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.
Donna Ladd, 2020
Donna Ladd, ‘01, is the co-founder of the Mississippi Free Press and editor-in-chief of the Jackson Free Press. Her work focuses on deep coverage of problems and potential solutions across Mississippi.
This interview, conducted by Jake Heller ‘12, was edited for space.
Congratulations, Donna! How did your time at the J-School influence your career path and your approach to journalism?
I went to the J-school in the mid-career program started by Dr. James Carey when I was 40 after being involved in a variety of local and alternative journalism startups in New York City and Colorado and then becoming a freelance writer. I was writing regularly for the Village Voice when I started at the J-school. Ironically, I thought I was getting a master’s because I was done with helping start and run local publications (which is hard) and would teach instead.
But my path changed while I was at Columbia for several reasons. For one, my adviser in the mid-career program Andie Tucher was fascinated by Mississippi’s race history due in no small to her own past reporting here when the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission spy files opened to public view. Andie encouraged me to return home to Mississippi to report as my state's history had led me into journalism in the first place, to tell little-known stories of social justice and to counter lies in our textbooks.
The second big influence was that the mid-career program allowed me to study outside the J-school, especially with Dr. Manning Marable in the Institute for Research in African-American Studies. Another big J-school win was participating in Sam Freedman’s narrative book writing class. He helped me really focus on the craft of narrative reporting and writing in ways that have helped me tell stories in Mississippi that engage many people who might not read long-form pieces about difficult and previously taboo subjects. He also made me face my bad habits like passives and clichés.
Finally, my mentor and friend LynNell Hancock did so much for me and my confidence and, in her own way, helped me accept that it really was okay to go home again. So I moved back to Mississippi within weeks of graduating to continue the journalism Andie urged me to begin, thinking it was temporary. It’s been 20 years in June, and I’m still here and just started a new nonprofit, statewide outlet. For the record, my partner Todd tells this story differently — he says the sublet was running out, and he didn’t want to look for another NYC apartment. Both are true.
You founded the Mississippi Free Press in March 2020, just as the coronavirus hit the U.S. What has it been like to start an organization during a pandemic, and what has this moment taught you about the importance of public interest journalism?
In a weird way, I think the pandemic made it easier to launch MFP, which is named for a Civil Rights Movement-era newspaper started by Medgar Evers and a multi-racial group of activists and Black businessmen. Launching the MFP as Covid-19 hit and we were holing up at home was just the thing for us to do: We believed our experience and watchdoggedness (pardon the expression) was necessary for Mississippi, which proved correct as pandemic realities and politics unfolded here, and both MFP and the Jackson Free Press did serious accountability journalism, helping lift concerns about safety approaches here to national platforms and to readers across the state.
While this moment hasn't really taught me anything new about public-interest journalism, the pandemic did, of course, bring systemic and historic causes, symptoms, and the need for solutions into full relief as COVID-19 hit Black, Latinx and Indigeneous Mississippians harder and faster due to existing disparities. MFP has responded to that reality as a journalistic opportunity to get Mississippians to pay more attention to the need to face the systemic legacies of the past and to finally embrace proactive solutions across divides.
We live in an extremely ideologically polarized country. Mississippi is often referred to, simplistically, as a "deep red state." The Free Press says it is "beyond partisanship." What does that mean, and how does that philosophy help to advance your organization's mission?
Factually and demographically, Mississippi is less "deep red" than some other states, which too many discount or ignore, leading to coverage that deepens assumptions about Mississippians, as well as hopelessness for change. This, in turn, runs off young people who can help evolve the state to a better place for everyone here. The power base in my state loves its own children, but it doesn’t really want them voting any way but how Daddy does. So many of us leave and then sneak in and out for holidays.
I started talking about "beyond partisanship" some time ago as a response to how so much journalism is done in Mississippi and the country in general. I dislike political parties because they too often dumb us down and divide us in two by design. I also despise horse-race journalism, false transparency, fake objectivity, both-sides pablum, access journalism and claims of “neutrality” that mask the most dramatically partisan reporting. Too often journalism helps divide important issues and stories into two partisan sides rather than going deeper and reporting beyond and outside the partisan frame. As Sam taught me so well, people need to be centered rather than the powerful. I’ve long understood that real stories often complicate this pre-conceived partisan narrative.
What are "solutions circles"? How do you see models of journalism evolving to include finding solutions to societal problems?
I don’t think there’s much of a role for journalism if we do not take seriously the need to help our society find solutions together, and I don’t think journalism that ignores the need for solutions has much of a through-line in today’s media world beyond sensationalism.
Our solutions-journalism approach is about, first, seeking causes of today’s inequities and problems — many of them historic and uncomfortable for white Mississippians — through deep listening to community members. We believe data, history and narrative storytelling draw in readers who are clearly in search of solutions more than a blame game (while still embracing accountability). I have had so many people walk up to me in the grocery store and tell me one of our pieces shattered myths they were taught in school and often changed their minds. That’s what truth-telling should do.
