Big Wheel Keep on Turning

From covering the NFL to the GOP, Wheel alumni are filling top journalism spots

By Mary J. Loftus

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Robbie Brown

Gary Doak/Special

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When the New York Times needed someone to write about a crime spree at Waffle House restaurants, a black church that came into ownership of a KKK memorabilia store, and the purported publication of the original Coca-Cola formula, it was Emory Wheel alumnus Robbie Brown 07C, regional news assistant in the Times’s Atlanta bureau, who got the scoop.

“The recipe spread across the Internet, republished everywhere from CNN to Al Jazeera,” Brown wrote of the soft-drink frenzy. “A television show in Australia made its own Coke on air. Brewers in the United States swapped tips on finding the best sources for key ingredients like coriander oil and citric acid.”

“That was a fun story because it had an Emory link,” says Brown, whose work base is not very far from the DUC offices where he honed his skills. “Crazy as it sounds, working at the college paper was the best possible training for my New York Times job. We worked ungodly hours and made lots of mistakes. But we had real pride about creating the newspaper on our own, as a small group of students who learned as we went.”

Wheel alumni are showing up at some of the most prestigious addresses in the Fourth Estate, including the NFL beat, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, and the BBC, and have been making their mark as award-winning political and investigative reporters (including Frank Main 86C, who recently received the Pulitzer for local reporting).

“We’ve been at the cutting edge in terms of giving students a broad-based background that educates them in storytelling across multiple media,” says Sheila Tefft, senior lecturer in Emory’s journalism program and a former correspondent and bureau chief for the Christian Science Monitor in Beijing, Bangkok, and New Delhi.

The program, which falls under the Creative Writing Department, has about sixty student comajors and minors. It requires four hundred hours of internship, which is high for journalism schools, says Tefft, and usually means that “two internships is the rule rather than the exception, often in different media. A number of our students have parlayed internships into full-time jobs.”

And yes, lots of Emory's journalism students gain their first writing experience at the Wheel, she says, or enter the program after writing for the Wheel.

Contrary to college journalism’s reputation as a springboard to law school, says Reid Epstein 01C, of Politico, “there are a ton of people from the Wheel that are doing big things in journalism.”

Epstein, editor of the Wheel while at Emory, also has a master’s in journalism from Columbia. He’s now a national political reporter at Politico covering Mitt Romney. Previously, Epstein covered politics on Long Island and New York for Newsday, and crime and local politics at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. His newspaper career began at his hometown paper, the Peoria (Ill.) Journal Star, where he started out delivering the paper and ended up an intern.

Recent articles by Epstein include coverage of the Mitt Romney-Newt Gingrich rivalry and the Republican candidates’ Tampa debates.

The Big Leagues

Several Wheel alumni are NFL beat writers—Sam Borden 01C and Ben Shpigel 02C (earlier profile) write about the Giants and Jets, respectively, at the New York Times; Lindsay Jones 03C reports on the Broncos at the Denver Post; and Ben Volin 04B covers the Miami Dolphins for the Palm Beach Post.

In addition to Giants coverage for the Times, Borden is part of the team assigned to cover the 2012 Olympic Games in London. (He’s also the author of several books, including The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Soccer Basics and a biography of the former Yankees pitcher Chien-Ming Wang.)

“As an English major and a Jewish studies minor, most of my journalism training at Emory came while working at the Wheel—an experience that surely helped shape who I am as a journalist,” says Borden. “I became a better writer, editor, and reporter because of the time I spent on the fifth floor of the DUC, and I am certain I would not be where I am today if I had not done it.”

An English and journalism major at Emory and sports editor of the Wheel, Shpigel knew he wanted to be a sports journalist from as young as he can remember. “I used to run out to get the newspaper in the morning and read the box scores in the sports section first thing,” says Shpigel, who grew up just outside Philadelphia. “My whole family and I are huge baseball fans.”

Volin says his time at Emory was invaluable. “I enjoyed the broad-based curriculum—particularly the class on web-based journalism—and nothing prepared me better for my career than three years on the editorial board of the Emory Wheel,” he says. “It helped me see how journalism is done both as a reporter and editor and helped make me a more well-rounded journalist.”

He has covered the Dolphins for three seasons, and Tim Tebow and the Florida Gators for two. “The best part of my job is getting a front-row seat to watching history unfold, and having a tangible product to look at after a long day of work,” he says. (Miami fans can follow Volin on Twitter @BenVolinPBP.)

Jones, who majored in political science and journalism, enjoys the irony in the fact that Emory—a school with no football team—has produced “this stable of NFL writers. Sam Borden and I were both at the NFC championship game this weekend in San Francisco. That’s quite a long way from covering men’s basketball in the WoodPEC.”

