Big Lessons from a Small Newspaper


by Yoon Seo Nam

Downtown Express, a bi-weekly newspaper serving Lower Manhattan, boasts only one editor, one editorial assistant. Along with several contributors, this tiny band produces the paper. It’s a very small newspaper; however, it was enough for me to have a lot of experiences in journalism.

My position was a photography intern. I was able to concentrate on my photography. All of the photographers there were free-lancers. Such a condition meant that I would get many assignments. Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, my editor, Josh Rogers, sent me somewhere in Lower Manhattan for a shoot.

Story-telling proved to be my big problem. Each assignment challenged my work behind the lens: how could and how should I tell a story through a photograph? Not all of  the assignments were good for story-telling. Many assignments I had taught me how to see my subject and how to set up the background around him/her for it. For example, covering Jenifer Rajkumar (who is running for City Council), I tried to show her interactions with voters when she visited Alfred Smith Houses, where all the residents were below middle-class. Closed doors, darkened hallways and constituents who opened the door slightly for her were good subjects for story-telling: how she was making efforts to appeal herself to voters.

Staying as long as possible and shooting as much as possible was another lesson I got. Actually, I had already learned about it in previous internships in Korea. Downtown Express confirmed that it was an absolute rule as well as resurrected the lesson. Sometimes, my editor asked if I had a shot which captured a specific situation or moment after I returned to the office. For my last assignment, I took pictures of a street which had become crowded because  of a construction project. Actually, I could finish the assignment with several shots of people crossing the street and vehicles passing through one lane. It might only take 10-20 minutes. However, shooting a lot of shots, I stayed there more than an hour and then took pictures of an ambulance trying to rush through on an emergency call and having trouble going through the street. I didn’t turn in the ambulance shot to my editor because it was not the best one. Next day, he asked me if I took a picture of the ambulance, and I answered confidently that I had. If I had not stayed for as long as I had, I would’ve missed the shot that my editor wanted.

Importantly from this internship I learned to make my own internal rule to set priorities to deal with unexpected situation. One day I pitched a story idea about Occupy Wall Street, which would be held at Zuccotti Park. So I was assigned to write about it and take pictures of the event. There was trouble between protestors and police as soon as I arrived, and then I had to decide what to do first: writing down what they said or taking pictures of the situation. For a while I could not make a decision and just stared at the people arguing heatedly. I decided to write down what was happening first, and ask people their reactions. Soon the argument was settled, and I didn’t get any shots. So my decision meant that I was left without any images. I had no pictures to tell the story of the heated confrontation. Nevertheless the story prompted a surge in the traffic of Downtown Express webpage, recording 3,000 views, because the internet group Anonymous shared the story to its Facebook page. However, missing to photograph that ‘decisive moment,’ taught me a key lesson as to how vital it is to make a judgment quickly and set a clear priority.

Likewise, this summer at the Downtown Express, I achieved many things that I did not get from previous internships. Those three lessons will be kept in mind throughout my life in journalism.