Riding the wave: Alumna Tasneem Raja on change and bringing the J-School experience full circle

March 14, 2017

For a lot of journalists, shifting with a shifting industry has been a survival mechanism over the last decade. For Tasneem Raja, a 2010 graduate of the J-School, it’s also been a way to feed an appetite for new challenges.

Raja got her start at alt weeklies, first Philadelphia Weekly and then the Chicago Reader. She talks about those early years as if she’s telling the story of a budding romance, and in a way, she is. The first time she walked the streets of her city and saw her cover story on display in newspaper boxes, she was hooked.

“I fell in love really hard,” she said.

The mid-2000s were the tail end of the good days for a lot of alt weeklies, Raja said, and when the Reader went through rounds of layoffs, she started looking for the next thing. She found it at Berkeley.

The School created its first hyperlocal news sites the year she arrived, and Raja was on the original Oakland North reporting team. Discovering digital was a whole new love affair. When she graduated in 2010, the post-recession media landscape didn’t inspire much optimism, but she had plenty of it anyway. Yes, old models were collapsing, but her feeling was that “if you can stretch your brain around what it means to be in journalism right now, there’s never been a better time.”

After helping launch nonprofit news site The Bay Citizen, “a real boot camp experience in digital-first newsroom development,” she moved on to Mother Jones magazine, where she headed up a hybrid team of developer-designer-reporters. The New York Times’ “Snowfall” and other web-centric marvels were making waves, and Raja’s tiny team was punching above its weight. They created the nation’s first database of mass shootings and an interactive that visualized dark money in politics. They built open-source storytelling tools for other publications to use.

“We felt like pioneers,” said Raja, and their friends in other corners of the journalism world were eager to learn from them and share with them. “It was a really beautiful community experience,” she said.

Then came the itch for something new.

“I had gotten personally and then professionally interested in the raging conversations about race and ethnicity and identity that were starting to bubble up even before Ferguson,” she said. “In my career up to that date, I had sort of a pretty traditional journalist’s idea of what activism meant: We keep it at arm’s length, and anybody with an agenda isn’t to be trusted. I started looking around noticing the appalling lack of representation in our newsrooms, and asking hard questions about what that meant for me, as a woman of color, and the role of journalist in a multicultural society. I wanted to figure out a way of doing more with that thinking and that kind of work.”

That desire propelled Raja into her next job as senior digital editor at NPR’s Code Switch, a team dedicated to reporting on race, ethnicity and culture and how all three connect with politics, health, sports “and every other beat,” she said.

Her big project there was developing a podcast, which launched in May 2016. “The timing could not have been more crucial,” she said. Black Lives Matter was a household name, and the country was headed into what proved to be a historically divisive presidential campaign. In those first few weeks, the podcast tackled the reactions among LGBTQ people of color to the Orlando night club shootings, the portrayal of Asian-Americans in media, and the complicated relationship of Native American veterans with the nation’s flag.

But after six years as a full-time editor, she felt the urge to get back to her reporting roots. She was also eager to live closer to her husband, Quartz data editor Christopher Groskopf, and stepson. That meant another big shift, to Tyler, Texas, a city of about 100,000 an hour and a half east of Dallas.

After a career spent in big-city media markets, Raja said the move has been illuminating. These days, media talent is concentrated in “four of five healthy job markets, while regional journalism has never fully escaped the volatility of the crash.” That situation, she said, isn’t good for the industry, for the country or for journalists.

Still, she said, a freelancer in a regional market can make a great living and have a great life. She’s living that reality now, and writing about it: “I’m carving out a beat about remote work,” she said. “It’s good for democracy.”

It’s also allowing her to chase a new passion project, one that brings her J-School experience full circle. She’s launching a new alt weekly-style community website in her adopted hometown, applying much of what she learned about hyperlocal innovation at Berkeley. And like the School’s news sites, Raja said she wants it to be both a news and culture resource and a workshop for people who want to learn to report.

“I really would love to see more people figuring out ways to take this digital experiment and the failures and successes, and learning what we’ve been gleaning over this past decade and find ways of injecting it into more pockets of the country,” she said. It’s one more way she’s rolling with the changes. “If you’re not able to enjoy riding the waves and enjoy the sand shifting beneath your feet, it’s hard. It’s not as fun, in my experience.”

By Graelyn Brashear (’17)



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