The morning of September 11, 2001, Shazia Khan was working for NY1 news channel and searching for her big story. Before she knew it, she was in the midst of the biggest story of the decade.
“As I stood with my camera and tripod on Chambers Street, I will never forget hearing the loud boom and seeing the cloud of debris and smoke that soon followed,” Khan recalled.
Shazia was shooting video of the burning twin towers and gathering interviews from witnesses in downtown Manhattan. “In just minutes, the city's beloved skyline and the lives of New Yorkers changed forever.”
Shazia Khan joined NY1 as a news assistant and worked her way up to become a general assignment reporter. A second generation Indian-American, Khan is a native of Westchester County. She graduated from New York University with a degree in Broadcast Journalism.
“As a student, I pursued Broadcast Journalism because it had the added layer of video to better tell a story,” said Khan. “I was initially attracted to journalism because it afforded one the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life. That initial interest grew into a passion to share information with others.”
Shazia has always loved covering stories that reflect the cultural and religious diversity of New York City.
“It's great for viewers to see reporters mirror the diversity of the city,” Khan said. In 2005, she helped in launching “Immigrant History Week” in New York City with Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Khan served as the mistress of ceremonies at Gracie Mansion.
As a local news reporter, Shazia understands the importance of establishing and maintaining relationships with viewers and readers, especially at a time when so many of them choose the Internet as their destination for news.
“We're not the only ones toting cameras everyday and we're not the only ones with the ability to share information with the masses anymore,” Khan said. “So let's hope they connect with your news organization first.”
Shazia Khan is a panelist on "Breaking Into Broadcast" at the 2011 SAJA Convention.
At 44, Rebecca Blumenstein looks unexpectedly young to be the deputy managing editor and international editor for the Wall Street Journal. Her 16-year-long rise at the paper—from a reporter covering General Motors to her current position—has its origins in a penchant for news and the written word that developed at an early age.
“I always knew what I wanted to do,” says Ms. Blumenstein. “I was very interested in the news and newspapers. My parents always got the Wall Street Journal and I would read it but it was very hard because it didn’t have pictures in it.”
Contrary to the existential meandering expected from 20-something new college graduates, Ms. Blumenstein had no trouble charting her career path after she graduated from the University of Michigan.
She went from being editor in chief of the University’s student daily—which had a circulation of about 40,000—to working as a full-time journalist at the Tampa Tribune in Florida.
She later worked at Gannett Newspapers and Newsday, and joined the Wall Street Journal’ s Detroit bureau in 1995.
“Part of what helped me get hired at the Journal is I was putting my hand up to work in Michigan when nobody else really wanted to,” recalls Ms. Blumenstein, who hails from a small auto town outside Michigan called Essexville.
Since then, she’s held a variety of positions within the Journal, as a reporter covering telecommunications, chief of the paper’s technology section in New York, chief of the China bureau, and managing editor of the Wall Street Journal online.
Before her 2005 move to China with her three young children and her husband, Ms. Blumenstein had only lived outside the United States for one year in Israel after high school. She didn’t know any Mandarin or Cantonese and had never even visited China before she flew over to see if she could work there.
“They took a risk sending me to China,” says Ms. Blumenstein. “I had been increasingly interested in globalization. The job came open and they didn’t have a natural candidate so I put my hand up.”
Putting her hand up seems to have worked pretty well. During her three-and-a-half year stint in China, the paper won a Pulitzer Prize for a 2006 series they did called “China’s Naked Capitalism” and a Polk award for coverage of the environmental problems at the country’s Three Gorges Dam. Ms. Blumenstein also supervised coverage of the Beijing Olympics and the Sichuan earthquake.
While there were the inevitable cultural differences—“the first few weeks in China seemed liked a year,” recalls Ms. Blumenstein—life was, in many ways, easier than in New York.
“Living in China as a working woman is perhaps the best kept secret,” says Ms.Blumenstein. “In Beijing I would come home and the house would be spotless, dinner would be on the table. I didn’t do much laundry.”
Ms. Blumenstein says that she and her husband—who went on to write a book about being an expatriate in China called Big in China—particularly enjoyed socializing in Beijing, where people meet more spontaneously than in the US. “I liked that balance of working hard and playing hard,” she says.
Now back in New York, juggling a demanding career as the mother of three young children sometimes catapults her life into chaos, says Ms. Blumenstein. However, she calls having children a “ saving grace,” forcing perspective and a balance in her life. She also candidly admits that she’ s lucky to have a supportive, stay-at-home husband in Mr. Paul.
“We believe very strongly that our marriage is a partnership. I’m more ‘type A,’ he’s a bit more ‘type C,’” she reflects. He’ s happy to wake up and listen to music and write, while I thrive by going to work and seeing people.”
While day-to-day life in New York isn’t as exciting as in China, Ms. Blumenstein says she’s challenged by her role and is focused on driving great stories under her leadership at the Wall Street Journal – particularly those that speak to international issues.
