Interview with New York Times journalist and alumni, Aurelien Breeden

[find out more about Safia Southey’s column, “the Politics of Art”]

Aurelien Breeden is a reporter at The New York Times Paris bureau, where he covers France. He has reported on some the worst terrorist attacks to hit the country, including those in January and November 2015, and on the dismantling of one of Europe’s largest migrant camps in Calais. He has written on burkini bans on the French Riviera, the crash of a Germanwings flight in the Alps, and the secrets lying underneath the city of Paris. More recently, he has been covering one of the most tumultuous presidential campaigns in modern French history. He joined the Paris bureau in 2014, after graduating a year earlier from Sciences Po university in Paris with a dual master’s degree in journalism and international affairs. He has dual Franco-American citizenship and grew up a Foreign Service brat before settling in Paris.

How and why did you decide to pursue journalism?
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when and where I decided to pursue a career in journalism, but my background certainly helped. I am Franco-American and my family moved around a lot when I was young because my father was a diplomat, which exposed me to multiple places, cultures and languages. That certainly helped foster curiosity for all the stories to tell that are out there in the world.

But I didn’t decide to become a journalist until my time at Sciences Po.

How do you think your dual degree with Sciences Po has impacted your work and career path?

I think the dual degree helps a lot if you are considering a career in international journalism – it combines practical journalism workshops at the J-school with traditional academic classes at PSIA, which does a good job of giving you concrete journalism skills while also keeping you attuned to the bigger picture. The dual degree is definitely a plus if you are interested in working for English news outlets, because most if not all of the professors on the journalism side are English-speaking and work or have worked for anglophone news outlets. They also tend to teach a more Anglo-Saxon style of journalism, which definitely helps if that’s what you are interested in pursuing.

How do you believe journalism is changing?

That’s a big one ! There’s no question journalism is changing. Even as someone who has only been in journalism for a handful of years, I can tell things have changed a lot in the past decade. On the business side, people are still figuring out how to make money in the digital era. Some have it figured out – as a leading U.S. paper with a global reputation, the NYT is in a unique position to make its paywall strategy work – but I think it’s still very unclear how smaller or mid-sized papers are going to survive, especially on the local level. The craft of journalism is changing as well: we are all learning how to use new digital tools, how to better integrate our written word stories with visuals, how to use new story formats to attract readers. But I think that the important thing to remember is that the fundamentals of journalism have not changed and won’t change. Regardless of the tools or of the format, it involves going out into the world, asking questions, giving a voice to those who are rarely heard and challenging those in positions of power.

The qualities that make a good journalist – rigor, curiosity, honesty, doggedness, and more – are timeless.

What is the most interesting topic you have reported on?

Another tough one. Being a foreign news reporter means your beat is very wide-ranging – an entire country, sometimes a whole region – and you get to cover a lot of different topics. To me, the most interesting stories have always been the ones that took me to a specific place – the Paris catacombs, Ventimiglia, Lyon, Concarneau. Going somewhere, talking to people and talking in the scenes, sights and smells is always more interesting than writing up a news story from your desk !

Do you prefer covering political or economic stories? Why?
I have more experience covering politics than I do covering business, so I would have to say the former, out of habit more than preference. The NYT’s business desk has its own correspondents abroad, so the Foreign desk tends not to cover too many economic or financial stories, but it happens – for instance, I recently wrote about a mini butter shortage that struck France this fall. We do a lot more political coverage – especially over the past year, with the presidential and legislative elections.

What advice do you have for students who are interested in journalism? Do you feel that journalism will be the same when we will be getting involved in it in the coming years?

Like I was saying above, journalism won’t be the same in the coming years – there will be changes in technology, changes in the business model – but the fundamentals of what makes good journalism will remain untouched. Which is why one of the pieces of advice I have for young journalists is to be wary of fads or trends that are regularly touted as the new solution to all of journalism’s ills – one day journalists are all supposed to become multimedia one-man-bands who shoot, write and film, the next day every single reporter is supposed to learn how to code. There are nuggets of truth in those trends – yes, journalists need to be more familiar with other forms of reporting in the digital age, yes, a good grasp of coding can help you perform specific types of reporting, like working with databases. But they are not absolute solutions, and they shouldn’t guide each and every one of your career choices. My advice is to learn and work on the fundamentals (sourcing, interviewing, writing, editing), find a beat you are particularly interested in that you can use to hone those skills. Find writing you enjoy and try to understand why it works for you. Read a lot. One of the advantages of the Internet is that you have a multitude of avenues (blogging, social media) where you can showcase your writing and reporting: use those – and your internships – to accumulate clips. Finally, keep in mind that while journalism schools are helpful – mostly by bringing you in contact with professionals who can later help you find jobs or internships – they are not an absolute prerequisite.

Journalism is a craft: what matters is less the degree that you hold than the work you produce.

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