BABE #219: TESSA DUVALL - Enterprise Reporter/Director of Engagement, The Florida Times-Union
As an enterprise reporter for the Florida Times-Union, Tessa specializes in stories regarding juvenile justice reporting, and children’s issues relating to mental health, child-serving agencies and child welfare. As director of engagement, she has the additional responsibility of helping her colleagues more deeply connect their work with their audience. Tessa is an absolute force to be reckoned with here in Jacksonville and beyond, and continues to set herself apart with her contagious passion, natural talent and unwavering dedication to her craft as a journalist.
Hometown: Bowling Green, Kentucky
Current city: Jacksonville, Florida
Alma mater: Western Kentucky University
Degree: B.A., News/Editorial Journalism; B.A., Sociology
Very first job: Sales Associate, PacSun
Hustle: Enterprise Reporter and Director of Engagement, The Florida Times-Union
Babe you admire and why?
Let me tell you about my best friend, Caitlin. It’s so rare in life to meet someone who is as authentic, giving of herself and independent-minded as she is. This is a woman who somehow manages to balance a full-time job with a part-time job, DIY projects at her new home, exploring the mountains of Upstate South Carolina, baking treats from scratch and being a dedicated friend, daughter, sister and aunt to her loved ones near and far. And she makes it all look easy. I’m in awe of the person she is on a daily basis.
How do you spend your free time?
As a relatively new homeowner, there’s always something that needs to be done. It seems like everything that grows in Florida is invasive, but luckily, I find the never-ending yard work (like pulling vines and trimming shrubs) to be therapeutic. I’m also a fan of camping out in Vagabond with a good book and game nights with friends.
Favorite fictional female character?
Is it too predictable if I say Leslie Knope? Leslie’s eternal optimism, work ethic, dedication to her friends and community and her love of breakfast foods are inspiring. I just hung a “Leslie Knope” pennant on my desk.
Go-to coffee order and/or adult beverage?
Maker’s Mark and ginger ale with a wedge of lime. You can take the girl out of Kentucky, but...
What would you eat for your very last meal?
If I drowned in a bottomless pit of queso dip, I’d die happy.
What’s something you want to learn or master?
One of my close friends, Jensen Werley, and I just made a pact to learn more about taking care of our cars in an effort to become more independent. It sounds really basic, but we’re going to be accountability buddies for this. We want to be less dependent on other people and this seems like a good starting point, especially for young women.
Tell us about your hustle.
In my full-time role, I’m a reporter at The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville’s daily newspaper. My specialty is juvenile justice reporting, and children’s issues more broadly. While I don’t cover the school system, I do write about issues relating to children’s mental health, child-serving agencies and child welfare. My editor has also recently dubbed me the “director of engagement,” which means I’ve taken on the responsibility of helping my colleagues more deeply connect their work with our audience and beyond. Reporters today can’t think print-only; we must be where our audience is, which is increasingly online. I recently won a nearly-$15,000 grant to provide the newsroom with a year of coaching and two engagement tools, which I think will pay off for us in a big way. One thing I’m especially proud of is my role in helping to organize the Times-Union’s newsroom and form the Times-Union Guild. With a corporate owner like GateHouse Media, it is increasingly important that newsroom employees stick up for themselves and each other.
What does your typical workday look like?
There is no such day as a typical day for a reporter! But, for the past year, I’ve been working on a story about juvenile homicide and exploring the early lives of young people who end up killing another person. It’s not exactly an uplifting topic, but given the violent youth crime in our city, it is so necessary to understand this issue. My goal is to tell these young people’s stories in the full context of their lives, which almost always means understanding the messy, traumatic upbringings they endured. This project has required days spent at my computer looking at data in excel and writing letters to incarcerated people, but it has also meant traveling to prisons around Florida to do in-person interviews with some of these young men.
What led you to journalism?
