A Conversation with JCU Alumna and New York Times Staff Writer Tariro Mzezewa

“It was during my first journalism course at JCU with Professor Judy Bachrach that I first thought, ‘this is what I want to be doing with my life,’” JCU alumna Tariro Mzezewa told a group of students on Monday, December 2.

Sponsored by the Department of Communications and moderated by Professor Elizabeth Macias Gutierrez, Tariro’s talk took the form of an informal conversation and Q&A with students interested in journalism. She discussed many topics ranging from her education to her experience working for various media outlets to the role of journalism today.

Tariro Mzezewa

Tariro Mzezewa

Born in Zimbabwe and raised in the Washington, D.C. area, Tariro graduated from JCU in 2014 with a double major in Communications and Political Science before going on to earn an M.A. from the Columbia School of Journalism. During her time at JCU, Tariro was editor-in-chief of JCU’s student newspaper The Matthew as well as an active member of STAND and the Queer Alliance.

Tariro joined the New York Times as an editorial assistant to the Op-Ed columnists Roger Cohen and David Leonhardt in 2016, and a year later was promoted to staff editor on Opinion’s web team. She has written viral stories about the downfall of the Victoria’s Secret empire, the star-making machinery behind the Aperol Spritz and covered the Met Gala for the Style section. In the Opinion pages, she has tackled issues of race, immigration, and culture. In her current role as staff travel reporter, she covers all things travel from breaking hurricane news to long features about the ways travel intersects with culture, tech, and style.

Pre-reporting and fact-checking
As editorial assistant, Tariro’s job consisted mainly of pre-reporting, suggesting ideas to columnists, and getting everything set up so her bosses could write their stories. “Once the story was written, my job was to do fact-checking. I cannot stress enough how important this is. If a story goes viral with a mistake in it, you can try to rectify it but the correction often will not go viral.”

Tariro told students that while at Columbia she had to try her hand at different types of journalism, from print to radio to TV, “but no matter what kind of journalism you end up working in, you will always need to be a good writer.” She also stressed the importance of reading as much as possible. “Read everything you can get your hands on since not only will it give you ideas for stories, it will help you to become a better writer,” said Tariro.

Writing and storytelling
While writing skills are fundamental, journalists need to develop a variety of storytelling skills, explained Tariro. ”The way people get stories has evolved in recent years so being a good writer is not enough, you need to be able to do video and photography as well. And of course, you need to use social media effectively to share your stories.”

Regarding social media, Tariro also warned students that they need to get used to the fact that people feel free to say things online that they would never say in person. For example, in 2017 Tariro wrote a story about a family of immigrants from Cameroon whose three daughters were accepted to Ivy League schools. “I was shocked at the nasty comments that I received, people saying that the family should go back to their country, that I should go back to mine. You need to develop a thick skin and not let it get to you.”

Standing out from the crowd
A student asked, “With so many people interested in journalism today, how can you distinguish yourself?” Tariro answered, “You have to showcase your writing, so when you are first starting out you can submit clips of what you’ve written for classes or for the school newspaper. Talk to your journalism professors at JCU and ask them how you can improve your stories.”

Tariro also encouraged students to contact well-known journalists to ask for advice. “Most people’s email addresses are public, so try to connect with reporters you admire. The worst thing that can happen is that you’ll be ignored but you just might get an answer that provides some useful information. Reach out and pitch ideas for stories, ask if they know of any opportunities for free-lancers.”

Curiosity and tenacity
When asked what kind of qualities a reporter needs to be successful, Tariro answered, “You need to be curious and open because you never know where a good story is going to come from. Being detail-oriented is also very important since you need to be able to describe things. I’m not sure if it’s something you are born with but it’s certainly a muscle you can develop. And you need to be tenacious because people will dodge you, so you need to keep trying and not take no for an answer.”