Watch this space for details on Alumni Weekend 2021.
Alumni Weekend Panels (Virtual): April 22, 29 and May 6
Alumni Awards; network with your classmates (Virtual): May 13
Global Day of Journalism (Virtual): May 14 - Meet alumni in your time zone
Interviews with the Alumni Award Winners
Robert Fieseler, First Decade Award, 2020
This interview, conducted by Pavni Mittal, ‘16, has been edited for space.
Robert Fieseler was a part-time J-School student who graduated in 2013 as the co-valedictorian of his class and received the Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship, the Lynton Fellowship in Book Writing and the Richard T. Baker Award in Long-form Journalism. Upon graduation, he published an environmental story called “Consider the Can,” which was featured in a 2014 “Best of Journalism” roundup in The Atlantic. His first book, “Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation,’’ was published in 2018. Tinderbox made the Kirkus Review’s Best Book of the Year list and won the 2019 Edgar Award in Best Fact Crime from the Mystery Writers of America, as well as the 2020 Louisiana Literary Award from the Louisiana Library Association.
Congratulations on the First Decade Award. How did your time at the J-School influence your career path and shape your journalism?
More than influenced and shaped my journalism and book writing career, the J-School actually gave birth to it. I'd become accidentally successful in a very unfulfilling way in the field of corporate advertising. And I became fearful that if I received a certain promotion and a certain amount of base pay, I would never leave advertising and never do the things that I really wanted to do, which was to write meaningful nonfiction. And so I applied to the journalism school without any journalism experience. I presumed that if people at this school felt I could be a journalist, I would believe them. I immediately took to the journalism school. I loved it. It was like two and a half of the most important, formative, torturous years of my life, full of amazing growth.
“Consider The Can,” was included in The Atlantic's roundup of best nonfiction. The piece touched upon capitalism, labor laws, the environment, recycling and everything in between. How did you go about developing that story?
“Consider the Can” was an offshoot of my thesis and it was a thesis I was very excited about that nobody else essentially was. You know how at the J-School it was almost like a status thing where people would ask, so what’s your thesis project? Then people would brag and say, “Oh, I'm studying this really important thing in Syria, or I'm doing this really important thing involving Bitcoin.” And I'd be like, "Mine's about those canners that return the five cent" and then you could just see people shut down. But I was fascinated. I was interested in this urban underclass of entrepreneurs that were making all their money this way. I befriended canners who at first lived in my neighborhood and then branching out from there, canners who were the kings and queens of canning. Some of the first characters that ever I fell in love with were canners that I met and I and whose stories I followed for about two years
I turned in my master's thesis. It was about 8,000 words or so. I sent it out to editors and nobody was really interested except Michael Shapiro at what was then called The Big Roundtable. Now it's the Delacorte Review. And Michael said, I don't think you're fully telling the story you want to tell here. So then I spent another year on it. And it was an incredible and detailed and crazy process. And I never ceased to be interested. And that is essentially it's a pattern I follow with every story in my life now. I'm a hunter. I select a story and I will follow it as long as it takes to get to the place I feel where I hit solid ground.
You bagged a number of awards when you graduated including the Pulitzer Travel Fellowship and the Lynton Fellowship in Book Writing. How did these help or motivate you especially when you wrote “Tinderbox.”
That provided a validation for me that I could do this professionally and that this is an organization without a real stake in me personally who's validating my work and the future promise of my career. And that was an important validation because that came at a moment where I had to decide whether or not I was going to leave a lot of money in advertising. So after I graduated with those awards and I was co-valedictorian of the 2013 class too, I had a small but meaningful moment of attention and opportunity where I could do something cool with it if utilized properly. And that's when a book editor, who had been toying around with this notion of a queer history book based in New Orleans about this notoriously unsolved arson fire that involved queer New Orleans and homosexuality, when it was a subculture, when it was a street culture, pursued me, sought me out to see if maybe I might be interested in this. And that all came because of the small amount of attention that was directed towards me when I graduated with those awards. That project that the editor first came at me with ended up being ‘Tinderbox,’ my first book and I pursued that.
