Alyssa Katz was a Nation intern in 1990. Previously editor-in-chief of City Limits, she is now editor of The New York World, an accountability journalism project at Columbia Journalism School covering city and state government. She is also the author of Our Lot: How Real Estate Came to Own Us. In this interview, Spring 2014 intern Nation Simon Davis-Cohen talks to Alyssa about getting started in journalism and covering local communities.
1. How did you get from being an intern to where you are today?
I've always gravitated to opportunities others have overlooked. Sometimes those are big, important openings — holes in social understanding that need filling, like investigating the real estate bubble while it was still inflated, and documenting its collapse. But the same principle applies even in small ways, like figuring out early on that the best way to get one's first writing assignments is to be available during holidays when usual contributors are away. I've also amassed and combined multiple skills, including writing, editing, teaching, and data analysis, and pivoted between journalism and policy work, while always keeping a hand in journalism. Along the way, I've been able to develop specialized content knowledge in law, government, urban development and more. Somehow in the midst of all this I became The Nation's television critic.
2. How has your time at New York University and the Pratt Center for Community Development informed your career as an editor?
At NYU's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, one thing I did was teach reporting to students in the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program, many of whom had not previously done reporting or thought of themselves as "reporters." I had already made the journey from arts writer to civic journalist, and working with those students reminded me of the unique perspective arts writers typically brought to the endeavor of reporting: a keen sense of story and narrative, and of engaging an audience with a meaningful intellectual or literary experience. These are qualities that are so easy to overlook as ingredients in news-driven journalism, yet so essential to its success.
At Pratt Institute, I was a journalist embedded among urban planners and my job really was to help make the planners' work connect with constituents who didn't speak the lingo or have background in the technical issues. That act of translation is an essential part of a writer or editor's job in interpreting a technocratic world, and I got lots of helpful practice at Pratt. Seeing politics and government policy from practitioners' point of view was also invaluable.
3. What drew you to the place-based journalism of The New York World and City Limits? Why focus on one place?
Democracy begins at the grassroots, in the places where we live, and political progress at higher levels of government is utterly dependent on the foundations below. Journalism that promotes accountability within a community empowers the public with information. I'm from New York City, which has a remarkably well developed civic sector and excellent community organizing groups, and the kind of journalism I do is part of the force that holds a good share of power in the hands of the public. Such a connection has also been present when I've covered the real estate bubble or reproductive rights, but the directness of the impact on the local level is unmatchable.
4. What is a recurring question you’ve grappled with throughout your journalistic career?
How can journalists bridge the growing information gap between professionals working in increasingly esoteric technical fields and the public whose daily lives are affected by practices and decisions made by the technocrats? Of course, the specialists *themselves* often don't really understand their own engineering, as we saw tragically in the case of the financial crisis. But in any case, it comes down to: how to shed light into the black box?
5. If the Nation Internship Program asked you to recommend one book for an intern-reading list, how would you respond?
The Power Broker by Robert Caro, which is a beautiful integration of investigative reporting, place-rooted history, narrative biography and polemic. For a young person interested in understanding the mechanics of political influence, and the shape of the city they're working in, it's an education in one (massive) volume.
6. What was your favorite part about The Nation's internship program?
I loved learning the skill of fact-checking, which was my road map for to learning how to report. It also turned out to be a marketable skill that opened the door to my first job, as a fact-checker at The Village Voice.
7. What advice would you give to recent intern alumni, current interns, or future interns?
Find opportunities to develop specialized skills, even if they come in unconventional packages, then combine them in ways that no one else does. Don't be afraid to cross the lines in your career between journalism and social advocacy, academic research or other areas of inquiry and action that relate to your areas of interest in journalism. Even if unorthodox choices close certain doors to you, they'll open others.