Jill Replogle on multimedia journalism, moving to Costa Rica, and building a digital newsroom at the Tico Times

October 23, 2015

Suppose you have this totally solid job at the public radio station in San Diego, covering the border and immigration for KPBS. You’re cranking out some great work on a beat you love, your husband is happy there, you’ve even bought a house. You have a beautiful baby and a retirement fund. It’s a lifestyle that people back home envy — “Everyone who lives in Arizona wants to live in San Diego,” Jill Replogle (’10) says — and your friends from the J-School call it a sweet gig, too.

And then, you up and move to the jungle.

Not the jungle, actually, but San Jose — the capital of Costa Rica, where the main thing distinguishing the supermarkets from those in San Diego is the higher prices.

Replogle has always had a taste for adventure. “You don’t get into journalism to sit at a desk,” she says. And she had known the executive editor of Costa Rica’s English-language daily, the Tico Times, since they worked together in Guatemala some years before.

“When all the news came out of the Central American kids rushing to the border,” in the summer of 2014, she says, “I wrote some things that caught his attention. He asked me to come and help run the newsroom.”

Now settling in as managing editor of the Tico Times, Replogle is still weighing the pros and cons of uprooting her family. But when some people suggest she may also be uprooting her career, she’s not convinced.

“One of the things I’ve been thinking about is whether or not this was a ridiculous career move, and I guess I don’t really know what a good career move is these days,” Replogle says. “The progression of a journalist’s career is a little more iffy than it used to be. People asked, ‘Aren’t you sad about leaving public radio?’ And some people worried.

“But there’s so much moving around now. And this move,” Replogle says, “was as much of a lifestyle move as a career move. We wanted to be here.”

“We” being Replogle and her Guatemalan husband; “here” being Central America, where Replogle first moved in 2001. She had an undergraduate degree in geography and visions of travel writing that soon shifted toward news. With the help of a mentor, she established herself as a freelancer. The path she has followed since then mirrors the changes in journalism over the last 14 years, and even the changes at the J-School.

It was the turn of the century. “At the time, news outlets still cared about Central America. Newspapers hadn’t quite died yet,” Replogle recalls. “There was a lot of interest in the region, and other friends with freelance gigs would leave and pass me their contacts with the Miami Herald, Christian Science Monitor, Time magazine … I kept that going for many years.

“I stayed there for seven years, but toward the end the money was definitely drying up. The jobs were drying up. Newspapers wanted multimedia stuff, but they didn’t really know what that meant.” For Replogle, “it was time to go back to the U.S. Time to go to school.”

She entered the J-School in 2007, but had to take a break for the sake of her husband’s immigration status. By the time she re-joined the program, with the class of 2010, the J-School had launched Mission Local and was ramping up Richmond Confidential.

Journalism and the J-School were changing so quickly that Replogle notices a difference between the career paths of the J-School friends with whom she’s stayed in touch. “The class I graduated with is pretty multimedia savvy,” she says. “The first class, a lot of them are more focused on one thing. My graduating class is doing a little of everything.

“It could just be my perception. I do, however, definitely feel like students have had to get more and more creative on the job front, and have had to show an ever-greater variety of skills to get good jobs.”

Replogle is demanding an ever-greater variety of skills from the journalists she hires and supervises at the Tico Times, while expanding her own. This longtime reporter is editing (“We tend to spend a lot of time bitching about editors, so it’s interesting to see it from the other side”), and trying to help make the all-digital Tico Times profitable (“I spent the last three years in public radio! I don’t know that much about how to make money”).

She does know how to attract and keep online readers, thanks in part to her year at Patch in the Bay Area and the multimedia skills she honed at the J-School. When she was weighing the Tico Times offer, Replogle says, “I sort of missed being part of a startup, which Patch very much was. The publication I worked for in Guatemala was scrappy, and I liked being part of a team that was trying to make this thing work. That’s definitely happening at the Tico Times. They just went digital two years ago, then redesigned everything last year.”

While Replogle is nudging her reporters toward multimedia, asking writers to record video snippets, she’s also looking to hire someone who specializes in video and photos. Perhaps more importantly, she needs “someone who understands what Fusion and Buzzfeed and Quartz are doing right and how we can move our publication toward that, get a younger crowd and still keep the older crowd happy.”

It’s not unlike what her classmates and colleagues in the U.S. are doing these days. But as she starts talking about the kinds of stories she’s developing at the Tico Times, some differences between San Diego and Central America come into focus.

“We want to do more data journalism, so we are trying to put together a comparison of crime rates in several countries. Costa Rica is looking at a law to prohibit passengers on the back of motorcycles, because a lot of crimes tend to happen from the backs of motorcycles,” Replogle explains. “They’ve done this in Guatemala. They did it in Medellin, the birthplace of assassins on the back of motorcycles. So we’re looking at whether these laws have changed the crime scene in these countries.”

Replogle could have stayed in San Diego, and changed jobs there; she didn’t have to leave the U.S. to advance her career. But her years as a freelancer, “enjoying the adventure, taking a vacation whenever I wanted, making my own schedule,” combined with her new and growing family obligations — “a kid and another one on the way” — added up to a compromise.

“I was looking to get back to a situation that, I thought, would be a little more flexible and, hopefully, provide a little more adventure than what I had been doing. And I think I wanted to test my — our — ability to still be a little reckless and crazy,” Replogle says. “This was definitely the coolest option that my husband was OK with, I thought would be good for my daughter, and I thought it would help me acquire a new skill set and still further my career. And so far, it seems to be working out great.”

By Jenna Lane



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