My Three Months at The New York Times (and 10 Years in Journalism)

The sixth-floor cubicle I sit in right now at The New York Times overlooks 8th Avenue and West 41st Street. On the mornings when I get here early, before anyone else has come in and it’s quiet, I like to stare out of the large windows at the taxicabs and people hustling down the street.

My Midtown view.

I stand there and almost have to pinch myself to know that it’s real.

Ten years ago this summer I was freshly graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Central Washington University, a small state college in a town that boasts the “horsiest parade around,” but I had no idea what it meant to really be a journalist. I knew the AP stylebook cover-to-cover, how to write a decent lede, fine-tune a nut graph and craft stories into inverted pyramid style exactly like the countless students who’d come before me. I pored over Tim Harrower’s venerable newspaper design book. I was taught the strict ethics of journalism — only to see them fall by the wayside during my first daily newspaper job. I read Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” highlighting passages but failed to truly understand it, and gulped down Walter Cronkite’s “A Reporter’s Life.”

I was told that in journalism, you start at the bottom and pay your dues. Through hard work, dogged reporting and several regional SPJ awards, you work your way up out of the trenches of small-town news to the big-city metro.

It sounds so bleak now, but at the time I was ecstatic. It seemed so romantic. But as anyone who’s actually had to yell, “Stop the presses!” — which I actually had to do once because of a glaring mistake — it’s not at all like the movies.

I spent more days crying in the bathroom than taking a lunch break at my first daily newspaper job. I often refer to it as “journalism boot-camp.” At the 10,000-circulation afternoon paper in rural Eastern Oregon I wrote stories, edited stories (sometimes editing my own stories), shot photos, typed up obits, paginated pages and counseled couples on which engagement photo would be best to run in the Lifestyles section. I worked 12-hour days, making sure to punch out after eight. I was told to write stories about advertisers and to take free meals.

I lived on Wal-Mart tuna helper and malt liquor. I couldn’t afford heat. I lived in a neighborhood where two dudes tried to break into my house at 8 a.m. on Saturday. I was in my early 20s and treated for high blood pressure (which might have had to do with the tuna helper and malt liquor as much as the stress). And I sacrificed a wonderful two-year relationship to follow my dream.

It was a dark time, but I learned a hell of a lot about myself: the kind of journalist I wanted to be and the kind of place I never wanted to work at again.

One day, I looked at the $100 I had to my name and decided it was enough to move my meager belongings back to my parents’ house and try again. I wasn’t ready to give up on journalism, just on this place.

That same day the Yakima Herald-Republic, at which I had been interviewing for a job as the arts writer, called and offered me the position. Owned by The Seattle Times, the Herald-Republic is a 38,000-circulation paper (40,000 back when I started) dedicated to being fiercely independent and to watchdog reporting. I was ecstatic and for the first time in a year and a half I cried out of happiness and relief.

At the Herald-Republic I got to be the journalist I had always hoped to be, thanks in large part to my editor John Taylor. He’s the kind of editor you hope to get at least once in your life — a brilliant writer in his own right who never edits over you but helps you find your voice — and I was lucky to have him as a young journalist.

It was sort of an accident the way I found newspapers, and that’s how I thought of it, as newspapers and journalism as some interchangeable word that meant the same thing. Here was a career with a strict set of ethics at its core, a rich legacy of democracy, the power to give voice to the voiceless and to hold the powerful accountable. And they were going to let me into the club. I was a journalist. It said so on my degree. I had a notebook. I had a beat. I had a byline. I worked at a newspaper.

I thought I would work at newspapers, climbing my way up to a big city metro, for the rest of my life. I’d found my calling.

That’s why it was so hard for me to let go of newspapers — or, to clarify, to let go of thinking of newspapers as synonymous with journalism. After six years at the Herald-Republic, during which I watched the newspaper business model torn to pieces, I did finally let go of print newspapers and went back to school.

This past spring I graduated with my master’s in online journalism from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, which, to my knowledge, does not boast anything about the amount of horses in its parades.

In grad school I’d been writing snarky blog posts about the demise of legacy media for a good year and a half when The New York Times called to say I’d been accepted as its summer Web intern. I had applied in the fall (yes, yes, an entirely hypocritical move, I know) and then promptly forgot about it because, you know, it’s The New York Times, an institution that wasn’t even on my aspirations radar because it seemed like such an unobtainable goal.

