Learning More than I Had Expected at the New York Times Student Journalism Institute
This blog post was written by Ariam Frezghi, our Campus Ambassador at Stony Brook University.
The saying goes, “never regret. If it’s good, it’s wonderful. If it’s bad, it’s experience.” I consider my time in New Orleans these past two weeks the latter.
Here I am with a pen and pad. I was in an unfamiliar setting with people who “tawyked” [talked] funny. The city of New Orleans. I didn’t have much time to research my beat or gather any solid pitches. At school [Stony Brook University] my time consisted of little sleep while trying to edit a video package, which had already failed before I started to shoot b-roll. I was sinking in my work. And though I had to finish this assignment for a grade, all I could think of is New Orleans.
Being accepted into the 10th annual New York Times Student Journalism Institute came with a lot of perks. Free airfare, housing, food and did I mention free FOOD. I may have been the only student who thought of a story idea on the plane ride, but I was determined to work on my two weaknesses: 1. Come up with my own original idea and 2: produce as many clips as possible.
The first of the two week institute was difficult. I didn’t get much outside time (or as broadcast people would say—on air time). I was writing an in-depth story on the crescent city’s gun buyback programs and whether or not it has shown that it has reduced crime over its 12-year life span. But I should’ve realized that it would be hard finding out so. Gun buyback programs are symbolic, in that it survives on the notion that supporters believe taking one gun off the street means that it has done its job. “If we prevent one emergency room visit, then that $13,000 we raised for this initiative is a wise investment for the city,” said Rafael Goyeneche, vice chairman of the Greater New Orleans-Jefferson Gun Buyback Committee. Getting people to return my calls was the most frustrating aspect of my story. Some people did not want to speak on the effectiveness of the program, while others did not want to be bothered.
This two week intensive bootcamp taught me a lot about the profession I want to pursue. My biggest fear was that I wouldn’t be able to produce a good clip. And for that reason, I suffered for days.
My enterprise story had taken longer than I anticipated. The times staffers had taken my story from a rough 650-word draft to a longer in-depth piece compact with crime statistics comparing NO to other city’s crime rates and giving me the chance to include graphics. The outcome was that buyback programs didn’t show a casual relationship with reducing crime in New Orleans, but that residents needed an outlet where they can return rifles, handguns and other weapons to the city. (All guns were reportedly collected and destroyed after.)
I wasn’t able to finish the story in time to tackle dailies (assigned stories) but I learned about my capabilities and downfalls. Here’s an excerpt from my diary post, titled “Back at Square One”
“I wanted to desperately to leave the newsroom, or as I jokingly told a faculty member one morning – the cell, as in a prison cell. I wanted to pursue dailies and meet the folks who made up the Crescent City. It wasn’t until Wednesday afternoon where I left the cell and came back more confused. But given that my enterprise story consisted of me putting in nine hours of phone calling one morning, it meant that I wouldn’t be allowed to get off of Dillard’s soil.
But I escaped the halls of the Cook newsroom building, and found my own story. I visited a rum distillery tucked away off Frenchmen Street. It wasn’t far, barely a 6-minute drive and my first reporting assignment didn’t live up to my expectations.
Standing in the center of where Old New Orleans Rum produces its four flavors of rums, I felt lost more than ever. My stomach began turning at the unusual oaky smell, and I wasn’t up for the challenge to figure out what the heck to report at this distillery. Taking in as much as I could at the moment, I met with the manager of the warehouse and asked questions about how it feels to be the original rum producer in Louisiana. “Can you sum up what rum means to the city?” I asked. And “how was the distillery affected by Katrina?”
Feeling unintelligent about my questions is a rarity. But after leaving this interview my anxiety grew stronger because I wasn’t able to write something in a day or two. I didn’t take control of the interview. I left with more questions unanswered. Some of the terminology used at the distillery including pot still and fermentation, I have never heard.
So here I was again at the same scene - in the Cook building at Dillard facing an empty screen, lost in my thoughts and afraid to start typing.”
-Back at Square One
As you can tell from the excerpt, I made some mistakes at my internship. Fighting the urge to stay put in another city, a city that I had yet to explore was the hardest thing about it all. Another thing I learned at New Orleans is patience. If you aren’t patient and hopeful with stories, you might miss the opportunity to move on to another assignment. The folks at the NY Times saw that I was anxious to get out. They wanted me to leave the “cell” too. But they also expected that I wouldn’t leave until my work was complete.
Being in a different city took me outside of my comfort zone and exposed me to some different ways of living. I don’t know if the experience would have been as rigid and fulfilling if I would have done it home in New York City.
My advice for anyone who is unsure of their future aspirations is to APPLY, APPLY and APPLY to everything and anything that comes across your path.
Have a great summer and good luck!
To check out my stories, please visit: http://nola12.nytimes-institute.com/author/afrezghi/