How a college grad parlayed a desk assistant job into being an entertainment reporter and producer for ABCNews.com
Q. Tell us about your background.
A. I’m 29 years old. I went to Cornell University, graduated in 2005 with a degree in history. I spent a lot of my time at Cornell trying to figure out what I wanted to do, which I think is common to a lot of students. That’s what a liberal arts degree is for right now, thankfully.
I fell into history because I wanted to do something where I was writing and reading and analyzing things from a humanities perspective. I left college with a sense knowing that I really liked writing. I just didn’t know how exactly I wanted to do that in my career.
While I was at Cornell, I went to the Cornell in Washington program, which basically you do an internship and it was in Washington. It was for a semester. It was sort of an alternative to studying abroad.
My internship there was with ABC News in the Washington, D.C., Bureau, and that was the first job that I had that really clicked in the way that when the internship was over, I wanted to continue what I was doing and work with the people I had met there.
It was very satisfying to be able to dig into a story and produce something that had a tangible result at the end, and I could say, “That has my name on it,” or even if not my name, that’s something I contributed to.
After that internship, in my senior year at Cornell during my winter break, I interned at ABC in New York and I was working with our business unit, helping with business reporting. This was in 2004, around the time of the tsunami in Southeast Asia. That was one of the big projects that I was on, figuring out what companies were giving in response to that.
It was happening right around the holidays, so it was one of those times when people had to act quickly and show that, despite everything that was going on here, their support for this huge crisis happening over there. And with the way that online journalism was picking up, it was an opportunity for me to start writing things online relating to business and consumer issues and other things of that nature.
After that, I went back to Cornell, graduated, and I wanted to continue what I was doing at ABC. The best way for me to do that was to do the desk assistant program that they still have at ABC News. I believe it’s called the “Desk News Associate Program” now — “DNA.”
You’re “given” to a show or platform and you help assist them in any and everything from answering phones to doing research to distributing scripts. It’s kind of a hit-the-ground-running way to understand how a news organization works. So that’s how I got my foot in the door at ABC and I’ve actually been there ever since then.
Q. What were the specific steps you took to go from desk assistant to reporting and blogging your own content?
A. While I was in the desk assistant program, I was still contributing articles to ABCNews.com when I could. A lot of my hours were very crazy. It was something like midnight to 9 a.m. or 8 p.m. to 5 a.m., because I was working on some of our overnight news shows and “Good Morning America.” And the news never stops. There is always someone at ABC 24/7 working to make what you see really great.
So when I had time, I was doing things on the side, and I started to realize that having a personal brand was very important. Increasingly, among people who I saw in the industry and people who were becoming known for what they were writing or who they were talking to or creating personalities, they were taking charge of curating that on their own.
I started looking into how to establish a blog presence where I’m also able to say some things about myself and differentiate who I am as an employee of ABC, but also as someone who is just like anyone else — has hobbies, has pastimes. And with the advent of Twitter, that’s the kind of thing we want to share — what makes people “people.”
I started maintaining a blog with the Huffington Post. At the same time, I also was looking to transition into a role that would be more about writing all the time as opposed to just when I had a chance.
So from being a desk assistant, I went to “20/20″ and “Primetime,” where I was a production secretary. I was working on actually turning the scripts of various programs into articles for online, in addition to getting all the various production instruments you need for a 20-minute long or hour-long piece to go on the air.
While I was doing that, I realized that writing and online journalism is something I want to commit to. So then, I moved over to ABCNews.com full time. I was working with the “Good Morning America” section of our website for a few months before I became our entertainment reporter — and that actually happened with a story about Britney Spears that got two million hits from readers. It was about the decline of modesty in Hollywood, her breakdown and flashing everyone and just being very inappropriate.
That marked my transition from straight news into more popular culture. I started looking for other opportunities to continue to expand my voice and reach. I launched a Twitter account — social networking is a huge thing, especially in marketing and digital media, meeting people who are doing what you want to be doing, who write the things you read, and just becoming a part of that collaborative community was a really big thing for me in increasing the amount of people I reach.
Q. So you took this assignment, it trafficked really well, and that grew into an opportunity to keep doing stories like that.
