“Credentials Matter A Lot Less Than You Think” Words Of Wisdom With Erica Sandberg

“As I said, I don’t have a degree in journalism. In the beginning of my career, I was scared reveal that to colleagues. I have great respect for people who have studied the vast world of media. Still, you can jump in without the name jewelry. Just be committed to learning, which means asking questions that can make you feel stupid. I remember an editor telling me to change a “lede” and I had no idea what she was talking about.”

I had the delight to interview Erica Sandberg, Freelance consumer-finance reporter, political gadfly, and community advocate based in San Francisco, Calif.

What is your “backstory”?

In a family of nine, standing out was crucial. I’m no perfectionist, but I definitely wanted to be better and rise above the fray (my nickname was Empress Erica.) We were well off until my parents divorced. Then money evaporated and we went on welfare. It was a horrible downward spiral. Section 8 housing, evictions, food stamps, you name it. One Thanksgiving dinner at the Salvation Army nearly killed me. I was 16 and thought I was going to die of a heart attack and an ulcer all at once. I kept thinking, “This is not my life!” I craved adventure and happiness, so thought London was the place to be. To get there I did all kinds of crazy jobs. I wallpapered a senior home during the day and watered plants in deserted office buildings at night. If it was legal and it paid, I’d do it.

Once I made it to London I was totally broke, so grabbed any money-making opportunity. I hawked youth hostels outside train stations, cleaned houses, painted sets for the English National Opera. Knowing I could scrape by and still have fun became the basis for my career. When I returned to the U.S., I moved to San Francisco and eventually worked for Consumer Credit Counseling Service, helping people with their debts and budgets. But I discovered that I loved media, so did anything I could to talk to the reporters who called. Then the producer for a local financial program asked me to appear twice monthly and give financial advice live, on air. I absolutely loved it.

So that was my real start. I entered UC Berkeley’s financial planning program, earned the certificate, then wrote Expecting Money, The Essential Financial Plan for New and Growing Families. The day my book hit the shelves, I left to start my own consumer finance reporting business. It’s been wild and wonderful ever since.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

How abut an embarrassing story? I once froze during a live broadcast. It was during my first major media tour, and I was hired to promote five different products in a few minutes on morning news shows all over the U.S. By the fourth station, in Houston I think, I was frazzled and exhausted. The air time was 6:00 AM and I was on two hours’ sleep. The anchor asked me a question and my mind went completely blank. What seemed like hours ticked by. I just stood there, mute.

As I slunk off the set I got the “You’re fired” call. I flew home in shame. But what was I going to do? Stop? Find a new career? No. After recovering from the humiliation, I learned from my mistakes. Now media tours are one of my specialties. There is nothing like helping a company get the message out in a professional and unique way.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

My beat is primarily money, credit, banking, and lifestyle but lately I’ve ventured into the nutty world of local government. San Francisco is my home and I want to help improve it. When I report on anything political, one of my aims is to objectively call attention to bad policy and those who responsible. I recently wrote a tough piece about crime in California for National Review. It was fascinating to work with this outlet because I’m totally independent politically. Yet the response from both the right and the left has been tremendous.

I like lighter stories too, especially about travel. Just did one about how people can manage their money and credit while on an extended trip. It’s useful information.

Who are some of the most famous people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

NHL great Derek Sanderson was amazing. After he hung up his skates he became a financial adviser for athletes. When I mentioned that I had recently started playing hockey, he yelled at me to stop. “Read my book; you’ll know why,” he said. So I did. Soon afterward I fractured my leg while on the ice, which required surgery and a titanium plate.

Other notables include a couple of San Francisco mayors. Willie Brown was and is larger than life — just this incredible force of personality. In direct contrast was Ed Lee, who recently passed away. He was kind and down-to earth. Avuncular.

I’ve had some awful experiences, though, including a famous actor who refused to discuss the agreed-upon topic. She was hostile and dismissive. No amount of, “OK, great, but let’s get back to your early days as a struggling actor. How did you get by, financially…” was effective and we had to scrap the interview. It was a huge disappointment.

Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?

