For reporter Basil John ‘16, Hurricane Florence was more than just national news.
After covering the storm, John learned that his apartment and many of his possessions had been destroyed. But even through the devastation, he continued his coverage of the storm.
Dedication like John’s does not go unnoticed. Only two years after graduating, the School of Journalism alum has already reported on major news, like Florence. Now, he’s moving his career to the next level, as he embarks on a new journey as a reporter for WRIC in Richmond, VA.
But no matter how far John’s journey takes him from Stony Brook, he stays close to the School of Journalism, keeping in touch with his mentors along the way.
What’s the biggest thing people don’t realize about what it’s like to cover a hurricane?
So many people think that reporters are just putting themselves out there for the fun of it. I like to consider journalists the second line of emergency response. You have your police officers, the fire department, and emergency response, but the next line is the journalists who are trying to inform the public about what’s happening. The reason we put ourselves out there is so that people can see the conditions, but at the same time we’re not trying to put ourselves in danger. We’re trying to provide you with the understanding of what these conditions are like and then getting into as safe a place as possible.
Part of your work on the storm was covering the impact that it’s had on your own community. How did the personal element of this affect your reporting?
Man, it was different. It’s kind of something you don’t expect. You always try to empathize with what you’re reporting, but this was the first time where I genuinely could sympathize with the people who were affected. I’m part of this community and I’m also part of this large group of people who were displaced by the hurricane. I didn’t have a home to go to once I finished my 24 hour coverage. I had co-workers there for me but I was struggling, while still trying to work. It’s crazy thinking back to it. There were so many people I talked to that couldn’t go home and I could really relate to them. I’ve been a part of major storms before. I was at Stony Brook during Superstorm Sandy, but it’s only now that I really understand that feeling of coming home to your apartment where everything is in shambles and all you can do is cry.
So, what has the aftermath of the storm been like for you?
Right after the storm, it was just hard. Thankfully my co-workers opened their doors to me and I was able to sleep in their homes while I tried to get things into place. That week after was a lot of getting my stuff together, contacting my insurance agency and applying for grants. Meanwhile, I’m still trying to do my job. The weekend after the hurricane, I had plans to fly up to New York and kept those plans, because I had nothing here.
When I finally got into a new apartment, I had a junk removal service come and take a lot of stuff out of the old apartment. Then a moving service came to take what little I did have left to move. I can tell you though, the most satisfying experience is having your own roof over your head. I appreciate what my co-workers did, but I always felt like a burden. You get into your routine, and it’s tough not to be able to follow it. So, having my own roof over my head was really great, even if I only had an air mattress to sleep on at first.
Shortly after the storm, I heard back from a reporting job I had applied to, so it looks like I’ll be moving again.
Where are you heading?
I’ve actually been offered a reporting job in Richmond, Virginia. Today is my last day at my station in Wilmington and then I’ll be moving over the next few days. I’m really excited about these changes.
In only two years since your graduation in 2016, you’ve already covered major news in Hurricane Florence and now you’ve received another exciting job offer. How does that happen? How do you get there?
I graduated in May 2016 and I took a little break over the summer and wanted to enjoy my last summer off. I was applying for jobs, but it was tough. I applied to 40 or 50 stations and I only heard back from three that didn’t really pan out.
I still remember it was the beginning of January and I decided to send out one last application. If I didn’t get a job by January, I was going to reach out to my professors at Stony Brook to see if they could put me in touch with someone. That afternoon, I got an email back from the News Director for WWAY. We did an interview and a week later he called me and asked me if I’d like to move down to Wilmington, NC for a news job. I was just over the moon. I knew the South was very different from New York, but I was really excited. I had two weeks to move down, so I got an apartment and a car and drove 10 hours down. It happened just like that. I’ve learned a lot in my two years here.
You started your journalism career at the Statesman. How did it feel the first time you stepped in front of the camera for a big story?
When I first got to Stony Brook, I always had the intention of being on camera. A good friend of mine at the time was working at the Statesman and he suggested that I join. At first, I didn’t do a lot, but I always gave my opinion. Then, the person in charge of the multimedia section, Nina Lin, approached me and said she liked my sense of humor.