A good journalist is excited by and engaged in current events, skeptical and curious. I figured out early on I had all those things going for me. How many teens do you know who make a point to watch the evening national news broadcast? I was one of those kids. Education and children’s issues was a natural choice for me. How a community supports its children will directly affect all other parts of that society in the future. Who will drive a city’s economy in a decade or two? Who will run city hall in the future? Who may or may not end up in the criminal justice system down the road? The children and teens of today. It’s a no-brainer. There are no stories I see as more important to the future of Jacksonville than the ones I’m able to tell today. Given the choice to cover kids or City Hall, I’d chose the kids every single time.
From where do you consume news of your own?
For Jacksonville news, I (obviously) turn to The Florida Times-Union before I look anywhere else. My colleagues are remarkably talented and routinely break huge stories with an expertise that is unparalleled by anyone else. I also really love WJCT and Folio Weekly. For national news, my first choice is The Washington Post, followed immediately by The New York Times. Contrary to what some might say, those papers are thriving and very much “real” news. ProPublica also does amazing, impactful investigations and does more than its fair share to uplift and support smaller newsrooms, like that of the Times-Union’s.
How do you feel about the current state of journalism in America?
Lately, I’ve really struggled seeing how many people out there are wishing for the rapid demise of my industry and publication, and for me and my colleagues to lose our jobs just because they hate “the media.” Journalism is The Fourth Estate for a reason, and from the national level all the way to the neighborhood level, we provide a service invaluable to our communities. Jacksonville will be worse off if The Times-Union, Daily Record and Business Journal go away. If we’re gone, who will sit through school board meetings? Decipher city budgets? Hold elected officials accountable? Think about who has something to gain if the truth remains hidden. It’s not the public. If I could make one ask of you, it would be this: support local journalism where you live. I love The Times and The Post too, but your local reporters are covering the issues in your own backyard. You get what you pay for, and when many people chose not to pay for journalism, the community suffers as a result. Get an online subscription to your local newspaper. Donate to public radio’s pledge drive. If there’s a nonprofit outlet near you, become a supporter. You’ll be grateful you did.
What have you found to be some of the biggest issues impacting kids in Northeast Florida?
There are so many things to get fired up about when it comes to what’s holding children back in Northeast Florida. Seventy-six percent of single moms in Duval County struggle to make ends meet. Mental health issues are a huge concern for area kids, especially LGBT kids. A lot of people don’t realize how commonplace it is for kids in many parts of Jacksonville to be routinely exposed to gunshots, gang activity and other forms of trauma. Study after study has shown that trauma early in life can lead to worse outcomes later in life. There are kids in this city that feel so unsafe and so without hope that they think they need guns to protect themselves. Let that sink in.
What tools or programs help you stay organized?
Call me old-fashioned, but I love a good paper planner. For the last three years, I’ve used Emily Ley’s Simplified Planner. There’s a page for each day, with a column for appointments, a column for my neverending to-do list and boxes for meal prep and other notes. I’m already way too dependent on my phone, so this is one way I can reduce the amount of time I stare at a screen.
Tell us about your TEDxJacksonville experience.
TEDxJacksonville is one of the best things in this city. The organizers chose me to give a talk about one of my Times-Union stories back in 2015. The series, called “Transforming Butler,” was about the Leadership Schools at Eugene J. Butler Middle School, and its transition from a tough, low-performing neighborhood school into a leadership magnet school. For about four months, I spent time at the school, with its students and their parents and teachers, getting to understand what it was and what they hoped it would be. TEDx is all about “ideas worth spreading” and for a time, I really struggled with what the idea of my talk would be. Sure, I could talk about what happened at the school, but as an objective journalist, what I absolutely could not do was be an advocate for a certain reform, school leader or be seen as taking a partisan stance in any way. But what I could be an advocate for is kids. For their health, wellbeing and success. A big part of that, I think, is challenging the audience and their stereotypes about struggling schools like what Butler was. My goal was to have the audience strike the phrase “bad school” from their vocabularies. Kids absolutely know what adults say about their schools, and they understand that stigma. It’s on adults to do better and understand the complex socio-economic and systemic issues that lead to some schools having more challenges than others. There are a few ways that can translate into action, like really doing their homework on school board elections and exploring how they can get involved in supporting schools and kids, like mentoring and coaching.