Sports writing, she says, is still “definitely a very male environment.” She’s the only female sports writer at the Post, and one of just a few in the press box. “I take my role on the executive board of the Association for Women in Sports Media very seriously,” Jones says. “I run AWSM’s internship program; each summer we place a handful of female college students who aspire to careers in sports media in paid internships at outlets like Sports Illustrated, ESPN, and MLB.com.”

Jones was a sports writer at the Wheel, where she started out covering the men’s soccer team then became an assistant sports editor (under Shpigel). She interned at The Palm Beach Post, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and CNN/SI.

“I’ve covered the University of Florida for the Palm Beach Post and was hired in Denver in 2008,” Jones says. “So I’ve been covering Tebowmania for quite a while.” As a beat writer, it has been quite the ride. “I don’t have to take a side on the Tebow debate—instead I just get to document the journey,” she says. “I enjoy the rush of deadline and the fun of chasing a big story, of which we have had plenty here in Denver lately.”

Jones says she especially enjoys writing a story that “transcends” sports, such as a recent piece about a Bronco draft pick’s emotional visit with his mother and grandmother, who are both in federal prison on drug charges.

Money Matters

Perhaps the most intense news beat of the decade is finance, and Wheel alumni are covering money from all angles.

Reporting on Wall Street and finance, Mike de la Merced 03C, who has a master’s in journalism from New York University, has written for the New York Times and DealBook, a business news site, since 2006. Among his main coverage areas are mergers and acquisitions, bankruptcy and restructuring, private equity, and white-collar crime. One of his recent articles, “Securities Lawsuits Hold Steady but Below Average,” counters the idea that “corporate America is awash in class-action lawsuits by angry investors.”

Covering housing and real estate, and, sometimes, hair-growing laser helmets and sleep pods, Alyssa Abkowitz 04C writes for SmartMoney magazine and calls herself a “Southerner turned New Yorker.”

Rubina Madan Fillion 06C is a Wall Street Journal infographics coordinator for the Greater New York section who also runs the @wsjgraphics Twitter account. She sometimes writes about a “cavernous new cocktail bar for jazz aficionados” in TriBeC and “a new Park Slope eatery serves up free-roaming, hormone-free chicken straight from an Amish farm” for the Journal.

Also working for the Wall Street Journal, Shalini Ramachandran 11C calls herself a multimedia journalist, yet writes in her website bio, “I’ve reported and written on issues from child marriage to e-waste to middle-class homelessness to the Gulf Oil Spill, and along the way, I’ve developed a lot of respect for long-form, investigative journalism―an admiration greatly reinforced by my time at the Wall Street Journal. I hope to do my best to further the noble profession of newspaper journalism in the digital age.”

Andrew Ackerman 06C is a former Wheel editor who is now a Securities and Exchange Commission reporter for Dow Jones Newswires/The Wall Street Journal in Washington, D.C. And Alan Rappeport 01C writes at the Financial Times and broke one of the stories that has received a lot of attention this presidential cycle—the Coke CEO saying that in many respects, it’s easier to do business in China than in the US.

Rappeport has written for The Economist and CFO magazine, and has a master’s from the London School of Economics. “At The Economist, I found myself writing about everything from the emergence of an online ‘Pigou’ club that was pushing for higher petrol taxes to the World Bank’s foray into faith programs in emerging markets, and the demise of the Leica camera,” Rappeport writes. “As a writer for the Financial Times in New York I’m . . . reporting on the aftermath of the financial crisis and a fragile economic recovery.” A recent story also included a legal battle between PepsiCo and an Illinois man who claims to have found a mouse inside a can.

Politics and Public Service

Chris Megerian 08C, another former editor of the Wheel, spends a lot of time covering New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, reporting on New Jersey government for The Star-Ledger, the state’s largest newspaper. Megerian also has covered law enforcement and the prison system. Previously, he worked at the Cox Newspapers bureau in Washington, D.C., where he reported on the 2008 election, President Obama’s inauguration ceremony, and the bailouts of the financial and automotive industries.

Ellen Gabler 03C, who also has a master’s in journalism from Columbia, has worked as an investigative reporter at the Chicago Tribune and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel producing consumer watchdog stories for the paper’s Public Investigator Team.

International adventure

Sebastián Castro 09C is a reporter and producer for CNN en Español. He graduated from Emory with a major in international studies and a minor in economics, and now lives in his hometown of San Jose, Costa Rica.

“Going to Emory was the experience that opened the doors that led to where I am today,” Castro says. “I host a segment called ‘iReport Aventurero’ (Adventure iReport), which due to its fast-growing popularity, will become a half-hour show starting March. Our show’s slogan is ‘adventure with social impact,’ and I travel across continents searching for human interest stories that mix adventure with powerful human stories.”

Examples have included skydiving with a company that is carbon-neutral, and hiking the Inca trail to Machu Picchu with indigenous guides.

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