By Raghava Lakshminarayana
The culture beat is unexplored territory for most journalism schools. The Stony Brook University School of Journalism is no exception to that rule. For me, for the most part, the journalism program at SBU was four years of mundane newswriting that threatened to crack my skull before I was done. The ledes became tedious and the nut grafs stopped doing what they should. Plus, there’s only so much serious writing that a twenty-something-year-old can do while being twenty-something years old. Eventually the dam will burst and the creative juices will have to flow into some outlet or another.
Younger students in the journalism school may choose to write for the campus-affiliated publications like the Press or the Statesman—both with active culture sections. Others may assemble a personal blog to scribble their thoughts on the latest SoundCloud rapper mixtape release. But absolutely nothing will prepare you for an internship at a real culture publication, like Mass Appeal, other than serious respect for the beat.
When I first walked into the SoHo office, on Broadway and Canal St, I was blown away. My idea of Mass Appeal—a renowned New York graffiti and hip hop magazine—was washed away at the first sight of fancy coffee taps and an abundance of MacBooks. I was to have an interview with the editor-in-chief, Benjamin Meadows-Ingram, BMI as he’s known, and a couple of others on the small editorial team. The first question that BMI asked me was, “So who are you currently listening to?” My “serious interview” mental prep flushed out as I started to formulate an answer. I talked about my likes and dislikes; who I thought was hot and who was hot garbage. Every name that I suggested was met with a flurry of questions. “You like Future? Do you like his new single? Are you familiar with his older stuff?” It was like taking a very hard exam that I actually cared about.
From then on, it was mostly smooth sailing. I was to meet the team—digitally—on Slack, which is a messaging platform popular in most modern day offices. I was expected to pitch and take up pitches. I had to scour Twitter and other social feeds for potential story ideas. A rapper dropping a new song snippet on Instagram, meant a post. A music video release meant a post. Anything within the cultural sphere that I normally followed was up for grabs to write about. It was my idea of the perfect writing gig—getting paid to write about music, except that as an intern I wasn’t being paid.
As expected, my first few posts were heavily edited. It’s not easy to break out of the SOJ’s rigid rules—they really hammer those down into you. My ledes read like something that a 70-plus-year-old would write about modern music. But as the posts piled up, I began to notice that my own writing voice had started to form. Rather than objective ledes, I would start with a bold statement of my own. Nut grafs would consist of how whatever I was writing about fit in the whole “cultural space.” As a result, my pieces saw fewer edits and more of my own original work.
But my own narrative voice also brought the ire of keyboard warriors across the Mass Appeal social media accounts. On one post that I wrote, the top comment read, “You should return your journalism degree and knee your dad in the nuts.” Others said my work was “trash,” even “cancerous.” It’s a weird feeling: People are insulting you, yet they’re reacting to something you wrote. Somehow, getting shouted at in all-caps may be one the most rewarding feelings in my short career as a journalist.
So, to those interested in pursuing an internship at Mass Appeal, here is my advice. Don’t slack (but do Slack); as an intern you will be considered a member of the editorial team, so your work will actually be a part of the daily operation. Don’t be shy; pitch whatever weird thing that you’re really into. I pitched a story about a garage pop outfit from Mexico City that I’ve followed for four years and it turned out to be one of my best clips. Lastly, don’t limit yourself; I would only go to the office twice a week, but I would hound the Slack channels on others days—mostly during class—and actively look to write more and more. And finally, have fun with it. This may be one of the few opportunities in your journalism career where you’ll truly write about stuff that you care about and will also get very professional advice when doing so.