Q&A: Jamie Satterfield, Investigative Reporter

Print reporters don’t usually have the cult of personality surrounding them that television reporters do. No one knows what we look like, for one, and most readers don’t even bother to pay attention to bylines. Jamie Satterfield, however, is not most newspaper reporters.

Satterfield has long been one of the Knoxville News Sentinel’s stars. She covers the sensational trials, sure, but she also breaks huge investigative stories, like the Judge Richard Baumgartner pill scandal and the current failures in Knox County Schools security systems.

A slim, wiry blonde, Satterfield has had a pioneering career in Knoxville, using her down-home folksiness to her advantage. But beware underestimating her—or talking trash about her on Twitter. She’s tough, and she’ll take you down.

Satterfield will be discussing her career—and her role as a woman in a male-dominated field—on Thursday night at the Knoxville Writer’s Guild. We sat down with her beforehand to dish.

So how did you end up as an investigative journalist?

I stumbled into it. I did not major in journalism—I majored in finance. When I graduated in 1988, I was just in a funk. I didn’t know what to do with my life. I had always been a writer—I worked on the high-school paper. I saw a job opening at The Mountain Press [in Sevierville, where Satterfield still lives]—on a lark I applied, and I got the job. ... I was a mess at the beginning. I didn’t know what a lede was. ... I really got hooked on investigative journalism when I found out a child rapist had been diagnosed with AIDS, and no one had told the family of the child. It was a real “Deep Throat” tip—I didn’t even know who it was. But it became a big story. ... Eventually the Legislature passed a law to test inmates for AIDS, and that’s where I really got hooked—I saw that my work could bring about change.

Is there one story that stands out to you above all the rest as your favorite?

Let me think about that one—every one feels like that when you’re in the middle of it. ... There was this KPD officer who was drunk and crashed his patrol car and then tried to say his car had been stolen—David McGoldrick. ... It took me, from start to finish, six months of work to get to the point where he had to resign, and then it was another couple of months before he was indicted. But even within the Sentinel, people were telling me it wasn’t a story. I had to fight really hard for it. And I was proud of my work. But I don’t take joy in ruining someone’s career, but in exposing the truth.

There aren’t a lot of women on the cops and courts beat, and I’m guessing it was even fewer 20 years ago. Has it been a challenge for you, being a woman and covering crime?

It was a struggle. The first battle I had was convincing my male bosses to let me do it. They thought it was too dangerous. When I was pregnant—oh, my lord. They would tell me I shouldn’t be listening to testimony of a murder case because it would affect my unborn baby. And on the cop beat, you have to deal with a lot of, “Hey, baby.” ... Over the years I’ve found cops don’t even see me as a chick anymore, I’m just Jamie. But early on, it was tough. I thought I had to be tougher than anyone else. When I started—this was stupid, but this is what I did—I would make myself drive around the housing projects at night alone so I would stop being scared.

You embraced Twitter a lot earlier than many reporters, and now you have a huge, supportive fanbase. How’d you get started as @jamiescoop?

When the Christian-Newsom trials were just starting to get underway, Twitter was just starting to get popular, and we talked in the newsroom about me trying it out as kind of an experiment. I was a little reluctant at first—I was worried that it would distract from me being able to actually observe what was happening in the courtroom. But once I started doing it, it was addictive. You can put people inside a courtroom, you can explain what’s happening in real time, and, best of all, I can express my personality while doing so. It’s been really great with young people—connecting with people who normally would not be tuned into the news. ... Certainly I’ve gotten criticism for being too snarky, too personal. But as long as I’m adding followers, I don’t care.

You mentioned that you are currently teaching a class at the University of Tennessee’s journalism school. With all the changes happening in the industry right now, is it hard to encourage students to pursue a career as a reporter?

What I’m finding as I teach—it used to be most students in your classes were journalism majors. Now a good 70 percent are looking at public relations. But I still feel like I have to be straight with people about the cuts, that it’s hard to find jobs. I guess I’m a little scared for them—that they don’t know what they’ll walk into.

Have you ever thought about leaving Knoxville and going somewhere else? Either a bigger market or a different locale?

I get a lot of encouragement to write books about the cases I’ve covered, but my work schedule just doesn’t leave any time for that. I think if I were tempted to leave the Sentinel, it would be to write books. But at this point, I’ve got two kids in college, and I need the stability of a full-time job. Besides, I still love what I do!

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