Q & A with Antonia Noori Farzan

Antonia Noori Farzan – Submitted photo

Rhode Island news consumers are well-acquainted with your work as a Providence Journal staff writer (and I was honored to work with you when I was there). We’ll get into some depth on that momentarily but let’s start with your background. You are a native Rhode Islander, correct?

Yes! I grew up in Newport and now live in Edgewood. 

When did you become interested in journalism and why? Were you influenced by any mentors? 

Not until after I’d graduated from college in the midst of a recession, worked a series of seasonal and temporary jobs in New Hampshire and then Oregon, and then moved back home while trying to figure out what to do with my life. 

I’d always liked reading newspapers, but didn’t think I had what it took to be a reporter. In 2012, I went to work at the E.A. Sherman Publishing Co., which owned the Newport Daily News, the Newport Mercury and the South County Independent — but as an assistant to the marketing department, not as part of the newsroom.

Even though I’d never aspired to a career in journalism, I ended up getting my start there, thanks to Janine Weisman, who edited the Mercury for more than a decade and transformed it into a free alt-weekly focused on arts, culture, and interviews with interesting people in the community.

Janine was always hunting for stories, so I’d periodically bring random ideas to her, assuming that she’d assign them to a freelancer if she thought they were any good. At one point, though, I suggested a story and she asked me to write it myself. (I think it was about people raising illegal backyard chickens.) 

That started to be a frequent occurrence, and I eventually became a regular contributor. 

I should pause here to note that in 2017, the Shermans sold the papers to GateHouse Media, which, sadly, stopped publishing the Mercury about a year later. (Janine is now the editor of the nonprofit Rhode Island Current, which launched last year.) 

GateHouse later merged with Gannett, which also owns the Providence Journal.

Anyway, to get to the “why”: I’d always enjoyed exploring places where I didn’t belong, and wanted to learn everything possible about the community where I lived. I also knew that I wanted to be a writer. 

It just took me a little while to realize that journalism was a way to do all of that — and that if no one was writing the stories that I wanted to read, I’d need to do it myself. 

[Editor’s note: Rhode Island Current is a publication partner of Ocean State Stories.]

You later attended and graduated from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. What did you do next? 

After graduating from Columbia in 2016, I moved down to Florida for a six-month fellowship with the New Times Broward-Palm Beach New Times, an alt-weekly owned by Voice Media Group and known for longform, magazine-style features. 

That turned into a permanent job at the Phoenix New Times, a sister publication in Arizona where I stayed for about two years. 

It’s no secret that Florida and Arizona are full of great stories. Even though I made $35,000 a year and rarely worked less than a twelve-hour day, I loved getting to write deeply-reported, 5,000-word cover stories. 

I was lucky to have editors who really cared about writing, would sit down with me and take my work apart line by line, and taught me so much about how to craft a narrative that would hook people and make them want to keep reading. 

Sadly, the Broward paper stopped publishing a print edition right around the time that I left (noticing a theme here?) and has mostly been consolidated with the Miami New Times. I’m not sure if they have any dedicated reporters or editors anymore. 

It’s wild to think that two of the papers where I got my start have already disappeared, considering that I’ve only been working as a journalist for about ten years. 

And then you worked at The Washington Post. What was your job there? 

I started out on Morning Mix, meaning that I was part of a small group of desperate young reporters — mostly recruited from alt-weeklies — who worked from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., writing made-to-go-viral (and mostly aggregated) stories as well as any breaking news. 

Jeff Bezos had apparently decided that the Post wasn’t publishing enough stories on its website between 4 a.m. and 7 a.m., which was why this job existed. 

Obviously, I hated it. But I was lucky to have great coworkers, and talented editors who saw an opportunity to teach us how to quickly turn around compelling, well-written stories despite the constraints that come with working overnight.

Anyway, the deal was that if you worked on Morning Mix long enough, you’d get to move to a better job with daylight hours. I ended up as a general assignment reporter on the foreign desk, because that’s where there was an opening while everything else was in flux during the pandemic. 

Everyone I worked in that role with was wonderful… but it was not a great fit. I’m someone who watches local town council meetings for fun, but glazes over with boredom when I have to learn a single fact about the European Union. Unlike many reporters, I’ve never seen the appeal of going overseas as a foreign correspondent, and my dream job at the Post would probably have been something like “New England correspondent.” 

I’d moved back to Rhode Island by then, since everyone in the newsroom was working remotely, and come to the realization that I never wanted to leave. The idea of returning to Washington, D.C. made me feel physically ill. 

Once vaccines became widely available, leadership at the Post made clear that we’d all have to go back to the office sooner or later. At that point, I had already bought a house here in Rhode Island, so I started looking at job listings.

Long story short, that’s how I ended up in the job that I have now. No one was particularly surprised when I quit, and it was one of the best decisions that I’ve ever made in my life. 

Which brings us to today and The Providence Journal.  Can you give us an overview of the kinds of stories you write, and the topics you cover, such as shoreline access?

Officially, my title is “watchdog reporter,” but I took that out of my email signature a long time ago because it freaks people out, and most of the stories that I write aren’t what you’d necessarily consider “watchdog” journalism.

