Exit Interviews: Nausheen Husain
“You cannot truthfully cover a community that you instinctually find ‘spooky.’”
About this occasional series: These exit interviews offer honest critique for journalism as an industry, through observations from news nerds who have recently left the field and still love it. For more insight on why people—particularly journalists of color—exit journalism, check out Carla Murphy’s “Leavers” Survey.
Nausheen Husain began her journalism career in middle school as a newsletter reporter. Over the next several years, she spent time at Newsweek International, the Huffington Post, Oakland North, the Chicago Sun-Times, and, most recently, at the Chicago Tribune, working on data projects and reporting on Muslim communities. In June, she left the newsroom to join Syracuse University as an assistant professor of journalism.
What drew you into journalism in the first place?
In first grade, I won a Young Author’s competition. I wrote a story called “The Magic Shoes” about a kid who finds shoes that allow the shoe-wearer to fly. The story had intrigue, horror, emotional development and drawings; I am still very proud of it. I had known before then that I loved, and was good at, reading, but that was the first time I felt that I was good at something, writing a narrative, that was also an intellectual challenge for me.
When I moved on to middle and high school, newswriting was the logical next step for someone like me; I went on to be the editor-in-chief of Hinsdale South’s newspaper “The Stinger” (go Hornets!). The environment of a newsroom, even a high school newsroom, which we shared with the yearbook club, had a sense of community that felt like home.
What’s the project that you’re proudest of?
In 2019, I worked on two stories that I cling to when I am unsure of my abilities in this field. By this time, I had been working at the Chicago Tribune for five years and I had solidified my work as a data reporter. I had focused most of my energies on becoming an asset in the newsroom based on these more technical abilities, and in the process, I felt that I had lost my own identity as a reporter. I spent a lot of time trying to master skills like Python and R (both very useful and good!), and, I think as a consequence of how severe the split between ‘real’ reporters and everyone else can be in newsrooms, I stopped thinking about what was going on in the communities I wanted to report on. That year, I requested that I be allowed to split my time between my data/programming work and more traditional reporting. I wrote one story about a woman- and queer-centered mosque in Chicago, and a second story investigating a special prison unit, called a communication management unit, one of two in the Midwest, which was opened to incarcerate mostly Muslims who were accused of terrorism-related charges.
For the former story, I had the opportunity to interview Amina Wadud and Asma Barlas, both Muslim intellectual heroes of mine, and I remember going through complete agony when trying to decide which quotes of theirs to include in the story. For the latter, which took several months to complete, I spent time with the family members of people who felt, at the very least, that they had been denied due process. This story, and the issues I learned about through it, has become the basis of the reporting work I hope to continue.
Here, I have to be grateful to the editors at the Tribune who allowed this shift to reporting and who encouraged me to take on a beat we hadn’t really consistently developed in the past, though we had had some excellent reporters who wrote stories about Muslim communities. I wish more people in newsrooms were encouraged to try out different roles, not only because it’d help each person develop new skills, but also because it’d be good for each department to have new ideas, new sources, new datasets.
Where were the hard parts for YOU in this work? What did your organization have the hardest time getting right?
Several years ago, I got to sit in on a publication’s morning meeting where editors discussed that day’s content for the publication. One of the stories discussed was a thing that’s happened a lot over the past several years: someone gets kicked off a plane because they are speaking or writing in Arabic, which is inherently scary to someone else. An incident like this had happened and this newsroom was including it in coverage. The editor who brought it up called it “a classic case of someone getting a bit spooked,” seemingly empathizing more with the airline than the person trying to communicate in their own language while traveling. I don’t remember it being discussed much more than that. One of my earliest experiences in this industry was this one—with a roomful of editors in agreement. I was young then, so it was new to me, but today, this does seem to demonstrate the default in American newsrooms: that it is not instinctual for most newsrooms to empathize with people they perceive to be practicing Muslims. I am a practicing Muslim and, in newsrooms, the battle for many of us is between practicing in a way that feels authentic to each of us versus being palatable to others. This translates to newswriting; you cannot truthfully cover a community that you instinctually find “spooky.”
The longer you work in a newsroom, the more you can see the tools and strategies both reporters and editors have to prioritize some stories and issues over others. Coverage depends heavily on which communities of your city your newsroom can empathize with. It is clear what a publication’s priorities are based on which stories editors build teams for, which stories the audience team is asked to promote, which stories reporters get lots of time to explore, which topics are seen as newsworthy and which are not, based on who buys your newspaper, which reporters are encouraged to “make an impact” and which are cautioned about having biases. This happens, I’m sure, at most newsrooms and, in every newsroom I’ve worked at, I don’t think I was alone as I struggled through understanding some of these decisions.
I remember coming to a newsroom with a story pitch about a federal program that targets primarily Black and brown Muslim youth; the stated purpose of the program is to prevent extremism from taking root and it has a negative reputation in Muslim communities, and in Black, brown and Arab communities in general, for many different reasons. I did a lot of research for this story; I had a box of documents and funding data, and I interviewed experts and activists who had worked on this issue. The Chicago counterpart of this program, though it had gotten federal funding, had done very little actual work with that funding at the time, which I thought was another wild aspect of this story. I was told that, because I had no on-the-ground sources—people or families who had actually been targeted by this program—the story wouldn’t move forward past the first draft. I was glad to see that the issue was investigated a year later by another Chicago publication, and two excellent reporters who did some robust documents-based reporting.
