This issue, “10 Questions” checked in with Eric Larsen, content strategist for the Fort Collins Coloradoan.
A graduate of Oregon State University, Larsen has worked his way up the writing and editing ladders from sports to the newsroom, and now to a position as a digital news proponent at the Coloradoan. He lives in Fort Collins with his wife Megan.
You grew up in Astoria, Ore., near the mouth of the Columbia River a couple of hours northwest of Portland, then earned a bachelor of science in Exercise and Sport Science with a minor in Writing at Oregon State University. Did you have plans for a very different career, or did the writing bug cause you to consider other job options?
I started out college with the intention of becoming a doctor, but those plans changed each time my grades came back. For as much as I loved anatomy and physiology, I just couldn’t get interested in chemistry. My idea of being a doctor shifted to one of being an athletic trainer, and when my chemistry grades derailed that plan, I finally had to do some soul-searching about what I was actually good at.
I knew I wanted to be around sports, and despite my fondness for science I had always been a better writer. Midway through my junior year I started writing sports columns for The Daily Barometer, Oregon State’s student newspaper, and pitched freelance articles to whoever would take them.
I spent six months after graduation receiving rejection letters from newspapers and athletic departments around the country before I landed my first job on what I think was sheer potential and general ignorance of deadline pressure.
You started out as a sports reporter for the Times-News in Twin Falls, Idaho, for five-plus years, covering 32 high-school programs at first, then college. Sounds like a lot of detailed reporting, legwork and coordination. How did that training ground shape your career?
I learned to do a bit of everything covering sports in an eight-county area that can take up to 2 ½ hours to drive across.
I used an alligator clip to attach my stat book to a belt loop so I could drop it and put both hands on the camera around my neck. Internet service was spotty in rural south-central Idaho, so I’d dictate stories to myself on the drive home to the point where I had them memorized when I reached a keyboard.
I wrote a lot of stories in 15 minutes or less and authored some of the most mediocre page design you’ll ever see. The necessity of being a generalist kept my first experience in daily journalism broad, challenging me in places where I’d be tested more regularly in subsequent positions.
Then you moved up to Assistant City Editor and then City Editor for the same newspaper for the next four years, leading teams of reporters on breaking and "watchdog" news. What did you learn during that time, and how did it lead to a job as Editor for Government and Growth with the Coloradoan in 2012?
I learned just how much I didn’t know about journalism, but that was the point of moving out of sports. I was one of those “sports guys” who flinched at a meeting agenda or a municipal budget, but I realized it was a weakness.
Those four years were spent making every mistake in the book, and I’m grateful to the people who allowed me to grow on the job.
One of those people was Josh Awtry, who’s now in a corporate position with Gannett. He came to the Times-News in 2010 and was someone who was transformative to my career in the short time he was executive editor. When the chance to work with him in Fort Collins came up, I knew it was the right next step.
Next you became Senior Editor for Content for the Coloradoan, managing another team of reporters. And now you're Content Strategist, with an even larger team plus a focus on digital. What does that job description look like?
I think everybody in the Coloradoan newsroom has a pretty defined digital focus, so that’s one space where I get to be more of a collaborator than a leader. But the brass tacks of my job include helping a team of 14 reporters and two content coaches focus on how best to reach and grow our audience by reaching them with engaging, relevant content.
Part of that is setting strategy – how we focus on growing our paid digital audience while honoring our print legacy – but a lot of it is still managing the daily grind of bringing stories from ideation, through the editing process, and into a place where what we’ve done makes the most sense across our various display platforms.
In February you traveled to Gannett headquarters near Washington, D.C., for the inaugural virtual reality Vision VR/AR Summit. What did you take away from that?
That anyone with a Ricoh Theta S or a GoPro Array is at the tip of the spear of another potentially interesting storytelling medium, though nobody really knows where these tools will take us.
The Coloradoan has dabbled in VR and 360-degree video since last year’s cycling USA Pro Challenge, and it’s been a blast to see people’s reactions to being “in” another space through the VR goggles, or being able to determine what they want to see while a 360-degree video plays. It’s hard to say exactly where the technology will take us, but right now it’s another tool to reach for when we want to tell a visual story.
You're a member of the Leadership Team at the newspaper. There are also teams for Growth, Storytelling, Outreach and Production, and Visuals. How did these teams come about, and what is your role with your team?
Our newsroom structure was born out of months of research and reflection on what Fort Collins-area readers told us they wanted. Folks who’ve heard about Gannett’s “Newsroom of the Future” reorganization will know that we clustered reporters around “passion topics,” or areas that readers tell us they’re interested in through their consumption of our digital and print products.
So instead of having a traditional city desk, features desk, sports desk structure, we try to center our people around areas of reader interest. In Fort Collins, where the population is expected to expand to 250,000 by around 2040, the consequences of that growth are an area of great reader interest.
Part of my role is to lead a five-reporter team in providing coverage of government, business and other aspects of living in Northern Colorado through that lens.
What kind of information or support do you get from your membership with the Investigative Reporters and Editors grassroots nonprofit organization?
I was able to attend IRE 2015 in Philadelphia and have been to a few other regional conferences over the years. IRE is an incredible resource.
I have a stash of tip sheets saved on my desktop that I turn to for inspiration from time to time. There are still plenty that I’ve saved just because they looked interesting. Ideas are the currency that we deal in as journalists, and IRE provides a wealth of ideas about how to improve our craft.
You just graduated from the 2015-2016 Leadership Fort Collins class, run by the Fort Collins Area Chamber of Commerce "to educate and motivate leaders committed to shaping the future of the community." How do you think that will enhance your current work, or shape your career?
Life in a newsroom can be a bit isolating, and for the past eight years I’ve experienced a lot of what happens in my community through the reporters I work with. I wanted to purposefully do something to enhance my connection to Fort Collins, and the leadership class was a great way to do that in person – not over the phone or email. It was a great reminder of just how talented and passionate people here are, and I’d say it filled my bucket with an even greater appreciation of the place in which I live.
Just wondering how many times people call you thinking you're the polar explorer Eric Larsen, who lives in Boulder, and do you do outdoor sports that you could tell them about?
I totally follow polar explorer Eric Larsen on Facebook. I’m not sure he follows me back. I get a lot more “In the Garden of Beasts” and Erik Larson questions, actually. But come on, how do you top polar explorer Eric Larsen? I’ve completed a couple Tough Mudders and a handful of half-marathons, but I’m a kid from the Oregon Coast. I get uncomfortable if the weather dips below 40 or above 75.
Neat desk or not, and what would we see there?
Unsettlingly neat, some would say. Neat to the point that some might wonder if my wife just changes my oil every 2,000 miles. But aside from the requisite neatly-stacked papers, there are a few Broncos mementos and photos from our wedding and honeymoon.
Journalism has been my life since 2003, and I’m grateful it brought me to an amazing organization in the Coloradoan, and a wonderful place to live where I met an even more amazing partner in crime. I just hope I can keep up with all these good things.