Bruce Shapiro was a Nation intern in 1981. He is currently executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, which encourages innovative reporting on violence, conflict and tragedy worldwide. He is also a contributing editor at The Nation and U.S. correspondent for Late Night Live on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio National. In this interview, Spring 2014 Nation intern Corinne Grinapol asks him about his career, his time at The Nation, and reporting from conflict zones.
1. How did you get from being an intern to where you are?
Luck both good and bad. Good luck: working on the Nation Institute’s American Writers Congress right after my internship. More good luck: A run of regional journalism jobs in Connecticut with editors who encouraged me in investigative and political reporting, and colleagues with whom I started and ran a weekly newspaper in New Haven in the late 80s. Bad luck turned into good: The paper going belly up in 1989, leading me back to a series of posts at The Nation, as well as to gigs to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s wonderful Late Night Live (note to the wise: LNL’s host, Phillip Adams, is the most thoughtful radio interviewer in English language broadcasting anywhere), as national correspondent for Salon.com, and teaching investigative journalism at Yale. More bad luck turned into good: Being badly injured in a stabbing in 1994, getting me interested in violence as a journalistic and political issue and ultimately redirecting my career to the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.
2. You report on the United States for Australian audiences. How does this change what you choose to cover and how you cover it, compared with if you were reporting for an American audience?
In some ways Australian culture and journalism is a lot like the U.S. — a frontier sensibility and a strong tradition of local reporting. But because Australia is a small nation on a big piece of land in the middle of the Pacific ocean, Australians look outward at the world more than Americans. They are hyper-aware of American news but more easily make the link between the most local of community issues and Washington or global affairs. So with LNL I’ve been able talk as easily about my neighborhood in New Haven as about Ukraine or the U.S. Supreme Court.
3. A lot has changed in the Union Square area since you were a Nation intern. What do you miss the most?
Well, first of all for me Irving Place is still the NEW Nation office — I was an intern at the old office at 72 Fifth Avenue, and if in my eventual dotage someone asks for me for memories of The Nation all that will be left will be of that grotty rabbit-warren across from the Lone Star cafe. The Union Square office is still so open and expansive by comparison.
Union Square itself never stops changing in interesting ways. Certainly, it is — like so much of Manhattan — sanitized and gentrified. But the green market is spectacular, one of the best ways to clear your head in the whole city. The arrival of bike lanes, girding the neighborhood like a picture frame, and the shift to a bicycle-friendly street culture has changed everything — if I come to The Nation now it is most likely by bike, instead of crammed into the Lexington Avenue line. As an intern in 1981 I used to bike to the Fifth Avenue office sometimes — but in those days cycling in NYC was a guerrilla sport; you arrived at the office after a test of nerves against hostile drivers and bike-messengers alike. Today’s New York bike culture is so sane and calm.
4. How does running the Dart Center compare to founding and running two news start-ups?
It may seem strange to say about a project that is all about covering violence and trauma, but running the Dart Center is the most fun I have ever had. Starting the New Haven Independent in 1986, for instance, was exciting — both the conceptual work of how to focus a muckraking weekly, and the craft work of physically producing and managing it. It was deeply gratifying to have an impact on my own city. But the Dart Center is on a different plane. You don’t get too many opportunities in journalism to actually do something completely new — to wrestle with a set of issues and language for the first time, to link scientific research with news practice, to shape how reporting gets done and how journalists understand their mission. The Dart Center has grown from a sort of boutique initiative to a global project focused in a very deep way on better reporting on crucial issues like war and family violence, and on the impact of covering traumatic events on journalists themselves. So it’s about innovation, about journalism as a way of intervening in some of the most important debates of our time, and also about press freedom. Very cool.
5. What knowledge or skills did you pick up at The Nation that you still use today?
Fact-checking, fact-checking, fact-checking. Also, watching Victor negotiate.
6. What are some of the most important things a journalist needs to know before reporting for the first time from a conflict zone?
I’m very concerned about young reporters going to conflict zones without first aid or hostile environment training. Just get it. It will save your life. Also some basic trauma awareness, so the intensity of events and deadlines don’t become overwhelming. (Lots of tips on the Dart Center website!). Don’t be afraid to get help, either while on assignment or afterward. And keep your ethical compass and sense of purpose — it will protect both your sources and yourself.
7. What advice would you give to recent intern alumni, current interns or future interns?
Don’t get lost in technological innovation. The journalistic innovations that really endure are about whose stories get told and why, how abusers of power get held to account, about storytelling itself.