How I Got Published on the Front Page of the New York Times | School of Journalism

How I Got Published on the Front Page of the New York Times

“I had no idea the front page was even a possibility until a few days before publication,” said Aaron Leibowitz, ’18 M.S. Stabile. But on September 6, 2018, Leibowitz saw possibility become reality as his master’s project on social media firms that monitor students in hopes of preventing mass shootings was published on one of the most coveted places in journalism: the front page of the New York Times.

We interviewed him to learn how it happened and how the rigorous Stabile M.S. Investigative Specialization prepared him to report an in-depth investigation for the Times while finishing up graduate school.

You began your career in sports journalism. What made you switch gears to apply the Stabile program?

I had done some sports reporting in college and applied to the J-school while a senior, but turned it down to take an internship with MLB.com. That internship made me realize I didn’t necessarily want to be in sports journalism so for two and a half years after that, I worked for Wicked Local covering local politics in small cities outside Boston.

That experience gave me the sense that I wanted to stay on the news side but move to investigative journalism, which I didn’t have any experience in. That’s when I decided to apply to Stabile. I wanted to boost my investigative journalism skills and there aren’t too many programs specifically focused on that.

The Times piece started as your master’s project. What did the path to publication look like?

I started off looking in the general area of privacy, social media and schools. I was Googling, monitoring the news and looking through different databases to find crumbs of things mentioned in a news story, but not fleshed out.

At some point in writing the story, my advisor Tracy Weber and I talked about where I might want to submit it, and she helped me connect with the national editor at the New York Times. Following the Parkland shooting, there was a lot of conversation around social media monitoring in schools, which I think contributed to their interest.

It was a long road from there, with a lot of additional reporting. By last September, it was constant back and forth between editors, fact checkers, sources. The whole thing took at least six months.

Times story
Leibowitz' story looks into the promises of companies that monitor student social media accounts in hopes of preventing violence. The firms have come under fire in recent years by the A.C.L.U. and other groups.

You recently had another story published with ProPublica on how Chicago Public Schools monitor students for gang affiliation. Did that story arise out of this one?

I came across that story early in my research and went to Chicago last March to do some reporting on it during Spring Break. My advisor Tracy helped connect me with editors at ProPublica Illinois, and I met with them while I was there. In the same way, they were willing to give me a shot. Both times it was a long road from pitch to publication. I feel like I just wrapped up my work at Columbia!

What are you doing now? How do you think the Times piece impacted your career?

I’ve been working for a few months at Law360 covering courts in Boston. Prior to that, I was doing some freelance research work at ProPublica.

I think the number of people who saw that story and saw I could put together a large project like that has been helpful. Just having the opportunity to put that much time into a single piece is something most journalists don’t get due to time or budget.

What were your biggest lessons from your time as a Stabile student?

I learned to be patient with a story. It’s kind of a gut thing on whether you go all-in on a particular topic or not. I had many moments where I wasn’t feeling confident about my master’s project and what it would be.  Being able to look at every angle and dive deep into it paid off.

I also learned what it really takes to publish a good investigation. We had this class in Stabile on bulletproofing our stories—literally going through with a lawyer to make sure your story is airtight and you don’t get sued. An early draft of my story was chosen to be reviewed and the media lawyer in the class just shredded the piece. 

There were a lot of statements where the language was kind of vague, which was because my reporting wasn’t quite there. I realized that if you’re using language where you’re not 100 percent sure what it means, you have to do more reporting or cut it because you have to be sure you are correct and specific in your reporting.

Does anything else stand out from your time at the J-School?

I’ve seen so many of my classmates get amazing stories published. It’s a great feeling. Columbia does a great job pitching and supporting students doing this work.

The process of doing the reporting—the grueling work of a long project—was extremely valuable in itself. There’s just so much tedious stuff: triple-checking, telling sources exactly what you’re going to write about them when it doesn’t make them happy, the early stages where you don’t know what the story is going to be…It’s stressful, but worthwhile.

I feel so much solidarity with the students. People from my year at the J-School have been so supportive of each other, even now, after graduation. Even though we’re a year removed, it feels like there’s a lot of solidarity and community.

Read more in our "How I Got Published" series to learn how Columbia Journalism students produce hard-hitting stories that get published:

About the Stabile M.S. in Investigative Journalism

The Stabile M.S., supported by the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism, is an exclusive track preparing students for distinguished careers in investigative journalism. During the program, students work on investigative projects that can be pitched for publication and may collaborate on investigations with professional news organizations. Student work has been published in outlets including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, ProPublica, 60 Minutes, Vice and Buzzfeed. Learn more about this innovative investigative journalism master's degree.