I think in that brief one-minute phone call I experienced confusion/trepidation/panic/excitement and again confusion when I hung up the phone. Did that really happen? Also, there was a bit of sheepishness over all my anti-legacy media posturing, but that didn’t stop me from taking celebratory tequila shots that night.

Today is my last day with The Times. I like to call the experience “Web journalism fantasy camp,” which it has been. I was present when Jill Abramson was named the first woman executive editor and I watched “Page One” with the cast. I covered a baby red-tailed hawk’s first flight, attended a wizard rock house party and interviewed young adults about the legalization of gay marriage. I helped put the online pieces together for some incredibly fun and beautiful New York Times Magazine packages. Brian Stelter tweeted me a happy birthday message and Bill Cunningham once said to me, “good morning young lady.” And like with all camp experiences, I made some great friends (sadly minus the woven friendship bracelets) that I hope I’ll stay in touch with forever.

With the NYT Magazine softball team.

Mostly, I’ve had a glimpse of what it’s like to work at The Times, a place that is certainly legacy media and proud of it, but more importantly is a media company constantly re-inventing the way it reports and disseminates news online. The people that work on the backend — the programmers and self-described hacks — are mind-blowing geniuses.

So three months later I, and my snarky blog posts, stand corrected. The amount I have learned here is something I will be forever grateful for and has shaped the way I think about online journalism.

Not to say everyday was a joy. Even as an intern, working at The Times is a hard, stressful job. Somedays I wondered if it was just too big of a place for me, too many cooks in the kitchen. But the truly amazing thing about having all those skilled and relentlessly dedicated cooks is that at The Times no one ever says, “no, it can’t be done.” Maybe they say it can’t (or shouldn’t) be done that way, and then they find another, better, smarter way to make it happen. I’m ridiculously proud to have my name in some small way associated with the work here.

And I never once cried in the bathroom.

[Oh, and what’s next? On Tuesday I start as online producer at WQXR.]

Democracy and Nelson Mandela’s Dining Room Table

Nelson Mandela is sick and back in the hospital and all I can think about is his dining room table.

In the summer of 2011, I was one of 16 USC Annenberg Journalism School graduate students to spend two months living and working in Cape Town, South Africa. Part of the program also included journalism workshops with teens.

That’s what brought us to Paarl and eventually to Madiba’s dining room table.

We’d been given a very exclusive tour of the small house backdropped by the striking landscape of the Western Cape. It also sits inside the Drakenstein Correctional Centre outside of Paarl. When Mandela, already in prison for more than 20 years — 18 of those on Robben Island — lived here it was called the Victor Verster Correctional Centre and it’s famous for the iconic scene of Mandela, fist in the air, walking out a free man on Feb. 11, 1990, after 27 years in prison.

With Mandela so sick and frail, I’ve been thinking a lot about those two months in South Africa and especially that day.

I kept a pretty detailed diary about my experiences, but this day — one of the most rewarding and also emotional — I needed time to digest. I’ve taken enough time.

The day began at the Koinonia Community Centre in Paarl where we were mentors at a digital media workshop for a group of aspiring teenage journalists. We each teamed up with a teen and spent the day reporting a story with the theme “Democracy Is” and crafting it into an audio slideshow. I loved working with those kids and still remain Facebook friends with a couple of them.

After the workshop, we all took a van out to what Wikipedia describes as a low-level “farm prison,” and that seems about right to me. I found out later that unlike the museum-esque Robben Island tour, this was not a place that hosted regular visitors. I mean, it’s inside an active prison. But strings were apparently pulled and we found ourselves standing in Mandela’s kitchen, sitting in his chair, and yes, even peeking into his bathroom.

And then there was that dining room table, a heavy wood table, oval shaped and surrounded by chairs with floral upholstery. It was at this table that Mandela and National Party president F.W. de Klerk drew up the documents to end Apartheid. A painting of the two of them hangs above the head of the table. A portrait of a smiling Mandela hangs on the adjoining wall.

At the end of the tour, with all of us gathered in his bedroom, we were given these gold-colored medals on a white ribbon (pictured to the right). They were embossed with Mandela’s image, fist in the air, and said “27. Freedom.”

Everyone was in tears.

The teenagers we were working with are part of the “born-free” generation, meaning they were born after Apartheid ended (I’m in no way saying that race is still not a HUGE part of the South African experience). After a long, long day, the historical and emotional significance of this tiny house hit us all hard.

So, I’m going to keep sending out positive thoughts to Madiba and honor him by remembering that day, the day I had the honor of standing in the same place as him — a place so intimate and historic and also so awful — and standing there with a group of amazing South African teens after a day of pondering what democracy is.

