Front page news: Former student writes feature articles for The New York Times
Former student Rick Rojas '10 uses his liberal arts education from Texas A&M University to write front page news for The New York Times. He recently covered the aftermath of the El Paso shooting.
On Aug. 3, Rick Rojas, a national correspondent for The New York Times, reached for his buzzing phone. On the other end of the line was an editor for the paper’s national news desk. Rojas had just been assigned the task of covering the aftermath of the mass shooting that took place in an El Paso Walmart earlier that afternoon.
The assignment was more than relaying the events to readers. For Rojas, who has a bachelor’s degree in economics from Texas A&M University, covering the El Paso shooting meant trying to put the event into perspective while pointing out its significance to readers across the globe.
“If you’re doing a story that’s aimed at the front page at The New York Times, you want it to have a big thought,” Rojas said. “You want it to send some kind of idea to the readers where it’s not just ‘such and such happened’, but it’s ‘such and such happened and here’s what it means.’”
The focus in coverage of major news events shifts as more information becomes publicly available, according to Rojas. For example, the focus of the El Paso shooting changed as people responded to the event on a local and national scale. In the beginning, his goal was to piece together what happened from conversations with victims and their families.
“As it moved on and more information came out, that’s when you kind of take a step back and put things in perspective,” Rojas said. “There was President Trump’s visit and how El Paso responded to it, and then stories about how El Paso was mourning and just examining what the reverberations are after something like this. It’s not just a mass shooting, but a mass shooting where the gunman went in with a very specific agenda that really alarmed El Paso.”
Rojas said all of his reporting for The Times forces him to use the critical thinking skills he developed as a liberal arts major at Texas A&M. He said his liberal arts degree was all about thinking in a bigger way.
“You learn how to be analytical,” Rojas said. “For every story I write, I have to use that skill — when I’m talking to people, when I’m researching — to pull out the thought and the idea of why this matters. That’s essentially what you learn as a liberal arts major—going into an issue, pulling out the ideas behind it, and sort of putting it into perspective. I do that everyday in my job.”
Rojas has been practicing his craft since he was a student at Texas A&M. He got his start in journalism at The Battalion. Between semesters, he did internships at a newspaper in Louisville, Kentucky and The Washington Post. When he graduated in 2010, he was hired as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Then, in 2014, he started working for The New York Times.
There are experts in all of the topics Rojas writes about; however, his job requires him to think critically about a wide range of topics rather than becoming the master of just one. He credited his education in the liberal arts with giving him the tools he needs to be successful in his field.
“I think the value of a liberal arts degree is that it may not prepare you for a specific job,” Rojas said. “A journalism degree is just the mechanics of how to be a journalist; instead [liberal arts] taught me how to really dig into something in an intellectual and more critical way. I think that’s way more important and way harder to learn. That’s really the strength of a liberal arts education—the way that it teaches you how to think.”
Rojas’s critical thinking is evident in the way he talked about his reporting on the El Paso shooting.
“The guiding principle for me in these stories is that you see an equal opposite reaction,” Rojas said. “For something as horrible as this, there are also incredible acts of kindness. You see so much resilience and strength, a community coalescing around each other, and that sort of gratifies. You see the worst of humanity, but then you’re also able to see the best.”
Read more of Rojas’s work here.