Rhonda Prast’s life changed through images by classic photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, W. Eugene Smith, Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange.
She was in her junior year at Arizona State University, Phoenix, where she was majoring in advertising design, a career she had her heart set on since high school. Then she enrolled in a history of photography class — just an elective to fill her schedule — and the connection she felt to the striking images of life, captured in shadow, highlight and rich tones of gray, compelled her to join the college’s newspaper staff.
It all clicked — her childhood spent playing with her family’s camera, her appreciation of art and an attraction to newspapers.
“I used to love taking pictures of my siblings,” she says. “And by the time I was 11, I loved newspapers. It would come in the evening, and I would grab it, sit on the porch and read the whole thing. But I never thought it would be a career. It didn’t come together until I was halfway through college.”
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She changed her major and never looked back.
“The imagery of those famous photos and the stories they tell moved me,” Prast says. “Sometimes you run into something in your life that resonates and puts you on a different path.”
That path took her to graduate school at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism and to some of the top papers in the country, including the Miami Herald, Seattle Times, Minneapolis Star Tribune and The Kansas City Star.
That path now brings her to the Idaho Statesman, where Prast replaces Vicki Gowler, who retired in March after a decade at the paper’s helm. Prast started at the Statesman on Aug. 1.
This is Prast’s first executive editor position. She is Statesman Publisher Debra Leithauser’s pick to lead the organization further into this new era of journalism, which is driven more and more by digital and visual content.
“The intersection between digital and print is done. We’re past that now,” Prast says. “And print isn’t dying; it’s changing while digital is expanding. We’re going to need to constantly be fast and nimble, to jump on things as they happen and be able to do the deep reporting that readers want. What that means for a Boise audience, I’m still figuring out. But news is essential for people every day and everywhere, and that’s the challenge. The expectations keep ramping up, and we have to keep up with them.”
Like any good photographer, Prast is a consummate observer. “I still love the ability to be the fly on the wall,” Prast says. “I like to stay behind the scenes and let other people take credit for stuff.”
She met her husband, photographer Steve Rice, at a photojournalism event when she was at the Providence Journal in Rhode Island and he was at the Hartford Courant in Connecticut. They married in 1984 and headed to the Miami Herald together.
They have two daughters, Lauren, a graduate student in public health at the University of Washington, and Callie, 14, who is a competitive gymnast.
Prast’s and Rice’s careers ping-ponged them across the country. After Miami, they moved to Seattle, where Prast was the art director for the Seattle Times’ Pacific Northwest Magazine. They then settled in Minneapolis, where they both worked for 13 years at the Star Tribune.
In 2010, they left Minnesota to teach digital journalism at the University of Missouri. Prast left Mizzou in 2012 to join The Kansas City Star; Rice is an assistant professor in convergence journalism, which focuses on multimedia reporting techniques.
In Boise, Rice plans to focus on freelance video editing work.
Over her career, Prast has worked in nearly every aspect of the newspaper industry — photography, reporting, editing for news and features, art direction for magazines, page design and production. At the Star Tribune, she produced award-winning multimedia-projects that bridged the span between print and online. In Kansas City, she created a cohesive strategy for its newsroom across all of its digital platforms, led the effort to develop topic-specific apps, and helped solidify the paper’s connection to its readers though mobile connections and social media.
“I feel I have a really special perspective,” Prast says. “I’ve worked in communities all around this country, and I’ve done so many different things. I’ve been able to draw on my experiences and wrap it all into the digital world. I’ll be able to pull out all that knowledge for Boise.”
This is your first time leading a newsroom. What are you most looking forward to?
Getting to know people in the area. I have a lot to learn, quickly. I want to get out and talk to folks about the Statesman and the issues that are important to them. Deb and I are hoping to establish a wider, deeper connection with the community by creating events, forums and conversations. ...
Who or what inspires you?
Creative, positive and funny people inspire me to be more of an innovator in the newsroom. Those who find ways to give back to their community in big and small ways are always a huge inspiration. My father, at 82, is the most positive person I know, and he seems to find a “daily miracle” everywhere he goes. And living in vibrant, diverse communities triggers inspiration — I’ve been lucky to live in Miami, Seattle, Minneapolis and Kansas City. Each city has prompted the urge to do something creative.
If you weren’t a journalist, what would you be doing?
Hmmm, I would probably be working to protect dolphins, or I’d be involved in a creative capacity in the film industry, maybe as a talent agent.
They’re so intelligent. They’re interesting, funny and can communicate with humans. I’m fascinated by them. The stories of them getting killed in Japan are very painful to me. I’m a real animal lover. I used to see them off the coast of Florida, and I’ve always had a deep interest and appreciation for them.
Are you a dog or a cat person?
I love both, but I’m pretty partial to cats. Especially orange cats because they truly have the best personality. I’ve had a cat since I was 6. My 16-year-old cat, Milo, is making the move with us to Boise. We might get an Australian shepherd puppy at some point once we’re settled. We had a 14-year-old Aussie who died a few years ago, so we have a special love in our heart for Aussie blue merles.
Wine or beer?
When I lived in Seattle, I was introduced to lovely Washington wines — white wine. But I’ll have beer with Cuban and Mexican food. Depends on what’s for dinner. My favorite drink is a mojito. I had never had one until I moved to Miami, and I thought, “This is amazing.”
What three movies would you most like to watch on a trans-Atlantic flight?
“Hoosiers’’ because I love actor Gene Hackman, any “Star Wars” or “Star Trek” movie for the nonstop action and visual wizardry, and the (2004) movie version of (Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s) “The Phantom of the Opera.” I absolutely love musical theater.
Did/do you have a mentor?
I’ve been fortunate to have colleagues at several media organizations who have looked out for my best interests and encouraged me to position myself in more challenging roles. Angus McDougall, former photojournalism professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, was a trusted adviser as I started my career as a photo editor. I try to mentor younger female journalists, especially those interested in a digital focus.
In all of history, with whom would you most like to dine?
While driving, I’ve been listening to the recorded audio tapes of interviews between Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. in early 1964. It’s a fascinating inside look into the Kennedy era at the White House and her influence on culture and the arts — and the political workings of the office. So dining with her would be continuing the conversation — in a way.
What will people find most surprising about you?
I’ve done a fair amount of home renovation with my husband (who can do anything), and I helped build a Habitat for Humanity house with President and Mrs. Carter in 1991. My husband and I love to go to home and garden centers. I love historic architecture. I’d like to save every house featured in the back page “Save This Old House” feature of This Old House magazine. I’m a big recycler, and I love to wander through thrift stores.
What is on your bedside reading table?
I enjoy reading murder mysteries nightly because it clears my mind from daily problems. It’s my little mental escape. John Sandford is a favorite. I’m also reading the Pulitzer winner for fiction: “The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen. One of my go-to authors is Ann Patchett, who has such a beautiful writing style. Once you start reading, it’s hard to put her books down. Since I’ve read all her novels, I’m debating reading them again.
What is on your playlist?
Always a mix and constantly changing: Michael Jackson, The Eagles, soundtrack from the TV show “Nashville,” Paul McCartney, Haley Reinhart, Adele and sometimes Cuban and Hawaiian music. I also love the cast album from “Aida.” My 14-year-old is introducing me to a new generation of music.
What is your guilty pleasure?
Dark chocolate-covered marshmallows from Trader Joe’s. Normally I don’t really crave sweets, but I love those.
What motto do you live by?
Work hard and be nice. Also, don’t sweat the small stuff.
To contact the Idaho Statesman’s new executive editor Rhonda Prast, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.