Hall & Oates at Burning Man, I Can Go For That!

Last month, I went on WNYC’s Soundcheck to talk Burning Man. Later in the week they were going to be talking to the director of the new Burning Man documentary “Spark” and wanted to solicit some playa tales from burners, so asked me to tell a few of mine (I started going in 2001, and this was my ninth year at that thing in the desert).

LISTEN [6:40 minute mark]: Your Burning Man Stories

At one point, the conversation comes around to the music played at my camp (or music that I wish was played at my camp) and host John Schaefer asked:

John: And do you participate in the musical endeavors of the camp?

Me: In my own rogue way, yes.

Host: Now what would rogue at Burning Man sound like?

Oh, it sounds a little like HALL & OATES! And I challenged all DJs to try and do an electronic dance music mix of H&O’s “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do).” It totally works, I promised.

John was skeptical, but lookee what I ran into, totally just randomly wandering around this year’s Burning Man.

I’m not saying I’m a trend-setter, but …

VIDEO: Hall & Oates at Burning Man, I Can Go For That

Superstorm Sandy and Social Media

New York gets pretty heavy, girl, I hope it doesn’t crush you.

In hindsight, I did not handle the hurricane well.

Superstorm Sandy was my first experience as a social media manager during a disaster. WQXR, the classical music station I work at, is the sister station of WNYC, New York’s public radio station. During the storm, WNYC worked tirelessly to keep people informed.

“Radio stations, one of the most reliable sources of information for people without power, were also impeded by flooding on Monday. Two news radio stations, WNYC and WINS, lost their AM frequencies but continued to broadcast on FM. WNYC’s transmitter ‘is in a swamp, and it’s flooded,’ said Laura R. Walker, the chief executive of New York Public Radio, which operates the station. She added the organization had anticipated the power failure and warned listeners ahead of time. The station’s Lower Manhattan studio lost power on Monday night. But a backup generator kicked in immediately and coverage was not stopped.” — Storm Sends News Media Scrambling, The New York Times

It was WQXR’s job to stay on the air and provide a calming respit from non-stop storm news. Instead of going to pre-recorded programming, hosts and the music directors came into the office in order to be a live voice of information and reassurance between the music. My job was to monitor social media channels and relay WNYC’s updates to our listeners. I spent Oct. 27 to Nov. 4 glued to my computer, eyes darting across multiple Twitter feeds, alternating keeping an ear between WQXR and WNYC (and alternating between coffee and whiskey, as day turned to night).

I also live in Zone A in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a mandatory evacuation zone. I live on the first floor two blocks from Newtown Creek, a toxic body of water that was already flooding by the morning before the storm hit full-force. I evacuated six blocks away to a friend’s apartment where I could keep an eye on what was happing in my neighborhood.

I came home Tuesday morning to very thankfully find no water in my apartment, despite seeing this terrifying photo from the boutique hotel a couple doors down the street. Our basement did flood and knock out the hot water heater, a small, barely noticeable inconvenience for a couple days. I do, though, worry about the toxic residue that may still be down there.

During the storm, I, perhaps foolishly, ventured out to take photos of what I saw. After working at newspapers for 10 years, old habits die-hard. I tweeted and Instagramed them, tagging #Greenpointers (the neighborhood blog) and #Sandy. I relayed them to WNYC’s crowd-sourced Storify page.

PJ Vogt at WNYC’s On the Media spent the storm documenting the coverage and communication on social media and he and I, who only live several blocks apart, came away with a similar sense of community built during the storm.

BOB GARFIELD: So, in general, this experience, this total Twitter immersion during Sandy, did, did it yield any surprises, disappointments, revelations, heartbreak?

PJ VOGT: This is a little embarrassing, ‘cause I think a lot of people [LAUGHS] knew this already, but for me using it during the storm was the first time I’d understood the sense of community that people get specifically from this platform. At this point, my street flooded with waist-high water and a dumpster just floated past me. And I took a picture of it and I tweeted it out, and I was just expressing something. I didn’t really know who I was talking to. And over the next 20 minutes, I got I think like 10 to 20 messages from people asking me follow-up questions, telling me to be safe. They were people that I’d never met, and they were my neighbors.

BOB GARFIELD: Oh. I’m a little – I’m verklempt.

PJ VOGT: I just wanted to make you feel something, Bob.

