YJI Alumni Stories

William Alden ‘10, The New York Times Dealbook

Will Alden ‘10 covers finance and regulation as The Huffington Post’s Wall Street correspondent. His article in December on National Economic Council directorial candidate Gene Sperling’s qualifications initiated discussion and responses from Slate and The Washington Post. More recently, he’s written about the recession, debt, and European economic crises. “Work as hard as you can and ask as many questions as you can,” he said. Alden started his journalism career as an intern at The New York Observer, covering real estate and blogging for the Observer’s “Wall Street” vertical. Alden joined The New York Times’ Dealbook, where he writes the morning newsletter and contributes feature stories.

Michael Birnbaum ’08, Washington Post Berlin Bureau Chief

When Michael Birnbaum ’08 first arrived as The Washington Post’s Berlin correspondent, he expected to report on Central and Eastern Europe. Instead, his article topics have run the gamut from NATO and Libya to terrorist attacks in Norway. He “ran around Tripoli with fervent Qaddafi supporters;” he’s also covered protests in Bahrain, and the 2011 Women’s World Cup.

Birnbaum started as an intern at The Washington Post out of college, reporting on D.C. politics. The Post later hired him as a beat reporter covering schools nearby counties.

Birnbaum said one of his most formative journalism experiences was in New Haven, doing a story on a local typewriter repairman for Anne Fadiman’s class. Visiting him every day for a month, Birnbaum said, “was a luxury I don’t have now working at a newspaper. Getting into the habit, inveigling yourself into someone else’s routine…I really got a much fuller idea of what he was like as a person and the discipline of it.” Birnbaum expects to remain in Germany until 2013.

Steven Brill ‘72, Businessman-Journalist and CEO of Press+ 

Steven Brill ’72 LAW ’75 has mixed business with journalism for the past few decades. Founder of CourtTV, The American Lawyer magazine, Brill’s Content, and Press+, he’s also responsible for our very own Yale Journalism Initiative, which began in 2006 with a grant from the Cynthia and Steven Brill, both of whom were in the class of 1972 at Yale College.

Brill jumped into journalism in college, when he had three op-ed pieces published in The New York Times, and wrote campaign speeches for presidential candidate and New York Mayor John Lindsey.

At Yale Law School, Brill said there “never was a moment in law school where I thought I’d go into law.” While doubling as a law student and a staff writer for New York Magazine, he wrote a feature piece on the city’s black market in handguns, his first major story.

Brill got the idea for American Lawyer standing outside a soda machine in the law school, and has been in the business of journalism ever since. He was a columnist for Newsweek before developing Press+, which is now a subsidiary of RR Donnelley. Press+ is now enabling hundreds of newspapers, magazines, and online online-only publications charge for online access. “The only way to ensure the vitality and the integrity of a business project in journalism is to have a journalist doing the business,” he said, “Startups were always started by someone who ran both ends of the enterprise—Henry Luce, the New York Times, the guy who stood on the street corner handing out the first copies of the Wall Street Journal.”

Brill has been teaching advanced journalism at Yale since 2001. He has written three books: “The Teamsters,” “After: How America Confronted the September 12th Era,” and most recently “Class Warfare,” about the war over school reform in the U.S., which came out this summer.

Catherine Cheney ’10, Reporter, World Politics Review

After spending a year at POLITICO where she was a web producer and staff writer, Catherine Cheney (‘10) is now working for World Politics Review, writing three times a week on foreign affairs. Her international journalism experience includes reporting in Peru and Germany, where she spent two months on an International Center for Journalists Fellowship, and she has written for publications including The Atlantic, Der Spiegel, and The Washington Post.

Vanessa Gezari ’97, Freelancer

After a few years of local reporting for newspapers in Ohio and Chicago, Vanessa Gezari ’97 left New York on September 10, 2001, to freelance in India. “Within a few weeks, I was in Pakistan, going to Taliban press conferences and watching Afghan refugees stream across the border,” she said, “I had no experience as a foreign correspondent, but I learned.” Gezari spent the next three years bouncing between India, Pakistan, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Afghanistan, writing for the Chicago Tribune, Mother Jones, Slate, and others.

