Editor’s note: Agya Aning was assigned last summer to report from his home in Phoenix for the Milwaukee (Wis.) Journal Sentinel, a Gannett-owned newspaper. As part of that experience, Agya participated in a mentoring pilot program offered by Gannett and the Freedom Forum’s Chips Quinn Scholars Program for Diversity in Journalism. The CQS program has a long history of providing mentorship to the students it has placed in summer internships. Agya, who wrote in a Poynter story about the challenges of working remotely, elaborates here on his partnership with Khristopher Brooks (2006), one of 10 CQS alumni who mentored about two dozen Gannett interns.
A touchstone in unusual times
by Agya K. Aning
I didn’t really want another journalism mentor, to be honest.
After my graduate journalism program at Arizona State University went remote in March, administrators were kind enough to set up one-on-one mentorships for their graduate students. I was paired with my narrative writing professor, Fernanda Santos, and I soon gained another coach in Jim Nelson, my editor during my internship at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last summer. On top of that, my previous professors urged their students to reach out anytime.
Yet another mentor came my way through the Freedom Forum’s Chips Quinn Scholars Program for Diversity in Journalism (CQS) and Gannett, the parent company of the Journal Sentinel. Gannett kept its commitment to the summer interns it had hired before the coronavirus pandemic flipped things upside down. We learned, however, that we would spend the summer working from the safety of our homes instead of our newsrooms. For some of us, including me, that meant reporting on cities we’d never been to.
To further support us in our remote work, the CQS-Gannett mentoring program matched interns who were embarking on their earliest newsroom experiences with CQS alumni who were seasoned journalists.
The program paired me, a Black man, with another Black man, Khristopher “Brooks” Brooks, a business reporter for CBS MoneyWatch. There aren’t too many of us in business reporting, or even in journalism for that matter, so this arrangement was, in a word — nice.
Throughout the summer, Brooks shared his hard-earned wisdom in our twice-monthly meetings. (We were supposed to meet weekly, but I kept getting swamped.) He helped me think through a story I did on coronavirus-related bankruptcies because he was looking into them at the same time. He recommended that I try to strike a 50-50 balance between producing my own stories and handling assignments from editors. I came nowhere close to achieving that balance during my internship, but it was nice having that goal to strive toward.
We also just chatted about things like getting more Black journalists to try their hands at business reporting and whether virtual journalism conferences are worth attending.
Most important, Brooks offered advice on my looming job search. I had recently found myself wanting to do more contentious forms of reporting, and he suggested asking hiring managers if there were any opportunities for feather-ruffling. If I wasn’t interested in a particular job, he said, I should tell an employer why and perhaps they would be willing to accommodate me. Also, don’t get too hung up on job titles, he said. And if an application doesn’t explicitly state the number of clips to include, send five to seven.
Most recently, Brooks gave me extremely helpful — and hilariously blunt — feedback on my resume, with statements about some of its content that repeatedly included the phrase “nobody cares.”
While nothing can replace the hustle and bustle of a socially un-distanced newsroom, my Zoom-enabled relationship with Brooks provided much-needed connection. Although our formal arrangement is over, I still have someone I can go to for advice, someone who has been exactly where I am now. And to think I didn’t want another mentor.