College Media Geeks: Marisa Iati, Notre Dame Alum & MainJustice.com Reporter

Atop the homepage of her professional portfolio site, Marisa Iati doesn’t introduce herself by immediately linking to published clips.

She starts off instead with a quick-hit list of the cities she has covered — including New York City, Pittsburgh, Pa., Princeton, N.J., South Bend, Ind., and Washington D.C.

As Iati, a 2014 graduate of Notre Dame University and a former reporter and editor for The Observer student newspaper, writes, “In more than four years as a news writer, I’ve reported in each of these places, constantly seeking out interesting people, important policy-making and untold stories. I’ve become accustomed to exploring unfamiliar cities and adapting quickly to new environments, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Iati, 22, is currently making her way and leaving her mark on Washington D.C. As a reporter for MainJustice.com, an independent outlet focused on “insider news about the U.S. Department of Justice,” she has covered everything from governmental support for foreign counterterrorism measures to recent die-in protests linked to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

In the exclusive Q&A belowpart of CMM’s esteemed College Media Geeks interview series — Iati outlines how she worked to gain journalism experience at a school without a journalism major. She also offers advice to future and newbie j-students and makes a strong case for the iPad as an indispensable reporting 2.0 tool.

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Marisa Iati, a 2014 graduate of Notre Dame University, currently serves as a reporter for MainJustice.com in Washington D.C. She is a former assistant managing editor of The Observer, ND’s student newspaper.

How did you work to make the most of your time and opportunities at Notre Dame to study and practice journalism?

At Notre Dame, journalism is offered only as a minor. My major was American Studies, which taught me to analyze the culture and identity of the United States through the lenses of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, ability and other factors. The American Studies program prepared me to better understand the subjects that I write about as a journalist.

I wanted to get hands-on experience as a reporter while in college, so I worked for the Observer, the independent daily student newspaper which serves Notre Dame and its sister school, Saint Mary’s College. I started out as a news writer, took on increased responsibility as I gained experience and became an assistant managing editor during my senior year. It was a challenging but incredibly rewarding job.

I also interned in a few professional newsrooms during my time as a Notre Dame student. I reported for The Princeton Packet and its 11 sister newspapers, as well as on the features desk of the New York Daily News. The summer after I graduated, I worked as an intern on the suburban news desk of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Each of those internships taught me different skills, and all three were valuable.

What were the advantages and disadvantages of being a j-student at a school like Notre Dame?

Notre Dame offers many opportunities for students to gain firsthand experience as reporters. Besides the Observer, there’s also a monthly newsmagazine, a politically conservative publication, a radio station and a television station. Notre Dame’s journalism program also helps to connect students with professional internship opportunities at news outlets across the country.

The journalism program can sometimes be more theoretical than practical, which makes it important for students to round out their education by working at a campus news outlet and interning in professional newsrooms, if possible. The program is also trying to adapt to a changing journalism industry. Students who want to stay on top of emerging digital storytelling tools should consciously seek out classes that utilize them and should also self-teach this new technology as much as possible.

“Challenge yourself. Take on more difficult assignments as you gain experience. View everything around you as stories waiting to be told and seek out new angles on familiar topics. Read and watch professional news outlets as much as possible. Observe how they do things, and decide what you like and don’t like. Be critical. Oh, and drink coffee. It’s a lifesaver when you’re working on deadline.”

What are a few secrets to surviving and succeeding as a j-student?

Realize you are going to make mistakes as you learn how to be a journalist and that messing up is part of the process. If you’re anything like me, your first story for your college newspaper will be a bit of a mess. You’ll fail to communicate clearly with a source and end up with a sticky misunderstanding. You’ll realize you should have pressed for more information or, alternatively, you pushed a little too much. Be humble enough to learn from those situations. Don’t be afraid to ask professors or more experienced student journalists for advice. Apologize when necessary.

Challenge yourself. Take on more difficult assignments as you gain experience. View everything around you as stories waiting to be told and seek out new angles on familiar topics. Read and watch professional news outlets as much as possible. Observe how they do things, and decide what you like and don’t like. Be critical. Oh, and drink coffee. It’s a lifesaver when you’re working on deadline.

What was the most memorable journalism class project or assignment you undertook during your undergrad days?

I created a photo gallery, podcast and video report about Notre Dame’s Naval ROTC program for my Future of News class. The project taught me how to report on one topic, from three different angles, in three different mediums. It reinforced for me the importance of journalists’ being versatile in how they tell stories, as well as the critical nature of learning to use digital tools. The three-part assignment also taught me a lot about Naval ROTC, which enabled me to develop sources and was fun from a personal standpoint.

What do you tell people who wonder why anyone would study or pursue a career in journalism nowadays?

There’s no doubt that journalism is changing. It looks dramatically different now than it looked 10 years ago, and it will look different again in another 10 years. Increasingly, people are getting their news from social media platforms and are reading content on computers, tablets and mobile phones. Meanwhile, newspaper and magazine circulations are decreasing, and news outlets are constantly experimenting with digital storytelling tools. The industry is in a time of rapid transition. Despite this, the world will always require journalists. We will always need people to gather, synthesize and interpret information about our communities. We just don’t know what form that information will ultimately take.

As a young reporter at the very beginning of her career, I don’t know what my job will look like in a decade or even next year. That uncertainty is nerve-wracking in some ways, but it’s also incredibly exciting.

Fun question alert: You are given a gazillion dollars to start a journalism school from scratch, no restrictions. What are a few things you would invest in or build first?

It may sound obvious, but I think the most important resource a journalism program can have is a strong introductory reporting class. No matter what form the news takes in the coming years, the ability to find and tell good stories will always lie at the heart of it. I wouldn’t underestimate the benefits of hiring an experienced and talented faculty member to teach the journalism program’s most basic course.

Beyond that, I’d invest in iPads. I took a class at Notre Dame called Future of News which opened my eyes to the fantastic news-gathering and storytelling tools that applications on the device offer. There are apps for aggregating news, sharing stories via social media, creating podcasts, making videos and more. iPads help students to become “backpack journalists.” In other words, they prepare students to report in multiple mediums, which they likely will have to do in the professional journalism industry.

Iati’s Favorite Viral Video

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