Since the start of the pandemic, the public’s attention has been laser focused on the decisions and guidance coming from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, both divisions of the near 90,000 employee Department of Health and Human Services. Only the White House Press Office has received more attention in the last two years. Leading public affairs at HHS is Rochester native Sarah Lovenheim.
The Rochester Beacon interviewed Lovenheim, assistant secretary of public affairs at HHS, to seek her perspective on the media landscape and learn more about the path she pursued to her current position. An edited version of that email correspondence appears below.
ROCHESTER BEACON: You began your journalism career as editor in chief of the Brighton High School Trapezoid. What do student journalists learn that helps prepare them for professional careers?
SARAH LOVENHEIM: That gig was a labor of love! I took the job very seriously. As a young journalist, you get to ask tough questions of your school, community and peers.
My first year on the Trapezoid, I shadowed our local firefighters on one day and interviewed nationally known jazz artist Gap Mangione on another. Two years later, I was surveying my 1,200-person class about their sleep habits, making the case for the school to delay its start time before district-wide officials, and talking about our survey findings on local TV.
There were routine deadlines to meet, or the paper wouldn’t get published. Sometimes my schoolwork suffered and almost always—ironically—my sleep. Sunday nights were often entirely devoted to laying out the paper for the printer the next morning—after divvying up stories to edit one last time. But having a group of classmates to kick around story ideas with, and then the license to pursue any issue that piqued our interest, was gold.
My dad instilled in me an appreciation for writing—clearly and with purpose. My mom insisted on time for exercise, healthy eating and gave me the space to report, even if it was to the detriment of keeping a clean room. My grandpa was my assurance from very early on that if you worked really hard, you could build something and affect people’s lives. The son of immigrants, he delivered newspapers by bike, shined shoes and ultimately grew a commercial printing business with his brother from scratch. In his final years, he’d frequent a diner or other routine stops and run into people who would recall the company, Great Lakes Press, and its impact on their family.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Tell us about your transition from sitting in front of the podium, asking questions, to standing behind it, answering them. Do you miss being a reporter?
LOVENHEIM: I was never a reporter in the traditional sense. I reported on multiple mediums, writing stories for the National Journal’s election-focused website, and then spent nearly a handful of years at The Washington Post—writing, covering campaign events by video, producing podcast segments and editing local opinion columns.
At the Post, I worked by day and pursued a master’s degree by night, studying policy issues with professors who had served in past administrations and tasked students with writing the speeches we thought the President might give on any given week, while peppering us with books to read about presidential history. I grabbed coffee with a deputy press secretary at the White House one day to hear how the work translated into an actual job and he said something like, “if you’re writing speeches and creating mock briefing books for cabinet secretaries, keep building the examples.” So that’s what I did.
The skills I built as a journalist continue to come in handy today, but now, I get to witness history in the making—and sometimes even help shape it. I never lost what I loved most about the field: having a window into democracy in action.
ROCHESTER BEACON: HHS is a sprawling bureaucracy—surely each agency has its own communications office. How much time do you spend engaging reporters yourself versus managing strategic communications and staffing for all of HHS?
LOVENHEIM: It varies by day. Internal communications is a big part of my role—as a manager of an 80-person division and as part of a leadership team that juggles an incredibly large number of decisions, often in close collaboration with Administration partners. When it comes to media, I tend to handle some of the most sensitive types of stories affecting the Department and prioritize big picture pieces, or conversations with the Secretary. We have an incredibly talented team handling daily media inquiries and driving strategy, with five deputy assistant secretaries who are the frontline communications experts in their respective issue-based portfolios—and who work most closely with respective sub-agencies.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Your career has given you a ringside seat to the transformation of the media landscape. How has the decline of local media and the concentration of the national media changed the role of someone in your position?
LOVENHEIM: As our principals travel across the country, it’s clear some states have a stronger local media presence than others. In states where a local media presence has dwindled, we typically see a national wire service stepping in to fill the void. But wire services are often most interested in writing if news is being made—and that isn’t always the case.
Communities miss out on feature-style stories when there are fewer local beat reporters. They also rarely get the “What does this announcement mean for my city or town?” kind of story that a robust local media would provide.”
