The last time Ali DeFazio graduated, it was in a cap and gown inside St. Ignatius Church. This time, as a final-year graduate student at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, there will be no ceremony, but DeFazio will have something else: the former Foghorn editor in chief will have had her name in the byline of a story published on the front page of The New York Times (NYT).
“This was the intersection of hard work and a lot, a lot, a lot of luck,” DeFazio said to USF’s Arts Reporting and Reviewing class when she visited as a guest speaker. Later, in an interview, she said, “It’s funny, the story wouldn’t have happened if the pandemic hadn’t happened. Not a good time to have a big break, but the big break happened because of the circumstances.”
The story, “For Students at a Lone School in California, Class is Still On,” was published on April 10 — just over one month before DeFazio is due to graduate from journalism school. The opportunity to publish came as a result of a project put together by DeFazio’s professor, David Barstow, who just left the Times last year to teach after 20 years and four Pulitzer Prizes. Barstow approached the Times about a collaboration, and the newspaper agreed to work with Berkeley’s students to increase coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic in California. For final-years like DeFazio, who would normally have been working on their thesis projects at this time, the opportunity to write for the Times became their final project, according to DeFazio’s professor and supervisor Jeremy Rue.
“It’s been an incredible education experience,” Rue said. “It’s also injected a renewed sense of purpose, helping lift morale in a time when it seems there is an endless stream of bad news in society. Before this, many students were feeling stagnant and isolated. Now they’re involved in something meaningful, helping to chronicle probably the biggest story of their lives.”
Rue is one of 17 faculty overseeing teams of two to six students, each of whom has been assigned to cover one of California’s 58 counties. When Rue fell ill in the first two weeks of the project, he appointed DeFazio as the interim group leader. DeFazio’s co-writer on the story, first-year video journalism student Brian Wollitz, approached her when he realized a big story was unfolding in his county as a small school in a rural town refused to close.
Throughout the reporting process, DeFazio got to work with her Pulitzer Prize-winning professors in a whole new capacity.
“It was really fun to work with professors in a professional setting because we were taught by them about what to do when we’re in these situations,” she said. “I’m used to professors editing my stuff, but having professors edit your stuff that could go in the New York Times was just mind-blowing.”
Geeta Anand, a Berkeley professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning former NYT journalist, said this was the aim of the small group format of the project, which she helped organize. “The students are full of passion and energy and creative ideas, but they do not, for the most part, have the years of experience needed to report and write independently for the NYT,” she said in an email. “Having intensive editing and direction from our instructors is key to the students to be able to produce stories of high enough quality to be published in the NYT.”
Working with professors who had extensive experience at the Times, such as Barstow, reassured DeFazio during the high-stakes process. “I was never worried that the feedback he was giving, the Times wouldn’t like. I trusted in his expertise so much,” DeFazio said. “Working with professors made it feel like it was a learning environment which made it okay to ask questions and make mistakes which is a huge, huge plus in the partnership.”
After the story was published, DeFazio received emails from USF professors and students congratulating her. “I was thrilled, but not surprised, to see Ali DeFazio’s byline in the NYT,” Elisabeth Friedman, DeFazio’s former politics major advisor at USF, said. “It’s wonderful that she’s contributing to insightful, fact-based reporting at a time when lives and livelihoods depend on such excellent journalism.”
To her journalism professors, DeFazio said, “it felt like a way of saying ‘thank you, you didn’t waste your time.’”
DeFazio hopes this publication will help her find a job after graduation, but with the COVID-19 pandemic keeping the nation immobilized, job availability is uncertain. “It’s difficult, there’s so many things happening, job postings being taken down, programs being canceled. But at the same time, [there are] new opportunities coming up, there are a lot of summer internships for COVID-19 related reporting that didn’t really exist before,” she said. “A lot is changing so fast.”