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Alumni Newsletter, April 2022

  • By Salma Abdelnour Gilman

Dear Alumni,

It’s been great chatting with those of you who’ve reached out to say hi, talk about potential job moves, or brainstorm ideas for how you’d like to stay involved with the J-School community. I’m now making Wednesday mornings from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. EST available every week for one-on-one chats. Email me to book a slot if you’d like to touch base. I’ll fill these on a first-come-first-served basis (with priority to alumni I haven’t had a chance to meet with yet). If you can never meet on a Wednesday morning East Coast time, drop me a note and we’ll plan an alternate slot.

Now, for the key parts of this month’s newsletter:

  • The phenomenal accomplishments of our alumni.
  • A not-to-miss Q&A with Kyiv-based Igor Kossov ’09, who has been doing outstanding reporting on the war in Ukraine.

Cheers,
Salma


ALUMNI NEWS

The news below was submitted by faculty, staff, and alumni. Send your items to alumnioffice@journalism.cuny.edu, and cc salma.abdelnour@journalism.cuny.edu.

Roxanna Asgarian ’11 has won the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress award for her forthcoming book, “We Were Once A Family: The Hart Murder-Suicide and the System Endangering Kids.” It will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2023. The Lukas awards of $25,000 are given annually to writers working on significant works of nonfiction covering political or social issues in the U.S.

Jesenia De Moya Correa ’17 has won a prestigious yearlong fellowship with AHCJ, SEJ, and CASW.

Eli Chen ’12 is the senior editor on the podcast “Overheard” at National Geographic, which won an Ambie Award in March for Best Science, Knowledge or Tech podcast.

A group of Newmark graduates—Audrey Carleton ’21, Bruce Gil ’21, Emily Nadal ’21, and Zack Smith ’21—won a $10,000 grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism to continue a reporting project begun in Katherine Eban’s Investigative Health Reporting class last fall. She extended this opportunity to the students during her class, and they’ve kept up the reporting work.

Out of The Dark, a series Heather Martino Valente ’13 produced for Redglass Pictures with WETA/PBS, is the winner of the Gold prize at the 2022 Anthem Awards. Heather and her husband Frank also welcomed their first child, Emilia, on January 27.

Sabrina Schmidt Gordon ’16’s new documentary “To the End” had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January. The film is currently at the prestigious CPH:DOX film festival in Copenhagen, where it is nominated for the F:ACT award. “To the End” follows four young women leaders of color, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as they fight for a Green New Deal and help ignite a historic shift in U.S. climate politics.

Philip Clapham, EngageJ ’16, and his team at 5280, Denver’s city magazine, were recently selected as 2022 National City and Regional Magazine Awards finalists in 13 categories, including Magazine Section, for the June and July issues of the front-of-the-book section “Compass.” Clapham is senior editor of the Compass section.
Winners will be announced at CRMA’s 46th Annual Conference taking place May 21-23 in St. Louis.

Karina Hernandez ’18 has been promoted to associate producer at “Closing Bell” on CNBC. She joined the team in October as a production associate and has produced various segments on the U.S. market, stocks, and geopolitics, as well as interviews with CEOs. Most recently she produced an interview with Brian Deese, director of the National Economic Council.

Kimberly Chin ’17 has moved to Axios to co-lead a daily newsletter on retail deals, including mergers and acquisitions, IPOs, shareholder activism, venture capital, and related issues.

Sonya Swink ’20 has accepted an offer at Ignites by Money-Media (Financial Times), where she is the technology and operations reporter covering mutual funds.

Zara Katz ’12 is now the photography director at NBC News Digital.

In April, Josh Keefe ’16 joins The Tennessean in Nashville as an investigative reporter.

Brett Dahlberg ’17 recently joined Michigan Radio as an editor.

Hanaa’ Tameez, Bilingual J ’17, published the story “America’s Racial Reckoning Still Has Lots of Reckoning to Do” in Nieman Lab.

Madison Ruffo ’20 has started a new position as a communications specialist for the labor union CSEA.

