Being a Silicon Valley reporter in 1999 was no small task. Just ask Catherine Giotto, a 5-foot-tall spitfire who covered the cop beat for a small newspaper in the epicenter of Northern California’s tech boom.
The dotcom boom was in full swing, yet this English graduate from the University of California at Berkeley was much happier sneaking under police tape to scoop the competition.
She also doesn’t exist—except on Twitter.
Giotto is the brainchild of Rebecca Wallace, 38, a longtime journalist and novelist. Giotto is the main character in Wallace’s most recent novel, “Smiling at Strangers,” the story of a fledgling California journalist who loses her job and winds up living in Budapest trying to make it as a reporter there.
Giotto is also the character behind @reporter1999, a fictional Twitter account Wallace created to reminisce about her times as a journalist in the ’90s and develop her character.
“After I finished the book, I just felt like Catherine had more to say,” Wallace told the Daily Dot in an email interview. “She’s sassy and computer-literate, so I started wondering how she would have used Twitter if it had existed then.”
Giotto is closely based off of Wallace’s own life as a journalist who cut her teeth in California as a general-assignment reporter for various Bay Area newspapers, before living in Hungary for a few years to teach and work in marketing. Today she is a arts editor for the Palo Alto Weekly who dabbles in creative writing.
Daily Dot: What inspired you to start @reporter1999 now and not a few years ago? The industry has certainly taken some pretty bad turns recently. Was there one incident, either at your paper, or in the industry, that really struck you?
Rebecca Wallace: Besides wanting to keep hanging out with Catherine, I was feeling nostalgic about earlier times in journalism. I don’t need to spell out how awful things have gotten. There have been so many incidents (including the wake I went to last night for the dear departed paper I was writing for in ’99).
Being a reporter in 1999 certainly wasn’t perfect. We had to write about the latest 22-year-old gazillionaires while we were paid like, well, like reporters. And still had a fax machine with curly paper. Also, compared to today, we had the opposite staffing problem: We always had job openings and were perpetually understaffed because we couldn’t hang on to reporters. They kept leaving to make more money at dotcoms or tech magazines. I was stuck covering three beats for months because we couldn’t hire anyone to fill the gaps.
But we had job openings. There were ladders to climb in journalism because you had opportunities to move up and try different beats and jobs. Now you just have to hope you don’t get laid off, because there’s nowhere to go. Also, we often had more camaraderie in the workplace because there simply were more reporters. There were a lot more people to snicker with during press conferences.
Interestingly, one of the things I’m enjoying most about tweeting as Catherine is connecting with other journalists. I’ve gotten nice notes from people who remember working at papers in 1999, either fondly or not so fondly. And I just got a tweet from a reporter who said he’s 25 and wishes he could have worked in 1999. Connecting with other people, of course, is why I like Twitter so much.
DD: Although Giotto is a fictional character, how many of her tweets are based off your real experiences? Have any reporters you used to work with (or currently work with) noticed the account and any similarities?
RW: The details are things I remember, whether it was having to depend on the one newsroom Thomas Guide because we didn’t have Google Maps, or wearing a pager clipped to my jeans belt. As for the stories Catherine covers, some of them I make up and some I dredge up from memory. I did actually run out once to cover a dotcommer type landing his private plane on the freeway.
DD: On Tumblr you point out that 1999 was a weird time for journalists, when they wrote a lot of “bullshit Y2K stories” and didn’t have to “watch the majority of their coworkers get laid off.” What else was it about 1999 that inspired you to set the story then?
RW: It just seemed like the epitome of the dotcom boom, before the economy started hiccupping in 2000 and then everything really went pear-shaped. Everyone seemed to have a lot of money except reporters, but at least our jobs were secure.
DD: Of all the different mediums out there to use, why Twitter?
RW: I like the immediacy of Twitter and the way it allows you to communicate in short bursts. Catherine is always in a hurry, always running after stories. I think she would have loved Twitter. You know, if she were actually real.
DD: What do you have planned for the future of the Twitter account? Maybe another book?
RW: No immediate plans. I’m just having a lot of fun tweeting as Catherine and talking to other reporters while trying to stay in character. It’s like a combination of time travel and community theater.
Photo provided by Rebecca Wallace