Solution circles are simple: We invite people into a now-virtual space about a general topic (voting access, Black women and Covid, Mississippi media), then give and ask them for prompts. Participants decide which group to join, discuss and track causes and solutions, then report out in the larger group. We draw on what we learn for reporting and sourcing.
Bottom line: We have declared "no panels" of journalists or pretty much anyone sitting at a front table telling people how to think. That’s been done for decades to, I would argue, minimal effect. Journalists, we believe, must convene a variety of people to talk deeply and then shut up and listen.
What do national outlets get wrong about Mississippi? What can those mistakes teach us, not only about news coverage, but about how different parts of the country see one another?
Lord, where do I start? The quick answers are: treating us like a monolith; layering on the condescension; parachuting in and expecting local journalists to do all your legwork without proper credit or compensation because we're somehow lesser because we choose to do this work where it’s really, really needed; thinking we're dumber or more racist or whatever because we're from Mississippi. Those are obvious ones, but they are common. I can tell so many stories about condescending journalists having their minds made up before they arrive and looking down on us, even as they demand help from us, suck up our time and then often go back home and take credit for our enterprise work. Or they just get the story wrong.
National media also long had a certain, shall we say, bigotry of low expectations about journalism in Mississippi. The Mississippi reporting that has long excited the national media world has often involved the pursuit of old Klansmen (which is great; I did that, too), but tends not to notice the complications and effects of white supremacy today, such as the rise and fall of Jackson Mayor Frank Melton. Put simply, Mississippi has long gotten away with harming its own citizens because national media tend to come here "looking for a Klansman," as is often said here with rolling eyes.
The deepest issue though, is a national scapegoating of Mississippi (and other southern states to a somewhat lesser degree) based on an ignorance of white-supremacist history in the nation, how it spread, who spread it, who funded it where, who incubated it, and so on. No one reading these words lives somewhere without a dark racist past, I assure you, including New York City. (Start with your state’s history of lynchings and race massacres if you haven’t gone there yet.) Solutions are found and reported through knowledge and deep, often painful understanding.
What advice would you give to young alumni today?
Do the needed thing. My own bizarre career was built around identifying issues and places where reporting was desperately needed to further understanding between people and fill in knowledge holes. I didn’t choose this often-difficult path to be a people-pleaser or a stenographer, to have my ego stroked or as a path to fame and fortune.
Go deep, study, read and think systemically. Some journalists rely on overconfidence, while others are racked by imposter syndrome. The answer is to do the work, and that means studying. We must do hard work and challenge ourselves to illuminate our blind spots to earn the right to document people’s lives.
Learn daily, especially from the negative. It’s vital to understand that, first, you will be criticized and disparaged if you do this job the way it should be done: journalism is not a safe space, especially if you’re not a white man. Still, critics and negative responses always have lessons to teach, even if mean-spirited or dishonest. I’ve taught myself over the years to look for the lesson in everything, even if it’s just how not to do something like teaching. I try not to be quick to react, and I choose battles carefully, usually with the question of "does speaking out about this have a public good?" If not, I usually don’t. I can always vent to my partner. And I live, work and teach by the mantra: "Excellent work is the best response."
Self-care is vital — and no one else can do it for you. I say this now as a breast-cancer survivor and vegetarian who gave up alcohol and sugar when I was diagnosed. Healthy journalists are effective journalists. And let's say it out loud: Constant procrastination and then workaholism and all-nighters catch up with us and decrease work quality. Seek advice and learn better work systems, because your best work is not done at the last minute in a fit of caffeine and stress. It’s about choices: Learn to work smarter, not harder.
Don't burn a bridge you don't need to. I did this wrong early in my adult life when I thought I could do no wrong, and it hurt me. Leave jobs elegantly even if you didn’t love the job or just want to do something else. Someone fired me years ago for a not-great reason, but to be honest, I wasn’t perfect, either. A few years later, we reconciled, and that person helped me tremendously. I still don’t want to work with him in the same space, but he probably feels the same about me. And that’s okay.
Report real truth to real power. And I mean the truth to power others won’t touch, such as the University of Mississippi email series no other media in Mississippi would report because it would offend too many powerful people. If you're working somewhere where you cannot do that, learn everything you can from the experience and then find, or create, a place where you can challenge whatever needs to be challenged no matter who it pisses off.
Think and report systemically. Think deeply; go Socratic on yourselves, constantly asking why, why, why; map your answers (I have hundreds of mind maps on various topics); complicate the narrative; find unexpected connections; find people who know how to discuss systems. Participate in dialogue circles about systemic, structural, institutional racism and, if you’re white, listen a helluva lot more than you talk. In fact, do that across-the-board. Listen and actively learn every damn day for the rest of your lives. I turn 60 this year, and I try to learn and grow daily.
Practice mindfulness. I did not understand the power of full presence until I was nearly 40. Deep focus in every possible moment is the key, I believe now, to doing journalism that matters while living a full and happy life, no matter what the world throws at you. It helps during a pandemic too.
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.
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See the current board members.
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