A Knack for Narrative

A Knack for Narrative

Daily Northwestern editor Robert Samuels brings a passion for storytelling to the student newspaper.

Photo by Jerry Lai (WCAS04)

Robert Samuels has been writing stories since age 5, penning novellas and short stories such as “School Time Blues” and a series of tales about Super Might, a “super-hero” who confronts less-than-heroic battles of daily life. By 9 Samuels was poet laureate of Grace Baptist Chapel near his Bronx, N.Y., neighborhood.

“My father is a pretty accomplished singer on the city’s church scene, and so when I was growing up, people always asked me to sing, but I never liked to follow tradition,” Samuels says. “One day, I made an agreement with my pastor that I would not sing but would write poems instead.”

Now Samuels is a senior in the Medill School of Journalism — a place he ended up not out of interest in journalism, but rather as a result of a compromise with his parents that allowed him to “see how far he could go” away from the “easy option” of an East Coast school, Samuels says. “When I got here I was incredibly self-conscious about not having any journalism experience, so I tried doing as much writing as possible. But fiction writing is my secret extracurricular activity — now it’s against the rules.”

As Daily Northwestern editor in chief Samuels separates fact from fiction while still incorporating his love for storytelling. “News stories are still about characters and foreshadowing. You can read things in a newspaper and get taken away by them, and then — snap — they’re real,” says Samuels, who in June was named one of the top 10 college journalists in the country by Scripps Howard Foundation — an accolade accompanied by a $10,000 scholarship.

On location at his St. Petersburg Times Teaching Newspaper internship last winter, Samuels learned about “trying to get all those elements I like about fiction into my journalism,” he says. “I got to play around with a lot of narrative technique.” He profiled an 81-year-old decorated war veteran who never got around to picking up his medals and a nearly blind art teacher with a following of elderly students. “Good journalism is about finding and telling these stories,” Samuels says.

Samuels tries to portray what he considers universal human truths in his own writing, an effort that has won him multiple William Randolph Hearst Foundation journalism awards, including Best Reporting Technique at the National Writing Championships in San Francisco.

The invitation to the competition came during the same week as what Samuels considers his proudest accomplishment yet: Northwestern’s BlackBoard magazine, which he headed from March to November 2004, was chosen in April as the best regional student magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists.

BlackBoard is published with funds from For Members Only, Northwestern’s Black Student Alliance. After more than 30 years of publication, this was the magazine’s first regional award. “At BlackBoard, Robert integrated so many effective changes that are still practiced by the staff,” says former BlackBoard executive editor Ayesha McAdams-Mahmoud (J05), who participated with Samuels in the Kaiser Media Internship in Urban Health Reporting for minority students during the summer. “He has so many great ideas for what journalism should be.”

When Samuels came to the magazine, he initiated a staggered deadline and a mentor system, pairing older editors with younger reporters. He would workshop every single story with the publication staff. “I was tough and believed that people would write to the standard I gave them. There was no longer an excuse for underreporting,” Samuels says.

Now as Daily editor, Samuels, the former cultural affairs reporter and assistant campus editor, spends about 60 hours each week and countless late nights making sure the more than 100 staff members are maximizing their potential.

In efforts to “make people examine life in different and unusual ways,” Samuels initiated changes in Daily coverage during his first quarter as editor in chief last spring. Samuels and Daily public editor Troy Appel, also a Medill senior, examined the paper and found what Samuels calls “coverage schizophrenia,” with too many event stories during the middle of the quarter, too few non-official Evanston sources in city coverage and little coverage of Northwestern’s Latino community. Samuels hopes he can remedy this with more female photographers, more people of color in the newsroom and more interaction between reporters and the people and communities they cover.

“It’s hard for someone outside the Daily to judge what goes on there internally because we just see the finished product,” says Medill professor emeritus Mary Ann Weston (J62, GJ63), who had Samuels in her History and Issues of Journalism class his first year. “But Robert’s been quite innovative, really trying to think about what substantive changes will make the paper better.”

— Kate Johnson (J05)


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