In the footsteps of a blogging journalist

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Valerie Strauss, an education writer at the Washington Post, curls up in a beige couch in her yellow walled living room of her big, but relaxed home. The house is a red brick home near American University. Her blond bangs are cut just right so you can see her eyes smiling. She is twinning her golden necklace between her fingers while she concentrates on telling her story.

“I hate the word blog,” says Strauss, 57, a wife, mother, journalist and now a blogger for Washington Post. She shakes her head as she describes her discontent against blogs, smart phones and kindles. “I don’t understand why anyone would watch a movie or a TV show on a little mobile phone, I don’t get that whole thing. I love the actual physical newspaper. I love to pick it up, I love to feel it and I love to turn the pages. Today people live on their phones, it’s beyond me.”

Strauss was born and raised in Miami, Florida, and was the middle child of three sisters. She got used to being around girls, a good thing since she is now a mother of two teenage girls. Her father taught at the University of Miami, and this is where she took her bachelor degree in English and Anthropology before she moved to Chicago and Northwest University to take her masters in journalism. Her career is packed with admirable jobs, at Miami Herald, United Press International, Reuters, Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post to mention a few. She is now the education blogger for Washington Posts blog, The Answer Sheet.

When Strauss opens her home this second Monday of April, she is finished for the day with her blog. It is 5 pm, but the heat is still there, giving previews of the Washington summer that’s right around the corner. On the glass table next to the couch there is a water glass filled with ice cubes, very much needed on this warm April day. “Blogging is very different than writing for the print paper,” says Strauss, who is the mind behind the blog Answer Sheet. Prior to the blog, she was an education reporter, where the rules are strict and must be followed, like any other journalist.

“It’s a whole different mindset, the language is more casual,” the journalist says. “I write with a voice, and sometimes an opinion. But the opinions are always backed with evidence.” The blog is about everything concerning education, which she finds very convenient while she still has two teenage girls in the house. It’s important for her to be up to date on her daughter’s future. “As my kids got older, I realized that I could get paid to research things that would affect my kids. So it was kind of fun,” says Strauss as she laughs. “I never told my bosses that’s why I would keep doing it, but it’s worked out.”

It can be hard to move from a print journalist to a blogger for the same newspaper. The writing, and maybe some of the audience, takes time to adjust to. And Strauss did use time to adjust, mostly to the concept. “Blog; its not a word I like. Blog is actually a format, but now it’s become sort of like the word fuck. They use it for everything,” she says while cringing at the idea. “It’s an adjective, it’s a verb, it’s a noun, and it’s an adverb. It’s everything. There is something annoying about it.”

The Answer Sheet consists of short items, long essays, book reviews, videos, writing from contributors and more. “It’s really more of a magazine than anything else,” states Strauss, and she is glad its not only her voice and opinion being heard. “I have a lot of guest writers, so it’s not just my voice. I think that would be boring. The truth is it’s more of a magazine, but it’s called a blog.”

In the most southern part of the U.S., in sunny Miami, Florida, is where Strauss grew up and was inspired to be a journalist. It wasn’t the place in itself that gave her motivation and creativity; she actually didn’t like Miami growing up. “I hated the heat, I hated the flatness and I hated that there were no seasons,” she remembers. Her feelings towards Miami have changed, much because her daughters love to travel there. “My kids love Miami, they really do,” Strauss says. Sadly, her parents passed away, but Strauss is very enthusiastic and gets a spark in her eye when she talks about her fathers love for newspapers and how they received the New York Times in the mail. “My father wouldn’t believe anything until he read it in the newspaper. The earth could have exploded, but until he got the New York Times he wouldn’t believe it,” she says with a smile.

Maybe she was meant to be a journalist, because Strauss had always been a good writer. She was interested in writing and why things happened and started writing for the student paper in high school. “I kind of knew I would wind up at a newspaper. It just seemed like the only right thing to do,” she says. She continued at the student newspaper at the University of Miami before she went to Chicago and Northwest University to improve her writing even more, where she took a master in journalism.