Carlos Serrano ’17 is the writer and presenter for a series of science explainer videos for BBC Mundo:
3 theories that challenge the Big Bang
What are the 4 forces of nature (and the challenge of uniting them in a single theory)
The mysterious components of which 95% of the universe is made

Sierra Leone Starks ’13 published the story Seattle’s Panama Hotel is a Living Museum of the Japanese American Experience, part of The Seattle Times’ team coverage of the 80th anniversary of the WWII incarceration of first and second generation Japanese Americans.

Alcione Gonzalez ’11 just finished working with Radical Media as an associate story producer for a docu-series, directed by Joe Berlinger, that will air on Peacock later this year. She also got married in December in the Florida Keys.

Brittney Walker, Tow-Knight ’17, was accepted into the Liberal Studies graduate program at The New School for Social Research, where she will study the effects of racism and other social and cultural structures on Black sexuality.

Stephen Jefferson, Tow-Knight ’16, has accepted a role as the senior engineer at American Press Institute and has joined the program team at New Mexico Local News Fund, where he will assist with technical consulting for the 2022 accelerator, which will impact about 20 newsrooms across the state.

Mariel Lozada ’21 is working as digital content manager for Reasons to be Cheerful, where she did her summer internship last year.

Dominic McKenzie ’18 was invited by the United Nations to facilitate a conversation about slavery reparations with the Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, Sir Hilary Beckles. The talk was part of an event commemorating the annual International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade (March 25). The annual event can be viewed on the UN’s YouTube channel.

Jackie Harris ’20 just started a new job at Lemonada Media as an associate producer on the podcast “In the Bubble” with Andy Slavitt. She will also be moving soon from New Hampshire back to New York City.

Carolyn Brown ’20 recently wrote a cover story profiling Kacy Jackson, a Louisville muralist who was chosen as this year’s Kentucky Derby Festival poster artist. Brown is working on an upcoming feature about a psychedelics-based religious organization in Louisville, better known among her coworkers as “shroom church.”

Chinwe Oniah ’14 directed, produced, and wrote an episode about ice skating for KQED Arts, part of the series “If Cities Could Dance.”

Amy Kraft ’11 was recently promoted to executive editor at Everyday Health.

Marguerite Ward ’15 has been promoted to correspondent at Insider.

Alissa Ambrose ’11 and Theresa Gaffney ’20 launched a new podcast at STAT called “Color Code.” Hosted by journalist Nicholas St. Fleur, the podcast is about racism in the health care system and how it impacts communities of color. Ambrose worked as senior producer and Gaffney as producer.

Yoshi Ichijo-Kawado, a ’21 graduate of the Entrepreneurial Journalism Creators program, became an independent journalist and will be a graduate student this fall at the New School for Social Research, where she will focus on gender and sexuality studies.

Cathy Pedrayes, Bilingual ’17‘s new book, The Mom Friend Guide to Everyday Safety and Security, was published by Simon & Schuster and hits stores next month. It covers safety and cybersecurity, and came about when S&S saw Pedrayes’s viral social media posts on the topic and approached her to write the book.

Katherine Angela Lavacca ’17 moved to a full-time position as a digital producer at WABC in January, after freelancing there since late last year.

Angela Palumbo ’21 is now a reporter on the Breaking News desk at Barron’s.

Angel Adegbesan ’21 and Allison Smith ’21 have joined Bloomberg as reporters, and will start out with assignments on the 12-month rotation program.

ANNOUNCEMENTS

FAREWELL PARTY FOR DEAN SARAH BARTLETT
With Sarah Bartlett’s tenure as dean drawing to a close, we’d like to thank her for all she has done for the Newmark J-School. Please join us to raise a glass to Sarah and also to celebrate each other as Sarah presents her final set of faculty and staff awards.
We will gather on the rooftop of Margaritaville at 7th Avenue and W. 40th Street. Let’s share our favorite memories of Sarah and wish her all the best as she moves on to the next phase of her life.
Date: May 26, 4-6 p.m. EST
Register here.

