Shwankia Narayan is a graduate student at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism
Award-winning broadcast journalist Soledad O'Brien was SAJA's keynote speaker at this year's Gala & Awards Dinner. The chairman of Starfish Media Group recently signed on with Al Jazeera America to produce long-form broadcast pieces for their nightly news program "America Tonight". During the SAJA awards ceremony, O'Brien spoke about her interracial family and her struggles to break into what began as a racially monotonos journalism career. SAJA student member Shawnkia Narayan spoke with O'Brien about her journalism career and her upcoming projects.
Q. What is the one thing a young, budding journalist at this time needs to know or do?
A. I think the rules of journalism haven’t changed in the 26 years I’ve been in this business. You have to be hardworking, you have to do the work, you have to study, you have to be smarter, you have to work harder than everybody else. You have to do all those basic, boring entry-level skills really well. The
fetching-of-the-coffee and in my case the removing-of-the-staples. People are looking for who gets it. Who is willing to work hard to get something and that’s how I judge people. The technology of course has changed, but really the things that will make you successful is working really hard often for really low money because you’re passionate about the industry and the career. That’s what I’m looking for in people when I hire.
Q. Where do you see the role of minority women in media and what does this mean for news?
A. Well Kate O’Brien’s hiring as the President of Al Jazeera [America] and has been a really great step. I mean if you look around at the other networks, there are no women running the networks. So to me that was a really amazing step by Al Jazeera. And you see a large number of women in journalism schools so what we need is to move those sheer numbers in the j-schools to actually sheer numbers in powerful positions behind the scene.
Q. What is that one experience you've had that made you feel you had made the right decision in pursuing journalism?
A. I knew that the first five minutes when I was in the business. And I was removing staples from the wall and fetching coffee. I just loved it, and I was part of a team of people that would get to tell stories. I loved being part of that team of people that dictated who was going to be in those stories and the face of who would tell those stories. I felt like that was very powerful even when I was at the bottom level --the person on the totem pole. I knew that I could have an opportunity to help shape how those stories were told, and that to me was at first great fun but as I got more experienced I realized it was a great responsibility and opportunity.
Q. Are there any plans for the next “In America?”
A. Well nothing right now. I’ve done "Black in America", "Women in America" and "Muslims in America". We’re still figuring it out as we start up our production company. I produce pieces for Al Jazeera, and for HBO "Real Sports", and I aslo do some work for CNN, National Geographic and other partners, I haven’t really thought about it yet. But we are at a time where the country is more diverse than ever, so if anything, we need more “In America’s” than fewer for sure.
Q. You have a new role on the Sundance Channel's new show "Dream School" where you help at-risk high school students. How was that experience for you?
A. It was really fun. We shot it a couple of months ago. It’s amazing, I do a lot of work in education and personally, I’ve been very involved and invested in the education of young people who are really struggling. So it was both incredibly frustrating because there are kids who really don’t see how important their education was in the way the adults saw it for them. But it was also incredibly rewarding because there are kids who when they really got it and bucked down to work, you could see the lights go on in them.
Q. How important is mentorship in this field?
A. It’s really important. I had about 10 mentors, I was always really good at finding people and surrounding myself with them and more importantly, guide me. So I had lot of mentors and I was really lucky and fortunate. My mentors were my bosses because I was working with them everyday, so they were really great at providing advice and information, and after that I sort of expanded my net. Mentors never come to you, mentors are busy. So surround yourself with people who are willing to help but it’s your responsibility to make that first step.