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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

An interview with Politico’s Nancy Cook ’00

<st week, I sat down with Carleton Class of 2000 alumnus Nancy Cook, who has been a reporter at Washington, D.C.’s Politico since 2015. There, Nancy has covered the 2016 presidential election extensively, and focuses on recent events at the White House. Read on to hear about her Carleton life, career path and thoughts on being a reporter today.

Remarks have been edited for  length and clarity.

Tell me a little about your career path. When did you know you wanted to go into journalism?

I did write for the Carletonian at Carleton my junior and senior years, and then my senior year, a group of people started the Carl, which I’m told is still around. I was one of the founding editors—there was a group of 12.

So, my senior year, I was an editor on the Carl. I always liked editing and journalism, but never thought of it as a career path. I took a bunch of art history classes. I was really interested in becoming a curator.

After I graduated, I lived in New York and worked in the art world. I realized then that I missed writing, so I applied to Columbia on the advice of other Carleton graduates. I was really interested in fiction writing, and took lots of classes at Carleton, but there I learned that I love reporting. Real life is really interesting—perhaps more interesting to me at this point than fiction.

What was the Carl like when it first started?

Really fun! It was, really, freewheeling. It was run in this office adjacent to the Carletonian office, so it was a mix of people who had been doing the Carletonian for a bunch of years, who wanted to do something a bit more off-beat: people like myself who had been writers for the Carletonian, and then people who weren’t really necessarily into journalism, but were the editors for a fashion page or an art page. It was very much more art-focused than the Carletonian back then. And it was fun, it was like inventing something new.

Did working with the Carl, or more generally your studies at Carleton, prepare you for a career in journalism?

People at Carleton, or people who are attracted to Carleton, tend to really be curious. They’re curious about a lot of things, not just one subject. And that’s very applicable to journalism. One thing I love about journalism is that you’re constantly leaning about new things every day. You’re kind of learning about things on the fly and you need to be analytical, but you also need to call up all these different people and be able to ask them questions and find out information.

The education at Carleton really is quite conducive to becoming a journalist, even though, you know, I didn’t study journalism there and I didn’t get a journalism degree. I was an English major who took a bunch of women’s studies and art history classes. And in hindsight I’m surprised I didn’t think about being a journalist when I was at Carleton, because there were all these things I was interested in there. I just hadn’t hit on that as a career.

What else were you involved with at Carleton besides writing?

I had a radio show my freshman year that was kind of fun, on Saturday afternoons with two girlfriends. I did Ebony [now known as Synchrony]—I’m a terrible dancer. I did that because one of my friends was in it, and she kind of roped me into it.

I played club lacrosse in the spring. I was a new student advisor, and there was also this women’s group I formed. I can’t remember the name of it, but it was mentoring young women from the local middle school.

And then, I also studied abroad and took as many trips as I could. I’ve always loved traveling. I went to India my junior year, I went on the California American studies program my sophomore year, I took an art history class my senior year where we went to Amsterdam and then we went to Spain and studied all these Spanish and Netherlandish painters.

Moving forward in time, tell me about your current position at Politico, where you’ve been for two years. What’s the day-to-day job like?

So, I cover the White House, and it’s just incredibly busy, all the time. Today, for instance, I talked to my editor last night at 10:00, thinking about what the story was going to be today, and then I talked to her today. I got to the office at 9:00. I was going to write a story with a colleague about how the White House was handling the government shutdown, and then in the middle of the day, Congress worked out a deal so that the government wouldn’t shut down.

Covering the White House beat is very tiring because there’s always a ton of news. It’s a very interesting administration. President Trump doesn’t behave in the way that past presidents have. And so, there’s always just a lot of interesting, unexpected things going on. I would say the nature of that unexpectedness is that I work a lot. I worked this weekend, I work a lot at night. There’s constantly things happening. It’s a very hectic job, and very demanding.

What kind of changes have you seen in the news industry, or in how you report, as a result of the current political climate?

I would say that the political climate is so partisan right now that it’s nerve-racking. Reporters for the most part genuinely want to do their job very well, and they really care about being fair and accurate. Because it’s so partisan, on the left and on the right, there are groups and activists that want to try to snare reporters and try to catch them saying something partisan, or catch them doing something that they shouldn’t be. You’re kind of under scrutiny the whole time, and have to be a bit careful. We saw that even with the Washington Post. They broke that story about Roy Moore, and then there was this conservative activist that was trying to sort of spin them.

Reporting has always been hard, and it’s always been very time consuming. I feel like we’re seeing a new level of people trying to target journalists, either upend their work or embarrass them, and there’s also just a ton of criticism. Whenever I go on TV, for instance, I get emails from different people saying ‘I liked what you said,’ or ‘I didn’t like what you said’—you’re just under a microscope right now. And I think that is a bit different given how divided the country is. People hear information entirely differently based on whether you support Trump or you don’t.

Do you have any pieces you’re particularly proud of?

I’m really proud of work that I did with some of my colleagues during the transition. When Trump was first elected, there was a real sense of chaos and a lot of people in Washington weren’t expecting it. A lot of pundits had predicted that Clinton would win. So a lot of newsrooms were caught a bit flat-footed, and I think that myself and some of my colleagues did some really good reporting which turned out to be quite prescient, sort of how the Trump transition was vetting people, how they were hiring people, how they were making policy decisions, how they were handling recent stuff.

What advice might you have to current Carls, like myself, who are hoping to go into journalism?

If you want to become a journalist, you should start doing it now. Anyone at Carleton who wants to become a journalist needs to write for the school newspaper, magazine or the Carl. And then you should apply for internships in journalism, and build a broad experience. You should try to network with former Carleton alums who are in journalism. There’s a bunch of us, people in Washington who have prestigious, interesting jobs.

A lot of people contact me and tell me they want to be a journalist, but they haven’t worked on the Carletonian, and they haven’t had an internship. I feel like if you want to be a journalist you should just generally start doing it. Start practicing it. Because people from other colleges, I’ve noticed, in the Politico newsroom, are really applying with multiple internships on their resume. Journalism, like everything, is not something you waltz into, and so if you’re interested in it you should actually start doing it.

And the cool thing about journalism now is, it used to be much more of a gatekeeper thing. You know, there were only a certain number of spots and a certain number of prestigious publications. The tools to publish now—the barriers to entry are so low. You could start a new publication at Carleton, you could start a blog, you could start a newsletter. You can also just be entrepreneurial and start doing journalism with a group of friends or yourself in an interesting new way. And that can be very useful too.

Just start doing it. You learn along the way, and you just get better.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with me, I appreciate it!

Yeah, no problem!

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