mine — disarranging mine is part of a lyric from a 1960s Rolling Stone song — and she has one of the most interesting takes on the world. I also follow her daughter's blog, dissuade.org.

I feel like I probably should be able to quickly spit out a long list, but what I follow really is driven by my specific interests. And my interest is very episodic.

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