News

February 28, 2008

Providing a Point of Reference

Alan Finder P’08, reporter for The New York Times, reflects on hosting externships for Natalie Cothren ’09 and Meghan Muldowney ’08

Alan Finder P’08 is a reporter for the education department of The New York Times. His years in the industry have made him an exceptionally ideal mentor to students exploring the field of journalism. This past January, he hosted externships for Natalie Cothren’09 (Akron, Ohio), an English major, and Meghan Muldowney ’08 (Norwalk, Conn.), an English and anthropology & sociology double major, as he has done for numerous students from Lafayette. The following is a personal reflection of Finder’s experiences as an externship host for Cothren and Muldowney.

  • Meghan Muldowney ’08 shares her experiences externing at The New York Times
  • Natalie Cothren ’09 Shadows Alan Finder P’08 at The New York Times

When I left graduate school in American studies nearly 35 years ago and was trying to figure out how to break into the newspaper business, I had the good fortune to spend nearly an hour late one Friday afternoon with the sports editor of The New York Times. My uncle knew the editor, a gentleman named Jim Tuite, and he was kind enough to spend some time with me.

It was thrilling to see the Times, of course, the rows and rows of desks spread out as far as the eye could see in the newsroom, looking more like the lower deck of an aircraft carrier than the heart of the country’s foremost news gathering operation. And it was fun to talk with Mr. Tuite, who offered lots of useful advice on what I should and should not do to get started in daily journalism (don’t accept a job as a copy editor to start out, he told me; you want to first get experience as a reporter).

I thanked him at the end of the session for his encouragement and counsel. In return, he made a request of me: when you’ve established yourself in the business, he said, you can return the favor by offering a friendly hand to the next generation of aspiring reporters and editors.

I’ve never forgotten his kindness or his request. That’s why I’ve been glad to have the opportunity over the years to be host to college students hoping to become professional journalists, as well as those just curious about the trade. Students have come intermittently to spend the day with me for many years from my alma mater, the University of Rochester, and several are now pursing careers in the business. It’s heartwarming to follow their progress.

Since my daughter, Lauren, enrolled at Lafayette four years ago, a couple of Lafayette students have spent a day with me each January in the newsroom. I’m not sure what the impact of these visits has been. While I have a terrific beat, covering higher education, the work is not exactly glamorous. I get to travel for most of my stories, to places both prosaic and exotic. But when I’m working in the office, which is most of the time, I’m basically at my desk, making telephone calls, interviewing people, and typing up notes on my computer as we talk.

While the newsroom can be a lively place, filled with talented people pursing the news, spending six to eight hours watching someone making phone calls has its limits as a spectator sport. I’ve long suspected that some of these visits inspired undergraduates to go to law school.

That may not be true for my Lafayette externs this year, Natalie Cothren and Meghan Muldowney. Many and probably most of the dozens of students who have spent time with me over the years had little, if any experience in journalism. In fact, my prime advice is usually to suggest that students try working for the school paper or seek a summer internship at a local daily or weekly paper; you need to find out whether reporting or editing appeals to you and whether you have talent as a journalist.

Natalie and Meghan are both well past that threshold. Natalie is an editor and writer for The Lafayette, specializing primarily in the arts. And Meghan spent last summer working for the Stamford Advocate, a daily newspaper not far from her home in Fairfield County, Connecticut; she got lots of good experience at a range of local reporting. They both seem to enjoy the challenges of gathering information and writing or editing stories with flair.

I try – I’m sure with limited success – to overcome the inherent dullness of watching me ply my craft with a telephone headset and keyboard. So we toured the new building which the Times completed last summer, with its three-floor newsroom, the all-glass outer walls (transparency being the architect’s central theme, not a bad idea after the debacles of Jayson Blair and Judy Miller), and the remarkable two-story cafeteria that feels like it is floating over midtown Manhattan.

We attended the afternoon front-page meeting, at which the various news departments, from foreign to metro to business, pitch their best stories to the senior editors in an intense internal competition for space on the next day’s front page.

And I tried, over lunch, to explain the complex hierarchy within the newspaper business, the way reporters and editors start at smaller papers and move up, much the way baseball players ascend from Class A to AA to AAA in the minor leagues before breaking into the majors.

Lately, I’ve also made it a point to talk about whether there will be a newspaper industry in 10 or 20 years, whether print publications can make the shift journalistically to an online culture and whether (even more significantly) they can devise a business model that can sustain the kind of hugely expensive news gathering operation of which a paper like the Times is justifiably proud. I try to be both realistic and encouraging, a difficult balancing act at a moment when the long-term financial viability of newspapers is very much in doubt.

What did Natalie and Meghan make of all this? It’s hard to know. They are both bright, poised young women. Like the Lafayette students who preceded them, each sent a lovely note to thank me for their day at the paper. They said they had enjoyed themselves, and I hope that they did.

When they left at the end of the day, I encouraged them, as I always do, to use me as a resource, to write or call with any questions or thoughts about journalism that they might have in the future. Some students take me up on the offer, and several remain in touch to this day, which is deeply gratifying. Most do not.

Either way, I always hope that students found some value in their time at the newspaper. For some, it has provided inspiration for a career choice. For others, it may have helped rule out journalism. (You’ve got to be willing to spend a day on the phone, and you’ve got to be open to starting out in Oshkosh.) In the end, my basic hope is that the experience was educational, that it helped young people gain more insight about who they want to be and what they want to do.

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