EVENTS

THE FORGOTTEN HISTORY OF BLACK QUEER RESISTANCE
In a great feat of historical research, Channing Gerard Joseph (Newmark J-School’s first associate professor of race and identity) discovered the story of William Dorsey Swann, a man born into slavery who became the earliest known American queer activist and the first-known self-described drag queen. In Joseph’s forthcoming book, “House of Swann: Where Slaves Became Queens—and Changed the World,” he explores Swann’s activism during post-Reconstruction Washington and the Black queer history of resistance and liberation.
Join us, in person at Newmark J-School, as Joseph unpacks how he conducted his historical research, in a conversation with Barbara Gray, the J-School’s Chief Librarian. Coffee and cookies will be served.
Date: April 25, 12:30-1:30 p.m. EST
Register here.

THE CIVILIAN CASUALTY FILES
In 2021, investigative reporter (and Gumshoe Group co-founder) Azmat Khan published The Civilian Casualty Files in The New York Times, a multi-part investigation into the civilian casualties from America’s air wars across the Middle East. With legal support from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Khan obtained more than 1,300 of the military’s own internal reviews into allegations of civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria. The investigation, which was also based on ground reporting at the sites of 100 civilian casualty incidents in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan and scores of interviews, revealed how American wars of ‘precision strikes’ were systematically marred by flawed intelligence, faulty targeting and scant accountability. Hear from Azmat and her RCFP lawyer Adam Marshall about the investigation and how to obtain public records from the Pentagon.
Date: April 25, 4-5:30 p.m. EST
Register here.
Note: Applications are also open for Gumshoe Group’s grant program.


Igor Kossov ’09

Igor Kossov ’09 on What It’s Like to Report from Ukraine, and What He’d Tell Aspiring War Reporters
“Your success will often hinge on completely random encounters,” said Igor Kossov ’09, about reporting on the war in Ukraine and on other conflicts he has covered. “Some of my biggest breakthroughs have come about because I ran into the right person completely by chance. When I was reporting outside Kyiv, I randomly stumbled into a guy who would become one of my top sources and the subject of my recent narrative feature, War Diaries: My Day With Volunteers Saving Lives in Warzones Outside Kyiv.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been a vastly different experience from other conflicts Kossov has reported on. One reason? He was already in Kyiv when the conflict started. “That’s huge. If you’re somewhere before the war starts, you’re at a massive advantage,” Kossov said.

Born in Kyiv, Kossov moved to the U.S. as a child and is an American citizen. After growing up in Brooklyn and graduating from the Newmark J-School —and doing an internship in Uganda as a grad student—he alternated in-house journalism jobs with freelance stints. Among his experiences: working on staff at Institutional Investor and Law 360 in New York City and at the Phnom Penh Post in Cambodia; freelancing in Egypt, Libya, and Iraq; and working as a stringer for Newsday, Gotham Gazette, and the NY Post.

In February 2019, Kossov moved to Ukraine and joined the staff of Kyiv Post, doing investigative stories on government corruption and other issues. When the entire staff was fired for defending editorial independence in November 2021, they launched their own publication, the Kyiv Independent, where Igor is currently a reporter. Kossov has also reported on Ukraine for Politico and elsewhere. His earlier war coverage can be found in outlets including the Daily Beast, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, USA Today, and Vocativ. He has also covered corruption, environmental issues, and other subjects.

Here, Kossov discusses his reporting experiences in Ukraine and his tips and insights for aspiring war correspondents.

How is reporting on the war in Ukraine different from other conflicts you’ve covered?
There are many differences. For starters, Ukraine is the first war that happened to me when I had already been in the country for a while. But 95% of the time, you’re not going to be in that situation, so it’s not worth worrying about.

I’m also a lot more experienced now. When I went into Egypt and Libya in 2011, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing and just kind of stupidly blundered into opportunities, like getting to go into Tripoli two days after it was taken. My writing was bad and I didn’t sell many stories. My opsec [operational security] was awful and I’m lucky I wasn’t hurt. I was better prepared for the Battle of Mosul in 2017, but that too was a stepping stone to where I am now.

I’m more personally invested here, because I’m half-Ukrainian and half-Russian, know the languages, was born in Kyiv, and had a chance to get to love the city as a resident and as a reporter over the past three years.

That’s also why I have a stronger emotional response here. In Iraq, I felt composed for seven months, and my body only started crying for an hour and a half after I landed in New York. In Ukraine, my brain is serving up a constant, unending stream of anger and I sometimes have to work hard to set it aside to remain professional.

