From the garden to the newsroom: Brian Whitson speaks on his past news jobs and landscaping dreams
Written by Emily Chaumont|
February 7, 2017
Although he once dreamed of becoming a professional golfer Senior Associate Vice President for Communications and Chief Communications Officer Brian Whitson ended up making the journey from college sports reporter to local news reporter to rising up the ranks in the field of public relations.
Whitson currently oversees the College’s central communications office, which contains three areas: news and media, web and design, and research communications.
Whitson attended Virginia Commonwealth University, where he majored in mass communications. Although he played on VCU’s golf team his freshman year, he took an editorial writing class with Wilma Wirt, who would be one of the most influential figures in the story of his career.
“She was one of the toughest editors I ever had, but I respond well to tough editing,” Whitson said. “She would go through your story with a red pen, and you would brace yourself for when your story came back.”
Not only did Wirt shape his writing, her advice also shaped Whitson’s career.
“She convinced me to apply to be the sports editor for the Commonwealth Times, so I did, and I served as sports editor for two years,” Whitson said. “I covered everything from a NASCAR race to our conference basketball tournament and really had a great time learning how to write.”
According to Whitson, his journalism program in college involved partnerships with small newspapers around Virginia to cover the General Assembly. Because VCU students were already located in Richmond, they were able to cover the General Assembly on location for papers that didn’t have the budget to send a reporter to Richmond. Whitson said that this was a good opportunity for journalism students to build up clips outside of what they wrote for class and for their campus paper.
When Whitson graduated from VCU, he took a job as a crime reporter for a paper in Lynchburg. He was finishing up a class that summer and said he finished the course Friday and was in Lynchburg to work by Monday. That fast pace continued throughout his first job and didn’t stop for the rest of his career.
“I worked Wednesday to Sunday from 3 p.m. to midnight for the first year of my career. I carried a [police] scanner with me everywhere I went,” Whitson said. “That experience just sort of threw me into reporting.”
Whitson moved on from crime reporting to covering the Campbell County government, but after about a year in Lynchburg, he was looking for a change and wanted to challenge himself in a bigger environment.
As he did often throughout his career, Whitson went back to Wirt for advice, and she connected him with an editor at a Seattle community daily paper called the King County Journal.
Whitson packed up his car and drove to Seattle on his own to cover a range of topics including the City Council and the regional justice system. One of his favorite things was the opportunity to write in such a fast-paced, competitive environment. He said he particularly enjoyed the challenge posed by writing in competition with larger papers.
“I got to compete against the Seattle Times,” Whitson said. “And that was really an opportunity to grow professionally.”
After spending some time in Seattle, Whitson decided to move back to Virginia.
“I was out in Seattle for about three years, and I was coming home about once a year and when you can only come home once a year you notice how quickly your parents age,” Whitson said. “I needed to come back east. I needed to be closer to my family.”
When he moved back, he got a job at the Daily Press. At that point, the Daily Press had a full Williamsburg bureau, where Whitson took on a position covering both Colonial Williamsburg and the College.
Whitson said that while he had a strong background covering hard news, he liked that this Daily Press job gave him an opportunity to write more feature stories.
“I wrote a lot of stories during the year,” Whitson said. “They gave me a lot of time to just spend walking on campus and talking to people.”
Whitson said he particularly loved the higher education element of his beat at the Daily Press. As part of covering the College, he worked closely with the public relations office. When he started to see the economy taking a turn and the journalism industry being affected by the rise of the internet with staffs shrinking across the country, he ended up making the shift from just interacting with the College’s communications department to actually being a part of the staff in 2003.
To Whitson, this seemed like a natural transition in his career.
“I still got to write, and I was writing a lot of the same types of stories I would be writing as a reporter … to be involved on the other side of those stories was very natural to me, and it was something I have experience with,” Whitson said. “As a reporter a lot of times you come in every day and don’t know what you’re going to do and my job now is very similar.”
Another similarity between journalism and communications work for Whitson is the need to be accessible and ready for anything at any hour.
“As my responsibilities grew here and as my role changed I’m pretty much available 24/7 for most issues,” Whitson said. “I have a wonderful wife who understands what comes with the job. There have been nights when we’re heading to bed and my phone rings, and I tell her I have got to work and she understands.”
Whitson said that even outside of work, he tends to have a hard time unplugging. He said that in addition to it being an important part of his life, the College’s communications team is accessible to reporters in addition to the fact that he also likes to keep up with the news.
“I’m a news junkie. As much as I try to disconnect, I’m pretty much on my devices all the time,” Whitson said. “One of the things we try to do in our office is be accessible … we want to make sure for reporters that we’re as accessible as you can be, and I think to be successful in this business you have to be a news junkie and really love it and enjoy it.”
Although it is important to his work to be plugged in, Whitson said he tries to make an effort to do things besides work. He said he enjoys spending time with his family, including his two adult sons who live in Richmond as well as his wife, and going back to his roots as a sports editor by attending college basketball games.
“I’m a huge college basketball fan,” Whitson said. “We have season tickets to VCU basketball games and season tickets to Tribe basketball games … My wife and I like to travel, and most of the time we’re traveling to basketball games, but we just like to get away when we can … But I have two Boston terrier puppies at home that keep us very busy.”
Whitson said he also finds time for himself in enjoying the day-to-day activities some people might overlook.
“I really enjoy working in the yard. I think I missed my calling as a landscape architect,” Whitson said. “We’ve lived [in Toano] since 2009 and I’ve probably planted close to 30 trees.”
In all, Whitson said he really enjoys working at the College and especially values the people that he’s met in his time here and the ways he’s been able to grow professionally.
“William and Mary has a way of finding potential in people that they don’t even know they had,” Whitson said. “I’m really blessed with the opportunities I’ve had here and the people I’ve worked with.”