A. Exactly. That was my “proving I could do it” and then getting the opportunity to do it on a full-time basis.
Q. What can people learn from you about building a personal brand and what does it take to do that well?
A. One of the first questions I ask people who ask me for advice or who are looking to start careers in journalism is whether they have a Twitter account, whether they’re blogging, whether they have a way of putting out what they think about daily issues and the news of the day in a format that someone who “Googles” them can find out what this person is all about.
A lot of times they say they don’t, or they have a Twitter account but they only use it to follow people, or they want to start a blog but it’s too daunting to figure out, “How do I have a blog that’s different from what everyone else is doing?”
I struggled with the same thing, especially in terms of having a blog. I’ve had so many different personal ones, just to be my platform to talk about issues I care about. When I was getting married, I created a blog dedicated to creating a nuanced Indian wedding in America that isn’t the same as what everyone else is doing. You create these things because they have something to do with your life at that time.
I came to realize that it’s okay if you abandon a blog for a little while and then come back to it, or if you start something and say, “I’m going to use this to blog about energy issues.” And then, six months later, you pivot and decide, “I want to talk more about the economy.” That’s okay. I don’t think anyone on the Internet can expect 100 percent consistency from a personal blog at all times. I don’t think that’s the goal.
For me, I had to say, “You know what? I’m going to start something. I’m going to just see what I can do on Twitter and just keep building it up.” Just don’t think too much about it.
Think of it like a conversation. Google is the way so many first impressions are made nowadays. You Google someone, you see what their photos look like, what are some other things they’ve written, or what is their name on.
So if you think about it like, well, I want to have something out there as opposed to nothing, and if that something is simply that I had some intelligent thing to say about this article that I read and even if it’s only a sentence or two long, why not have that out there as opposed to not having any information about myself. So that’s how I overcome that hurdle.
Twitter is now my preferred way of having that conversation with people about daily issues on a minute-to-minute basis. It’s quite easy. I think the 140-character limit is actually very liberating because it democratizes the whole thing. Everyone has the same amount of space to say whatever they can.
So that’s what I tell people when they wonder how they can increase their online presence. I think Twitter is the best way for someone who is looking to get into media to get their feet wet and take part in a conversation that’s happening every minute of every day. Follow the people you want to be working for and you’ll end up engaging with them in conversations that are actually meaningful.
Q. How do you ensure you’re saying something intelligent enough that it will be elevated above the “noise”?
A. That’s a good question. It’s hard. One of the great things about Twitter is that it dies so quickly. If someone went to your Twitter profile, they can see everything you said about something on a given day, or if they keep scrolling, a couple weeks, a couple months, it’s a very time-sensitive thing.
So I use a trial-and-error process. Obviously, you don’t want to just be screaming about things, typing in all caps about things that aren’t really important to anyone but yourself. But if the only thing you’re doing is re-tweeting, and you’re seeing that not a lot of people are following you, you’re not really engaged in a back-and-forth conversation. You’re just re-circulating it.
To me, that’s not what I use Twitter for. I like to have a dialogue with my followers, whether I know them personally or not. If I write an article about, say, “Homeland,” I interview the producers and some of the cast and I offer it to my followers for them to comment on, and I say, “Tell me what you want to hear from these people when I speak with them again.”
Whether I know them or not, I’m going to take any thoughtful consideration of that topic into my thought process when I speak with those people again. You want to be able to craft that conversation. It shouldn’t be a one-way dialogue.
As opposed to someone like Donald Trump, who recently has been the subject of criticism for so many people from Hollywood and politics and all walks of life, because he has been using Twitter to rant, and not to engage in a meaningful way.
It takes some learning. It’s trial and error. But the nice thing is that it’s out there for everyone, and anyone can take part in it. Everyday, you understand a little bit better what plays well on Twitter and what are good methods for connecting versus what falls flat.
Q. How much time should you invest in blogging, Twitter, and Facebook to use them most effectively?
A. It’s hard to quantify it by hour or minute, but I’ll say the way I do things is I have two computer screens on my desk. One is devoted solely to TweetDeck. I can just glance over and look at my various columns and see what people are tweeting about them and see what my mentions are and what’s trending.
For me, that works in the sense that it’s right there. If I want to say something, I can just mouse over, type it, and go back to what I’m doing. And when I get home, I’m working on my laptop, and I have TweetDeck open. I constantly check it.