One of her first jobs was for United Press International, and there she made friends that she is still in touch with. Some of them have also pursued a career in Washington and the curly haired and energetic Iris Krasnow is one of them.

“I have known Valerie for more than 30 years and she is by far one of the sharpest and most thorough journalists not only in Washington, but anywhere in the world,” says Krasnow, a bestselling author and journalism professor at American University who worked with Strauss at United Press International during the 1980s. “Valerie does journalism the old-fashioned way, with solid interviews, checking with multiple sources to confirm accuracy and is fearless in her mission to tell the truth. She has been able though to transfer her deep knowledge of the old journalism into reporting for new mediums, her Washington Post blog is very popular and well written.” Krasnow brings her students to see many of the most interesting journalists in Washington to give them an impression of what the business is like. “I can also add that in 20 years of teaching Washington Journalism Semester, Valerie Strauss is always voted as one of the students’ absolutely favorite speakers,” she says

After a career with UPI, Strauss has been a National Security Editor at Reuters and, again at the UPI, the Deputy Foreign Editor. It was with this experience she came to the Washington Post to work at the Foreign Asia Desk. She loves to travel, but didn’t work as a foreign correspondent, much because she got married early. “I chose not to go overseas, because I got married,” she says while shaking her head. She is now married to her second husband, whom she has her two girls with. She obviously has second thoughts about her choices in her early career. “Don’t do it”, she says referring to her first marriage. “Don’t get married in your twenties.”

As life with a lawyer as a husband and a baby at home became time consuming, Strauss realized she wanted to go back to reporting and focus on education. “The three of us were never together, my husband, I and her,” she says referring to the time with their first daughter. “I finally realized I had to do something else, and I went back to reporting.”

Her youngest at 17, Becca, enters the room, wearing a white tank top and black shorts with studs. Becca moves so lightly around the room, its almost like she doesn’t touch the ground. She has a dream of becoming something completely different, and college may not be a part of that journey. “I want to go to California, and I want to pursue music. I don’t know about college yet”, says Strauss’ daughter, knowing her mom would probably not accept that. “It’s weird because my mom works with education, and I don’t really want to go to school.” Her black long hair and nail polish is a contrast to her mother, but they both share the easy and welcoming attitude. She sits down next to her mother and plays a recording of her covering “Coldplay – Fix You”, on her iPhone. Her voice is beautiful and even though she didn’t inherit her mother’s interest for journalism, she definitely got her writing skills. “I never wanted to be a journalist, but she always helps me with my writing, she is really good at writing,” says the teenager with a grateful voice. She writes her own songs, and Strauss helps too. “My mom helps me out, and its great. She really knows what she’s doing with it,” says Becca.

Strauss has lived all over the U.S., but has been placed here in Washington since 1983. In the cheerful living room, Strauss discusses Washington as a city and mentions that it is all about power. “It isn’t a money town,” she says. “I mean, money obviously matters, but it’s a town of power, political power. That’s the currency here.”

If you would give Strauss’ home a currency, it would definitely be passion. Her passion for her family and her work shines through everything she talks about and when her daughter walks into the room you can feel her pride. “I’m lucky. I feel like a very lucky person, I have gotten to do what I wanted,” Strauss says while she reflects on her life and career. There are several benefits with her blog and one of them is that she can work from home. “I thought I would hate that, working from home. But I’ve come to like it a lot,” she says. But as anything else, there is also a downside. “I work hard, and have always worked hard, but especially with the blog you always have to be refreshing it and updating it. I even do it on weekends, so I rarely take a full break.” Having a family and a full time job as a journalist, which today basically means a 24/7 job, can give you a bad conscience for working too much and not spending enough time with family. Strauss realizes that this is an issue, and has never really come to peace with it. “Still, after 35 years of working, you’re thinking; well, I should be doing this, except I’m doing this,” the Washington Post blogger says. “You know, I never really gotten over it, but for me there is no choice, I couldn’t have not worked. I would have gone completely out of my skull.”

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