“I want to supervise coverage that changes the world and makes an impact,” she says. “Globalization is biggest story of our time and we need to be looking at it very critically. The world is tilting east and those who understand that are in a good position.”
Rebecca Blumenstein is the keynote speaker at this year's SAJA's Convention and the recepient of the 2011 SAJA Leadership Award.
Food writing was almost unavoidable for Carla Spartos, the New York Post's food writer and editor. Her father was a restaurateur in New York--serving classic continental dishes to the masses like steaks, chops and everyday Italian fare. Spartos spent her hours after school sipping Shirley Temples and eyeing the kitchen's cook line. And as a precocious middle-schooler, she even wrote an expose on cafeteria meat. Spartos left her mark at the Village Voice, Zagat and New York Magazine. Now, at the New York Post, Spartos covers every aspect of the food and restaurant industry. In 2009 she made some major waves in the food world with an editorial calling out snobbery in the modern food movement. SAJAForum's Shefali Kulkarni checked in with Spartos ahead of this year's SAJA convention, where she will speak about how she turned her love of food into a career.
SK: How did you land at the New York Post writing about what you love?
CS: It was sort of a long path. I grew up in restaurants, my dad was a restaurateur so basically every day after school I would hang out in the restaurant kitchen watching the line. After that, I studied at Cornell and originally I thought I might go into science writing, but my first job out of college was at the Village Voice. When I started at the Voice I was covering music and night life and I used to review bars -- that was a pretty great job for someone in their 20s. And then I segweyed into the food aspect. I worked as a web producer for New York Magazine, and I was doing some food articles there and then later at Zagat I was an editor.
It’s funny I wrote these articles for the seventh grade -- an expose on the cafeteria food. There was a quote that ran with it, something like: ‘Today’s hamburger could be tomorrow’s taco’ and it was about how the cafeteria would recycle food. I think there was always something [about food writing] in the back of my mind -- it was a passion, and it was just a matter of working my way into that role eventually.
SK: Talk a little about the 2009 editorial in the New York Post and some of the reactions that came from that.
CS: I think if we elicit some strong reactions with what we do, then we’ve done our job. If everyone says "Oh that’s what I’ve been thinking," then what are you adding to the dialogue? I do think someone who is cookin at home using a bag of salad or maybe frozen carrots -- I think that also should be encouraged. What’s the alternative? Maybe they would be eating at McDonald’s. It was also poking a bit of fun at the snobbery that’s maybe a little inherent sometimes.
SK: Where is food writing’s place in today’s media? With lots of food blogs out there, do you see that helping or hurting quality food writing? Is everyone a food critic now?
CS: I think it’s great. I’m an avid food blog reader, I love combing and reading through people’s opinions whether it’s Yelp or City Search or Menu Pages. I just find it interesting and you have to take everything with a grain of salt of course. But ultimately it's a good thing, the more voices you have out there.
SK: What advice would you recommend to young food writers?
CS: The industry itself has gotten a lot tougher to break into over the last say decade. I’m on the [SAJA Convention] panel called "Dream Jobs" and it’s just highly competitive now. Food is now being treated the way music or rock and roll is in a way.
My advice would be to do an internship. I think the other helpful thing is that since blogs are so ubiquitous, it’s great to start your own, so you can already have a body of work all ready to show someone your passion. And try to eat as much and as often as possible or what your budget allows -- try to have your own point of view.
Despite rapid changes in the media landscape, the fundamental strengths of being a clear thinker and writer are still necessary for journalists, says Kevin Noblet, managing editor of wealth management coverage at Dow Jones Newswires.
He should know.
In an eventful 28-year career with Associated Press, Noblet worked multiple roles from business to deputy international editor and, also, directed coverage for two stories that won Pulitzer Prizes. SAJAForum's Rakesh Sharma caught up with Noblet, who will be conducting a workshop about business reporting at SAJA's convention this year.
SF: How did you get started with journalism?
KN: I was an English major in college and decided journalism was one way to get paid for my major after graduation. It was as simple as that.
SF: You have covered events at the local level (with community newspapers in Connecticut) as well as at the international level (with AP). What is the difference in approach?
KN: In some ways, it is very much the same because ultimately you are writing about people. However, events in the international story are larger in scale and you also have to deal with another language and culture. Most importantly, you are also distant from your audience. In a community newspaper, you have the luxury of readers calling or dropping in. This helps you gauge feedback. Of course, that might not hold true any longer because your audience is electronically closer, thanks to the Internet.
SF: Is there a difference between business journalism and other kinds of journalism?
KN: One of the great things about business journalism is that there are concrete objective measures you can rely on to test the accuracy of sources. This is different from political reporting where it is much more difficult to test accuracies. That said, I do believe that business journalism is also about people and has its own ethical, moral, and social issues.
SF: Which place was most memorable for you in international reporting?
KN: Haiti. I spent a year there (over the course of three years) during the early 1990s. This was a time of great political turmoil. Social and poverty issues were pretty widespread and dramatic. I also reported about the earthquake from there last year. Given their problems, I must say Haitians are an extremely resilient people.