I thought for a long time about what had happened. It took me a while to understand that I had pitched an investigative story, and there was an alternate scenario, maybe in a more resource-laden newsroom, where someone with more experience than me at the time could recognize that, and could help shape the story to be an effective, documents-based investigation. As newsrooms struggle with having fewer people taking on more, I hope this translates to a variety of reporters and editors being supported to pitch different kinds of stories, not just the stories they are seen to be good at—what I want is to see more reporters with a variety of backgrounds leading investigations that are important to the people they know, more reporters building datasets that don’t exist or aren’t public yet, and more reporters digging into policies that affect communities who have traditionally been ignored.
Looking back over the years since you started in this work, how have you seen the field change? How does it need to keep changing?
I feel I have seen trust in smaller and more specific news organizations grow, and I’m excited to see how the people who write for these organizations carry this responsibility. Places like South Side Weekly, the Chicago Reader, Block Club Chicago are already doing work I’m impressed with and grateful to see. I hope to see an increase in young journalists looking for proof of thoughtful and intentional community coverage from organizations they are considering working for. I hope to see less of a reliance on proximity and access to power in news organizations in general.
As you move into teaching, what are the hopes you have for the students you’ll be working with?
I am someone who has benefited from some excellent journalism professors and mentors, and I am acutely aware, and slightly afraid, of the responsibility I am taking on in trying to teach students. No matter the subject matter, teaching and mentoring young folks is a privilege and a trust, and I hope to never take this for granted.
My hope for journalism students today is the same as my hope for anyone working in a newsroom: I hope we can collectively learn how to tell the truth of what is happening, even when it doesn’t fit with the narrative given to us by our own government or even our own publication’s archives. I hope we can apply this ideal to every community that we cover, not just the ones we find most sympathetic. As a data and documents professor, I want to make sure that students know how to work with the data and tools made available to them, but I also want to spend time talking about why certain datasets are not made available to them, and how tools can be used to hinder the availability of certain data (hello, government PDFs!). I want to make sure that we professors are instilling into data journalism students the confidence that they are, indeed, “real” reporters, and that no one should be telling them otherwise.
Particularly for students of color, I hope to be able to be honest with them about the newsrooms they will be entering and the battles they may have to fight to tell the stories of underreported communities. I hope that being clear about the reality of our industry will equip them with what they need to enter it and find ways to protect themselves in it.
How did you decide it was time to leave the newsroom? What did that process look like for you?
I have known for a long time that I want to cover issues having to do with civil liberties and Muslim communities. There are lots of stories around the country that fall within this realm and, mostly, I don’t want to be constrained by location anymore.
When I applied for this position, I had just come off of several months of very, very difficult prison-related COVID reporting. In February, my grandmother, who lived with my parents about 30 minutes away, passed away. Leaving Chicago became a more tangible option after that. Had she stuck around, I’m not sure I would have wanted to move to a different state.
The move to New York—out of newsrooms but not out of writing, reporting and working with data—was simultaneously completely bananas and also, newly plausible.
Can you envision yourself returning to the newsroom full-time?
There are specific newsroom roles that I think would allow the kind of growth and support I am looking for. In the few months I’ve spent not working in a newsroom environment, my thinking and processing is slower and allowed to be intentional, my relationship to Twitter is healthier, I feel less often like there are constantly emergencies around me. All of this helps me to zoom in on the topics I do want to read and write about.
In many ways, the split position I held at the Tribune is not dissimilar from my new position as an assistant professor; I am required to think about data and understand it well, and I am required to write about the topics I care about. I continue publishing, but I’m not constrained by location or publication. Right now, it’s very difficult to envision returning to a newsroom in a permanent way, though I’m excited to work with specific editors as a freelancer. There are also non-newswriting opportunities that academics are able to pursue—researching with other academics, writing with activists on the ground, more personal pieces for niche publications, data analysis projects for specific topics. I’m excited about all of these being newly open to me.
What would a healthy, responsive journalism organization look like in 2021? What’s stopping us from getting there?
Teju Cole wrote an essay for The Atlantic in 2012 called “The White-Savior Industrial Complex.” He writes about the idea of “thinking constellationally,” which he describes as seeing the patterns behind disasters, seeing the why and how behind the what. In that essay, which is about the viral “Kony 2012” short documentary (which was, itself, heavily criticized), he condemns American media’s tendency to simplify narratives to be palatable to the reader and to gloss over the fact that global disasters we cover are often the consequences of our own government’s foreign policy. He writes, “Let us begin our activism right here: with the money-driven villainy at the heart of American foreign policy. To do this would be to give up the illusion that the sentimental need to ‘make a difference’ trumps all other considerations.”
Better, deeper and, most importantly, more truthful journalism can happen if all of us are allowed, encouraged and taught how to think constellationally, especially those of us who are American. I want more of us, myself included and at the top of the list, to learn how to carefully and honestly question what we’re told by our various authorities, including our government, especially when doing that might make us feel uncomfortable. I want more newsroom leaders to be intellectually based in history and context, rather than one nation’s self-defined narrative, and to promote this worldview in their reporters. I want to see journalism designed in a way that supports the longer and deeper view of each situation.
I don’t think there is any way to do this without giving each person who works on the editorial side of any newsroom more time to do their actual job, which is to develop an ever-expanding knowledge about the goings-on of the wider world. This likely requires a shift away from metrics-based decision-making in newsrooms, which is a shift to a different kind of business model. I think Chicago has newsrooms that are trying a different way of doing things and I hope those of us in the industry will support these efforts.
Nausheen began her journalism career in middle school as a newsletter reporter. Over the next several years, she spent time at Newsweek International, the Huffington Post, Oakland North, the Chicago Sun-Times, and, most recently, at the Chicago Tribune, working on data projects and reporting on Muslim communities. In 2021, she joined Syracuse University as an assistant professor of journalism.