I am very much a multi-tasker, so if I don’t have 20 tabs open on Google Chrome, then something is not right. That’s just the way I operate. So I would say it’s something that you should just keep checking in on.
For some people, maybe it’s once every five minutes. Or maybe it’s once every half an hour, depending on how you work.
But to me, if I were only looking at Twitter for five minutes every week, that wouldn’t really tell me anything because it’s such a fast-moving platform. Really it’s maybe only information from the past half an hour that has a lot of relevance anymore or that feels like something I need to know.
That, of course, can change. That’s one situation, and that by no means applies to everything. But if you want to build up your presence on Twitter, you have to make an investment. You have to say, “I’m going to check this every so often — five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes, whatever.” Just keep looking at it and figure out what works for you.
Q. So for Twitter, it sounds like continuous engagement; for blogging, it can be less frequent.
A. Yeah. I do agree with that, but — I don’t remember who said it, I’m sure lots of people said it — the more you write, the better you get at it. That definitely applies to blogging and tweeting and Facebook status updating — any sort of written communication you have out there.
I think that if you say that, “I’m only going to blog once a month,” then maybe that puts a lot of pressure on you to make sure that once a month this post is really great and really worthy of being out there.
But if you say, “Let me try to do just one thing every day,” then maybe it’s only just two sentences or a paragraph or maybe it’s not even that much. Maybe it’s just a photo that you posted on your Tumblr that meant something to you that day or you’re re-blogging it from someone else.
It’s a lot less daunting when you consider that you have so many opportunities. You have an infinite amount of opportunities to put yourself out there, so just figure out a system that works for you and that takes away some of the second-guessing that is all in our own minds when we post something online: “Is this something that’s going to come back to haunt me,” or “Am I going to think I’m stupid for saying this a year from now when I look back on it,” which is something I actually deal with now because I recently signed up for TimeHop.
Are you familiar with TimeHop? It’s a service that is basically like an online diary, but it sends you an e-mail every morning on what all your Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, all your social networking activity was a year ago on that day, which is cool. It’s like, here’s a snapshot of what you were like a year ago based on your online activity.
Sometimes, I look at it and I think, “Why was I tweeting about that?” or “Why did I upload that picture? It’s not really that cool.” It does make me think twice sometimes. Do I really want this record out there? But again, it’s just sort of cool in historical perspective.
It’s a reminder that the Internet is written in ink. Whatever you say is out there forever, but if everyone is writing, it’s just a kind of platform.
Q. If I were to shadow you at work, what would I observe you doing day-to-day in your job at ABCNews.com?
A. You would observe me really having a lot of stuff on my mind! Making a lot of phone calls. It’s very interesting. I have to say, there’s never a boring day at this job.
On a day-to-day basis, I’m in control of our entertainment coverage, so I’m looking at what stories we should be reporting each morning and throughout the day. I come up with a game plan for myself and the people that blog and report for our entertainment section day-to-day somewhere between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m.
By noon, at least 50 percent of the plan has completely shifted, just because of news stories that have come up in the past couple hours, or we hear about something coming down the pipe that we want to get on top of quickly, for whatever reason. That’s the nature of the news. The cycle is just becoming faster and faster everyday.
So on a daily basis, I will blog or report between three to six stories, sometimes more, sometimes less. Sometimes I’m working on a feature piece or an interview that may not air for a couple of weeks. Or I’m planning for an event that’s happening in a month.
What you would see, if you shadowed me, is me editing articles that are coming in, writing a few on my own, constantly keeping tabs, usually via Twitter, on what’s going on out there and what other organizations are posting, what celebrities are saying, what news stories are bubbling up that we should get on before we get into a position where we’re following other people. We always want to be out in front reporting accurate, interesting information.
So my job is to make sure we’re doing that and also creating content people want to read. The beauty of entertainment is that you’re helping people have fun during their day. This is something you want to read on a break. This is something you want to share with your friends.
You’re not necessarily reading this article to get informed about something that has an impact on your daily life, but it’s fun. It’s shareable. It’s content that I’d like to think makes people’s days better.
So it’s always thinking about, “What would I want to know covering the celebrity space? What would people want to know about these Hollywood stars or their lifestyles that would make their lives a little better too?”