While newsrooms are bracing for more reporting around identity — including race, sexual orientation, gender and religion — several editors remain skeptical of assigning stories to certain reporters citing lack of objectivity.
I believe you can be part of a group you are reporting on and have objectivity, you just have to follow the journalistic principle of know thyself and counteract in a more direct and conscious way your own biases. So if you're conscious of your own biases, you can work against them. I am a gay person that wrote a work of queer history. What would it mean if anyone was trying to say that queer folk can't write queer history, I'm sorry there wouldn't be any queer history books. Oftentimes, if you're part of that community, you're part of the front line of intellectuals that care about and are thinking about this event.
What advice do you have for recent alums and current students who are entering a really difficult job market in a constantly changing — and downsizing — industry?
So my advice is — it's probably not advice people want — everyone wants to think they're going to graduate from the J-School into a $60K a year minimum journalistic career job. And I hope they do. But for most of you that don't cultivate multiple sources of income, some within journalism, some separate from it, and that will be vital to floating you so that you survive on a paying-the-light-bill level. That's vital. So like, I have six sources of income currently that's not counting, freelance journalist and book-writing, the occasional editorial work that I'll do, helping people develop book proposals, public speaking and everything that has to do with public speaking, the occasional advertorial job that I'll take where it seems that it won't affect my journalistic work because it pays so well, other things like that. And having those multiple sources of income help buffett from any instability that might result from one of them shutting off. Diversify your income, please. I hope that that's not too depressing to hear.
Michelle Johnson, 2020
This interview, conducted by Pavni Mittal, ‘16, has been edited for space.
A journalist, educator and digital evangelist, Michelle Johnson, ’82, dons many hats.
In addition to teaching at Boston University, where she is an Associate Professor of the Practice, Multimedia/Online Journalism, Johnson oversees the award-winning Boston University News Service, a showcase for work produced by BU Journalism students. In 2013, the news service’s coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing was nationally recognized by the Online News Association with awards in both student and professional categories.
Johnson has also taught multimedia workshops in newsrooms, training programs and conferences around the country, including for the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and the National Association of Gay and Lesbian Journalists. She is currently a trainer for the Society of Professional Journalists/Google News Initiative. Johnson was named Educator of the Year by the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) in 2013 and served as the very first academic representative to the NABJ board from 2015 to 2018.
How did your experience at the J-School shape your career and approach to journalism?
The key thing that I took away from Columbia is working on deadline and the fact that I knew I wanted to be an editor. I didn't have the kind of deadline experience in undergraduate school that I did at Columbia. I really credit my time there with being able to more quickly turn around stories. I also took a copy editing class, which I loved and that cemented my interest in being an editor.
You oversaw Boston University News Service's award-winning coverage of the Boston Marathon Bombings. What drove the coverage? And what was the biggest lesson from that reporting/editing experience for you?
We cover the marathon every year. It's a tradition. So, we were in place to switch gears to cover the bombings because we already had a team on the streets. The pivot on Day One wasn't an issue, but we realized quickly that this would take over our coverage for some time. So, for a good two weeks, we were at every press conference, every memorial, every event related to the bombings. It was a great experience covering breaking news for our journalism students.
How do you think the pandemic has changed the way newsrooms think about digital? And what is your advice to editors who are grappling with this change?
I'm not sure that the pandemic has altered the way newsrooms think about digital. They were already attuned after so many years. What I think has had a major impact is the realization that we can work from home. As journalism educators, we also had to pivot and teach our students how to report from home. As horrific as this has been, we know that our young journalists have been prepared to work under these kinds of trying conditions.
What are the three skills reporters and editors should have/work on if they want to enter or stay relevant in the multimedia/digital journalism age?
1) Flexibility. Be open to new things. I tell my students this all of the time. It's not about knowing the latest tool, it's about being open to try new things.
2) When you see something new your first thought should be, "How can I use this to do some journalism?"
3) Know the basics: How to write well, how to shoot good photos and video, how to use a content management system.
What is your advice to current students and recent graduates who are entering the job market in these uncertain times?