With the UK-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), Gezari helped train Afghan reporters writing for local newspapers, radio, and the web. She continues to mentor reporters at Pajhwok Afghan News, Afghanistan’s largest independent news agency, and she recently completed a project with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting comparing Afghan and Western approaches to storytelling.

Gezari has reported on the rehabilitation of child soldiers in Liberia, gay culture in India, the recovery of the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, a high school prom, a man who just got out of prison, and how flight attendants’ jobs have changed since Sept. 11. “There’s a myth that journalists are objective bystanders reporting back with mechanical accuracy on what they see,” she said, “In my experience, the journalist is always part of the story.”

Zack O’Malley Greenburg ‘07, Staff Writer, Forbes

Zack O’Malley Greenburg ‘07 has covered finance and entertainment for Forbes since graduating Yale. Now a staff writer, he writes “The Beat Report,” column on the business of music.

He has also written for AOL Daily Finance, The Washington Post, and The Huffington Post, and edits Forbes’ annual Special Report on “Hip Hop’s Cash Kings.” Greenburg has written over 200 articles for Forbes, including travel and sports pieces. His reporting routinely brings him to interview music celebrities like Akon, 50 Cent, and Russell Simmons. Greenburg’s most recent work is “Empire State of Mind”, a biography of Jay-Z.

 Jake Halpern ‘97, Radio journalist and novelist

As an intern at The New Republic, Jake Halpern ’97 earned the nickname the “Bad Homes Correspondent” for his interest in why people live in hostile places. His hobby turned into a book, “Braving Home,” and an audio series for National Public Radio (NPR), where he now contributes to programs like All Things Considered and This American Life. Halpern also contributes to print publications including The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal.

A fellow in Morse College, Halpern taught an undergraduate course on Radio Journalism. “The two things that many students aren’t good at is taking risks and failing,” he said, “As Yalies, we’re often used to being the best at everything. But that’s oppressive.” For Halpern, failure is critical: “Probably the people who will succeed in doing the untraditional path in writing are going to be people who learn to fail and learn to get over it,” said Halpern, whose work spans genres and media. “Fame Junkies” was featured in an HBO documentary. Two of his journalistic stories are currently being developed into fictional series on HBO, one is being produced by Scott Rudin and the other by Brad Pitt. Critics suggested his novel, “Dormia,” could be the next “Harry Potter.” “Switched at Birth,” a piece on two Wisconsin infants accidentally placed in the wrong families, has ranked in This American Life’s top ten favorite shows since it aired in 2009.

Allison Battey Hartnett ‘08, Press+

Allison Battey Hartnett ‘08 majored in English at Yale, where she was the News and Features Editor for the Yale Daily News. She went on to work as a video news intern for the ABC News Law and Justice Unit and as a reporting intern for ProPublica. After graduating, she spent three years at management consultancy Bain & Company, where she worked primarily in the private equity and consumer products industries.

She is now bringing her business training back to the media industry in her new role as Director of Affiliate Analytics, Marketing and Revenue Initiatives for Journalism Online. Journalism Online produces Press+, a software product that allows publications to adopt subscription services on their websites. Allison will focus on helping publications maximize their online revenue through analysis of reader behavior.

Richard Kim, Senior Editor, The Nation

Richard Kim ‘97, now a senior editor, started out as “the office gopher” at The Nation. Kim was a Film Studies major at Yale and pursued a graduate degree, in American Studies at New York University, where he later taught while blogging for The Nation. Eventually, though, Kim put academia aside for political journalism. “Working at a weekly magazine is exhilarating and face-paced,” he said, “You get to cover a lot in an omnivorous way.”

Kim started as a beat reporter on AIDS, learning reporting skills like how to track the budgets of multinational organizations, or call up the White House and Human Health Services. “It feels like clipping your wings a little to accept smaller beats, but it can grow into something much broader,” he said, “Focus on a pretty narrow beat in the beginning. That’s where you get your chops.”

Now a strong voice on conservative politics and gay rights, as a student Kim ran an opinion column in the Yale Daily News. “It’s important to work hard on articles in college, because when you graduate no one will read them. So if you try something new and don’t do well, it’s OK. It’s low stakes,” he said.

Kim recently co-edited the New York Times bestselling anthology “Going Rouge: Sarah Palin, An American Nightmare.” He has also taught American Studies at NYU and Skidmore.

