U.Va. Student, Wagner, Wins New York Times' Internship

December 05, 2007

Dec. 5, 2007 — James A. Wagner, 21, of Springfield, Va., is working hard to be a hard-working journalist.

The fourth-year sociology student at the University of Virginia is one of 20 students nationwide who has been accepted to the New York Times Student Journalist Institute, a 12-day program to be conducted at the University of Arizona Journalism School and sponsored by the Times and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. Reporters from the Times and some of its regional papers will work closely with student writers from Jan. 2 to 13.

"The news business is hard but very important," Wagner said. "One of the things that is essential to human life is to get information."

Wagner started out as a sports writer for the Cavalier Daily and then, two years ago, interned in the Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer's sports department. He said he enjoyed writing sports and the challenge of finding new angles from which to write, since most of the readers already knew the score when they picked up the paper.

Last summer, he migrated to writing news with an internship at the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky., where he covered the disappearance and death of a 4-year-old boy. The victim's parents were from Guatemala. Wagner, whose mother is Nicaraguan, is fluent in Spanish and was able to converse with the parents.

Initially an intern sent out to cover a "cop call," he stayed with the story as the parents' immigration status was explored and the boy was found dead eight days later, stuffed into a garbage bag.

"I had good connections with the family, but I didn't want to seem like I was betraying them," Wagner said of writing the stories. "They never got angry with me. They knew I was just doing my job."

He learned a lot about his craft, including how to manage his emotions. He acknowledged that he got close to the family and let the boy's death affect him.

"I have a soft spot in my heart for little kids, and I thought I was going to break down and cry when I was with the family," he said. "And I had to communicate my feelings to my editor. I'm not a tough person, but I learned you have to serve the story first."

He enjoys writing about crime, he said, "because things are happening. It's not just people talking — there is more action." But he also added that it is "hard not to get desensitized." Wagner said he got through the stress of covering the boy's death by "thinking, praying and talking about my emotions."

William H. Fishback, a senior lecturer in the Department of English who taught Wagner in his newswriting course, predicted Wagner will go far.

"He's a good investigative journalist, like Jimmy Breslin," Fishback said, referring to a Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist retired from New York's Newsday. "He's enthusiastic, thorough and fast. And he likes what he is doing when he is writing a story."

Wagner's editors in Louisville joked with him about putting interns in deep water, but he is glad he had an extreme experience early in his career, to prepare him for some of what can be ahead.

Working with New York Times editors and reporters will offer more preparation. Wagner said he greatly admires the paper and reads it every morning.

"I just need to keep up my end of the bargain," he said. "These are some of the best in the world."

Wagner wants to work at a newspaper when he graduates, but at the same time he is concerned about the future of papers and the Internet. Whatever the medium, he said the stories have to be told.

"It still needs to be done," he said. "Information is important and someone has to hold the government accountable."