College Media Geeks: Lisa Khoury, Award-Winning Journalist & U. of Buffalo Alum

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Lisa Khoury is a graduate of the University of Buffalo. During her time at UB, she served as managing editor of The Spectrum student newspaper.

Lisa Khoury graduated roughly a year ago from the University of Buffalo with an English degree, a certificate in journalism and multiple national awards for her reporting and editing work.

During her time at UB, Khoury served as managing editor of The Spectrum student newspaper and helped launch the outlet’s first online newscast Spectrum 360. She also interned at or contributed to Artvoice, Tonawanda News, WGRZ-TV and The Buffalo News.

Upon graduation, Khoury, a Buffalo native, worked first with the Buffalo News as a city and region reporter and later landed an internship with ABC News. Over the past seven months, she worked in the organization’s Specialized Units department, which handles investigative, medical, business and law and justice stories for all ABC News platforms.

Four days ago, she started as a producer at Time Warner Cable News Buffalo — with a long-term goal of becoming an on-air reporter focused on long-form, investigative stories. She has the credentials to back up that ambition. One example: Last May, she published a stunningly-detailed, 4,700-word investigation of illegal fraternities at UB built atop seven months of all-out reporting.

In the exclusive Q&A below — part of CMM’s esteemed College Media Geeks interview series — Khoury reflects on her undergrad days and offers advice for j-students attempting to succeed in school and in the field.

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

It’s funny that you ask that question because by the time I realized I wanted to pursue journalism, I was a sophomore at UB — one of the leading research schools in the country for subjects like science and medicine. It doesn’t even have a journalism major. But I was so enthusiastic about producing investigative journalism, the thought, ‘Oh, this school probably isn’t good for my intended career’ didn’t even cross my mind. And looking back, that’s the best thing I ever did. I didn’t let my school, major or journalism department deter my pursuit of journalism. You can produce impacting, hardcore journalism anywhere. In fact, the schools where there are fewer intended journalists, the more you have a chance to write that groundbreaking story or dive into an investigation that nobody ever has before.

So, in short, to answer your question, I made the most of my time by focusing on writing and reporting good journalism. Because if you do that anywhere, you’re almost guaranteed to be a successful young journalist.

What were the advantages of being a student journalist in a city like Buffalo and at a school like UB?

The advantage of being a j-student in Buffalo, a richly historic city that thrived in the early 1900s and eventually became one of the poorest cities in the country, is that there is so much to look into. And at this time at the University at Buffalo, while the school is working to grow as a leading medical and research institute, build a new medical campus and change its national image to compete with big-time universities, there is a lot the school is ignoring too. There are holes, or instances that, when you really look into what they’re doing, leave a lot of questions. Those questions are stories. And the student journalists at UB have the chance to dive into those stories, ask administrators tough questions and ask community members left in the dust how they really feel about their city and UB’s efforts. There are so many story ideas buried around UB and Buffalo.

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

To incoming freshmen everywhere who want to kill it as journalism students, I’d say have big dreams but stay focused on one goal at a time. First thing’s first, get involved in your school newspaper or newscast. Then, nail a beat. Take a reporter position you’re interested in. If it’s news, ask the editor to assign you a beat on the news desk. That’s what I did, and I was so dedicated to my police beat position I ended up picking up on crime patterns that led to an award-winning investigation.

For her special investigation "The Heights of Fear," Khoury explored how the University of Buffalo supervises and supports students living in the University Heights, an area near UB’s South Campus that “has become synonymous with crime and absentee landlordism.” Upon its publication, the report earned a Society of Professional Journalists’ Mark of Excellence Award for In-Depth Reporting.

For her special investigation “The Heights of Fear,” Khoury explored how the University of Buffalo supervises and supports students living in the University Heights, an area near UB’s South Campus that “has become synonymous with crime and absentee landlordism.” Upon publication, the report earned a Society of Professional Journalists’ Mark of Excellence Award for In-Depth Reporting.

I often advise young students not to spend money on big-time j-schools if they can’t afford it. I know they can lead to big-time internships, but not even an Ivy League classroom can teach a student what you learn in a newsroom, interviewing in the field, writing on strict deadline, diving into investigative stories and editing other peoples’ works. And at a school that doesn’t have a big journalism program, there are often more opportunities to get reporter and editor positions at newspapers — and then you get the chance to do all of those things and learn on the job.

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

If you’re not ready to really dive into journalism and master things like multimedia and investigations, then you probably shouldn’t enter journalism. An editor of mine recently said, “Front-page stories are no longer the articles with a few anecdotes.” Those don’t cut it anymore. Similarly, I think reporters who only want to write day-to-day stories or limit themselves to one type of media no longer cut it anymore. Readers want in-depth stories. They want the option to read or watch a story. And they want up-to-date news on social media. So I would say entering journalism, you have to be ready to take on all of those facets. And to me, that’s exciting and fun.

What was the most surprising part of being a student journalist?

The most surprising part of being a student journalist was recognizing that if you put your mind to it, you can actually accomplish as much as a professional journalist. All you need to do is have inner confidence and understand that pursuing stories that call for you to question university administrators or city officials is OK. Though you’re a student, you’re still a journalist, and you still have a moral obligation to your community to ask tough questions and produce hard-hitting stories.

It’s hard to be a teenager or in your early 20s and question authority figures, like police chiefs and university administrators. Believe me, I’ve been extremely uncomfortable asking them questions. In one interview, a police chief screamed at me and I cried. It was mortifying, but hey, it made for an amazing story! I thought I was wrong for questioning her, but it turned out I was asking the right questions, which caused her to become defensive

So I think as student journalists, we have to get rid of the idea that we’re just students or just kids and understand that being a reporter is a powerful role. So go after any story, even one a professional news source or local daily newspaper would want to go after, with confidence and integrity.

“I often advise young students not to spend money on big-time j-schools if they can’t afford it. I know they can lead to big-time internships, but not even an Ivy League classroom can teach a student what you learn in a newsroom, interviewing in the field, writing on strict deadline, diving into investigative stories and editing other peoples’ works.”

The #firstworldproblems and College Problems phenomena have been crazy popular in recent semesters. Building on those, what are a few short entries you would offer to a list of Journalism Student Problems?

1) I walk into class and everyone’s staring at me because my column went viral and my head shot was on it. #journalismstudentproblems

2) Finally leaving the newsroom at 4 a.m., only to return to school in a few hours for class. #journalismstudentproblems

3) Had to publish one of my university administrator’s controversial quotes. Hope I don’t pass him in the halls. #journalismstudentproblems

Khoury’s Favorite Viral Video

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