Q. How do you decide what you’re going to write about, and how does it go from idea to publication?
A. It’s interesting. It helps that I’ve been at ABC for a long time and I know what stories we should be doing. At the same time, I know what maybe isn’t necessarily in our wheelhouse, or maybe our audience wouldn’t be so interested in that story.
In terms of reporting it out, something like, say, Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez breaking up, which I covered a couple days ago — that’s something people have been reporting on for the entire length of their relationship. There’s always some blog or Twitter post that’s rumoring they have broken up.
These people are always on top of their information. A lot of times, some of the rumors come from Twitter. So it’s determining whether we pay attention to that. Or we’re actually hearing from some of our sources that this is happening, and then we start making phone calls, because when it comes to celebrities, you always want to call their representatives and see what their stand is on the record.
It’s incredibly important that we report out the most accurate information. We’re not just basing it on “Well, TMZ says this,” or “Some other place says this.” That’s not what we’re in the business of doing.
As much as reporting has moved online, as big as online news is becoming, a lot of our tactics are very similar to what they were years ago. You’re making phone calls, sometimes lots of phone calls.
To be a good reporter, you have to be really persistent, and that goes for entertainment or anything else. Sometimes that means you can’t just call, you have to call repeatedly. Sometimes, you have to track people down and make sure you’re reporting something that is not out there and that you’re reporting the facts, not just what another blog is saying. So that is very important to me.
I think as some parts of online news have become more about aggregation and curating original content, I want to make sure we are still devoted to those principles of reporting. Original, accurate, interesting news is what should come first.
Q. What are some creative ways to get hold of celebrities you need to talk to for the stories you write?
A. Well, I do have access to a database of e-mails and phone numbers for everyone’s publicist or manager, so sometimes it’s like that. But when you want to get a celebrity quote off the cuff and maybe not with the sort of panache that going through a manager or publicist sometimes lends, honestly, the best way to do it is to just ask them yourself in person.
And the way you do that would be at a red carpet event or some sort of opening or something you get alerted to. As I think pretty much any entertainment reporter in the industry would say, they get dozens of e-mails a day about events happening in their city or close to them, with a list of celebrities who are going to be attending.
So if you just want someone to react to something, the best way to do it is to really to catch them in person and start creating that dialogue where it’s not just you thrusting a microphone in their face and shouting questions, but even if it’s on a red carpet and you only have their attention for three minutes, you want your subject, whoever it is, to feel like it’s just you and them talking, and you’re not going to make them look bad.
It’s hard. It’s something that I hope I get better at everyday, but it’s kind of a nuanced thing, like the way you and I are talking now. We just met, and you want to make the person feel comfortable. You want them to share things about themselves that they might not with a stranger.
So everyday, you’re just practicing and figuring out, “When do I ask this question?” “Should I ask a couple of other questions first?” or “How do I want to say something in a way that is going to get an honest answer and not put someone off?”
Q. That sounds hard. What are the best ways to create that intimacy in circumstances like a red carpet event where the crush of publicity can make it difficult to do?
A. It’s hard. But you have to keep in mind that they’re also experts at this. Some of the best people I’ve talked to are people who have been in the industry for a long time and just being on the red carpet and being asked very personal questions by people you don’t know at all is old habit to them.
They have figured how to make it work and do it very graciously and give it up to the reporter that they’re not going to pry for more yet keep their own reputation and image in perfect condition.
One of the first things I learned from covering events like the Oscars and the Emmys and Sundance, where there are just truckloads of celebrities all over the place, is that you really have to be persistent. Whether that means appealing to their publicist and pulling them aside and saying, “Hey, I just want two minutes to ask one or two questions and it’s going to be about this.”
You want to show the person representing them that you’re not malicious or crazy. You’re an honest person trying to get their job done and do it well. That helps a lot of times, to befriend that person that’s walking them around.
You’ve got to get yourself out there. You have to make sure they’re noticing you, that they’re aware you really want to talk to them anytime.
I think all of us would agree that if someone really, really wanted to talk to you and was really trying to get your attention, then you would gravitate to them. But you want to strike that balance between being persistent and being “in your face,” menacing, and not appealing to engage with.
The first red carpet situation I went to, I was just intimidated by the amount of people, both in terms of celebrities on one side and press on the other, and how much literal, physical jostling you have to do to get your tape recorder or microphone in there to get your question answered. But it becomes fun.
