By Najib Aminy
It’s sometimes hard to be an optimist when I am pursuing a major in journalism, which is considered a dying field. There is the uncertainty of landing a job, the thought of other career paths or the concern of even enjoying what one does. My experience during my summer internship at Newsday, a hyper-local daily paper covering Long Island, quelled my concerns of having a career in journalism.
When I first walked up the staircase to the main newsroom of Newsday, I noticed a smaller but empty newsroom that was once the daily workspaces of journalists, something that I joked to myself as being “the graveyard.” I asked a computer assistance manager what the deal was with the empty room. “People don’t talk about that,” he said. I found out that the people who occupied those empty cubicles were laid off just a couple months before I began my unpaid internship.
Upon entering the newsroom for the first time, I felt excited and anxious. Many of the reporters and staff were warm in their welcome while a few gave dirty glares. It was as if the 10 unpaid interns were gaining experience to take their jobs. To be fair, it was a Monday.
“There used to be 60 to 70 paid interns here,” Rosemary McManus, the assistant managing editor, said while walking us down the editorial side of newsroom. “It was very competitive.”
Rosemary had also been an intern at Newsday, like a number of current editors and staff writers. This sounded somewhat comforting, the possible career route into a respectable newspaper sometime further down the road, easing one of my worries — finding a job.
After sitting through a 10 a.m. news meeting and getting acclimated to the way Newsday worked, I was assigned to cover an award assembly on the second day of my internship. The award was to honor a newly built school for being environmentally conscious.
Though I reported the story successfully, I was extremely stressed about handing my first assignment on time. There was nothing more dreadful than looking at the red digital clock, visible all through the newsroom, nearing deadline and then looking at a blank white screen with a lede and a couple of sentences.
It took sometime getting used to deadlines, shortening stories and trying to include everything. Going through the final version of a draft was like standing before a firing squad. The desk editors would nitpick through my 30-minute “masterpiece” as I sat there helplessly, hoping to gain any bit of approval. The worst days at Newsday weren’t the ones when I was stuck trying to get a picture and comment from Long Islanders on a story. They were the days that I didn’t have enough for a story or the ones where the editors ripped through a story and made sure I knew.
Fortunately, I didn’t have too many days like that, and when I did, I learned from them. I also soaked up a lot just from being in the newsroom. Location meant everything at Newsday, from where an article was placed to where a story was happening and even where I sat.
An editor once yelled at me for sitting too far from where he and the other editors were sitting. I was sitting all the way in the far corner that day, surrounded by windows with beaming rays of natural light—much easier on the eyes than the fluorescent lights. It was probably the best seating area in the whole newsroom despite its morose view of the cemetery across the street. He said that I should sit closer to get a feel for how things worked. He was right.
Beneath the constant chatter, the sounds of fingers striking keyboards and phone rings, I recognized a system of teamwork. Everyone worked together, in one way or another, to get the best possible newspaper to the Long Island community in less than 24-hours time. Sure, there were titles, and some people had corner offices, but the second floor of the building at 235 Pinelawn Road in Melville lacked what some fear in having a job: a corporate feeling. Cubicles, memos and all, it was far from being anything near the atmosphere of the movie “Office Space”. Everyone, rest assured, had his own stapler.
And if I wasn’t in the office, I was around reporters from other media, who for the most part were easy to get along with. Reporters ranged from normal, everyday people to a New York Post reporter who dressed like a detective and drov a black Crown Victoria. But during my whole internship, I probably learned the most from the photographers. They shared stories about memorable events and the problems they face in their newsrooms, and they offered advice.
There is an unwritten code, a moral understanding, that could be viewed as detrimental to the competition among reporters on tedious assignments like stakeouts: Some photographers and reporters get together and vow to leave when the others are ready to leave. There is “a list” for those who break these rules. I almost had to follow these rules because they improved the working conditions whenever I was on a stakeout. More often than not, reporters shared information, helping me out on some of the stories I worked on. I found this chivalry interesting.
There was a very cynical side to journalism, as well. A couple of times while I was on a stakeout, people felt the need to let us know that we were invading a subject’s privacy by standing outside his or her house, waiting for a comment. Those expressing their views were fair in sharing their thoughts. I remember hearing one photographer refer to this reaction and the group of reporters, those who cover stakeouts frequently, as vultures. It was like an un-exclusive club that one felt special to be a part of because of the camaraderie.
In the end, I was comforted to find reporters alongside photographers amid a bunch of cameramen and their bulky $60,000 cameras. This, to me, said two things. First, journalism is not dead, and second, print is very much alive. I noted rivalries between the New York Post and the New York Daily News — and between Newsday and News12, though the same company owns them. One can’t have rivalries without strong bases of support on both sides, and in this case, that support means the readers.
As for the assignments, there was no question: I had to complete them whether I liked them or not, no questions asked. Some were interesting and provided me access to people I’d never think of meeting, like Jacques Cousteau’s grandson or a couple of national politicians. But some were horrific and put me in the worst situation possible, like talking to a mother who had just found out her son died in a fiery blaze an hour before.
The best thing about Newsday was that it took me out of my comfort zone and left me there. Every day, I would prepare for getting assigned a death-related story, crossing my fingers that no one had died in a newsworthy way the day before. But if I was assigned such a story, I knew I would be ready. It wasn’t so much writing obituaries — I only wrote a few. More often, I covered accidents, fires and shootings.
It was also unnerving to develop an unemotional feeling towards these deaths, almost forgetting that the people who died had families and friends and meant something to these people.
Less horrific, but in some ways worse because the assignment seemed endless, was the order to go out for “mugs and quotes.” This meant seeking diverse individuals, having them comment on a subject and asking for permission to take their picture.
The excitement of seeing my name in the paper wore off after a while, but the accomplishment I felt after a long day of successful reporting and writing is indescribable and has left me yearning for more.