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My signatures are rare, but you have read a lot of my work

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“Behind the Byline” introduces you to those who write stories, take photos, design pages and edit the content we deliver in our print editions and on pressdemocrat.com. We are more than journalists. As you will see, we are also your neighbors with unique backgrounds and experiences that proudly live in Sonoma County.

Today we present to you Eric Wittmershaus, our Chief Information Officer.

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When I was growing up in a small town in Wisconsin in the ’80s and’ 90s, my family didn’t have a lot of money.

There was always a house, a car (sometimes unreliable) and food to eat, but in the years after my parents’ divorce, my mother, sister and I were on welfare and were entitled to food stamps and other public assistance.

This period, which followed my mother’s dismissal from a local sawmill, was a difficult part of my childhood, but most of the time I felt like others – and society as a whole – s ‘took care of us.

Even so, as my mother concocted public benefits and part-time work while earning an associate’s degree, politicians in Madison and Washington, DC, were scrutinizing the social safety net, in an attempt to limit the costs and add work requirements.

When I read the news stories about “welfare reform,” the people politicians were talking about and many journalists described as a drain on the system weren’t like my mom, my family, or my mom. other people I knew who needed help.

My mother graduated and became a medical transcriber – a solid middle-class career – but then it felt like the politicians and media in our country were climbing the ladder to the lifeboat, under cover. exaggerated warnings about “welfare queens” and people. “Take advantage of the system”.

The disconnect between my world and what was reflected in the pages of newspapers and in TV reports has remained with me.

Now a mid-career journalist who tries – with varying degrees of success – to accurately and fairly reflect the voices and faces of Sonoma County and North Bay as Chief Information Officer with The Press Democrat, I am convinced that the most valuable tools of a journalist are empathy. , and a willingness to listen.

I first caught the journalism bug in senior year, when an innovative school district program allowed me to spend my last semester before graduation working alongside a mentor in a professional setting.

As other kids chose law firms and real estate, I looked for a job in my hometown newspaper, La Crosse Tribune.

In a gesture that they may have come to regret more than once, my mentor and the other editors of the newspaper treated me like a newly hired general assignment reporter and not like a high school student whose room was literally in his mother’s basement.

My first assignment was to profile a 70 year old man who snowboarded.

I still have a film of the negative image of this page, captured in the press by my editor, Ted Vollmer. (Fun fact: Ted moved to the Bay Area a few years before me and spent many years as editor of the Vallejo Times-Herald.)

Another of my early stories was one of the very first newspaper articles about a new type of card game called Magic: The Gathering, which I played with my high school kids in the cafeteria.

I went along to interview students when a dust collector exploded in my high school, forcing an evacuation (no one was injured), and I went to the press conference when a local college track star came by. been selected in the NFL Draft.

It didn’t take long before I got hooked.

I started college knowing that I would be majoring in journalism, and I never hesitated. (I decided to specialize in history as well.)

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I worked on the student newspaper The Daily Cardinal, I moved to the Bay Area.

I spent just under two years working on reporting and entertainment coverage for a newspaper group that included the now-closed Oakland Tribune before heading north to Snoopy’s Country and wine for a job on The Press Democrat’s copy and design desk.

At first I thought my stay in Sonoma County would only last a few years, but a series of growth opportunities at The Press Democrat and the woman I would eventually marry made a compelling case for staying.

It’s been 20 years.

Although readers of Press Democrat come across my work online and in print almost every day, “Behind the Byline” is a bit misleading when most of my work does not bear my name.

My roles at the newspaper have changed and evolved considerably over the years, from writing and formatting to selecting national, national and international news; run our sports coverage online; write a column on video games; work with a team of journalists to launch podcasts; and supervise reporters who cover topics such as criminal justice, education and government in the city of Santa Rosa.

During the 2017 Firestorm that forever changed Sonoma County, I was part of a second wave of editors, coming at noon to spell the night shift or early in the morning.

Together, we would take stock of our reports and determine where they would go as we sought to bring each day’s work together into a cohesive and comprehensive report.

When the Kincade Fire erupted in 2019 and the Glass Fire entered Santa Rosa a year ago, I coordinated small teams overnight to get essential information and accounts of what was happening in the field online as quickly as possible, knowing that there were potential people. life and death decisions.

Despite the attention the work has given to this diary, everyone who worked on one of these devastating fires will tell you that we would rather not have to tell these stories.

Now, as one of three news directors reporting to our editor, I currently oversee our print production team and help coordinate business, sports, Rohnert Park and court coverage.

Most of the time, I run our afternoon briefing and work to finalize the list of local articles that will appear in the print edition the next day. I make small and large adjustments to headlines, photo selection, and reading stories in print and online as the night unfolds.

I work closely with our reporters to develop and refine their stories, playing the role of coach and cheerleader.

Much of my job is making dozens, if not hundreds of decisions every day. Some are cautious and deliberate. Others take a few seconds.

Not everyone is perfect, and I rely on our community and my colleagues to tell us when we can do better, or when the news on our pages doesn’t reflect what people see in their own lives.

You can contact news director Eric Wittmershaus, pronounced WITT-mers-house, at 707-521-5433 or eric.wittmershaus@pressdemocrat.com.