By Erica Naone
Two recent graduates of the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the Virginia Commonwealth University College of Humanities and Sciences have defied warnings about the death of journalism jobs to find early success. Amir Vera (B.S.’14/MC) and Niki Farahmand (B.S.’14/MC) both landed jobs at world news organization CNN in 2018, Vera as an associate writer and Farahmand as a news producer.
Both say they never expected to work at such a big name so soon after graduation, but that didn’t stop them from aiming high.
Farahmand began sending applications to CNN right after graduation, “just for fun,” not expecting to hear back. In the meantime, she worked for NBC12 in Richmond, Virginia, and KSL 5 TV in Salt Lake City. When she applied for a job at CNN International, a sister channel to CNN that is aimed at the overseas market, Farahmand still saw it as out of reach, but this time, she was hired. “Be annoying,” she says with a laugh. “That’s my lesson.”
Vera was in the process of methodically working his way through the ranks of local and regional newspapers before finding his way to CNN. After graduation, he went to work for The Progress-Index in Petersburg, Virginia, as a staff reporter covering Prince George and Dinwiddie counties. Next, he was an online and breaking news reporter for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Virginia. During that time, Vera won two Virginia Press Association awards, one for an article about the contamination of Stony Creek in Dinwiddie County and another for an investigative piece about housing troubles at Norfolk State University.
A networking triumph fast-tracked his career when he met a managing editor at CNN Digital at the 2017 National Association of Black Journalists convention in New Orleans. “She asked for my resume, and the rest is history,” Vera says.
Early signs of their future success were evident the first time Farahmand and Vera were colleagues, says Marcus Messner, Ph.D., associate director of the Robertson School and associate professor of journalism. He’s referring to his “iPadJournos” mobile and social media reporting class, which Farahmand and Vera worked on during the 2013 Virginia gubernatorial election. Students in the class work with Richmond’s CBS 6 to produce professional-level coverage around a theme.
Messner remembers them both as serious journalists, Farahmand from the broadcast perspective and Vera as a writer. He says that many students need to be coaxed out of a tendency to focus on pleasing the professor. Not so for Farahmand and Vera. “Neither of them were thinking about their grades, they were thinking about the profession, how they could perform as a journalist, how they can get the story and how they can get it published,” Messner says.
They were go getters, he recalls, while also praising their charisma and reporting skills. He credits them as helping to set the standard for future cohorts of iPadJournos.
Working as an iPadJourno “was the first time I truly felt like a real-life reporter,” Farahmand says. “It was thrilling. I remember seeing my name on the CBS site and thinking, this is what I want to do.”
She credits experiences at VCU, especially guest speakers from the industry, as giving her a clear sense of real-world journalism. A visit from an NBC12 news producer made her realize she wanted that job, which involves piecing together a broadcast from a selection of stories, video, soundbites and graphics.
Vera started out covering sports for The Royal News, the newspaper at Prince George (Virginia) High School, because he wanted to get into games for free.
While at VCU, he decided to extend his skills into other areas of coverage. In his classes, he learned tenacity. Vera recalls his powerful desire to interview Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli for Messner’s class, “blowing up his PR people’s phones for weeks and weeks.” When he scored an interview at last, Vera discovered he would have 10 minutes with Cuccinelli.
He and a classmate, Mason Brown (B.S.’14/MC; M.S.’17/B), rushed to the assigned location and wrote two articles from the information they gleaned. “To this day, I attribute my reporting skills to my time at VCU,” Vera says.
When Farahmand was hired at CNN, Vera heard through social media that she would be based in Atlanta, where he also worked. He reached out to catch up over lunch. “Us Rams have to stick together,” he says. “Just knowing that I have somebody there who went through the same schooling and the same experiences as me, it’s really refreshing.”
They don’t see each other much at work, however. Farahmand and Vera are based in different areas of the large organization. Farahmand is typically responsible for producing a minimum of one broadcast every shift and is especially proud of her work on a series of broadcasts covering the Thai soccer team that was trapped in a cave and eventually rescued.
Vera writes multiple articles a day and started with a trial by fire. He was still in training Feb. 14, 2018, when a gunman killed 17 students and staff members and injured 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. In the wake of the tragedy, Vera searched for stories to tell that highlighted the human element, writing about the superintendent, who had just come from a teacher of the year ceremony, and a football coach who shielded students from gunfire. “Our editors like to tell us to pay attention to moments that matter,” he says.
Farahmand and Vera say they are satisfied with their work when they help their audiences connect to the emotion behind a story.
They also emphasize the importance of telling stories accurately and providing audiences with information they can trust. Farahmand says she worried a lot during college about her future in the profession. Now, she’s become confident that there will always be a future, even if it might look different from what she does now.
“In 10 years, there will still be a need for journalists. Whether it’s in the form of reporters, producers, writers, whether there are newspapers, there will always be a need for the truth,” she says.
Farahmand is also aware of her potential impact as part of such a visible organization. “I feel like years from now when I look back at my time at CNN and this time in history, that I had the opportunity to work at such a big network name … it’ll be pretty stunning,” she says.
Vera intersperses coverage of breaking news with long-form investigations, often about racial justice issues such as use of force in police departments. He says a part of him is dazzled when he realizes how many people are reading his articles. “It’s still a thrill to me when I see that Anderson Cooper or Don Lemon tweeted out my story. To me, the reach is the craziest thing so far,” he says.