PD government and politics reporter Emma Murphy: Why I shine a spotlight on public agencies and elected leaders
“Behind the Byline” introduces you to those who write stories, shoot photos, design pages and edit the content we deliver in our print editions and on pressdemocrat.com. We’re more than journalists. As you’ll see, we’re also your neighbors with unique backgrounds and experiences who proudly call Sonoma County home.
Today, we introduce you to Emma Murphy, our Sonoma County government and politics reporter.
I arrived in California 14 months ago with my fiance, Alex, and our Australian cattle dog mix, Ellie, all of us transplanted New Englanders eager to see more of the country.
I was also excited to launch the next phase of my career in journalism. My interest in being a journalist first piqued at Brookline High School, just outside of Boston.
Sophomore year, my English teacher, Ms. Wise, handed down one of my favorite assignments: a personal essay about the things we carry with us, seen and unseen — inspired by Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War collection, “The Things They Carried,” which we were reading at the time.
The assignment came right when I was coping with the loss of my grandfathers, who died just months apart, both shortly after turning 90.
I poured myself into that assignment, writing about the pocket tissues I needed when I teared up at school and the gold chain necklace with a pendant of Mary, the Blessed Mother, my Papa left me. A World War II veteran and devout Catholic, Papa said there were only two reasons he survived the war — luck and Mary.
The assignment sticks with me not just because writing was therapeutic, but because it taught me how small, easily overlooked details like a piece of jewelry can reveal something significant. I was not a practicing Catholic, but I wore that necklace faithfully.
So, what do I carry now?
The inside of my messenger bag probably resembles most journalists’ work bags. The bag and its contents are my mobile office these days, though not so much from necessity but habit.
My first few years in journalism I worked as a general assignment reporter responsible for covering towns just outside of Boston before moving to a daily paper covering Lowell, a city in northern Massachusetts. In a single day I could go from reporting a fire or a shooting, to writing a local profile, covering an evening government meeting or, depending on the town, a demonstration outside that meeting.
As a result, my bag was a library of notebooks and documents, with backup external batteries for my phone, a tangle of charging cords and snacks necessary to get through New England’s particular brand of local government — something called the town meeting. It is an annual marathon of consecutive evening sessions where residents and their elected governing boards gather to vote on major decisions for the year, including the budget and school building projects.
I also had an excessive number of pens and pencils — thanks to the frigid New England winter days that too often froze my pens.
Today, I still keep the mess of pencils and notebooks on hand, but also face masks as a pandemic staple, a lint roller to clean up after Ellie, who manages to cover me in fur even when we’re apart and a favorite beach stone.
My beat as The Press Democrat’s Sonoma County government and politics reporter demands I write most days. But when I was much younger, reading and writing did not come easy.
In first grade, the rules governing how letters came together to form words on the page just would not click in my brain, and I found myself pulled from class for one-on-one tutoring sessions. They left me disheartened and embarrassed.
As I struggled with the reading assignments that seemed to come so easily to my classmates, my parents signed me up for a summer reading program at Boston University.
I dreaded going. With its monochrome walls and windows that didn’t open, the college classroom felt big, cold and unfriendly.
It all changed when, one day after class, my mom took me to a CVS across from the BU building to buy a cassette player for class. She let me pick out whichever one I wanted.
It was pink, magic and — I was sure — as grown up as the college students I saw on campus.
My confidence grew, the lessons finally began to click and by third grade, I loved reading. “The Jewel Kingdom” book series gave way to Nancy Drew and later, Jane Austen, which led to an ambitious goal to read as many classics as I could.
In high school, I started reading more current authors -- such as Roddy Doyle and Nicole Krauss -- and found power in short story writing that captured slices of everyday life, whether funny, haunting or odd.
I went from dreading those reading classes in first grade to frequently getting in trouble for staying up late reading. Picture my mom bursting into my room at midnight as I pretended to be asleep with “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” hidden under my pillow.
I doubt I fooled her.
That reading habit translated into a love of writing that brought me to Ms. Wise’s journalism class in high school where I discovered that I loved digging into issues and chronicling key moments in people’s lives.
That love is why, after exploring environmental studies and international relations in college at the University of Vermont, I settled on journalism.
Now, as The Press Democrat’s county government and politics reporter, I nerd out over policy reports, land-use zoning and the twists and turns of local elections.
But what gets me fired up about the importance of local journalism is the direct and indirect impact of those policies, votes and political outcomes on everyday lives.
While federal and state decisions can dominate headlines, it is our local leaders who, in my short experience here: choose where to allocate limited public funding; decide how to untangle and impose such disputed rules as the county’s ordinance for commercial cannabis operations; set the final boundary lines for our legislative elections; and preside over a whole host of decisions that affect our roads, housing supply, access to health care, disaster recovery and taxes.
I am here to spotlight that work.
Often my reporting is focused on the nitty-gritty of decisions, but always in my mind are the people and livelihoods affected by those decisions.
So, please, send me your questions, your tips — and your book recommendations.
You can reach Staff Writer Emma Murphy at 707-521-5228 or email@example.com. On Twitter @MurphReports.