How can anyone, reporter or otherwise, not be inspired by James Madison (and all who were associated with the First Amendment to the Constitution). I get chills every time I read, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

When I was around eight I read a biography of Nellie Bly, I think it was titled something smashing like, “Nellie Bly: first lady reporter.” I sat on the library floor and read it cover to cover. I was totally smitten. She was so bold and daring. During the turn of the century Bly exposed some of the worst societal horrors, and her work on insane asylums was pivotal in reforms.

I’m also weirdly inspired by the quotes of Napoleon Bonaparte. For example, “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.” It’s just perfect.

What advice would you give to someone considering a career in journalism?

Tell the truth. Not your truth or the truth you’re hoping for, but THE truth. Strive to find it. Do your research, don’t be afraid to reveal facts that don’t fit with your preconceived notions. It’s natural to not want to upset your friends, take down your heroes, or praise your enemies. You’ve got to overcome that reticence. I’m so tired of lazy journalism.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I’ve been an advice columnist for almost ten years, and have answered countless peoples’ pressing financial questions. My goal has always been to be as precise as possible. “Here’s the correct information and this is what you should do now” is my approach. I loathe the phrase, “it depends.” It turns people off. It does me, anyway. Yeah, I know it depends — that’s why I’m asking you! Giving people what they need to overcome problems is gratifying.

Regarding the political and social aspect of what I do, I hope I’m a force for good in my community. I work on a lot of issues surrounding quality of life issues and homelessness. For example, I promoted a 311 app function which allows citizens to notify the authorities when they see a person in need, instead of just walking by.

I know this is not an easy job. What drives you?

In some ways I’m a hedonist, so I’m driven by pleasure. I love my work. The stories I research and write, the people I talk to, the zing of the challenge… if it’s enjoyable and interesting, I’ll just do it. I’m also morally motivated. If I think a story should be told, I will tell it, even it means I’ll be criticized. Extremists can be scary. I had to file a police report after an oped I wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle was published. It was about when a person ought to call 911. I thought it was pretty innocuous, but I got death threats, my daughter was warned to watch her back, and one person even threatened my cat.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1.Don’t try to be someone else. Be the best version of you. When I first started, I thought I had to dress and behave a certain way. It just made me appear awkward. On air I’d do my best Christiane Amanpour act, because I admire her, but it was always a pathetic imitation. Now I laugh, smile, tell a joke. I was recently a guest on one my favorite podcasts, Econtalk, and the subject was serious, but I couldn’t stop from lightening it up. I’m proud of the way it came out.

2.Always be polite. You will encounter plenty of jerks and when you do, you may be tempted to react with rudeness. I sure have, but always regretted it. In the end it is infinitely better to grit your teeth and take the high road. You needn’t be saccharine, but mind your manners, especially in emails or texts.

3.Set the interview stage. No one actually taught me how to interview people, so I fumbled along the way. If you don’t tell the person what you’ll ask about, how long you have, and to be concise, it will be a disaster. I’ve had more than my share of jumbled recordings where I wondered how on earth I could make it into something worth reading.

4.It’s not about you. The story is what is important; you just tell it. And tell it very, very well you must. So unless you are the subject, relax and concentrate on the task at hand. I used to worry so much about what others thought of me whether I was interviewing someone or was being interviewed. Yes, you have to be conscious of how you come off, but don’t let it distract you.

5.Credentials matter a lot less than you think. As I said, I don’t have a degree in journalism. In the beginning of my career, I was scared reveal that to colleagues. I have great respect for people who have studied the vast world of media. Still, you can jump in without the name jewelry. Just be committed to learning, which means asking questions that can make you feel stupid. I remember an editor telling me to change a “lede” and I had no idea what she was talking about.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this.

I’ve been a huge fan of Bill Maher for years. I don’t agree with everything he says — not by a long shot — but I admire his irreverence, humor, and rational thought process. Rachel Maddow and Adam Corolla have similar qualities and I love them too. Oh and Jonah Goldberg…he’s brilliant and his laugh is infectious. And then there’s Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I’d love to thank her for being who she is and for fighting so hard for what’s right.