Alumni Interview: Jonathan Wood Rosen, freelance writer

Jonathan Wood Rosen is pictured. (Courtesy Jonathan Wood Rosen)

Freelance journalist Jonathan Wood Rosen (LA’04) was inspired to pursue a career in global journalism after taking Martin Sherwin’s course Rewriting America. 

“The task was to produce a magazine that was centered around different periods in American history,” Rosen said. “I had one about the Great Depression, one about the Los Angeles riots in the early ’90s after the beating of Rodney King … so that had got me thinking more about the possibilities of journalism.”

Now, Rosen is introducing a new generation of Tufts students to journalism with his Experimental College course, Behind the Reporter’s Notebook: The Practice of Global Journalism in the 21st Century.

To Rosen, global journalism provides a journalist with significant creative freedom: the ability to write anywhere in the world, for any audience and in whatever style fits the story best.

“From the perspective of the class, I break [global journalism] down into two branches,” Rosen said. “There’s what we think of as foreign correspondents, so in our case, reporters from one country, in another country, writing for their home audience, typically, versus more local global journalism, which is looking at how the domestic media in a given country operates. We try to hit both in the class.”

The course is not meant to teach students how to be foreign correspondents, but there is an element of learning the skills of working internationally as a journalist. 

“It’s not a how-to course per se, but I do hope to convey some sort of practical element that might not be there in a more traditional academic course,” he said.

Rosen hopes students will gain firsthand experience with the work of a foreign correspondent so they have a deeper understanding of a career as a global journalist, as well as become more appreciative consumers of global news.

“I’m hoping that through my experience, and all the readings and films we watch, [I] can convey to them just how that news is gathered and what sort of decisions go into producing that news, and figuring out who should be reporting it and what should be covered,” he said.

Rosen’s interest in journalism and global correspondence began while studying abroad in Talloires the summer before his senior year.

“Before that, I hadn’t really spent much time outside of North America at all. That really piqued my interest in travel, and I would say in international affairs more broadly,” Rosen said. 

However, it was not his enjoyable time in Talloires, exactly, that brought about this global interest. His experience there made him aware of resource and wealth disparities internationally, bringing Rosen’s attention to lower-income countries.

After Rosen graduated from Tufts, he went to Kenya to teach English at a high school. He was unsure of what he wanted to do after college, but he wanted a taste of what life was like in a different place. While there, he started writing again. 

“I had a few articles published about my experience,” he said. “That really piqued my interest in later going back as a proper journalist, which I ended up doing a few years later.”

Rosen’s first official journalism position came while completing graduate school at Johns Hopkins University. Hired as an editor for a travel magazine in Zanzibar, he gained experience writing for an audience outside of the United States, and with a form of journalism outside of his comfort zone.

“I don’t like doing a travel piece just for the sake of writing about a place from a travel perspective. I like using an adventure as a window into the politics and culture and history of a place,” he said. “The point is to use the narrative of the travel to get something larger.”

By this point, Rosen’s interest in Africa was solidified.

“You can be in one place and be in the contemporary world if you’re in an affluent neighborhood of a capital city, but also step back in time, a couple hundred years, if you go out into a village somewhere, and I am drawn to that dichotomy,” he said. “Going there once, I got drawn back, and so in some ways, it’s the inertia that’s kept me there.”

With a few years’ experience under his belt, the possibilities were endless, and the stories became evermore interesting. An editor at National Geographic provided Rosen with his first opportunity in investigative journalism, getting to the bottom of a dramatic series of events in Rwanda.

“In the Eastern Congo, there was a shooting on the edges of Virunga National Park. The head warden of the park was shot  —  he survived but it was in the context of oil exploration happening there,” Rosen said. 

This warden had been playing a critical role trying to stop oil exploration in the area, which had possible links to corruption among local government officials.

“Trying to figure out who to talk to and how to convey what the potential [of] drilling for oil could mean for this park in this region, incredibly rich in biodiversity, and what it would mean for local people … is certainly the most memorable reporting experience of mine because it’s just like a week full of adrenaline,” Rosen said.

As a freelance journalist, Rosen does not feel limited to any one news organization or type of journalistic writing. Even stories that may be outside a global journalist’s area of expertise are attainable, so long as the journalist maintains an open mind, willingness to learn and endless curiosity, as Rosen does.

“I occasionally do some science writing too, and I don’t have much of a science background, but I found that as long as you’re curious and don’t mind delving into the details of a subject that you might be a little bit uncomfortable with, it’s still possible to do a good story, because in the end you’re writing for a general audience,” he said.

One story Rosen wrote was about a project in Rwanda to generate electricity from methane gas that was dissolved in a lake. The process was different from Rosen’s usual style, but it pushed him to explore something new.

“That entailed talking to a lot of scientists, chemists, water experts and engineers and was far from my typical beat, but as long as you have the curiosity and the flexibility, it’s possible to really write about anything,” he said.

In another extension of his varied interests, last year Rosen decided to try teaching an ExCollege course at Tufts,  Behind the Reporter’s Notebook, which was an idea that had been in the back of his mind since taking ExCollege classes himself. Teaching at Tufts also brought Rosen full circle, since his career as a journalist ultimately started while working as a teacher in Kenya.

This is a tough time for a new visiting lecturer, as COVID-19 guidelines have completely upended the way courses are structured and taught, a difficult transition for anyone to make no matter how much experience they have. Yet Rosen is taking it all in stride, simply another adventure to embark on.

At the end of the day, there is one lesson Rosen would like to instill in his students — and the world as a whole — above all else.

“One thing I would try to get people thinking about is an appreciation for the process that went into gathering the information in the story and thinking about how this reporter got access to certain people, what people are cited or quoted in the piece — and which people are not,” he said.


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