February 21, 2019
Alex Norcia and the Ever Changing Field of Journalism
Alex Norcia’s profile picture on TwitterSource: Alex Norcia | Twitter
Making headlines last summer with articles such as “Can the Pope Go to Jail?” Alex Norcia, a staff writer for VICE with a niche for religion, is no stranger to covering politics or off-beat culture, either.
Norcia is fairly new to reporting, yet he agreed the industry has changed before his very eyes.
VICE is one of the many media outlets following the trend of layoffs, recently letting go about 250 people, according to CNN. Although Norcia wasn’t directly impacted, we recently discussed the ever changing field of journalism and his experience as a journalist via telephone.
In your article “Bandanas” published in The New York Times, you talk about growing up in New Jersey where your grandfather, a former scrap-metal dealer, seemed to be a major influence in your life. Did you ever consider following in his footsteps by going into a similar field?
Short answer is – no. Mainly because I wanted to leave New Jersey.
I was in New Jersey as I graduated college and I did go back to work on the scrap yard for three months. I thought, “No fucking way do I want to do this.” Hanging out with my uncle was fine. I just didn’t want to [work on the scrap yard].
Then I went to Boston University.
Basically, I knew someone who worked at CBS News and they got me a job as a page. I don’t know if you’re familiar with 30 Rock, but it’s sort of what Kenneth does – talking to the audience and doing menial tests. I did that for about six months. The pay wasn’t very good and it was also kind of terrible in its own way.
Then I got a job as an assistant at The New York Times. That changed my path a bit, too. I was there for two years.
Then I became a copy editor at VICE because I was good with words. Slowly I realized that I actually wanted to report, so I moved into the job I have now – which is writing for the website.
All while this was happening, I did other side hustles. I blogged, I edited a literary magazine, I freelanced, I wrote for Salon. It slowly built on itself and I’ve met a lot of people here who have told me the same thing. We kinda bumbled around.
I mean, you do get incredibly lucky, too. Luck has a lot to do with it, if you’re at the right place at the right time.
How would you say your experience as a staff writer differs from your previous position as a copy editor?
Systemically, it’s different.
[As a copy editor] I’d see these print pieces when they were close to final. It was a matter of making sure they were logically, factually correct, and grammatically correct.
I’d read the website too a little bit, due to the sheer volume of it. It was primarily just reading features, columns, things like that. It was essentially line editing.
I’ve had this job as an official staff [writer] for about a year. It’s totally different. Now it’s a lot of me pitching and a lot of people telling me what to do. It’s way more engaging.
I go in now and I kinda am largely left alone in what I want to pursue, but things do get placed on my desk.
Egotistically, too – not that people need to know who I am, but – you’re very much in the shadows [as an editor]. It’s a very silent duty.
The other thing is I just like writing. Reporting felt very much like I was producing a product and not just fixing everybody else’s mistakes.
Editing just wasn’t what I wanted to do, but reporting was. I had a clear path and it was the first time I had actively gone after something I wanted to do.
As a reporter, you cover a wide variety of topics, including the Catholic church. Did you ever think that would be something you would write about?
I didn’t go into the job to write about religion, per say, but I was definitely interested in the Catholic church as an institution and religion at large.
I was in Vermont for two weeks. While I was there, the report in Pennsylvania (I think) came out where [Cardinal Theodore] McCarrick was accused of sexual assault.
[VICE] basically was like, “We need someone to explain what’s happening,” and I said, “Sure.”
They needed someone to do it [at the time] and I suggested that we keep it going. I was also interested in it, quite frankly.
Now I’ve also got allied sources so it’s easier to report what’s going on. Not that I’m in any way a sort of an expert, but it’s nice to have some vague expertise in something.
Another thing is, the church isn’t going anywhere and there are a lot of other things going on in the world that people kind of forget about [the Catholic church], too.
It’s also a very small community. Once I did it, other writers and religion editors reached out. Not that it’s easy, but it was a remarkably responsive community.
You’ve also worked for major media outlets such as The New York Times, CBS News, and the Salon, among others. How would you say the environment differed from one place to another? Are there major differences between working on print vs. digital publications?
I can speak mainly on VICE and The New York Times explicitly.
The short answer is, working at a newspaper is very deadline driven. They always have to put out a paper.
When I was at the Times about three years ago, they were still figuring out how to attract young people or become a sort of digital-esque first publication. There were fewer young people when I was there.
