AJR: The internship that changed my life

Only hindsight can reveal that the job ad you answered on a whim would turn out to shape so much of your future.

The American Journalism Review recently announced that it would cease publication after 38 years. AJR stopped producing print issues two years ago and became online only. I worked as an editorial assistant at AJR during my final semester of college, and a year later I conducted research for the magazine’s cover story on the decline of foreign coverage in American media. Little did I know the extent to which these experiences would contribute toward my professional and personal success.

Nearly seven years ago, a call for AJR interns reached my inbox, and I thought, why not. I had space in my schedule, and the office was just a few minutes walk from my apartment. I went in for an interview, and at the end then-editor Rem Rieder said he hoped it was OK that the magazine could only pay minimum wage.

“This is my first time getting paid to do journalism, so that’s fine by me,” I replied. He and then-managing editor Jen Dorroh laughed and said I probably shouldn’t say that in future job interviews. (So far, I’ve heeded their advice.)

That semester, four of us interns/editorial assistants fact-checked articles and wrote pieces for the magazine and its website. We cracked jokes in our shared office (aka the Dorm) and everyone made fun of me for eating lunch at 11:30 a.m.

My favorite part of the job was writing profiles. In wide-ranging and often lengthy conversations with journalists, I learned about the twists and turns that shaped their careers, what attracted them to journalism in the first place, and what advice they had for a young journalism student about to enter the working world.

Many embraced the changes roiling the journalism industry, even while acknowledging the difficulty they brought. I took solace in their enthusiasm, since graduation and the prospect of job hunting in a sinking industry during an economic free fall loomed like a speeding Mack truck.

While the question of whether I’d get a job in journalism continued to dog me, the opportunity to report on deadlines that were weeks rather than hours away rekindled my love of writing. One memorable reporting experience at AJR yielded my favorite sentence I’ve ever written, along with the sting of “revise and resubmit”. (Luckily the sentence survived intact.)

The New York Times journalist Adam Nossiter, who covered New Orleans for decades, had recently moved to become the paper’s West Africa correspondent. After interviewing him and a few others who knew him, I wrote a story that opened with his plans for the new beat. From there, the article explored Nossiter’s career covering the American South, and in particular, Hurricane Katrina. Wracking my brain for the right words to capture his personality, I spent 45 minutes crafting the bold sentence in the excerpt below:

“He’s not a dilettante. He’s not someone who just dabbles about and tries to be a renaissance man,” Scott says. “He is truly somebody who has a great understanding and affection for nice things and culture, great writing, great wine and great music.”

Those greats offered him solace while covering Katrina. The words of Balzac and Chateaubriand, read by the flickering light of a candle, the melodies of Liszt and Debussy, absorbed through the silence and humidity of Southern summer nights, sustained Nossiter amidst a city drowning in “sadness and nonsense.”

To this day, I’m proud of how vividly it illustrates the image that appeared in my head when Nossiter described his experience to me over the phone.

My editor Rem read the draft and said it was a good start.

Uh oh, I thought.

However, he continued, the idea behind profiling Nossiter was to highlight his accomplishments, not explain what he hoped to do in the new role.

“But I thought the reason we’re writing about him is that he got a new job,” I said. “Isn’t that the news hook?”

It is, Rem said, but it’s also the fact that when he leaves, only one national paper will have a reporter based in New Orleans. He suggested I reorganize the draft so it opened with Nossiter’s coverage of Katrina and ended with Nossiter’s plans for the new beat in Africa.

Do you know how long I spent on that draft?! I thought. It’s not as simple as moving paragraphs around! I held my tongue, recognizing that Rem’s suggestion wasn’t up for debate. But to this day, Rem won’t let me live down the death stare and subsequent silent treatment I gave him that afternoon.

Realizing I needed more details, I conducted a few more interviews and submitted another draft by the end of the week. The revised version did flow better, and I realized that messing up wasn’t so bad after all.

Nossiter was a divisive figure in New Orleans, and after the article was published, I read at least one web comment that used my favorite sentence as an example of his elitism. I took no offense, and in that moment, I grasped the role of journalist as conversation starter. My words reflected my understanding of an experience, and others were entitled to disagree.

Beyond thickening my skin, AJR also opened my eyes to an entirely new field of study. Almost a year after I’d left the editorial assistant role (having found a full-time job, though not in journalism) Rem asked if I’d be interested in a research project. He had a reporter working on a cover story about the state of foreign coverage in American media, and he wanted some data to back up the anecdotal evidence that such coverage had decreased precipitously. His only criterion was that the research compare news coverage from 1985 and 2010.

I launched into the project and developed a methodology to compare coverage from one week’s worth of issues of eight American daily newspapers from the two years. LexisNexis lacked a robust enough archive, so during three weeks in the summer, I burrowed behind a microfiche machine in the Newspaper Reading Room of the Library of Congress and analyzed issue after issue, collecting data on 1,010 foreign news stories and distilling it into one sobering statistic: Foreign coverage in those newspapers fell by 53 percent from 1985 to 2010.

The satisfaction I felt from producing such a concrete fact was second only to my awe at the amount of information stored within the Library of Congress. But I also recognized that digital devices, and our activities on them, generate far more information. I wondered how would some freelance researcher 100 years from now try and make sense out of data from the current era?

I bounced these questions off another mentor from journalism school, and she casually mentioned these types of questions fell within the purview of information science. Knowing I wanted to pursue graduate education, I looked up what information school encompassed. Exploring other types of grad programs always left me feeling like a square peg trying to fit a round hole, but information science felt like an intellectual home.

That experience led me to earn a master’s in information and pursue a career doing research and writing about the intersection of digital technology and daily life.

I began college thinking I had my whole life planned out. By the time I graduated, I had no f*&%ing clue what my life would look like. I’ve since recognized that some decisions, whether due to fate, serendipity, or just plain luck, transform moments into turning points. Applying for that AJR internship represents one such turning point for me. Especially because, superseding everything I described above, two of my fellow AJR interns threw an ugly sweater Christmas party five years ago where I met a guy, fell in love, and married him.

For all of that, I say, thank you, AJR.

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