Language is huge. I don’t need fixers or translators, and information isn’t being passed through an imperfect game of telephone. I have a broader range of movement, and I can be American or Ukrainian at will. I’m much more familiar with the lay of the land, have a wider network of sources developed over the years, and can more easily pass into places I ought not to be in. In the Middle East and North Africa, I was at the mercy of fixers and translators and drivers and the like. While I had mostly very positive experiences with them, it was limiting on what I could accomplish.

The bigger difference is that I’m now with the underdog. In Libya, once the Europeans came in with airstrikes, I kind of knew Qadaffi was eventually going down. When I was in Mosul, in Iraq, we knew that it was only a matter of time until ISIS was driven into their last strongholds, surrounded, and executed. The forces from whose territory I reported had the air power, allies, numbers, and/or tech on their side. Here, I’m in a numerically and vehicularly inferior side that’s under a WW2-style ground invasion by a nuclear power with a bloated military and imperialist ambitions that wants to destroy it as a sovereign state. The calculus and stakes are completely different.

Another difference is that I’m not a freelancer anymore. I had to freelance in Libya and Iraq. Here, I’m employed full-time with a news organization that can provide support and a regular paycheck, which totally changes the game. Its staff is largely local and they all understand what the hell is going on, better than a company based abroad would have. I am also allowed to freelance on the side, so it’s the best of both worlds. That translates into stamina. I can remain on the ground for as long as I want. Also, I have a solo apartment here, which is extra convenient.

What does a typical day look like for you right now, if there’s such a thing?
There isn’t. Some days I’m in my apartment just writing, some days I’m out in the city doing reporting in a specific area, and sometimes I’m outside the city, covering refugees, trapped people, and civilian casualties.

Sometimes the authorities will drop a two-day curfew and we can’t leave the house for 35 hours. I’m online all the time and there’s no weekend, but I take breaks when I need them. Plans might change very fast, so being flexible is important. The Kyiv Independent is very flexible and that’s part of what makes its coverage successful (besides all the talent.)

Have reporting conditions been changing for you and your colleagues in Ukraine as the days and weeks go by? Did it get increasingly difficult to reach sources, or to get to places you need to report on?
It got harder to get out to the action-filled places in the suburbs of Kyiv because they wouldn’t let journalists through checkpoints as much. Even my really well-connected colleague wasn’t been able to go or embed.

There’s been a great deal of inconsistency and stupidity in the process of getting accredited to go into conflict areas, with any one of Ukraine’s policing or military formations (including territorial defense) being able to shut down your permission on a whim, even if you have permission from another. Accreditation in the Kyiv area is often done on the basis of personal relationships with people in government or substantial bias towards certain media outlets (often foreign ones), regardless of professionalism or place in the queue.

The Ukrainian government has also recently complicated the rules for writing about Russian attacks, military clashes, information about victims, and other details, threatening substantial prison time for violations. This is supposedly meant to prevent journalists from inadvertently helping Russia coordinate its attacks. Interpreted broadly, this can be used to muzzle the media. Reporters here are very concerned.

Sources in besieged places like Mariupol are impossible to reach. We can only make contact with people who escaped. Wherever there’s a phone or electricity blackout, it’s hard to get good information. Some government sources are even less talkative now, so trying to convince them to comment is like pulling teeth a lot of the time.

How are you staying safe?
I sheltered in the metro stations a few times, but I live over 15 minutes away from the nearest one, which is a pain and defeats the purpose. Also there are no sockets and I can’t keep my computer working longer than two hours, so I just stay home during sirens, for the most part. I dragged my mattress into the hallway near my front door. Now there are multiple walls between me and the windows, in case a rocket decides to say hi. Taped up the window glass, the whole drill.

Obviously, outside the city, I always try to wear my armor and helmet. I bought some juggernaut-looking level 4 plating with multiple kevlar layers and a detachable neck guard. It’s good to have but it’s also really heavy and cumbersome, making me less mobile. It also makes my back hurt because I’m out of shape.

I don’t push into unknown areas unless I’m with someone I trust, like certain volunteers or Ukrainian forces. Before going somewhere, I try to find out in advance what an area is like by talking to people I’ve trusted before.

