Meet the OPC Members: Q&A With Naka Nathaniel

Naka Nathaniel started his journalism career as an intern with The New York Times graphics department in 1995. That same year, he joined the team that started the online edition of The Times. He has traveled all over the world, creating multimedia features for the Web site and working regularly with Times columnist and OPC member Nicholas Kristof. He has been based in New York and Paris, and currently resides in Los Angeles. Bulletin editor Aimee Rinehart spoke with Naka recently via e-mail.

qa_nathaniel.jpgOPC: Did you learn about the Web in journalism classes at the University of Texas?

NAKA NATHANIEL: I learned the bits and pieces of what would become multimedia journalism at the University of Texas, but the notion of Web journalism hadn’t been codified. Austin was a wonderful learning environment. I practiced my first love, print, at the Daily Texan covering cops and courts and then state and city government. I was able to pick up the broadcast skills as part of my academic studies. I learned to edit audio as part of an NPR program that was overseen by Gale Wiley. I learned the camera from Cory Kirk while working at the state capitol covering the first legislative session during George W. Bush’s governorship of Texas. When I was asked what I wanted to do after graduation, I answered “computers and journalism.” This response earned me a dismissive look. The pieces were there — all I needed was for the Internet to arrive and it did roughly six months later.

I spent a week back at UT in November guest lecturing. Rosental Calmon Alves and other members of the UT journalism faculty are building the multimedia program, but they’re struggling to keep up with the changes in journalism. It’s more than ten years on and it’s disappointing to see how a lot of university journalism programs aren’t properly preparing their students. It’s not just Texas, you can say that of just about any school out there. I’m startled at the number of students who are content with learning just print skills and who harbor an aversion to multimedia. The handful of students with serious multimedia skills are the ones getting great jobs at great places. The students who have computer science skills on top of their journalism skills are courted and coveted.

OPC: How did you get to The New York Times Web site?

NATHANIEL: I started at The Times in June 1995 as an intern on the graphics desk. The graphics editor said he liked my print portfolio because I had infographics, charts and maps for the stories I had written. It showed that I wasn’t just a designer or artist and that I could report. That was great for me because I’m not much of an artist. I hadn’t realized the importance of reporting for graphics. I had been doing it because it was helping me tell my stories.

The Web site didn’t exist when I started, but by the end of the summer there was a team starting to lay the groundwork for nytimes.com. Since I had used the Web for some of the graphics reporting, it was natural that I shifted over to work with Bernie Gwertzman and Kevin McKenna. Initially, I worked on @times, which was the NYT on AOL. The site proper wasn’t launched until January 1996. I was excited to be in on something at the beginning.


OPC:
You were one of the first persons from the Web site to travel abroad for the Olympics in Australia in 2000. How did you approach the job?

NATHANIEL: I had been working closely with the sports desk for a couple of years leading up to Sydney so I was excited to be a part of the team. The Times sent a number of reporters, columnists and photographers to the Olympics and the Web site wanted to have someone there to make sure we could take advantage of the opportunity. The kicker was the time difference. There was no way it would’ve worked out as well as it did if we had done everything from New York. I had a great team backing me up in New York and I worked my tail off while I was there. I was once caught sleeping under a desk in the bureau by George Vecsey. I have very warm memories of that time and of my colleagues. As a result, a lot of the early multimedia work on nytimes.com was sports related. I developed relationships with reporters and photographers and they were willing to be participants in the experiment.

OPC: In 2002, you were again a first for the Web newsroom in moving to Paris. How did this move impact your work?


NATHANIEL:
Well, the move to Paris had really nothing to do with expanding the global reach of nytimes.com. My wife, Meredith Artley, left nytimes.com to take over the reins of the Web site of the International Herald Tribune and the folks at nytimes.com were good enough to trust in the plan that we had sketched out. The multimedia work at nytimes.com was really coming into its own at that point and my team was doing some fantastic work in the wake of September 11. Being in Paris meant that I was well positioned to cover the Iraq invasion in 2003. My editor at the time, Len Apcar, was very trusting and encouraged the initiatives we wanted to start.

OPC: You’ve been traveling and reporting with Nicholas Kristof all over the world. How do you create an online companion piece without duplicating his columns?


NATHANIEL:
Nick Kristof and I first started working together during the invasion. We were both working near the entrance to the bureau in Kuwait, so visitors were introduced to “Nick and Naka” shortly after they walked through the door. This drew a number of curious looks from Arabic speakers. Later we were told that pronouncing Nick’s name in Arabic was the same as dropping an F-bomb and saying my name was the past tense version of that obscenity. Knowing that, it only made sense that we should team up. (By the way, in Arabic-speaking countries, he goes by Nicholas and I use Nathaniel.)

We’ve covered a lot of territory together in the past five years. We’ve gone from Alaska to Zimbabwe and visited the Axis of Evil. Nick’s been great at understanding the value of going beyond print to tell stories. We had a lot of early successes especially with the stories of Srey Mom and Srey Neth in Cambodia. The flash presentation that I made brought the story to life. The soft defiance in the girl’s voices and the shrieks of Srey Mom’s family when she returned to her village were beyond description. If anyone could have come close to writing those sounds it would have been Nick. He’s among the preeminent writers of our time. Yet, Nick took a leap and let me tell the story in a way that had never been attempted. This notion of experimentation has carried on as we moved on to video and then to different ventures like “Win a Trip” and “Your Turn to Tell the Story.”
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a bit of duplication. There are a lot of different ways to tell a story and some of the stories that we’re telling are too important to be told in only one way. Our audience should get the story in whatever way is best for them and it doesn’t matter to me if it comes from the column, watching a video, listening to a podcast, seeing it on another news outlet like CNN, having a member of our audience re-tell the tale or even reading it in Nick’s forthcoming book.

OPC: What’s it like to be a guest blogger on nytimes.com while Nicholas Kristof is on leave to write a book?


NATHANIEL:
Being a part of the team that has been filling in for Nick has been a lot of fun. There have been some great topics covered and we hoped to continue elements after Nick returns. It’s nice to be able to tie work from earlier trips to current events. Almost everything is still relevant and it gives folks who didn’t subscribe to TimesSelect a chance to catch up on some great work that they might have missed.

OPC: What’s the editorial process for blogging for nytimes.com?


NATHANIEL:
Everything goes through the NYT editing process. I handle the production on the blog and moderate the comments.

OPC: What gear do you travel with?


NATHANIEL:
My basic kit has included a Mac laptop, a Sony PD-150 video camera, a small digital Leica (I don’t use SLRs any more because I was tired of hearing the clicks in the audio of my video), a couple wireless microphone sets, a tripod, several external hard drives for video storage and if needed a high-speed satellite unit.

My video camera has been a true workhorse, but it’s being retired in favor of a model that shoots hi-definition. I try to travel as light as possible — we’re in a lot of difficult environments and the ability to move quickly is paramount.