Rochelle Olson has been a journalist for almost 30 years and at the Star Tribune for 22 of them. She is officially a general assignment reporter, but Olson has covered St. Paul and Minneapolis City Halls, Ramsey and Hennepin county governments as well as courts and state government. She specializes in the intersection of sports, business and culture. Before joining the Star Tribune in 2000, Olson worked for eight years with the Associated Press in Kansas City, Topeka, Charleston, W.Va. and St. Paul. She has a master's degree from the University of Kansas and a bachelor's from Hamline University. She grew up in Bloomington and lives in St. Paul. She loves to swim and do yoga.
You studied French and literature as an undergraduate. Why journalism?
From a pretty young age, I tracked the news. I liked being in the know. Studying French, like journalism, is about observation, listening, getting the scoop.
You've had a lot of beats in your career: government, politics, courts, breaking news, the building of U.S. Bank Stadium, the business side of Minnesota sports teams. And you've been to three Super Bowls and led our coverage when the Super Bowl was held here. Do you have a favorite topic to cover?
I like the multitudes. It's hard to beat the intensity of courtroom drama, but it's excruciating to sit with people who are experiencing so much trauma – whether they're the victim, supporters or a defendant going to prison for decades. So I love that I'm allowed to balance those emotionally difficult stories with watchdog reporting on stadium finances, travelling to something fun like Olympic swimming trials in Omaha or talking to high school wrestlers after they swoon over Gable Steveson when he returns from Tokyo with a gold medal.
Do you have a favorite story you've ever done or one that has stuck with you?
I can list a bunch of fun and curious things I've done as a reporter – almost being run over by Lady Gaga in a golf cart at the 2016 Super Bowl, touring the World War II bunker at The Greenbrier, lobbing a question to Colin Powell at Fort Leavenworth, standing next to Mick Jagger and Sandra Day O'Connor, drinking wine with Jacques Pepin while talking about Julia Child, interviewing George W. Bush at a homeless shelter, asking Lance Armstrong in 1994 if he thought he could win a Tour de France and talking to Joe Biden in 2002 at the late Sen. Paul Wellstone's memorial.
But I didn't write the story I keep pinned on my desk. It's a short, paid obituary for a teenager I wrote about when they were raped by a close family friend who was a prominent community member. The rapist went to prison after a trial where we learned about the sickening years-long process of grooming the child, who was a bright, active high school student. In court we saw a recording of the victim's forensic interview with a social worker. This kid never had a chance against the predator.
When the victim died by suicide a few years later, the obituary gave no hint at the history. I think about that kid a lot.
Live tweeting a trial is intense, as well as making sure online readers are informed of the latest news throughout the day and then rewriting the story again for the next morning's newspaper. In the past year alone, you were part of the reporting team for the Chauvin and Potter trials. Can you talk a little about that experience?
Both were as intense you can imagine, but the Chauvin trial was especially surreal. When the trial began, we had been working from home for a year, barely seeing colleagues, then here was this extraordinary trial happening across the street. Those of us on the trial team worked downtown, watching the livestream while masked and sitting apart from each other in the dark, empty newsroom under extra security. I was in court the day the Minneapolis police chief testified and that entailed going through four security checkpoints just to get to the courtroom. The Hennepin County Government Center is usually such a lively, open place with workers and visitors coming and going, but it was spooky and empty except for the 18th floor. Just arriving to that courtroom was a bracing experience, seeing the jurors, greeting the judge, lawyers and deputies, some of whom I have known for years.
The testimony and, of course, the video were heartbreaking and disorienting to see over and over. You'd be tweeting, trying to discern the strategies and what you were seeing. When you were done for the day, you'd walk out of a boarded and guarded building into the cold, dark night and try to exhale so you could get home to feed and walk the dogs.
You have developed and maintained strong connections with a wide variety of sources from your beats. How have you done that?
When I was just starting out in 2000, trying to get established and build rapport on the Minneapolis City Hall beat, a source I trust told me, "Just say hello. People like to be acknowledged." That's the beginning and I'm genuinely curious about what drives people, makes them do what they do so I just start asking questions about their lives and off we go. I also have a good memory and I like to hear about their families, pets and vacations so it's natural for me to keep track in my head and follow-up about how so-and-so is doing with tennis lessons or how the new puppy is faring. When I'm covering a public meeting and if the situation allows, I'll try to figure out the identity of everybody in the room. It's always good to know who is there and why because they're looking for something.
What career advice to you wish you had gotten 30 years ago?
Never give up. There's always more to the story.