What advice would you give to an early-career journalist planning to become a war correspondent?
This is mainly for writers, since I’m a writer and I’m less personally acquainted with the challenges for photo and video journalists.

  • Brace yourself for dread and disappointment

You probably already know the state journalism is in today, so unless you’re really lucky and get hired as a full-time correspondent and get paid to go somewhere (unlikely), you’ll probably get started as a freelancer. This really sucks when you’re new. If you don’t know editors and nobody knows you, trying to sell stories will be a huge chore. And since you’ll have limited means, it’ll be really easy to misbudget something or have a string of bad luck and run out of money. Each time I freelanced in a war zone, my body was more afraid of failing and running out of money than of being mortared.

That’s why you’ve got to brace yourself. People will reject your pitches; even more will fail to respond altogether. You’ll be sitting around waiting for a week or two to hear back from some of them about your story status. You’ll be anxious, you’ll be dejected; if you’re insecure, you’ll have raging imposter syndrome. You have to be ready for that and learn to set it aside, otherwise you’ll be in no condition to be there long. You have to learn to calm yourself down and resolve to not give up. War is psychologically draining. I would try to pay attention to your mental health.

  • Be prepared in case you don’t get paid for a while

When you do sell your stories, it’ll probably take about a month for the payments to clear, so you can still run out of money even if work picks up. So prepare accordingly. If you’re just starting out, you might end your trip with the same amount or less than you started with. It’s best if you can save up some money before doing a stint. I did that before 2011, by spending a year at Institutional Investor doing soul crushingly dull M&A stuff. It helped because I had a hell of a time selling stuff from Egypt and Libya until the very end of my trip. I also had savings prepared for when I went to Iraq. When I got there, I managed to sell a bunch of stories, so I was fine regardless. But the savings would have helped if I was less successful.

  • Join a logistics group

When you go to war zones, your best initial resource will be other journalists, so make sure you join some kind of logistics group on Facebook or Telegram or whatever. There’s usually some kind of online community where journalists in the area can exchange information. In MENA, I used Vulture Club and also just spoke to journalists and fixers. Using six degrees of separation, you can find all kinds of people with all kinds of knowledge.

  • See if your clients can cover some of your fixer/translator/driver expenses

You will probably have to hire fixers, translators, and drivers. Sometimes, one person will fill all three roles. Sometimes they will be different people. Picking a dependable person when you don’t know folks on the ground is challenging and you might get burned— journalists rely on each other to recommend effective fixers, but vetting isn’t always foolproof. But you should still do your best to vet.

Also, fixers, drivers, and translators are often very expensive (hundreds of dollars per day), and you have to compare their prices with other people’s and with what journalists are saying, to establish some sort of reasonable baseline. As a freelancer especially, you’ll most likely have to come together with a group of journalists and pool your money to hire a fixer for the day. That’s how a lot of us did it in Iraq, and what I saw some journalists doing in Kyiv.

  • Don’t take your fixers for granted

Fixers are incredibly important to your work and should be treated with respect. Sometimes, having the right fixer you can trust will be a make-or-break factor in your coverage. I know this has been the case for me. As people with good local understanding, their advice should be treated with respect as well. It really helps if your fixer has had combat training or military experience. If they do, this advice is especially applicable.

  • Assist other journalists and actively seek out new contacts

Make sure you help other journalists when you can because if they pay you back, it can totally change your situation.

One time in Erbil, a journalist I didn’t know asked for my notes from this one interview I did, when he couldn’t make it. I sent him the notes. As a return favor, he put me in touch with a USA Today editor and because of that, USA Today ended up becoming my biggest client over the entire seven months I spent in the country, paying something like 60-70% of my income.

At the same time, as long as you have solid safety planning, you should be as active as possible in putting yourself out there and meeting new people. You never know which new acquaintance will be able to open some really important doors for you. For example, the guy who arranged for me to safely make it into Tripoli (and stay in his apartment, with wifi and utilities), was the contact of another guy who was randomly recommended to me in Benghazi.

