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Reporting Boot Camp

By Gregg Sangillo

Recent AU grad Alejandro Alvarez speaking during a POLITICO Journalism Institute session.

Recent AU grad Alejandro Alvarez speaking during a POLITICO Journalism Institute session.

Even while plugging away on an assignment, we’ve all had moments of unexpected happiness and clarity. When work suddenly doesn’t feel like work, and there’s nothing else you’d rather be doing. Alejandro Alvarez experienced that recently during his time in the POLITICO Journalism Institute program, co-sponsored by American University and its School of Communication. He was working on an article for POLITICO’s website, and he had just finished a strong interview with a helpful source.

See the POLITICO Journalism Institute program, as told by social media on Storify.

“I thought to myself, ‘I really love what I’m doing right now.’ Talking to people and being a source of information has a lot of personal merit. And I think having an opportunity like this really re-enforces why I chose to become a journalist in the first place,” says Alvarez, a recent AU grad in journalism and international studies. “It is to satisfy my own curiosity, and to help other people become more knowledgeable and satisfy their own curiosity as well.”

What it Takes

Curiosity, it turns out, is the same word that AU’s Lynne Perri uses to describe the students best suited for the POLITICO Journalism Institute. They seek aspiring journalists with a genuine desire to learn about the world.

“Ideally, they have some writing experience. Some of them are writing for a magazine at their college, some of them are writing for their student newspaper, or maybe a college policy journal,” says Perri, a journalist in residence at SOC. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be mainstream journalism. But we’re looking to see that they know how to go beyond a research paper.”

Perri co-founded the POLITICO Journalism Institute program, which just finished its third year. Co-partnered by AU, POLITICO, and the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, it’s a hands-on, crash course for young journalists looking to hone their craft. Alvarez was one of 10 student-participants from various colleges. During the program—which lasted from May 31-June 9—they stayed on campus in Cassell Hall and usually worked in POLITICO’s Rosslyn, Va. headquarters.

The impetus for starting PJI, Perri says, was to bring more people of color into newsrooms, and the program gives special consideration to minority candidates. D.C. media outlets have never been bastions of diversity, and Perri hopes this program will help rectify the problem.

“It’s important to diversify all of our newsrooms because it’s what we are as a country. And I think different people bring in new perspectives,” says Perri.

The program also preaches incorporating a wider variety of sources in news stories. “Everybody has to work hard to do that. The burden isn’t just on those people of color who were hired,” she adds.

Learning the Ropes

The first part of the program includes lectures and discussions, as students learn the nuts and bolts of working in contemporary journalism. “It gave you the sense of how to post online versus how to write for print, social media guidelines for journalists, how to conduct interviews, how to communicate with sources,” explains Alvarez.

Students heard from SOC professors John Watson, Angie Chuang, and Amy Eisman, as well as top POLITICO scribes.

Like true Washingtonians, students also learned from seasoned journalists in a casual setting. After a group lunch at Chef Geoff’s, Alvarez says the POLITICO reporters seemed a little less intimidating. “It was just getting to know them, talking about Donald Trump or Dr. Who. That’s awesome, because it really gives you a sense that these people are cool, they’re nice, and they’re there to help you. And that’s really reassuring for somebody who has just graduated and looking to take that next step in journalism,” he says.

Students also went on a night tour of the Washington monuments. In fact, that majestic view of D.C. was never far away. From a POLITICO conference room students could see the National Mall, and Alvarez would often work on a balcony overlooking the rest of Rosslyn.

POLITICO provided each student with a one-on-one mentor, and Alvarez worked with journalist Victoria Guida. During the second part of the program, students completed one news article for publication on POLITICO’s website. Alvarez was assigned to write a story on trade—a subject he admits is not his forte. But he praises Guida’s help in guiding the story, which dealt with vintners and a U.S.-European Union dispute over wine labeling.

Undeterred

Alvarez started contemplating a journalism career during his New Jersey high school years, as he watched Arab Spring TV footage in Tahrir Square. “I thought to myself, ‘How cool would it be to be there, and be the one reporting that news?’” he recalls.

At AU, he spent time as a multimedia editor with The Eagle, and he’s still an associate producer with the crowdsourced start-up News2Share. After a professor suggested the PJI program, AU and PJI alum Christina Animashaun also recommended he apply. Animashaun now works at POLITICO, and she spoke with PJI students during this session.

Currently on the job hunt, Alvarez is hoping his versatility, as a skilled photographer and writer, will make him marketable for a future employer. He’s gotten plenty of warnings about finding work in the beleaguered journalism industry, but he remains undeterred.

“I’m in this field because I’m passionate about it,” he says. “It’s daunting and it’s a challenge, but I like challenges.”