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Q&A: Brian Rosenthal, Seattle Times reporter and SPJ New Journalist of the Year

Brian Rosenthal

Finding a job fresh out of college is hard enough for those whose chosen field isn’t in turmoil. Only about a quarter of journalism students can expect to find work after college, according to this article from the University of Miami School of Communications.

But many are finding work, despite these dismal statistics, and it is more important than ever to pay close attention to those who have.

So how about a journalism success story for a change?

Brian Rosenthal, politics reporter for The Seattle Times, was able to snag that job fresh out of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in 2011. While he credits some of his success to luck, aspiring journalists can learn a lot from his journey.

The 24-year-old Olympia reporter, who will be honored with the New Journalist of the Year award at this month’s SPJ Awards Gala, sat down with me to share his story.

Q: Can you tell me how you got into journalism?

BR: I joined my high school newspaper because somebody told me that you had to do a whole lot of extracurricular [activities] to get into a good college, and I really wanted to get into a good college.

I loved doing it. It felt so cool. I got to talk to teachers and ask them about stuff and they told me stuff about school then I got to tell everybody else about it. That was my junior year. I was the editor my senior year, then I went off to college and wrote for the college newspaper, and that feeling of thinking it was really fun and important and a good fit for me continued and really solidified at the college newspaper. I credit most of my passion for journalism to the success that I’ve had with my college newspaper.

Q: How did you get to be at The Seattle Times?

It’s kind of an interesting story. I put a big focus on internships in college. So I did an internship after my freshman year at a small town paper in Indiana, then leveraged that experience to get an internship after my sophomore year [in Reno, Nevada], and I leveraged that to get an internship after my junior year [in California], and I leveraged that to do my internship after my senior year at The Washington Post. But the internship that was most impacting was one that I did in the middle of my junior year which was required by Medill. I did mine at the Seattle Times.

I loved it, I loved the people, I felt like I learned a lot. I stayed in contact with them, and after my senior year there was a position opened and I applied for it and got it.

Q: Is it unusual for someone right out of j-school to find a steady job like you did?

BR: It’s unusual. Most of my friends are not in journalism or are not employed, even.

Q: So, in your opinion, what did you do that gave you a competitive edge?

BR: Well let’s not discount the importance of luck. I think I was pretty lucky along the way. I got into a really good school, I was able financially to attend that really good school, I was selected for the journalism program, the internship program at The Seattle Times opened just as I was looking for an internship, I was given the opportunity to write some great stories while I was at the Times, and there was actually an opening when I graduated. So first, even though it’s not a good lesson for anybody, I would say luck.

Second of all, I think I put a huge emphasis on internships and I can’t stress enough how important that is. I applied for, I think, 75 of them [per year, he later clarified]. It’s not enough to just do internships in today’s economic environment; you have to relentlessly pursue them because there are so few opportunities and so many people that want them. I applied to internships all over the country.

The last thing I would say is, once you get an opportunity, you have to take advantage of it, and that includes the college newspaper as well as these internships.

Q: What was it that you did specifically during your internship at The Seattle Times that made them want to hire you after you graduated? You must have made a pretty good impression.

BR: The reason I made an impact in Seattle and they wanted to hire me afterwards was not that I was particularly talented as a junior in college, it was the fact that I would work 14 hours a day. So they would always see me there. I mean, it was like, “What is this guy doing?” You’ve got to make an impact; you don’t get a lot of those opportunities.

Q: It seems like you’re in a really good place professionally right now, but you’re still young. What are your professional plans for the future?

BR: I have no idea what I’m going to cover even after the legislative session. I could be covering pretty much anything in news. My only thoughts about the future right now is that I want to continue doing meaningful work that is satisfying professionally to me and allows me to feel like I’m making a difference in the community, whether that is in Seattle or somewhere on the East Coast, or maybe abroad. Whichever it is that I’m doing in a decade will probably be dictated by the industry. But I am kind of enjoying where I’m at right now so I’m not thinking too far ahead at this point.

Q: What would you say to journalism students nervous about their prospects once they graduate?

BR: I think reports of the death of journalism have been greatly exaggerated. People are always going to want and need interesting and important information about their community. The distribution method will work itself out.

I also think that college is not the time to think about job prospects. It’s the time to work hard to be the best you can be at exactly what you want to do. Pursue what you love, and the job will work itself out.

Update: This post has changed to correct a misheard quote and to clarify how often Brian applied to internships.

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