How have your past internships, education and work experiences prepared you for the work you do today?
Internships and student media are the reasons I am where I am today. A journalism degree is great to have, but the ability to plan, report, write and present stories is what got me in the door at my first two full-time newsroom jobs. There are a lot of things you learn in the classroom that are important--story structure, AP style, fact-checking, public records--that are foundational for being a reporter. But nothing can top actually going out and reporting a story. I worked at my student newspaper, the College Heights Herald, for most of my time in school, and did everything from covering parking and construction to being editor-in-chief of the paper. The experience I got at the student paper helped me to land four summer internships, from a small weekly in Western Kentucky to a major daily in one of America’s biggest cities. A working newsroom teaches you how to hustle, how to work within a team and how to find and produce stories.
What’s been your biggest career milestone and why?
Last summer, I was named a National Fellow through the Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California. I was on an airplane when the notification was sent, and I almost cried when I landed and saw the email. This fellowship has enabled me to, for the last year, take a deep dive into understanding why so many kids from Jacksonville end up killing people as teens. Duval County is second only to Miami-Dade for the number of kids arrested for murder or manslaughter in the last decade, and what my reporting has shown is that, more often than not, their early lives are stacked with really significant challenges and trauma. My goal in this reporting is to put their crimes into the context of their lives so that the community can really wrap its arms around this issue. A few pieces of this project have been published, and more are to come before the end of the year. Stay tuned!
How has being a woman affected your professional experience?
At my very first internship, during my first week on the job, while covering my first-ever press conference, a public information officer said, “I have a child your age!” and walked away from me. I was so intimidated, I could have cried. I was 19, and felt like I didn’t belong. At my college paper, when I became editor-in-chief, some guys who had previously worked at the paper and graduated took to Twitter to accuse me of turning the paper into “Cosmopolitan” because we added fashion, movie and other lifestyle columns. Even today, I’m still routinely called a “girl” (I’m 27) in situations that should be professional, and sources will opt to hug me when I’d much prefer a handshake. Those experiences have given me a thicker skin and a pretty good attitude about it all. My mantra: Underestimate me at your own risk. I know I’m a talented reporter with a strong set of skills and the ability to hold my own in an interview. If anyone wants to believe otherwise, then, well, let them be blindsided. It took years to get to that place, but now I’ve got that mindset I’m so much more confident.
What are some common misconceptions about your job?
Reporters are not the enemy of the American people. We are not engaged in a nationwide conspiracy to promote liberal propaganda. We don’t meet new people and constantly wonder how we can work them over for secrets and tell the world about them. In actuality, reporters are equal-opportunity when it comes to our desire to uncover corruption and malfeasance. Journalists believe deeply in accountability, transparency and truth, and the only people who should see us as enemies are those with power and something to hide. Also, reporters are incredibly trustworthy people. If something is said to us in confidence, it stays that way. I could give you a list of folks who’d vouch for me, and this shouldn’t need to be said, but I’m going to say it anyway: Journalists are real people. We live in our communities, too. We want them to be good places that thrive and where people can live comfortable, meaningful lives. We are just like everyone else in this regard.
What advice would you give to a babe trying to break into your industry?
Read the news daily. Find reporters you admire, and read everything they write. Get as much experience in the field as you can, and as soon as you can. Be tenacious in your pursuit of a story, and never turn down an assignment from an editor. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice, mentorship or to job shadow. Look for organizations that provide scholarships or fellowships to their conferences, training or seminars; I recommend IRE and JAWS to all young women. Always remember your work has value.
Career and/or life advice for other babes?
Know yourself. It’s OK to be exactly who you are right now. Women tend to put a lot of pressure on themselves to be a certain way to fit in, get ahead or get along. I’ve felt that way, too, but eventually realized that I didn’t want to fit in, get ahead or get along if it wasn’t as my authentic self.
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