As is the case with many others in his position, Greg Winter did not enter journalism intending to become an editor. In fact, he was passionate about public policy and social issues. As an architecture student at Brown University in the early 1990s, Winter used the school’s unique interdisciplinary program to focus on public policy and how it shaped access to housing.
He wrote his thesis on the Section 8 voucher program, and for another project, investigated how money earmarked for preserving homes was being used to gentrify Providence, Rhode Island.
Winter went on to become the director of public policy at the Hamilton Family Center in San Francisco, a homeless shelter that helped build transitional housing and worked to expand affordable housing in San Francisco. Winter was on the mayor’s committee for housing and was involved in citywide housing projects throughout the ’90s. As Winter advocated for social justice through public policy, he began to think about how else he could use his skills and interests.
“Even though it seemed like we were doing change on a large scale, we were barely making a dent in the issue of homelessness in San Francisco, and the issue was so much larger than my impact could be,” he said. In considering how he could have more impact, he turned to journalism. He pitched to publications from the San Francisco Bay Guardian to The Nation, but Winter soon realized that so long as he didn’t have the title of “journalist” attached to his name, publications would be reluctant to take him on. Winter said he didn’t know how to become a journalist, but he did know how to go to school. He decided to apply to journalism school at his local university, UC Berkeley.
He knew that as a journalist, he would have to shed his advocacy. As an advocate, he noted, “You are going to try to shine a light only on facts that are convenient to your ultimate aim.” Whereas as a journalist, he said, “You confront, you report and grapple with truth, no matter what the truth may be, whether it conforms with your own personal beliefs or not.” He was ready to do that, but as he entered the J-School, he had no clips and no journalistic experience.
“I had never written for a journalistic publication at all. I had not worked on my own newspaper in high school or college,” he said.
Winter did not even know what a clip was until his instructors began asking him for them. Recruiters for summer internships would be arriving soon, they warned, and Winter would need to have clips to show them.
“I started conspiring with my professors to come up with school assignments that could be published in local publications,” Winter said. “And so I started writing and pitching stories immediately for the San Francisco Chronicle and for other publications locally that might take freelance copy.”
When recruiters came around, Winter not only knew what a clip was, he now had plenty of them. He landed a summer internship with The Wall Street Journal’s regional Florida Journal after his first year of journalism school in what Winter called a “fluke.” The recruiter who hired Winter recognized his maturity and grit and warned him not to come crying if it became too tough. So, Winter drove across the country to report stories that would eventually help him get an internship on The New York Times’ business desk the following year. In order to get a firmer grasp on the business beat, which Winter knew nothing about, he took an unpaid volunteer internship at CBS Marketwatch in San Francisco.
He said he made “embarrassing errors” at Marketwatch, as he learned the beat. “Got lots of reader comments about how ignorant I was and how markets worked, and had a very good and humbling education so that when I got to The New York Times, I didn’t know as little as I could have,” he added.
Winter eventually became a full-time business reporter, covering consumable products such as food and pharmaceuticals. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Winter was sent to Los Angeles to cover the western United States on the National Desk. Upon returning to New York, he covered the reconstruction of Ground Zero and the recovery of the neighborhood and the city. Top editors at the Times then suggested Winter pivot to the education beat.
“I was so happy to do that because it was really something I knew about,” Winter said. “And also, it was a great beat. They created a beat for me [at] the intersection between money and education, which was really just a limitless subject that affects all of our lives.”
Winter was on the education beat for three years when the international desk began looking for an editor. He assessed his possibilities; reporters tend to be reluctant to become editors, Winter said, because “editing was the dark side.” He also knew little about international issues. Yet he was open to it and, just as he did with business reporting, decided to jump in the deep end and learn how to become an editor.
Working on the international desk means dealing with tumult that often can’t be predicted. Winter said it’s hard to prepare for an international crisis but when it happens, all you can do is be patient and calm. During his time as an international editor of The New York Times, Winter was involved in the coverage of the kidnapped schoolgirls by Boko Haram, the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, and the Ebola epidemic in Africa, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015 for international reporting.
“I’m working with reporters all over the world to help them do their stories,” Winter said. “I was the editor for many different regions, including Africa, Latin America, the United Nations. And when you’re working with reporters, you are really their primary conduit to the institution and to the public. So that means you are their drill sergeant, their priest, their confessor, their marriage counselor, their writing coach, their greatest fan, their toughest critic. You are their therapist, you know all their children and their kids’ birthdays. I mean, you’re very much interlaced with peoples’ lives because you often have their lives in your hand. You are dealing with people who are in conflict zones and disaster zones, in places where there [are] kidnappings, killing of journalists. Anything can happen to them. So you really have to be mindful of their safety and their well-being as much as you are of their journalism.”
He believes that journalism done well conveys why something matters without the reporter taking a stance. He said that in his work at The New York Times, he helps reporters ferret out and present the truth as best they can.
“And once we lose that and become part of the culture, what political wars that are currently at play, we have automatically reduced our impact in terms of our position in the world,” he said.
By Bria Manning (‘23)
November 22, 2021
Photo: Wesaam Al-Badry (’20) November 22, 2021 Dear Berkeley Journalism Community, I write at a time of deeply felt gratitude. Gratitude for our extraordinary faculty, students and staff, all working…