It’s kind of a sport on both sides of the aisle, just figuring out, “How do I get my question answered and work with the people next to me who are literally shoulder to shoulder with you, and not annoy them, befriend them, befriend the celebrities, the publicists and make this situation that could potentially be very awkward and panic attack-inducing a really fun and enjoyable work experience?”
Q. So do you see a lot of the same reporters at these events? Is it a small community?
A. It’s a very small community. And yeah, whether in New York or L.A., I often do see a lot of the same faces and we know each other. We have each other’s e-mails, we follow each other on Twitter, and it’s very much a community.
Of course, if you’re working with someone who publishes the same thing as you, who is going to rush off to the event and back to their computer at their office to file the same report, I think there are some people who think, “Well, I need to beat them; they’re competition. I need to forget being friends with anyone.” You know, the classic America’s Next Top Model quote “I’m not here to make friends.”
But that sort of attitude doesn’t play well when you’re around these people all the time. You don’t want to make enemies when you’re out there, so you have to figure out, “How do I uphold what I’m trying to do, not be the person that no one ever wants to talk to or give information to?”
There’s always a situation where you don’t know where the next event is or where the after-party is because you were trying to figure out how to interview someone you didn’t get to on the red carpet. That’s where your colleagues come in handy. You need them and they need you so that everyone can make sure they’re on top of everything.
It is a small world, and it’s kind of nice to swap stories of horrible screenings you’ve attended or “Did this person answer your question, because I know you asked the same thing as me. What did they say?” It’s like any type of water cooler conversation you would have.
You want to cultivate friendships that just makes the experience more fun and rewarding.
Q. What is the most important mistake you’ve made in your career? What did it teach you and how would you have done it differently?
A. I think every reporter has had this happen to them where they think they’re recording a conversation and they’re not. That’s embarrassing and really panic-inducing, but there are ways to recover from that.
For me, I would say there have been times when I wanted to ask a question but was afraid of either insulting the person or making them feel uncomfortable — or just on a personal level, I didn’t want to feel like the bad guy. I didn’t want to be inflict awkwardness on them.
It’s just something you have to get over. Like I was saying, you don’t want to be menacing or mean, but sometimes there are questions that have to be asked and you have to be the one to do it. It’s your job.
For example, I was interviewing Whitney Houston’s sister-in-law a couple weeks ago. They have a new reality show and I had to ask, “Why would you start filming this reality show three months after Whitney Houston’s death, and her daughter is in it? Were you concerned about what that might do?”
I haven’t been in that situation, so I can’t say for certain that I would know what it would feel like to get asked that question, but it’s one of those things where not everything is rainbows and butterflies and happy all the time.
You just have to get over the idea that you’re in the business of making people feel good all the time. Sometimes there are tough questions that need to be asked and it’s your job to ask them.
You never want to be in that position where you’re regretting, “I wish I had asked that thing,” because then you end up reading the answer you would have gotten in another place and you could have been the person with that information. You had the idea but you didn’t have the guts to say it.
Q. How did your other freelance gigs come about and how did they develop into regular and consistent work?
A. I’ll start with Women’s Health because that was the most recent example. One of my friends who works for the magazine approached me in January or December of last year, saying they had started this new “Fit Bride” blog franchise and the previous Fit Bride blogger had just gotten married.
So they were looking for a new blogger to do a once-a-week post about fitness and diet and user-friendly tips for how other women who are about to get married can go through the whole process stress-free and still manage to lose weight or tone up or do whatever they want to do to look fabulous.
So it sounded like a really fun opportunity to do something that wasn’t what I had been doing on an everyday basis, in terms of writing about fitness and diet and things I really enjoy reading about and wanted to write more about, but hadn’t found the way to get my voice out there in that way.
It was actually a lot of work but it was also a lot of fun to do. To think about, you know, “I’m making a recipe tonight. Oh, this would be something great to Instagram and send to Women’s Health, along with everything that I did.”
To share things in that way, that was a really “service-y” type of journalism that I hadn’t done a lot of, but it was just really great to dabble in that for almost a year. And that was completely a product of someone whom I’m friends with, the woman from Women’s Health who approached me to do this, but we met through a media networking event in 2008 and have become very close friends since then.