ROCHESTER BEACON: What’s the role of local media (particularly small online ventures like the Rochester Beacon) in the national policy conversation? Do you manage to maintain media contacts outside the Capitol press corps?
LOVENHEIM: Local media has a significant opportunity to shape public awareness and for better or worse, public opinion. Take COVID-19 vaccines, for example. Research shows that people trust voices in their local community first and foremost to inform their decision-making around vaccines—whether they listen to their barber, faith leader, pediatrician, or neighbor cited in a local paper or on local TV. Local media often has the unique ability to deliver the facts—in the context of their significance for specific communities.
Initiatives to fill the local gap are encouraging but do not comprehensively cover the major announcements of the day—and what they mean for specific communities. The diversity of an evolving online media space is healthy, but it’s hard for people in Washington to keep track at the local level.
I do maintain media contacts outside of Washington—mainly in states that I liaise with most frequently.
ROCHESTER BEACON: You have been working in “new media” since your time at the National Journal. How do you keep up with evolving platforms and the changing preferences of media consumers? What metrics do you find most insightful?
LOVENHEIM: This is a question I routinely ask myself. We have a team that provides qualitative and quantitative data tied to different mediums and how effectively they reach people. The team conducts research, interviews people across the country, conducts surveys and focus groups—and then crunches the data to assess the effectiveness of engagement, but the landscape is always shifting. There’s always more to learn, and more to try.
Social media has become an increasingly important way to reach people, but it doesn’t always allow someone to tell a full story—due to limits in media like Instagram or Twitter. Other online platforms—like Substack—have no limits and have proliferated. And the podcast space is exploding, though this is ironic to me because I enjoyed—and reported for—podcasts in 2007 and 2008.
One day I’ll turn to my son or daughter for clues!
ROCHESTER BEACON: If you were advising someone of college age, what career advice would you offer for someone who is looking to follow in your footsteps? Is the degree in journalism necessary? Political science? I would assume that experience as a reporter is essential—correct?
LOVENHEIM: Most paths are not linear today in journalism or politics. Study a discipline or field unrelated to what you want to practice. That allows you to gain a broader perspective. Journalism is often best learned by practice (my dad cautioned me, but I studied it anyway). Politics draws on knowledge from other fields, such as history or policy.
Be kind to your professors, as a mentor of mine—Steve Hess, presidential scholar of the Brookings Institution—wrote in his memoir. Don’t let any one job or boss dictate your path.
Never take a job if the people in the office setting seem unhappy. Thank the people who help you along the way. And follow your passion professionally, as my parents always encouraged me; that, paired with building new skills, is key.
My passion is public affairs; early on, journalism—starting with the Trapezoid—gave me a ticket to ask a lot of questions, helped me grow as a writer and gave me an excuse to consume and analyze news all day. I still build on that experience working in politics—and often have a deeper appreciation for the journalists I interact with, because of it.
ROCHESTER BEACON: How “tribal” is the career pathway in your field? If a recent college grad or working journalist gets a job working for either the Republicans or the Dems, is it possible to switch or would the other tribe forever consider them to be suspect?
LOVENHEIM: It’s narrowly possible. I’d think folks early on in their career could attempt it, perhaps with some success if they worked for a moderately minded leader or entity. But even that person would have to make a strong case for their commitment to a different party.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Do you ever get to turn off your cell phone?
LOVENHEIM: My husband would tell you that at home, because I’m running around so much between the kids or work, I’m more likely to misplace it than turn it off.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Your husband, Zach, also has a busy professional career. How do the two of you manage family responsibilities?
LOVENHEIM: It’s a constant work in progress as our children grow and our jobs evolve. We take turns as much as possible—making dinner, putting our little ones to bed, bringing our son to and from school. Every weekday is hard. There are typically unexpected phone calls, spills, middle-of-night wakeups or late night work needs that throw our rhythm off.
On the toughest sort of workdays, my husband and I run on hugs and laughs from our kids, the promise of holding our son and daughter at bedtime and coffee.
Editor’s note: The Rochester Beacon’s Washington Correspondent, Peter Lovenheim, is Sarah’s father. Sarah provided these responses in her personal capacity.
Kent Gardner is Rochester Beacon opinion editor and chief economist at the Center for Governmental Research. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.