By Hannah Benson
Al Drago, 2015 graduate of Elon University, who is now working as a contract press photographer for the New York Times, where he covers the White House, Congress and national politics visited Professor Anderson’s Reporting for the Public Good Class this Friday morning, March 31.
Al Drago entered the classroom in a non-intimidating, friendly presence who started by asking us how it was taking Professor Anderson’s class, making jokes about how his experience in the class had forced him to regularly check his email. He had the friendly vibe of someone’s older brother, but, after hearing countless brags on his behalf, the class knew to expect more.
Drago began with a slideshow of some of his early to later works, starting with a silly photo of him holding a camera in 2005, saying that this was the earliest he had picked one up.
“I consider myself really lucky in the journalism world because I knew at that age what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, and I mean – who knows that?” he asks the class.
He speaks about how he was shooting for his high school newspaper around age 16, and it was the first time he had heard of this magical thing known as “photojournalism, where you got to take pictures of events and not have to write anything down, and I was like sweet!”
Drago speaks about how, by the time he got to college, he had already been recognized as the photographer he was, how he got to college and was asked to cover convocation as part of his class.
“I just jumped in head first and embraced it,” he says, speaking about his photojournalism experience.
Drago began early as far as it comes to extracurriculars, starting photography work with the Pendulum his first semester. “I knew that experience and internships were key,” he attests.
He speaks about his experience, how after his sophomore he worked at the newspaper in Raleigh, and then came back and “switched allegiances–this was when ELN and the Pendulum hated each other.” He began photographing for Elon Local News.
“Then I did something crazy,” he says, “and studied abroad fall of my senior year in Morocco. I came back super hungry and ready to work.”
“I’m one of those 10-15 people who follow the president everywhere, always floating around at his feet,” he says.
Drago then segways into speaking about some of the work he did back at Elon, and how it prepared him for work in the real world.
He pulled up a photo that he claims he took for Reporting for the Public Good, and how he got a call about a triple murder in Chapel Hill one night in October. He told them he would be there in 15 minutes and took off at top speed to cover the event. “There were three Muslim-Americans who had been murdered by their neighbor, and we didn’t know any information about it, and I took photos and got home around 3 or 4 in the morning.”
“I woke up to my phone blowing up, I had hundreds of tweets and messages from newspapers asking if they could pay to publish my content.”
“I was making eggs in my house, and I got a facetime call from an unknown number, I was surprised to find out it was editors from BBC, who wanted to published my story,” he says.
He then speaks about, how, after consulting an editor of the paper he had worked at over the summer, he sold his content to people, and soon after, saw his photo in the New York Times.
“I was so excited and jittery, I couldn’t sleep,” he says.
Additionally, he covered the Baltimore riots, and he spoke about his work there. “Working as a team and having someone to have my back during the scary stuff was really crucial.”
How to get the job you want? He said he started by cold-emailing editors of newspapers, asking for advice and sending them work that he had done. He said that these editors began to notice that his work was improving, and they encouraged him to keep up the good work.
He spoke about how he got critiques from these people who said that he needed to “get a larger variety, because I had pictures of only college kids, and that wasn’t what the real world looked like.”
He spoke about a time when he had an unpaid internship from the Raleigh News and Observer, which began at 2pm, then worked until 10pm, and he worked “nonstop, I never stopped working. I literally utilized the most basic tools, like I even youtube searched ‘how to take photos with a blurry background’ and learned from those,” he said.
“I dedicated everything I did to advancing myself professionally, I think that you can advance yourself professionally more than you can in the ten, fifteen years following my graduation and end of college,” Drago says.
“Work hard now, play later,” Drago tells the class.
He attests that keeping grades up during college was a challenge and how, “On day one, I talked to my professors and told them that the work I was doing outside of the classroom was super important to me, but that class might come second to something that I’m working on, I wanted to be up front with these people.”
He then spoke about how he planned his senior spring to have all morning classes, so that he could work the afternoon shift at the Raleigh newspaper and get that experience he wanted so badly.
Drago pulls up a list of his Top Eight Tips for journalists, explaining how, “everything you learn in Com 100 and Media Writing will be the basis of what you do in the real world, the stuff you learn here at Elon is crucial,” he tells the room.
When he speaks about the jobs he was looking for, he talks about how important it is to network, “you gotta talk to the people you sit next to on planes, you need to get outside of your bubble and be friendly to people, that’s how you get people to like you and that’s how you learn the community and make friends.” He dances around the room a little, demonstrating how to be friendly and fun.
“I think my brand is that I’m young and like to dance and bike a lot, and run around the country with the president, and I own it, I mean I love it, and it’s what I embrace,” he tells the classroom.
“You gotta roll with the things that come up,” he explains, “like now Facebook is copying Snapchat and doing stories, and some people might grumble about it, but that’s fine, we’re gonna roll with it!”
“Don’t sell yourself short,” says Drago, “if you want to be on top, you need to start on top, which is something Janna taught me in her office. If you want to get something, don’t back down.”
“Wherever you want to intern or work someday, reach out right now,” he says, “I think there’s a pretty high chance that the reason I work for the Times right now is because they were annoyed with how often I emailed them, and I’m pretty proud of that.”
“I arguably have more fun at work than I do outside of work,” Drago says, “and that’s crucial, you need to have fun with what you do.”
He speaks about social media in the nature of what he does, and how Snapchat and Instagram are built to cater to news creation and the spreading of content.
“A buzztip I have is to embrace the platform of whatever you’re using,” he says, “don’t shoot a Snapchat story sideways, with a horizontal frame, because that’s not how people are viewing your work. Adapt to things.”
“At the end of the day, you’re expected to tell a story,” Drago says. “That’s what we as journalists have to do to give back to our community. We just gotta tell a story, and if the New York Times picks it up, I mean, all the better.”