REPORTER ALBERT SAMAHA HAS NO PROBLEM GETTING HIS HANDS DIRTY
The internet is a good thing.
If you harbor any doubt, imagine what it would be like if a stack of 50 newspapers from cities across the country was delivered to your front door each and every day. Within a month, you’d drown in newsprint.
“I follow 50 or 60 local papers online,” Albert Samaha ’10 says. “But I only read three or four of them a day. I rotate through. I’ll be like, ‘What’s going on in the Times-Picayune today? What’s happening in the Oakland Tribune or the Philadelphia Inquirer?’”
He’s responding to the most clichéd question that one can possibly ask a writer: “Where do you get your story ideas?” “I have a lot of Google alerts, keywords like ‘prosecutorial misconduct’ and ‘police brutality.’ And then I do cold calls. One of the challenges of being a national reporter is developing sources, so I’ve learned to apply the skills I learned as a local reporter to the process.”
His strategies have worked: At the relatively tender age of 26, Samaha has hit the journalistic mother lode. A criminal justice reporter for BuzzFeed — an internet juggernaut with hundreds of millions of monthly content views — he writes long-form stories that tend to run well over 5,000 words. In the age of memes, listicles and funny cat videos, there’s something reassuringly old school in the notion that a talented writer can make a living via good, old-fashioned storytelling.
“The brass at BuzzFeed cares about making change,” Samaha says, speaking from a soundproof interview room at BuzzFeed News’ New York City office. “They’re very invested in giving me and my colleagues the resources to pursue stories that require much time, effort and money. I think they see the classic vintage lists and funny posts as a way to help subsidize the kind of stuff that I do.”
What he does is remarkable. In story after harrowing story, Samaha digs deep, grabbing the reader and not letting go. “I try to find the gray area of perception between who is a good guy and who is a bad guy,” he says.
His pieces tend not to be light reading: “Don’t Ever Tell Us What You Saw” is a harrowing account of the day a prison bus in Texas carrying 15 men ran off the road. “This is What They Did For Fun: A Modern-Day Lynching” is the heartbreaking tale of the murder of a Mississippi man. The not-so-happily-ever-after story “Exonerated and Out of Prison” explores the struggles of a man trying to make up for lost time.
While the story subjects tend to be grim, Samaha has the sort of storytelling chops that keep readers hooked. “I came to USD interested in journalism,” he says. “But the Gay Talese profile of Joe DiMaggio in the Best American Sportswriting of the 20th Century was my first introduction to literary journalism.” Then a sophomore at USD, he went straight to his faculty advisor, Communications Professor David Sullivan. “’This is exactly what I want to do,’” he recalls saying. “’What do I have to do to be able to write like this?’”
It turned out the answer was simple: Practice. So Samaha did. He wrote for The USD Vista. He did unpaid internships. He wrote for online outlets for free. He wrote and wrote and wrote. After graduating as a communications major, he applied to Columbia University for grad school. By then, he had built up an impressive number of clips.
“I was very, very raw,” he says. “I wrote over-the-top, purple-prosy stuff. But they must have seen some talent, or at least sensed that I had ambition, so they accepted me.” And he made the most of the opportunity.
“I’m very lucky. I’ve found myself in a series of places that have offered me opportunities to do what I love to do.” Right out of grad school, he was accepted for a Village Voice fellowship at the St. Louis, Mo.-based Riverfront Times. From there, he was offered a staff writer position at the SF Weekly in San Francisco, then the venerable Village Voice in New York, before landing at BuzzFeed.
As for what’s next? He’s just fine where he’s at … although Samaha will admit that if the New Yorker or New York Times Magazine wanted to make an offer, he’d take that call. “I just want to keep doing what I’m doing for a wider audience. I just want to make an impact. Who knows? Maybe, just maybe, telling these stories can help effect some kind of change.” — Julene Snyder