For Anahad O’Connor ’03, New York Times reporter, columnist and author, Thursday’s Ezra Stiles College Master’s Tea was a long-awaited homecoming.
“This is an event we’ve been looking forward to for a long time,” Stiles Master Steven Pitti said before the tea.
O’Connor returned to his former residential college yesterday to share his experiences working in the hallowed Times newsroom. A small crowd of about 20 students came to the master’s house to listen. O’Connor’s career in journalism began in the summer of 1999, before arriving at Yale. The New York City native had already received a New York Times scholarship, a package that included, among other things, an internship at the paper the summer after his senior year of high school.
“I was pretty much at the bottom — the very lowest rung,” O’Connor said.
He described his early days in the office, making photocopies and carrying messages around the building. But he always made a point of showing his interest in writing, and he got his first break that summer, he said.
“I remember finally one day an editor came up to me and said, ‘A lot of reporters are on vacation, we need briefs for the science section,’ ” O’Connor said. “I jumped at the chance. Even though it was a brief, I couldn’t wait.”
“I guess I did a decent job because the next week she asked me to do another one,” he continued.
To the amusement of those in attendance, O’Connor admitted that he arrived at Yale intending to pursue a pre-med track but later switched to psychology. He officially dropped pre-med after taking organic chemistry, he said.
“I realized that I loved writing about science much more than actually being in the lab,” O’Connor told his audience. He began writing for the News the second semester of his freshman year and eventually became a beat writer for the “Science and Techonology” desk.
As the years went by he also moved up the ranks in the Times, whose office he described as “one big family,” becoming a staff reporter in 2004. He has worked not only at the science desk, but also “Metropolitan” and now, “Breaking News.”
“As a reporter, there were some cases that really got to me,” O’Connor said, recounting his first story for the “Breaking News” desk. “That day there was something in politics, a Supreme Court case and a shooting at a campus in Virginia.”
His editor gave him the last one, telling him that two people had been shot. As the day went on and the death toll at Virginia Tech rose, O’Connor said he was dumbstruck.
“It was my first story, and the biggest story of the year,” he said.
Last year O’Connor also became a published author, with the release of “Never Shower in a Thunderstorm: Surprising Facts and Misleading Myths About Our Health and the World We Live In,” a collection of his columns from the science section. The column is called “Really?”, and in it O’Connor presents scientific studies that debunk (or sometimes prove) old wives’ tales.
Do carrots improve your eyesight? Does chicken soup help cure a cold? Is arthritis affected by weather? These are just some of the myths O’Connor has tackled.
O’Connor ended the talk by offering advice to aspiring journalists.
In regards to the subjects of interviews, he said, “They shouldn’t just be someone with information, but a person.”
“Write accurately and authoritatively,” he told the audience. “You just have to be fair, stick to the facts, and you’ll usually have the best outcome.”
Geoffrey Liu ’11 said that during the talk he was impressed by the influence of newspapers, even today.
“It struck me midway through: Newspapers have a lot of power,” he said. “I liked how O’Connor alluded to the ethical dilemmas of factual accuracy, which are going to be so important when people are reading the paper and accepting it as truth.”
Ria Harracksingh ’10 came to the tea because she had read O’Connor’s book.
“I thought it was hilarious, really off-beat,” she said. “I thought [the tea] was great, very informative. It was interesting to find out he was pre-med, that he switched to psychology, and now he’s writing about a whole host of things.”
O’Connor will be sending another book to the publisher this year, as well as a healthy cookbook that he will be publishing with the help of Yale classmate and roommate Dave Lieberman ’03, now a professional chef with a TV show on the Food Network.