The Reporter’s Notebook: First Semester Down in J-School

By Zameena Mejia

Reporter-NotebookIt’s been six months since I wrote about choosing to go to grad school. Last month, I completed the first of three semesters at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism—I’m now cheering on the winding path to the top of the mountain (a figurative one of course, though I’ll actually be walking on some paths in Costa Rica in a few days #humblebrag). After many sleep-deprived days and just one all-nighter, I survived the beginning of CUNY J-school (aka journalism bootcamp). Reflecting with one of my new close friends, we realized there wasn’t a single week that we weren’t stressing over story assignments. Whenever preparing to interview sources and editing articles up to the seconds before their deadlines, I would ruefully ask myself, “Why am I doing this?”. Every single time, I reminded myself: “You chose to be here and you know why you did.”

Graduating college felt a little too comfortable. It provided great opportunities that could have led to a job without my knowing what I truly wanted to do with my career. I double majored in Journalism with a Public Relations focus and Spanish, but there were other interests I wanted to explore. I went into J-school thinking I wanted to do international reporting, but I’m starting off next semester with business and economics reporting. I’ll also hone in on my coding/web skills for interactive journalism (which I blog about over here). Even still, as someone with a PR/journalism bachelor’s degree, I feel a little out of place when J-school folk cringe over phrases like “sponsored content,” “audience engagement,” and “building your brand.” This is just one of the many ways I’ve had to adapt to a new journalist’s mindset, one which requires a lot of flexibility, patience and speedy thinking.

J-school is no walk in the park—it’s hustling your way to report on protests, talking to stranger after stranger for quotes, lugging an excessive amount of gear around New York City to film news videos, consuming news 24/7, coding interactive stories, and a whole lot more. It has taken me miles outside of my comfort zone and that’s exactly what I wanted. It’s barely an exaggeration to say there’s never a dull moment in journalism. Two notably emotional moments came upon me when being published for the first time and learning two sources [for a different article] lied to me.

  • Pitching articles is a tango between reporter and editor. We’re taught to start with the publication we ideally want the story in, even if that means getting rejected. To even out my chances, I reached out to several other publications where the story might be well suited and hoped for a response. Once you pique an editor’s interest, you review word count, deadline, and pay rate. Being the noob I am, I figured I would just place my article and photos free of charge to any publication (a mistake a professor of mine addressed before I could lock anything in). My first story pitch involved frantically calling and emailing different publications hoping that I could reach them before they assigned their own reporter to attend. I got a hold of a couple editors and managed to land that article and several photos in The Haitian Times!
  • Thanks to a few different fact-checking resources my research adjunct professor taught to our core reporting class, I learned that two sources lied to me about their identities. This semester I covered a community and wrote an article on its local economic revitalization. A source called himself a “co-owner” of a certain business, while the other reported co-owner only referred to him as a business partner. One lied about his age and the other completely lied about his name. As if my background search on them wasn’t shady enough, I interviewed the two guys at their business and they had a guy taking video of me with his iPhone. It’s weird, but it could’ve been worse. From then on, I’ve been weary of inadequate sources and very aware of my surroundings.

We’re surrounded by “editors” at J-school, but there’s plenty of freedom in the work I produce. Unlike college, we’re not forced to be here and it’s refreshing to be surrounded by classmates who are equally—if not more—passionate about breaking into the field. Class of 2016 (my year) is mostly students in their mid/late 20s and 30s, and regardless of the amount of journalism experience obtained before J-school, we’ve all gotten a good shake up. Thankfully, our newsroom has become a playground and a second home; We bounce story ideas off of each other, problem solve, vent about life as journalists, and so on. It’s been a beautifully organized chaos.

It’s slightly surreal that I made it through my first semester of grad school because from orientation until now, we’ve been challenged to keep taking extra steps forward. From sources who welcome me into their homes and businesses to strangers who spill anecdotes from their own lives to enrich my stories—all of these people have been sewn into the patchwork of published and unpublished stories that make me the storyteller I aspire to be. I’m in awe of the amazing journalists who I’ve had as professors and made as friends this semester, I can’t wait for what 2016 brings.

*Author’s note: These opinions are solely my own and don’t reflect any views of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism’s faculty and staff.

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