Because it's not guaranteed that you will be working for an established newsroom, be proactive and know how to produce on your own. I teach my students how to use a variety of tools, many of them for free, that cover everything from producing web pages to interactive graphics to data visualizations and social media. You never know where you will land. There may be people on staff whose job it is to do these things. Or not. And then it will be up to you. Don't feel like you're stuck because you don't have the experts available.
Educate yourself about your community. And by community, I mean the entire community, not just the part that you may be familiar with. Get out into underserved areas and understand why they are underserved. Do something about that.
Natasha Lebedeva, 2020
Based in Washington DC, Natasha Lebedeva is responsible for special big international news projects, coverage of international breaking news, exclusive interviews with world leaders, maintaining relationships with foreign governments and access to foreign countries. Lebedeva has been working at NBC‘s Washington Bureau for over two decades.
Prior to her NBC career, Lebedeva was a producer for CNN, reporter for Newsweek magazine (with byline stories) and a producer for PBS program “Charlie Rose.” She is a recipient of prestigious journalistic awards for her achievements in news coverage. She was awarded several Emmy Awards, the International Press Club Award, the National Headliner Award and the Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia Award.
Lebedeva is fluent in Russian and English, speaks German, has a working knowledge of Japanese and is a beginner in Korean. She was born and grew up in St. Petersburg, Russia, and currently resides in Washington, DC with her family.
This interview, conducted by Jake Heller ‘12, was edited for space
Congratulations on winning one of this year's Alumni Awards! How did your time at the J-School influence your career path and your approach to journalism?
Columbia and the J-School actually changed my life and made me who I am now. I grew up in the Soviet Union, in a completely different world. I received my Master’s degree in St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad) in mathematical, structural and applied linguistics and never thought of becoming a journalist, since journalism in the Soviet Union was a state-run propaganda operation.
A chance in life brought me to an experience as a journalist and later led me to apply to a few U.S. journalism schools, including Columbia. I got accepted to Columbia and received a scholarship, which made it possible for me to come to the U.S. It was a life-changing and an eye-opening experience. J-School not only gave me an opportunity to live in a different world, but also taught me about U.S. culture, history, approaches to politics, and life. It allowed me to understand what free press and journalism are all about, about its principles and standards and morals. Unbiased and objective, true and uninfluenced. At school, I learned about broadcast, print and radio journalism; I learned how to write stories, how to fact-check, how to interview people, how to present the information. The J-School experience opened doors for me and created a path to powerful journalism which changes people’s lives. J-School also taught me to look at the media critically, to write and speak concisely and effectively.
Are you doing what you imagined yourself doing when you graduated? What has surprised you, and what have you learned from those experiences?
When I graduated, I was actually planning to have some journalism experience in the U.S. and then return to Russia. The latter didn’t happen. I found my first job in T.V. and somehow completely immersed myself into the U.S. journalism world. One job led to another, and I ended up staying and living here in the U.S.
The most surprising thing that I understood after I started working is that anything is possible and everything is possible, and that one can get any information and a lot of access to people and information and ideas. I learned to be creative in my approaches, I learned to find and develop sources and to always be on a lookout for a great story opportunity. J-School did develop my “eye” for a good story and taught me what is needed to report a story.
You are the Director of International Affairs at NBC News and have covered the news all over the world — from Russia, North Korea, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and China, among many other countries. What are some of the most memorable stories you have covered, and what can they tell us about where international relations are headed in the near future? What do you anticipate covering over the next few years?
Among the most memorable stories there are a few that stand out: an exclusive interview with President Assad of Syria, two exclusive interviews with President Putin of Russia, an exclusive unprecedented meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, as well as numerous reporting trips to North Korea with exclusive access for NBC there. All those countries and their leaders are still creating problems for the U.S. and its long-term global agenda. To have an opportunity to hear from the leaders of the countries which are not U.S. allies, is a unique opportunity to learn about their goals, expectations and plans. President Biden pledged to restore U.S. global leadership and to reverse many of former President Trump’s actions. In one of his media interviews last year, President Biden said that Trump “poked his finger in the eye of all our friends and allies, and he’s embraced every autocrat in the world.. we have lost all our friends.” In the next few years, we should anticipate covering President Biden’s different approach to countries like Russia and North Korea in particular, as well as to China. He inherited difficulties in dealing with those countries. The difficulties and new approaches will be generating a lot of news that needs to be covered.
