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Astead Herndon advises journalism students

Astead Herndon, The New York Times national political reporter, spoke on Tuesday, Oct. 19, to Neil Swidey’s (JOUR) Long-form Journalism: Storytelling for Magazines and Podcasts (JOUR 113A) class. Herndon discussed his success with his career and his experience becoming a journalist with students. 

Six years out of college, Astead Herndon has worked for multiple news outlets, including the Boston Globe and the New York Times. His primary focus was on political coverage, though he has now switched to working on the New York Times podcast “The Daily,” said Herndon in his discussion with the class. 

Herndon said that a lot of his success has happened through hard work. “People overcomplicate how to be a successful intern,” he said. 

Herndon shared with the class that “you should start by getting good at the thing they hired you to do.” He added to that, saying that sometimes people are “so focused on hitting a home run, they don’t hit the singles in between.” 

In the discussion, Herndon gave advice to the students on how to get people to talk to journalists for stories. He advised students on different ways to increase relations between journalists and their sources. Herndon’s tips included being transparent with their sources, being engaged in what the sources are saying and also acknowledging the source’s potential fears of the media. 

“I wasn’t very good at journalism, and I was around a lot of people who were better than me,” Herndon admitted to the class. 

Herndon also said to the class to let people own their opinions. “I don’t try to save people,” Herndon explained.

He went on to say that just because you disagree with someone’s idea, does not mean that the idea is unpopular. “Reporters presume what looks bad and what doesn’t,” he said but warned against assuming morality. “It only looks bad to those who disagree.” 

Following that thread, he acknowledged the idea of humility while talking to sources. “You can’t be afraid of being the less smart person in a conversation,” he advised. “‘Dumb’ questions could open up a source more.” He said that sources enjoy teaching journalists about their topics of interest.

Though he started in print journalism, Herndon is now working in audio journalism. From his experience in both fields, Herndon said that there are some differences between print and audio journalism. 

A major difference Herndon mentioned was that “audio loves an arc,” meaning that every feature needs a beginning, a middle and an end. He also explained that the interview process is different for the two types of journalism, with the production team drafting a potential script for the interview—picking questions and trying to predict the answers—before actually conducting it. 

This helps with that arc idea, according to Herndon. “You don’t just need information. You need an arc.” Herndon did mention that he missed actually writing stories, but that he enjoys his new job at “The Daily” as it allows him to explore many different topics and beats. 

Astead Herndon visited Brandeis in an event hosted by the Department of Journalism. To learn more about upcoming events, visit the journalism program’s website.


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