BOB GARFIELD: Am I not but flesh and blood, PJ –

Perhaps because of my incessant tweeting, people living in my neighborhood began asking me, via Twitter, for status updates on what was and wasn’t flooded in north Greenpoint and if the Pulaski Bridge was open.

For the days leading up to and after the storm, I slept in the living room on the couch with the computer at my head. The power at the station was out and everything was running on a generator, which meant all those who could work from home, should. I made myself take walks every so often (and a shower now and then when the hot water came back on) as to not go totally cross-eyed and brain-fried at obsessively consuming so much media.

After a week sequestered at home, I felt shaky and stir-crazy and the fear of the storm was now giving way to the immense severity of its destruction. It’s bad. Really bad.

But as crazy as I drove myself staring at the ever-shifting columns of Tweetdeck, I also took comfort in the messages people were sending to WQXR. People without power and heat, but with battery-operated radios and a cell phone, took the time to tell us we were their calm during the storm. Those simple gestures, were what finally brought me to tears.

How I Hijacked Journalism School

This past Sunday morning, I was standing outside of the hotel in San Francisco that hosted the 2012 Online News Association Conference when Robert Hernandez (@webjournalist to many) walked up and asked, “So, Yakima to New York, what’s that like?” Or maybe it was, “How’d that happen?” A question I ask myself ALL THE TIME.

I think I looked at him a little confused. (Admittedly, the night before included an epic, beer-battered, post-ONA conference karaoke session and everyone was a little groggy.)

My answer was, to some rambling extent, that sometimes I have to pinch myself to know it’s real. It’s a 10-year journey I talk sentimentally about in this post I wrote on the last day of my summer internship at The New York Times.

He followed up by asking what role USC Annenberg’s graduate school, where he teaches and where I earned my master’s degree in online journalism, had played in that? Just as I was about to answer, my ride pulled up and all I could get out, along with a hug goodbye, is “that it helped me shake up my life.”

Reading Robert’s recent post on the Neiman Journalism Lab website, I’d feel like I should get out my full answer because it parallels a lot of what he says in his essay on how students should approach — or attack, for that matter — their J-school education. (It’s no secret that while he as professor and me as student, we disagreed on several how-J-schools-should-be-run issues. Robert also worked at the same paper I did in Yakima, Wash., the Yakima Herald-Republic, but prior to me coming there.)

But I also agree with this commenter, that many J-school students probably aren’t reading Neiman Lab, or utilizing/aware of the other resources out there to take control of their education. I know as an undergrad journalism student in 1995, that I sure didn’t care about the Society for Professional Journalists or its conferences (oh! don’t those seem so old-fashioned now?). I cared about working in the student newsroom and writing stories and, you know, making a difference, CHANGING THE WORLD.

Access to online tutorials to teach yourself coding and the ability to follow industry leaders on social networks changes the student journalism experience today, I’m sure, both undergrad and graduate. But I think for many young journalists there’s still that romance about being in the newsroom and getting the story, not about reading industry and academic blogposts and attending lunchtime talks about the “future of journalism.” (Of course, there are certainly your Callie Schweitzers and Ethan Klappers out there, not to mention my dear friend Kevin Grant, to dispute this general, sweeping statement.)

So, what follows is simply my experience with USC Annenberg’s journalism school, as a 31-year-old journalist nearly a decade into my career, who found myself in a rut at a paper I just didn’t fit in anymore in a town I had grown to love but that never felt exactly like home. I needed a do-over and grad school seemed like the only way out. It turns out it would totally change my life.

THE THINGS I STRUGGLED WITH

• With the decline of the newspaper industry, I really, really thought there would be more people my age and with similar work experience to me in the two-year program. Instead, those people were in Annenberg’s one-year specialized journalism program, which at the time did not include a focus on online journalism and digital media.

• Even in your 30s and with professional experience, it’s hard not to be swayed by professors. It really wasn’t until my second year that I truly began to “hijack,” as Robert says, my J-school education.

• It’s fucking expensive.

• Yes, as Robert says, there are, in fact, “older professor you have written off as ‘irrelevant.’” Their war-story, glory-day ramblings should be limited to an inspirational three-hour symposium lecture the first day of class and be done with it. An entire semester of weekly war-story, glory-day ramblings is a waste of time and money. Did I mention this school is fucking expensive?

• The repetition will kill you. Unfortunately, there was never any continual flow for the online journalism classes. Instead of picking up where the semester before had left off, we were often re-hashing skills and assignments we’d done the semester, or even year before. Audio slideshows, yeah, we got that, can we please move on? Yes we’ve heard of Twitter, next please.