It speaks to the power of networking not just so you can figure out what your next career move is. Or, say, if you’re sending a resume to some place, you can ping that person and say, “Hey, you work here. Can you send this to the hiring manager?”
It offers you rewarding friendships in the bigger sense and then also these kind of unique opportunities to bring you to places you wouldn’t otherwise be in.
I did a couple articles for Mashable and that happened the same way. Someone who actually went to Cornell, graduated around the same time as me, and whom I met a couple years later at a networking event, and we started talking.
They didn’t have a lot of people at that time covering the entertainment world. It was at a time when a lot of pop stars were newly getting onto Twitter and figuring out what they wanted to do.
So I did an article about that, talked about some new concert-watching platforms that were coming up on a social level so people could share their experience of watching the show even if they weren’t all in the same room or at the same venue.
It was a great experience. It actually led me to lead a panel at Social Media Week in L.A. a few years ago about how musicians were using Twitter and social media to engage with their fans. It’s funny now because, at the time we did this panel, it still was really a new thing for musicians to be on Twitter.
We had conversations about, “Do you get inspiration for your lyrics from talking with your followers or fans” or “What are you using this for?” And now, when you look at how many stars are on Twitter, people like Justin Bieber who was very much an Internet sensation who turned into a more music mainstream pop culture megastar.
It’s funny and it almost feels quaint that we have that kind of conversation about social media, when now, for a lot of musicians, I think it’s something that goes hand in hand with creating music and having a presence on these platforms.
Q. Where do you see yourself in the future and how do you think what you’re doing today will help you toward that goal?
A. I want to continue telling stories. That’s why I got into this business to begin with. When I was at Cornell, one of the things I enjoyed most about being there was a job I had with a research magazine that was published quarterly.
I got to interview people who were at the top of their fields, doing research that in many cases was literally going to be life-changing for people. Just telling how they came upon this project and how they’re advancing the work in their field, and getting it out there to a mass audience was really interesting.
I want to keep doing that and I’m happy to say I don’t know exactly how I want to do that in five or ten years because I am confident with the way we’re seeing innovation happening in terms of online storytelling that I don’t even know where it’s going. I don’t know if any of us knows.
I’m excited to see what new tools come out in terms of storytelling and how journalists and people in general are going to share stories. I want to be at a place that continues to be accepting of all of those things and is willing to try new things.
As much as I absolutely love a long form journalism story, I do believe you have to make your calls, you have to do on-the-ground reporting and find characters for stories and places that are not “Google.”
I’m just looking forward to seeing how all that evolves and how it makes us better storytellers and better consumers of information out there.
I hear people bemoan sometimes the Internet and social media because it feels like people aren’t interacting enough with one another and they’re not learning enough about other people’s stories.
I do think that walking down the street and looking only at your iPhone and not looking around at your surroundings is a bad thing, and maybe being plugged in 24/7 is not ideal in terms of human interaction. But I don’t think we can think of a time in human history when people knew so much about so many things, because the Internet has made all this information so accessible. And because sharing news and sharing stories have become part of everyone’s everyday life.
Whether or not you’re in media, whether or not you say you’ve invested in this digital market place. It’s something my mom does; it’s something that people’s grandmothers do. It’s changed the way we operate.
Q. What advice do you have for other people who want to transition to journalism, especially if they don’t come from a reporting or blogging background?
A. I would say that one of the best ways to do that in terms of getting advice and talking to people who are working at the organizations you might want to work at is to find them on Twitter, find them on LinkedIn, find them through their own blogs and reach out to them.
It might sound outlandish to say, “You should talk to a complete stranger and ask them to give you advice,” but people have done that for me. I’ve also been happy to say to others, “Send me your resume” or “Tell me what you’re up to,” and maybe over e-mail, phone, or in person, we can actually talk about how you might be able to do this.
In fact, I met with someone two weeks ago who had just that type of question. She was in public policy and wanted to transition into the world of international journalism. I gave her advice on how she might be able to do that.
Being in news, being a journalist is all about asking questions. So I think if you’re looking to start that kind of career, one of the best ways to do that is to put yourself out there and ask questions to journalists who are doing what you want to be doing.
And don’t limit yourself to just your top five people. Ask 20 people because you’ll get 20 different stories about how they got to where they did, and they’ll be able to put you in touch with people in their networks who might be able to hire you.