  • Get trained in first aid ASAP

Make sure you get first aid training as soon as you can, and buy a medkit to carry into the field. If you can, carry a medkit (with bandages, tourniquets, and scissors) you’re trained to use. RISC is really good. You may be called on to stabilize an injured colleague, and your quick thinking and first aid training on the field may mean a difference between life and death.

  • Always secure all your devices and data

Make sure you have 2-factor authentication on everything you use, including Facebook, email, Twitter, etc. Always carry ID for checkpoints. Never take pictures of checkpoints—they will take your phone.

  • Get acquainted with different types of armor, what they can stop, and the tradeoffs

If you’ll be spending a lot of time in places with a lot of live fire, it’d be helpful to get acquainted with what different weapons look and sound like, what they’re capable of doing, and what’s the best thing to do when you are on the receiving end of one.

  • Don’t get mistaken for a combatant

Don’t carry guns and try to avoid camo-pattern (or any other military-looking) clothing, because it’d be really stupid if you were taken for a combatant and shot by either side.

  • Always be aware of your surroundings

Don’t pick up anything from the ground because it might explode. Do not disturb suspicious-looking objects or garbage or walk through unknown fields or forests, because they might be mined and are a good way to divest you of your limb portfolio. Don’t take anything from strangers. Always be careful when entering a building, to make sure you don’t trip any wires.

In the field, don’t go anywhere alone, always move in teams. Always stay alert and watchful of what’s going on around you and don’t get too distracted. If you hear the sound of an incoming projectile, you have maybe 2-5 seconds to go prone—even better if you’re near a hole or ravine.

If you come under fire, either take cover behind the nearest sturdy object or go prone. If you’re using a vehicle as cover, make sure you’re behind the engine block. Always be aware of what can work as suitable cover next to you.

Which classes or professors at J-School helped prepare you to report on this and other wars?
It’s hard to name specific classes because it’s all cumulative, and they all hook into one another, so singling specific ones out would be kind of misleading. Craft 1 and 2 are probably the most important and will give you a lot of mileage, fundamentals-wise, especially if your prof’s grading is strict but fair like Steve Strasser’s was.

You’re going to want to pick the international concentration, since it best prepares you, in a holistic way, for going to other countries and working there, or at least that was my experience under Lonnie Isabel. I also got free money from the school to do an internship abroad, which is good practice. The more you travel and immerse yourself in new areas, the easier it gets to drop in somewhere and be operational, fast.

Other courses can also help. Like, I took narrative reporting, which helped develop my ability to write long-form pieces. That plus constant practice helped me write my recent War Diaries piece, which I think is some of my best work to date. Investigative will teach you many new ways to look for information, like OSINT stuff, which is super important now. I remember News Service with Jere Hester being helpful because it’s just straight-up practice on how to find stories, convince sources to tell you stuff, compose stories, and publish stories—all four steps are required for mastery of journalism.

What the school can do is build a foundation—then once you go out, you can reinforce it by filling in the missing details and then building the edifice of your career on top of it.

Any other words of advice or inspiration for journalists?
I know that when it comes to Ukraine stories, the focus right now is on the war. But being given this platform is a good excuse for me to talk about ethics within our field.

Many of you may already be aware of the Kyiv Independent’s origin story. All of our staff of over 30 people used to work at the Kyiv Post, once Ukraine’s only premier English-language publication. The Kyiv Post has time and again resisted pressure from government officials and powerful interests that tried to silence its criticism.

That changed this fall when the Kyiv Post’s latest owner and publisher bowed to pressure from the government and tried to strip away our editorial independence. When we resisted, we were fired en masse on November 8, from editor-in-chief to intern. Thanks to my incredible colleagues, we landed on our feet and, within three weeks, launched a new publication to preserve the Kyiv Post’s spirit. Appropriately, we called it the Kyiv Independent.

Let me be clear: Refusing to bow to pressure was its own reward. It’s a choice all of us would make gladly, even if it netted us nothing. However, our story was heard around the world and our resulting growth has been meteoric.

Journalists’ credibility is their only real asset. If it’s there, the world can’t help but take notice. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. When I consider some nihilistic trends in our media landscape, which some have started calling “post-truth,” I need only think back to my colleagues’ stand to remember that integrity and truth are still priceless.