Marisa Lagos is a correspondent for the California Politics and Government Desk at KQED in Northern California, where she co-hosts the weekly podcast Political Breakdown. Before moderating the panel discussion, “Why Don’t Women’s Votes Put More Women in Power?,” the second event in the When Women Vote series presented by Zócalo and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, she called into the virtual green room to talk about covering Kamala Harris for 16 years, her laundry-folding routine, and the power of saying, “Give me some time to think about this.”
How do you procrastinate?
At work I usually spend a lot of time flipping between my Twitter screens and reading articles, and just generally kind of filling my head with things that are not necessarily relevant to the things I should be doing.
What recent story are you most proud of reporting?
I just did a piece with my colleague, Scott Shafer, looking back at Kamala Harris’s time as both district attorney and attorney general. And I feel like it’s well-trodden territory, but I was proud of being able to give it a little bit more nuance and I think a slightly smarter look than a lot of the coverage we’ve seen.
You've been covering Kamala for the last 16 years, right?
I moved to San Francisco in 2004 right after she was elected, so I've basically been following her career ever since. It's kind of a trip to see her on a national stage in this way and to think that she is a person I have had a lot of contact with over the years.
How are you handling covering her moment along with California wildfires and criminal justice, all at the same time?
Well, I’m taking a day off tomorrow, if that tells you something. It’s a challenge. I think this would have been a really crazy year—just with the presidential election, period, full stop—without Californian being on the democratic ticket, without a COVID-19 crisis, without a racial uprising. I'm feeling a little behind right now on a lot of the election coverage—really also around criminal justice that I would like to be doing.
Yesterday, I was trying to read a bunch of academic papers on bail reform, and I was a little distracted by the apocalyptic sky outside. On the wildfires, I am not a reporter anymore who goes out and covers the actual breaking news. A lot of my coverage is around policy and politics, and kind of the aftermath, and what we’re trying to do to prevent them. I’m just trying to keep up and choose my battles wisely because there’s so much to do right now, and it really all does feel very important.
What has surprised you about life in quarantine?
We live in a two-bedroom flat in San Francisco, and I expected to feel more cramped. I’ve actually really sort of been enjoying my home, so that's a positive.
I think on the negative side, I’ve been continually surprised by how challenging it can be, even with a lot of the running around stripped out of our lives, to concentrate on anything that is a little deeper. I feel like any longer-term stories, any kind of creative thinking and writing is a lot harder to focus on—just because the world feels so crazy right now, and because we don't have that physical space we would normally have to escape some of the other distractions at home.
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Do you have a favorite household chore?
I have two little boys, so we do a lot of laundry in our house. The way I have made it more bearable—because the laundry itself isn't the hard part, the folding is the hard part—is I like to do it in my bedroom while I watch something very silly on television.
Is there a teacher or a boss who has influenced you?
John Myers, who's an L.A. Times editor now, brought me to radio. He hired me at KQED about five and a half years ago. Besides just learning a new medium and being told that I could do it by him, which was a really exciting thing, he was one of the first people I ever met in journalism who stressed the importance of stepping back sometimes and thinking through things before you answer them.
In a news-driven and sort of deadline-driven business, I think we have a tendency to try to react to things, even if it’s not a breaking story, even if it’s just an email. It’s something that’s always stuck with me—that he always, on bigger stuff, would say, “Give me some time to think about this.” And I have really carried that with me because I think it’s an important trait and an important lesson, especially even more now, in the year that is 2020.
Speaking of advice—what advice do you give to young journalists?
To do the work. The way to learn this profession is not to sit in a classroom or to read a book, but to go out and report and talk to people. I guess right now you can’t go out, but you can still do it on the phone and in other mediums. Practicing is the thing that is going to make your craft better. I didn’t go to journalism school so I’m a really big believer in trial by fire.
What did you study?
I studied English literature and global peace and security at UC Santa Barbara. If I had a do-over, I might have double majored in history, but I always loved learning history through the lens of fiction or narrative, which is something really powerful that we’re seeing even more of now when we talk about the racial history of this country. My major in global peace and security was basically a study of war, as it turns out, right after 9/11, and a lot of it was Middle Eastern politics. It was a nice place to start in journalism because I think I had an understanding of the historical nature of some of the politics that I’ve been delving into.
What is the last thing that inspired you?
I'm finding a lot of inspiration right now in my community, and all the other parents who are dealing with the same kind of pressures that I am and trying to muddle through this really challenging time. Especially my mom friends—I’m finding a lot of inspiration and support from them.