THE THINGS I LOVED

• It’s fucking expensive but you get what you pay for. The one-on-one attention at Annenberg is something I’ve never experienced in academia before. Even while I was writing frustrated blog posts and tweets about how sloooooow J-schools are to change, I never felt more cared about and supported by professors and administrators than I did at Annenberg. And still do as an alumnus.

• The access to the top doers and thinkers in journalism is unparalleled. It was often hard to keep up with the lunchtime, nighttime and in-class speakers that came to Annenberg.

• I got to take a class with Henry Jenkins. I have no idea what the class was about, but HENRY JENKINS!

• As a journalist with a good amount of professional experience, I had a clearer idea of what I wanted out of grad school. I took classes on the future of newsroom leadership and an entrepreneurship course in the business school. I volunteered to set up chairs at the Knight Community Info Challenge Boot Camp so I could sit in on the sessions, and I applied for scholarships to attend new media conferences.

• I did multiple internships, including one at a public radio station that quickly turned into a part-time job and began my love for working in public radio. And I applied to an internship I never in a million years thought I’d get until The New York Times called and said that I had. This brought me to New York, where I’ve been lucky to stay after finding my dream job at New York Public Radio.

• I shamelessly networked the hell out of everything.

• I started this blog so I wouldn’t forget what my goal was or see how far I’ve come from Yakima to New York.

11 Years After Sept. 11, 2001

Twin towers of light from Ground Zero.
Twin towers of light from Ground Zero.

My daily commute over the Pulaski Bridge from the top of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, to the 7 Train in Long Island City, Queens, is the panorama bookend to most of my weekdays.

Tonight it offered up a powerful view of the Manhattan skyline with the twin beams of light shining up from Ground Zero and the Empire State building patriotically lit up in red, white and blue.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I got out of the shower and turned on my favorite radio morning show on 94.7 FM, Portland, Ore.’s alternative rock station. Something was strange. The hosts, Daria and Gustav, were different. It took me a several minutes to begin to figure out what they were talking about. Something had happened. Something bad and nobody knew exactly what it was or why.

I remember running to the kitchen to turn on the TV and just then saw the second plane hit. Maybe it was as it happened or a footage loop. I don’t remember. My usually packed bus from the park-and-ride in Salmon Creek to downtown Portland was empty. By then those who worked downtown, where many government buildings are, had been told to stay home.

When I walked into Willamette Week, the alternative weekly I’d been interning at for the past three months straight out of college, a couple of people were desperately moving around tinfoil-covered rabbit ears on an old TV trying to get a picture. I didn’t even know we had a TV in the office. Internet was always painfully slow and today it was nonexistent. There was no text messaging and no smart phones.

Tuesday is when that week’s paper is put to bed. Sept. 11, 2001, was a Tuesday. We all crowded into Editor Mark Zusman’s office and began to figure out our game plan. I had so much adrenaline and anxiety and shock running through me I almost ran out of the office to start reporting.

Within hours we all — news reporters, culture and music reporters, interns — were filing stories. I’m really proud of the work we did, as is written in the lede, in “our attempt to provide some insight into a tragedy physically far removed from us, yet emotionally and psychologically a heartbeat away.”

–>>> SHOCKWAVES | Willamette Week | Sept. 12, 2001

Other than a seventh-grade spring break trip to Washington, D.C., the farthest east I’d ever been was Kansas City, Mo. New York City might as well have been in a different country as far as I was concerned then. I didn’t know where the World Trade Center was, or even what it was.

I feel privileged that I now get to call New York City home. After living here for little more than a year, moving into my Greenpoint apartment nearly 10 years to the day after the terrorist attacks, I have some idea of how New York and New Yorkers were able to, ultimately, triumph over this tragic day. They are tough and resourceful and caring and don’t let anything stop them. Ever.

From the Pulaski Bridge, Sept. 11, 2012
From the Pulaski Bridge, Sept. 11, 2012.

Pretty much exactly how I always imagined we would meet

Today, before a meeting:
Brooke Gladstone to me: “Hi.”
Me: “Hi, I’m Kim.”
Brooke: “I’m Brooke.”
Me: “I know” … break into full-on sweat desperate to think of something interesting and witty to say but don’t come on too strong about how she’s the reason I quit my job and went to grad school and she’s my fucking hero. Instead, take sip of beer (yes, there was beer at this particular meeting) and look away.