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Graduate tear-gassed in Ferguson, Missouri

UA graduate Alan Blinder has been covering the crisis in Ferguson, Missouri over the last several weeks. Photo Courtesy of Alan Binder

Samuel Yang

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When Alan Blinder, a 2011 UA graduate now working at the Atlanta bureau of The New York Times, first met Jennifer Greer, then chair of the journalism department, he was a pre-med student.

“I’m supposed to be at my chemistry lab right now but I’m not there,” he told her. “I have credentials for the presidential debate at Ole Miss.”

Blinder, who walked into the journalism office as a freshman in the fall of 2008, had volunteered to be the stringer for a political blogger in Atlanta. Of his own accord, he contacted the White House Press Office and procured his own press credentials.

“It just kind of blew me away,” said Greer, now associate provost for administration. “My advice to him was, if that’s the kind of person you are, that you’re going to go out and get your own press credentials … you don’t belong in pre-med, you belong in journalism.”

Blinder covered the presidential debate and since then has worked for the Associated Press, The Washington Examiner, and currently works as a reporter for the Atlanta bureau for The New York Times.

“It was so clear what his calling was,” Greer said. “I’m glad he reached that same conclusion.”

The same qualities that impressed Greer at their first meeting – his boldness, for one – make him successful as a journalist, she said.

“He’s an old-school journalist,” she said. “He’s not a BuzzFeed-type journalist. He’s not Mr. Compiler. That’s just not where his calling is. His calling is shoes on the ground, leather on the ground, going out, meeting people, talking to people, face-to-face and kind of digging for angles – that kind of romantic notion of journalism that I think we all have about the glorious past of old newspapers.”

When riots broke out in Ferguson, Missouri, over the shooting of Michael Brown, Blinder had his feet on the ground, among the riots, searching for the story. Tensions reached a boiling point while Blinder was present, and he was tear gassed along with the rioters.

“There’s a drive to get the story, to understand,” Blinder said of working amidst the tension in Ferguson. “In this particular instance, you had a series of violent confrontations between the police and demonstrators in the middle of suburban St. Louis. This is not a story that is a world away.”

The Atlanta bureau consists of nine states in the deep South, with Missouri briefly added by necessity. Blinder said there are tough questions to be asked about the rapidly growing region.

“How does that growth affect quality of life here? Quality of education? Quality of healthcare? Quality of any number of issues?” he said. “We’re always on the lookout for stories that help us to understand this patch of America a little bit better, that help us understand the religious and cultural fabrics of the South.”

But there’s a balance to be had, he said, between those stories and ones like “The Science in a Twinkle of Nighttime in the South,” which ran on Aug. 14, about scientists and laymen working together to count fireflies in South Carolina.

“You get something like that, that just tells us something about the world around us, that is not a story that’s a breaking news story,” he said. “I think those stories where you take a step back can be equally important.”

Blinder, an Atlanta native, first encountered journalism while watching CNN at his grandmother’s Mississippi home.

“I think I was always drawn to telling stories and understanding why people do the things that they do,” he said. “I was always drawn to understanding a little bit more of the world around me.”

While Blinder ultimately chose journalism, his time at The University of Alabama included understanding more about everything from political science, his other major, to pediatric strokes. He co-founded and directed the Pediatric Stroke Initiative to advocate for education and research during his time at the University.

Jacqueline Morgan, associate dean of the Honors College where Blinder was a Fellow and Ambassador, said Blinder’s formal contributions were matched by his informal contributions in bringing diverse groups together in conversation. The same qualities that helped him succeed in journalism marked his work in the Black Belt and on campus, she said.

“Alan was willing to go walk in other people’s shoes to figure out what their side looked like,” she said.

Genuine motivation for improvement, she said, is behind his coverage of tragedy, as well as his work with a troubled area that he sought to portray.

“I think he has this ability to as a journalist look at the darker side of human nature with the hope and the goal of encouraging us to be better people,” she said. “A story is not simply a story to him.”

After three years, which included time as an editor at The Crimson White, Blinder’s own academic story ended with a twist. Only ten days before his graduation, Tuscaloosa was hit by an EF4 tornado. That morning, he had signed a contract to freelance with the Associated Press.

“I ended up finishing up my college career working as a freelancer everyday for the AP on the Tuscaloosa tornado,” he said. “That was a very important experience, a formative experience for me, in terms of how to write and report breaking news for a very large audience.”

Blinder worked at papers in Louisiana and then Washington, DC, covering statehouses and city councils, and in June 2013 he went to The New York Times.

Blinder said he views every day at The Times as a privilege.

“I view it as an enormous privilege when people allow us into their lives and tell us a little bit about what drives them, what excites them, what saddens them,” he said. “People don’t have to talk to reporters. I consider it a privilege when people are willing to share a little bit of their lives with us.”

Exactly which lives and glimpses that will be, Blinder said, depends on the news.

“I was supposed to be in Arkansas this week working on some stories, and then I found myself in Missouri,” he said. “In journalism, even the best-laid plans sometimes go astray. It’s kind of hard to tell exactly what we’ll be pursuing down the road.”

Greer said his facility with everything from breaking news to feature writing make him a utility player in the newsroom. But after hearing him flex his public speaking skills at a conference, she found herself joking about being his agent.

“He said he had to win his Pulitzer first,” she said.

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Graduate tear-gassed in Ferguson, Missouri