From the murder of Jamal Khashoggi — now going unpunished by the Biden administration — to the record number of journalists imprisoned around the world last year, including in the United States, press freedom is actively under attack. What must be done to protect journalists and journalism both domestically and globally?
Around the globe, journalists are targeted because of the fundamental role they play in ensuring a free and informed society. Ultimately, it’s an assault on the public’s right to know the information, on democracy and on the truth itself. The awareness and disclosure of abuses and attacks on journalists are the key for the journalists’ protection. Governments should be working together to punish, condemn and expose the abusers. NGOs such as Committee to Protect Journalists, UN and UNESCO are essential for the protection of journalists. To further reinforce prevention of abuses against journalists, there is a UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity. It has to be strictly implemented. It recommends working in cooperation with governments, media houses, professional associations and NGOs to conduct awareness and use existing international instruments and conventions against the growing dangers and threats to journalists. To protect journalism, the media also has not to shy away from exposing abuses and calling for action from the government.
You maintain an active connection to Columbia, serving as Co-President of Columbia University's Washington D.C. Alumni Club. Why do you remain involved?
I am also a CAA Board member and remain actively involved in Columbia University’s life. Columbia gave me a new world, a new life, helped me achieve what I have achieved. I am grateful for all the knowledge, help and guidance I received from Columbia. It’s always important to "give back" and offer your assistance. I truly believe Columbia is amazing and I want to promote Columbia’s values and mission. I believe that Columbia’s alumni community should be coming together to support each other and to make Columbia even better. We, as alumni, should all be “bleeding Columbia blue.”
New Director of Alumni Relations
If you are looking to update your skills or find a new job, or you've just published a book or have a job change, you will find many resources through your J-School and Columbia University association. They include:
- JobNews: Log on for a list of opportunities, including jobs, fellowships and freelance gigs maintained by our office of Career Development. JobNews also includes career resources, including resume and cover letter guides, job-hunting resources, and more,
- Additional resources, including recordings of past events. Deadline Calendar, events calendar, and more.
To explore these resources, you’ll need your UNI.
In addition, go here to tap into the network of J-School alumni:
- Alumni Community: The University's alumni directory. Lookup any alum and find out where they live or work. Upload your bio info so others can find you.
- The J-School group on LinkedIn.
- The J-School Facebook closed group for freelancers.
Up your skills through the J-School's Professional Development program. Learn about immersive, specialized training for nondegree students offered here at the J-School or at our partner campuses around the globe.
Books and Job News: Have you written a book or have a new job or job change that you’d like the alumni community to know about? Tell us for inclusion in the monthly J-School alumni newsletter, which is emailed to all alumni, by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also submit details about your new book for inclusion in Columbia Magazine, published quarterly by the University’s Office of Alumni and Development, by emailing them at email@example.com.
The Alumni Board is the official link between graduates and the school's faculty, administration and current students. Board members are alumni who are willing to give of their time to help the Alumni Office come up with ways to engage graduates worldwide through programs and services.
See the current board members.
As an alum, you can support the future of journalism in many ways:
Hire a Journalism School Graduate
As an alum of the Journalism School, your achievements build over the years. Many alumni take the opportunity to “pay it forward” as mentors or hiring managers to the next generation. If you are a hiring editor or producer and want to interview Journalism School students for jobs and internships, please contact the Career Development Office, post a listing on our JobNews board or attend our annual Career Expo, the biggest of its kind at any journalism school.
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Learn how your donations can extend the mission of the Journalism School.
Mentor a Current Student
Through the mentor program, we give you an opportunity to help a current student get a handle on different aspects of the industry and form a professional relationship with a working journalist. The program is currently being revised.