SF: Can you tell us a little bit about your experience directing coverage for stories that won Pulitzers?
KN: Both experiences were quite different. The first Pulitzer was awarded to a very talented AP reporter covering the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. He was a talented writer, and, as an editor, my job was to simply help shepherd his copy to the wire and make sure no heavy-handed copy editor messed with it! The second prize was for a very long, painstaking and sometimes just painful investigation into a wartime massacre in Korea some 50 years earlier. Our team of reporters and editors worked on it for many months. There was a bigger sense of accomplishment when that project was finally done.
Amitava Kumar’s editor says he is the “tongue of narrative.” Fitting then that he’s leading the workshop on long-form writing at this year’s 2011 SAJA convention. The workshop will take place on Saturday afternoon in Lerner Hall. He spoke with SAJAforum's Sabrina Buckwalter about his workshop, strip clubs, and accidental terrorists.
SF: The last time you gave this workshop was in 2009. What will be covered in this one and what will be different?
AK: I’ll be doing an exercise where I have journalists look at excerpts from “The Forever War” by Dexter Filkins and “The Good Soldiers” by David Finkel. Both journalists are writing about war in places like Iraq, but one is really visceral and personal, while the other just wants to be a fly on the wall. What Filkins is doing is risky but he is truly exemplary. Why write if you don’t court risks?
We’ll also look at New York Times reporter Barry Bearak and his story, “A Kashmiri Mystery,” in the New York Times Magazine. It is a remarkable piece. Bearak told me that in his usual long newspaper pieces, he strives for an Olympian storytelling tone. But in this piece, he makes himself and his reporting characters in the story. He inserted himself as ‘the stumbling ambivalent person most of us are.’ I loved that. I want to ask people to consider writing that doesn’t spring from some position of false objectivity.
I also want to discuss interviewing techniques, like what does Suketu Mehta do when he asks, ‘What does a man look like when he’s on fire?’ and how do you get yourself into a situation where you can ask questions like that (referring to Mehta’s book, “Maximum City”). Or what was Truman Capote doing when he spent those months interviewing people in Kansas during the writing of “In Cold Blood?” These are writers who have worked out the algebra that turns journalism into deep narrative. When discussing practical matters, I’ll mention this article from Poynter— “Six Ways to Craft Scenes” —but what I really want to do is have folks confront the challenge of putting together reports as if they were writing a page in a novel. How does one go in search of a voice?
SF: In your latest non-fiction book, “A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb,” there is this thread of being at the wrong place at the wrong time that connects the stories. These people are, as you say, “hapless victims of entrapment.” Tell me about going to the strip club, Teasers, in Springfield, Mo., after meeting an imprisoned Hemant Lakhani (a man who was accused of selling a missile to an F.B.I. informant who was later said to have been part of a government “plot” to lure him to that sale.)
AK: I came out of the prison and saw it. It was right across the street and I’m like, ‘Wow, I’ll go there,’ I wasn’t embarrassed to go. I saw it and thought there’s a story there. I’ll wait for the jail guards to drink their beer and spill all the stories from prison. When the New York Times piece came out about the book, and that Teasers bit was in it, I heard from Lakhani. He said he liked it and was very happy to see it, but he says to me, if I came back, ‘Please promise me you won’t go to Teasers again.’ And I thought here is this man that had been accused by governments and law enforcement of not having not morality, telling me this. Here he is, feeling he has the privilege and right to advise me on morality. And on the other hand, here is this character. No one is just one thing. No one is just a journalist, no one is just this or that. This is the contradictory complexity that one calls character. So, at Teasers, I go in and sit in front of this girl. She tells me her name is Ivory, but says that’s just her stage name. She goes on to tell me her real name, but I didn’t want to know her name. She asks me where I’m from and when I tell her India, she tells me how she’s been wanting to go. Here is this plain, Midwestern girl who wants to go to India. And when I ask her why she says, ‘Architecture.’ She says she wants to see the Taj Mahal.
SF: In your article, “How To Write a Novel,” in The Hindu, you write how you went two weeks trying to open your novel, “Home Products,” without any success. How do you work with a problem like writer’s block?
AK: Jennifer Egan, who has just won the Pulitzer for fiction, explained that writer’s block is just another name for people who don’t want to do bad writing, that they want it to come out perfect the first time. Ernest Hemingway said that, ‘The first draft of anything is shit.’ I do a shitty eighth draft, so I think we need to get rid of this need to produce pristine prose; you really have to prepare yourself for the muck, to wade into it.
SF: What are you working on currently?
AK: A novel. Like my last one, this started with my desire to interview a man that I had read about in the papers. But he was dead. So I met his widow and another woman who was his co-accused in a crime.
Amitava Kumar is a writer, journalist, and professor of English at Vassar College. His most recent book, “A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm A Tiny Bomb,” was described in The New York Times as a "perceptive and soulful ... meditation on the global war on terror and its cultural and human repercussions."