The Thrill of Telling Real Stories, A Report from a Journalist by Katya Cengel

8896956882_5e5a5e465b_nToday we welcome back our guest columnist, Katya Cengel. Katya discusses with us the thrill of telling real stories. Enjoy!


The day the Supreme Court was scheduled to rule on two important gay marriage cases I arrived at the summer journalism program where I was working ready to teach. I knew a historic decision was about to be made, but after almost two decades in the news business I no longer got worked up about such things. The Supreme Court would rule and people would either protest or party, a story would be written and that was that. I was focused on other things: teaching my class, my next big story, the story I still needed to edit.

But when I arrived at the Stanford University campus where the high school students I was working with were staying, I found plans had changed. The students had been up most of the night planning coverage. There would be no class that day. Instead the students had set up a strategy on how to cover the court rulings. Half of them were already headed to San Francisco to get reaction, the other half were monitoring laptops and iPads.

It didn’t matter to them that thousands of prestigious news outlets were already covering the story. They didn’t waste time worrying about the fact that they were not writing for a well known publication with a proven readership. They wanted to report the story and that was all that mattered to them. With their instructors helping them they created a website that offered live coverage of the unfolding story. They called it 1day1story ( and immediately set to work compiling articles, videos, twitter posts and statistics.

I was supposed to help them. Instead I found myself watching as they scrambled to post stories, report from the street and write articles. Trying to keep up with them I was reminded of the excitement of the chase, the pure thrill of reporting.

I still get excited about stories. Reporting from Haiti was amazing. The first piece I did for National Geographic was thrilling. Tight deadlines are challenging. But in those cases it isn’t so much the story that I am excited about as the details: the exotic location, the prestigious publication, the stressful deadline.

These high school students were thrilled by the real story unfolding in front of them. They were using technology that didn’t exist when I first entered the field, but the message they showed me was simpler. They reminded me why I had chosen the profession — the thrill of reporting and telling stories. The technology used to tell it, the publication that would run it, those were all distractions. It was the story that mattered.

This fall I will be teaching a Journalism Workshop Course at U.C. Berkeley Extension ( and a Cross Cultural Reporting Course (


Katya Cengel has written about everything from retired dancing bears in Bulgaria to the world’s largest machine gun shoot in Kentucky. She spent half a decade reporting from the former Soviet Union for English language newspapers and the San Francisco ChronicleWall Street Journal, and Marie Claire. She has reported from Africa, India, Europe, the Middle East and Haiti, and spent eight years as a writer at the Louisville Courier-Journal. Katya didn’t have to travel far for her latest story for National Geographic. More at her site: On Facebook: Katya Cengel. On Twitter @kcengel.


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