As a Rutgers University-New Brunswick and SC&I undergraduate, Julie Tsirkin applied for an internship in news on a whim, having intended to study law after graduation. Today she works at the legendary NBC New York Bureau at 30 Rockefeller Plaza as a producer (the youngest full-time producer at NBC) for the lead White House correspondent. The truly amazing part? Tsirkin just graduated from Rutgers University-New Brunswick’s School of Communication and Information (SC&I) last year.
After three years of studying to prepare for a legal career in the steps of her father, Vladimir Tsirkin, who graduated from Rutgers School of Law, Tsirkin didn’t decide until her senior year to change her major to Journalism and Media Studies (JMS). Starting so late, she worried it wouldn’t be possible to switch. But it was, and she credits the help of SC&I’s Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies Steve Miller for her success, both as a student and now as a news producer.
“Julie is the personification of what Rutgers Journalism and Media Studies students are and what they do with their lives,” Miller said. “She is bright, inquisitive, caring, knowledgeable, and always striving to learn all she can about what’s going on in the world. The These are the qualities that have endeared her to the journalists at NBC. I believe they see what I have always seen: a star in the making.”
SC&I asked Tsirkin what it takes to accomplish so much so quickly, both while she was at Rutgers and today as a journalist. In this Q & A, she talks about what it was like to intern at MSNBC in 2016 – at one of the busiest news rooms in the world during one of the most volatile presidential elections in modern American history – , what a typical day at NBC is like, her favorite stories to report on, and why in the era of “fake news,” it’s more important than ever to work in journalism.
What are some of the most significant ways SC&I’s journalism program prepared you for your current career?
I tell everyone I know, SC&I’s journalism program is the best, and I am so thankful to have fallen into it. I say that because I never took advantage of what it had to offer until I realized I wanted to be a journalist. The school is a bounty of resources and equipment and its diverse curriculum caters to many different needs. When I decided I wanted to be a journalist, I was a first semester senior. I thought I’d missed my chance -- but I’m so happy to say I was wrong. Professor Miller, in particular, is responsible for getting me to where I am today. Without him, I would probably never have made it here. His door was always open for my questions, frustrations and deliberations. He was (and is) patient and encouraging -- a SC&I journalism experience isn’t the same without him.
What inspired you to switch from prelaw to journalism?
I have to be honest, I’ve always loved journalism. I guess I just never thought I could make a career out of it. I majored in it mainly because my prelaw adviser told me to. I remember meeting with him for the very first time, in my slightly intimidated, slightly confused-freshman state. and thinking, “Okay… he’s going to ask about my major… but I hate math… I hate science… I stink at pretty much everything involving numbers … what do I do?!” He told me, “Do what you love.” And so I navigated through my journalism major well-believing that I wouldn’t pursue it and stumbled through some prelaw classes along the way. My ‘aha!’ moment came much later. I was an almost-senior studying for my LSATs when I decided, out of sheer boredom and misery, to apply for my first internship in news.
You must be just insanely busy as an assistant producer working for Hallie Jackson, NBC News lead White House correspondent. What is a typical day like for you?
There is no typical day in news, especially with our current administration -- every single day is a toss-up, you never know what you’re going to get. I work at NBC’s New York bureau at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, which can be a hectic-midtown-tourist mess in itself, but I love every minute of it. I’m pretty busy, but you should see how busy Hallie is -- it doesn’t even compare. It’s a blessing that I get the opportunity to learn from one of the hardest-working women in the business.
Are there aspects of your career that you view as particular challenging?
It’s fair to say that everything I love about my career is also a challenge. I think the most difficult part is how urgent everything in television news is. There is no “do-over” and no delaying a news program. You have to be ready and alert at any moment. Breaking news is of course, always a learning experience. Having the least experience on my team (by about five years), I obviously struggle with being able to calmly execute my work in breaking news situations. There’s a lot of pressure, but when the task is accomplished, there is so much pride in the work that was created and the story that has been brought to millions watching around the world. Another aspect that’s challenging is working with such powerful journalists -- there is no slacking when it comes to working with people who have little free time on their schedules.
What it was like to be an intern at MSNBC during the 2016 election?
I’ll start with the not-so-glamorous part: logging every single campaign rally, speech and debate (doesn’t sound so bad? Have you fully listened to a Trump rally?). But logging and transcribing is an essential skill to a good journalist. As mundane as it is, it taught me a few things: how to process information at lightning speed, how to recognize a ‘newsy’ bit instantaneously, and of course, told me more about the candidate. The greatest challenge was realizing I was entering the business at a frightening time; in almost every single speech I logged from Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, there was a jab at the free press. At the same time, that drew me in even more, as I knew I would be playing a critical role in history by being a young journalist during this time. The rewards I received from my internships were invaluable, starting from the real-time experience and ending with my anchor, Katy Tur. I started my second internship when she went from being a ‘road warrior’ to anchoring her own show -- the one I interned with. She was also writing her book during that time, Unbelievable, and I got to help her with research.
How do you work with NBC anchors to enhance their digital presence?
Currently, I manage Hallie Jackson’s social accounts as well as work with the NBC Digital team. Hallie and I work together on determining the most ‘newsy’ interviews and parts of the show, my job is then to clip, edit, and publish on MSNBC online website. I also flag the digital team on any breaking news or testy exchanges so they can be quickly published to NBC social platforms. It’s a lot of multitasking between producing the show, being in the control room, and constantly being on watch for breaking news. My main approach to Hallie’s social is making sure her voice shines. Her personality attracts her audience, and it’s important to show them she’s real.
What are your favorite kinds of stories to write about and report on? What kinds are the most challenging and why?
My goal as a journalist is to give voice to the voiceless. At the same time, I am inherently passionate about politics not as much in terms of the White House, but how voters and regular people are impacted by the administration. It’s challenging to balance emotional involvement and objective journalism. When I am speaking to people affected by -- for example -- the administration’s hard line immigration policies, it’s human to care and feel for their situation. At the end of the day, my job is to tell the stories of those who share them with me, and I want to be as accurate and straight as possible.
What did you enjoy the most about your years at Rutgers?
Oh gosh, the list doesn’t end. I feel like so many seniors I talk to now can’t wait to graduate and start ‘real life.’ While it’s a challenging whirlwind of hard work, reward and accomplishment, there’s nothing like being a Rutgers student. You don’t realize how the time flies until you’re standing in the football stadium with thousands of your peers, buzzing with emotion, ready to turn the tassel on your cap. So my two cents: don’t rush leaving, there’s nothing like being “on the banks.”
Do you have advice for SC&I’s current journalism students in the era of “fake news” and shrinking newsrooms?
There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t meet people who tell me, “Oh, you work for NBC? You’re fake news.” I laugh and shrug it off. While it’s a huge problem that the leader of our country regularly toys with democracy and obliterates the press, it’s not going to affect the honest work journalists do every single day. The stories will continue to be told, words will always be written, and committed people will always hold our government accountable.
If anything, now is the time to be a journalism student.