I think that’s changed. My girlfriend actually works there now and there are more 30-year-olds trying to figure things out. When I was there, it was still sort of old newspaper-y and staunch, though it was fading.
VICE’s print mag was different, too. Like the newspaper, it’s just a schedule driven sort of thing. We have to close the magazine and have everything together by a certain date so it has to be done at that time because it has to go to the printer. If it doesn’t go to the printer, it costs a bunch of money because it’s late.
At VICE, it’s more about busting out content. I don’t have any kind of quota. Some people do, but I don’t. Things can get pushed back or you don’t need to necessarily have to have something up at Tuesday by 4 o’clock because it’s going into the paper or anything like that. It’s less hectic in that way and more just figuring out how to coast with the internet.
Digitally, it’s just a little more flexible than print. I also think a lot of people are steering away from print first.
The journalism industry is changing rapidly, especially with the rise of digital media. What are some of the changes you’ve noticed and how have they impacted you directly?
[Laughs] Not directly, because I still have a job.
Basically since the new year, it’s been sort of dire in the industry. We don’t know what’s happening.
I think there are a lot of theories as to why Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, and now VICE have had to lay a lot of people off. It’s just sort of a dark time.
I don’t know if that’s because all of these places started with investors and now the investors are sort of asking for what they were promised and it’s just not happening. Now they have to switch gears and figure out how to make money.
The main change is it’s unstable. No one knows what’s going to happen and all of these tech billionaires are buying up all these websites or publications like Time Magazine. There are some billionaires who bought and will leave them alone, and others who think they can kind of demand turning a profit.
VICE is different from a lot of other places too, because they have a lot of different content. They have a TV channel, TV show on HBO, and all these sorts of things.
However, VICE is getting to the point where it has to be a profit driven enterprise, and I think they’re kind of struggling, like other places, to figure out exactly how to make money without giving up all these other things like the website.
I also think people are just worried about how it’s all going to shake out.
Facebook has changed how the news is presented and I think people are still struggling to adjust to how the news is taken in. They haven’t quite figured out how to monopolize on that yet.
Have you ever gotten into trouble for any of your work as a journalist, for instance with the law, your friends, family, and so on?
No. No one has ever been unexpectedly upset or complained yet, personally.
The only thing I wrote about my family explicitly was that Times Magazine piece [Bandanas], which goes through extensive fact checking.
Going forward, do you have any major goals as a journalist? Are there any places or stories in particular that you hope to cover?
I want to write a book about New Jersey in some capacity, just trying to figure out what exactly that is. I do try to write about New Jersey a lot. I’m kind of fascinated by it.
I do also want to work at a newspaper again, somehow, eventually. I’d like to have more of a beat and go from there. I do want to keep writing.
Then I want what I think most people want: more people to read my shit. Have more of an audience. I think that comes from sort of big, more reportive cases.
That’s another thing. I’d like to have larger features in more publications like Times Magazine or Harper’s Bazaar.
What are some of the news outlets you would like to write for? Would you consider going back and working for The New York Times again?
I wouldn’t go back in any sort of capacity, like being an assistant again, but yes.
[I’d work for] The New York Times, LA Times is hiring a bunch of people and kind of moving forward. The hail mary sort of place [for me] would be The New Yorker. Gotta aim big.
What advice would you give to an aspiring journalist looking to get their foot in the door?
Someone had told me this once, “You ever get a job working on the weekends? Take it, because nobody wants to work on the weekends,” that idea if somebody gives you something, even if the topic is something you don’t know about or it’s a time that you don’t want to be working – those sorts of things – just do it. Fewer people want to do it, so the opportunities are easier. You’ll also get more people’s respect.
Additionally, it’s important to focus on your work.
There are a lot of other distractions. For example, it’s very easy to focus on being Twitter famous than actually doing the work. I still think people care about [your work], even if you don’t hear back from somebody. There are a lot of silent readers out there.
Do you have any final thoughts or anything else you would like to add?
I mean it’s kind of ridiculous for someone to say, “Don’t do this,” but it is long at times. I think the rewards are worth it in the end.
I’ve met a lot of people. Even if they’re not my friends necessarily, I’ve had conversations with a bunch of characters.
It’s fun. Despite how the industry is dying or whatever, it’s still a blast. It beats actually having to work, which I think is relatively true.
It will get better. It’s a very unique time and people are still trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
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