James Kirchick ‘06, writer-at-large, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, contributing editor for The New Republic, and columnist for The Advocate

After working on theater at Yale, James Kirchick ‘06 is now immersed in what he calls “the theater of the absurd,” political journalism.

Kirchick’s article for The New Republic on Ron Paul’s extremist right-wing newsletters gained national attention. He was used to getting strong reactions about pieces in his opinion column for the Yale Daily News. “There were people who wouldn’t talk to me on campus, who would cross the street if they saw me,” he said of the response to pieces on topics like unions and bringing the ROTC to campus. As a senior in college, he got a fellowship through the Yale Daily News to go to South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Now a foreign correspondent, Kirchick has traveled all over the world to report on topics including Jewish life in Tajikistan, the first successful gay pride parade in Serbia, fraudulent elections in Belarus, and American foreign policy. Within the next year, Kirchick hopes to report from Russia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Hungary, and Uzbekistan.

Dahlia Lithwick ‘90, Slate legal correspondent

When Dahlia Lithwick ’90 started as Slate’s legal correspondent 11 years ago, “Almost no opinion was being covered by journalists on the court beat. I figured it would be more boisterous and goofy coverage,” she said. Since then, Lithwick has done a lot to fill that gap. According to Lithwick, she is “Simultaneously poking fun at the court and also deeply respectful of it. I describe it as Patty Hearst syndrome—I’m in love with my captor.”

After law school at Stanford University, Lithwick worked as a divorce lawyer in Reno, Nevada and happened to be “on the right person’s futon at the right time” in 1999 when Slate magazine was looking for someone to cover the Microsoft anti-trust trial. “I just told jokes for weeks on end,” she said. She joined Slate as a freelancer and has since become their legal correspondent, writing the columns “Supreme Court Dispatches” and “Jurisprudence,” in addition to writing editorials for the New York Times and Newsweek. She appeared on NPR’s “Day to Day,” and the Colbert Report. “It helps to become an expert at something,” said Lithwick, “If I hadn’t gone to law school and hadn’t clerked [for the ninth circuit] it would be a lot harder for me to write about the law.” She has written two books, “Me v. Everybody: Absurd Contracts for an Absurd World” and “I Will Sing Life: Voices from the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp.”

Jane Mayer ’77, Staff Writer, The New Yorker

 Jane Mayer ‘77 is an investigative journalist and staff writer for The New Yorker. Mayer has written extensively on politics and world affairs, from reporting on the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut to the fall of the Berlin Wall for the Wall Street Journal, to her award-winning latest book, “The Dark Side,” on American interrogation practices.

Much of her recent work has focused on terrorism, an interest Mayer traces to 9/11 in a Washington, D.C. chapel, where she heard a minister talk about the U.S.’s new ultimate challenge: “how to defeat a barbaric enemy without losing our own civilization.” “Pretty much from that moment, I became fascinated by whether America would win the war on terror without losing itself,” she said. More recently she has written on the Koch Brothers, and Obama.

Mayer was Time magazine’s Yale campus stringer as an undergraduate, and went to study at Oxford University. “I think respecting and searching for the truth is what earns one respect as a reporter, whether it’s at the White House or in covering local obituaries,” said Mayer, who started her journalism career doing just that at a Vermont newspaper out of college. She was the first female White House correspondent at The Wall Street Journal, where she also worked as a senior writer and front page editor.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn, FES ‘07, Online editor, High Country News

Since receiving a master’s degree in environmental science at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Stephanie Paige Ogburn, FES ‘07, has woven together her interests in agriculture, the environment, and journalism.  

In 2005, Ogburn started SAGE Magazine, a graduate student publication on the environment. She has been a journalist ever since. Ogburn said she learned a lot about journalism churning out about seven stories a week as a beat reporter for the Cortez Journal, a small newspaper in Colorado.

She freelanced while working as a Communications and Outreach Fellow at UC Davis’ Agricultural Sustainability Institute before joining High Country News as online editor. She currently edits, and produces online and print stories and multimedia for the magazine, a publication dedicated to covering natural resources and culture in the American West.

She’s used her academic background and interest in technology to boost her journalism. “Pick up as many skills as you can,” said Ogburn, “If you’re interested in electronics, learn that really well. If you know GIS and can make maps, do that…Have as many tools in your tool set as possible.” 