Nina took me out on a Saturday to West Side Dining for my first piece. The core of everything that I knew started from that one weekend, when she took the time to teach me how to do everything. She was actually my first teacher in terms of learning how to use a DSLR and how to use a camera. I was still in introductory courses at that point, I wasn’t using equipment yet, so she really taught me first. She wanted to make a push for video and I was someone who wanted to be on camera, so she gave me the liberty to do that. That’s kind of how I first got introduced to video.
When the Journalism School started their Live Show, I already had some experience in front of the camera because of my time at the Statesman. I was the youngest person on the Live show. As I sophomore, I had not been part of any broadcast classes, but they thought I was pretty good. This led to me working with the Broadcast School on the show, while still working with the Statesman.
Who at Stony Brook or the School of Journalism would you say has played the most important role in your success?
It’s hard to say because there are so many different facets of my life that people had an impact on. In terms of my progression as a broadcast journalist, Professor [Jonathan] Sanders and Professor [Rick] Ricioppo were the ones that I would go to when I was wondering what to try next or how to shoot something. Both of them were and still are really encouraging to this day.
Marcy McGinnis was influential from when I was graduating up until today, because she has been helping me try to get myself out there.
In terms of mental fortitude and support, my two closest friends, Louis Susca and Orni Chowdhury were there for me any time I needed them. Junior year was a really tough year for me, but they picked me up and always told me that I could do it. I had a terrible GPA my Freshman year. I actually failed two classes in my first semester, but Lou sat me down and encouraged me to keep going.
It’s hard to pinpoint one person, because without these people helping me in multiple ways, I honestly would not have been able to get to the point that I’m at now.
What lessons that you learned at Stony Brook – at the Statesman or in the School of Journalism – have proven the most useful in your career?
Always be more than willing to extend a hand to help. In my sophomore year, the seniors were very competitive and I didn’t see as much cooperation among the students. That threw me off because it went against my personality. I always did my best to help people when I could, to team up and to work on something together. Seeing other people succeed and knowing that I had a hand in that was a great feeling. That’s still something that I live by today. Even though I have a set schedule as a reporter, I’ll still stay an extra two or three hours if there’s something that needs to be done. It’s so important. If I didn’t do all that I do, I don’t know if people would have gone out of their way to help me during the hurricane in the way that they did. I try to put others first and that helped me in the end.
What piece of advice would you give to Journalism students looking to follow in your footsteps?
Step out of your comfort zone and be willing to expose yourself to things that are different. This will help you develop, because the more understanding you can be, the better you will be at your job as a reporter.
I’m a guy who was in New York for 22 years of my life when I got a job in Wilmington, NC and it’s very different. I’m used to being in an environment where there are a lot of people that think the same way as I do and now I’m in an area where people have a different mindset. At the same time, though, this does help my reporting, because it helps me to better understand those people.
I’m also in an area now where I’m a minority in minorities. I’m a South Asian guy from New York and there’s not a lot of that down here. Don’t get me wrong though, the South has a lot of great stuff. It’s just very different and in a lot of ways that has helped me. I’m so used to the hustle and bustle of New York. Things are a lot slower here, people really take their time to be kind to one another. You go to these smaller communities and you realize that there are a lot of stories to tell here that you might have missed in a busy, fast-paced environment.
What’s next for you?
I’m starting my new job in Richmond, VA, so I’m going to try to go home to New York more often, now that it’s not so far. My best friend Lou is in Philadelphia, so I can visit him more. I guess for the most part, I’ll be focusing on trying to see the people that I care about so much.
Of course, I’ll want to go back to visit the School of Journalism and say thank you for all of their support. They sent me a care package with Stony Brook apparel after the storm. That was a really tear jerking moment for me.
Besides that, I just want to focus on my reporting and get better at my job a journalist. Long term, I’d like to eventually become a full-time anchor. I’m realistic about it, I know I really need to earn my chops as a reporter first. I was able to anchor on Friday nights in Wilmington, but I know I’ll have to work my way up to that in a bigger environment like Richmond.
If I ever get tired of reporting, I’d like get my Masters and go into teaching, so that I could be the kind of professor that mine were for me. All of my professors, no matter how tough they were on me, were like my family. That became especially clear after the storm.
Basil John ’16 recently Skyped with current School of Journalism students to share the valuable lessons he learned during the storm. Read more.