I really struggle when people ask me what my beat is. One reason why I love working in local news is that you can cover pretty much anything that’s relevant to your community, and aren’t necessarily confined to just one specific topic.

I cover a fair amount of politics and policy, but I also write about other stuff like the Rhode Island towns that still have fence viewers, why coffee milk isn’t served in elementary schools anymore, and how one village in Cranston can’t get mail.

If I have to point to one consistent theme, it’s how Rhode Island is changing, often in gradual and barely perceptible ways. 

For instance, one of my favorite stories that I’ve written was about the shrinking number of ethnic social clubs. I’m interested in documenting unsung traditions before they disappear, and understanding the ways in which the local landscape has subtly changed over the course of my life.

Shoreline access, which is something that I’ve covered quite a bit, fits into that theme. A lot of the time, conflicts boil down the fact that locals have grown accustomed to being able to use a certain path or portion of the beach, and are now being told they can’t — often by wealthy new homeowners from other states. 

Growing up in Newport, I spent a lot of time on the Cliff Walk. I came to understand that no matter who you are or how much money you have, people have the right to sit and fish from the rocks in front of your house, or have a picnic there. (It’s not going to tank your property values, either.) 

It was shocking to discover that the “fishermen’s rights” that I’d been taught about as a child weren’t necessarily as clear-cut as I’d thought, and that so much of Rhode Island’s shoreline is off limits to the general public. 

Beach access might sound like a frivolous topic, but the underlying idea is that you have the right to sustain yourself by fishing or clamming — and that everyone who lives here deserves to have free access to a public space where they can exercise, relax, or just enjoy looking at the ocean. 

I love how much Rhode Islanders value that. And I love how, if you spend enough time at any public right-of-way, you’ll encounter an incredible mix of people from so many different backgrounds.  

You are a prominent presence on X, formerly Twitter, account. What role do X and other social media play in journalism? 

I don’t know if I’d call myself a prominent presence! I’m terrible about remembering to promote my work or share my own stories, and basically never break news on Twitter — I pretty much just post random inane commentary about Job Lot or whatever, or snippets of stuff that I’ve read and found interesting. 

That said, I’m very sad about the decline of Twitter, which I refuse to call X. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I’ve found great sources and also made friends on there. 

For me, the main benefit of Twitter is being exposed to perspectives that I wouldn’t necessarily encounter otherwise. I rarely find stories there, but scrolling through my feed gives me a sense of what smart, informed people (with a phenomenally wide range of views!) are talking about and care about. 

Let’s hear a bit more about your ties to Newport, where Ocean State Stories is based, at Salve Regina’s Pell Center. 

I was born at Newport Hospital (an important distinction for islanders!), grew up on Coggeshall Avenue and then Ledge Road, and have now moved back twice as an adult. Although I live upstate now, my parents are still in Newport, so I spend a lot of time there. 

My mother is also a native Newporter, and my parents both work in architecture and historic preservation (but are semi-retired.) Over the years, they’ve been involved with a lot of different local organizations, like the Redwood Library, Sail Newport, and the Newport Historical Society. 

I attended St. Michael’s Country Day School from kindergarten through eighth grade and spent a lot of time sailing, exploring Norman Bird Sanctuary, and taking classes at Newport Academy of Ballet. For high school, though, I went to Lincoln School in Providence.

Let’s close with the advice you would give to young people (or older people) who intend to work in print, online or broadcast media? 

When I talk to aspiring journalists who are still in school, I always encourage them to focus on becoming fluent in a second language. Once you’re no longer in an academic setting, you’ll probably never have so much time and opportunity to develop language skills again. 

Spanish is obviously an incredibly useful language for pretty much any reporter on pretty much any beat. But if you already have some proficiency in another language, it may make sense to double down on that — especially if you’re interested in reporting from a country where it’s spoken, or covering that immigrant community in the U.S. 

Also, take classes in economics, statistics, history, and government! Otherwise, you’ll end up having to learn on the fly. 

My general advice to anyone hoping to pursue a career in journalism — including people who are in a position like I was, and have already finished school — is to start out at small local outlets. You’ll get so much more experience and have so many more opportunities to produce your own stories than in a big national newsroom with lots of competition.

Small papers usually don’t pay very well, but that means that they often have job openings when reporters decide to move on. There may not be as many as there used to be, but they’re still out there, and often doing crucially important work. (I should also add that I always tell people to pitch Ocean State Stories, which is one of the rare places where freelancers can get paid and also receive mentorship and guidance when they’re starting out.) 

Lastly, whenever aspiring journalists ask me for advice, I try to be upfront about the fact that I am incredibly lucky to have received financial support from my family over the years. If it weren’t for their help, I would almost certainly have ended up with crushing amounts of debt, despite the fact that I held multiple jobs during the early years of my career. 

The sad truth is that a lot of people who are less privileged end up leaving journalism because they need to earn more money. I don’t want to discourage anyone from entering the field, but I think it’s important to be honest about the fact that the financial reality is fairly bleak.