Dayo Olopade ’06, Freelance writer and author

Among the first class of Yale Journalism Initiative scholars, Dayo Olopade ‘06 started reporting on American politics for The New Republic, where she started out covering the 2008 presidential election. She then became Washington correspondent for The Root, an online magazine dedicated to black culture, appearing on radio and television in addition to her work in print and online. Her articles since then have appeared in publications including Slate, The Daily Beast, and Foreign Policy.

For the past two years, Olopade has been traveling around Africa as a Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, working on a book on technology, creativity, and development on the continent. The difference between Capitol Hill and Nairobi, she says, is mostly in access and formality. In D.C., “there would be 75 people at a press conference and they would all come out with pretty much the same article. Here you have to be a lot more entrepreneurial, and it’s a lot less crowded,” she said, “I feel like I’m doing more work, and better work.”

Olopade also won a United Nations Foundation Journalism Fellowship. At Yale, she majored in African Studies; she plans to pursue her interest in print media and publishing in Africa, which was also the subject of her senior essay. When her book comes out this fall, Olopade will be back in New Haven as a law school student.

David Quammen, science journalist and author

As a twenty-year-old, David Quammen ‘70 sat down for two hours every morning with a pen and yellow legal pad to work on his first novel. Almost thirty years later, he was in central Africa accompanying conservation biologist J. Michael Fay on a 2,000-mile expedition through untouched forest for a series of articles in National Geographic Magazine.

Quammen’s artful switch from novelist to science writer took a period of “trial and error.” Since then, he has written award-winning books and articles on topics including evolution, beetles, the dodo bird, Ebola, and migration. A freelancer for the past 33 years, Quammen has written for Outside magazine, Harper’s, and National Geographic. “Magazines allowed you to make a living and also to travel the world and learn about it and stick your nose into other people’s business—scientists and field biologists in particular,” said Quammen. He says his job as the intermediary between scientists and a broader audience is to “dial down on precision without sacrificing any accuracy.”

Now writing a book on diseases that can travel between species, Quammen makes frequent research trips to central Africa. “Maybe when I can’t go to the jungle anymore I might go back to fiction,” he said, “But for now I’m staying fit and sticking with it.”

Jacob Weisberg ‘86, Chairman, The Slate Group

Jacob Weisberg ‘86 began his journalism career in the middle of college when he took a year off to intern for The New Republic. Over the course of the next few years, Weisberg wrote for Newsweek, New York Magazine, Vanity Fair, and the New York Times Magazine. “I was always interested in political writing, but I don’t think I decided to be a journalist until I was one,” he said, “I just kind of fell into it.”

In 1996, Weisberg joined the newly formed Slate as chief political correspondent, where he later became editor-in-chief before creating the Slate Group. As chairman, Weisberg works on developing the business side of web-based publications including Slate, The Root, and Foreign Policy.

Weisberg offers two pieces of advice to aspiring journalists. The first: “The people who can work at the intersection of journalism and technology. Those are the stars.” The second: “At the end of the day, the strength of one’s writing is at the core. If someone writes well you want to hire them, and I don’t think it’s a gift, I think it’s the result of intensive practice. Just write a lot.” Weisberg has written three books, including the 2008 New York Times bestseller “The Bush Tragedy.”

Carl Zimmer ‘87, science writer and author

Carl Zimmer ‘87 has written books on everything from the history of neuroscience to the biography of E. coli. An acclaimed science writer, he’s written hundreds of articles and ten books—including his latest, “A Planet of Viruses,” and a textbook about evolution. While writing “Parasite Rex,” Zimmer traveled to Southern Sudan to witness the biting flies and sleeping sickness. He now has a species of tapeworm named after him.

Zimmer mainly wrote fiction in college, and still reads it “to see all the different techniques to use to set up a scene, the timing, the pace, to give the feeling of an experience.” Between Yale and the start of his science writing career, Zimmer worked as a carpenter.

His blog, “The Loom,” has won the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Science Journalism Award. He also contributes to publications including The New York Times, Scientific American, and National Geographic, and National Public Radio, where he hosts Meet the Scientist. He now teaches courses at Yale on science and environmental writing.