Neon Tommy's Sara Newman and Will Federman in the Julie Chen/Leslie Moonves and CBS Media Center.
Courtesy of Alan Mittelstaedt.

Letter from the Editor: Will Federman offers congratulations for Press Club awards

The awards are a bittersweet moment for me. And I genuinely wish I could have been there to celebrate with my fellow Trojans, but unfortunately I have this day job.

Last night’s awards are proof that Neon Tommy has been producing some of the best, most fearless journalism in the Los Angeles area for the last 6 years. I’m incredibly proud of the work the staff produced during my time at Neon Tommy. We pushed boundaries, and often defied conventional wisdom. Sometimes we were derided for it, but this proves that curiosity, experimentation and a desire to speak truth-to-power (and to hell with the consequences) are the most important attributes a digital brand can have in the 21st century.

What’s the secret to Neon Tommy?

The students control the content — without arbitrary boundaries imposed by traditional student media operations at other journalism schools. That might sound slightly terrifying; letting “untrained” students out in the world to produce journalism without the constant presence of a “professional.”

But this is also the world we live in — citizens are producing quality journalism at a faster pace than many publications can keep up with, and we’ve seen the end result: newsroom layoffs. Neon Tommy thrives in this space, because we’re not held back by old-school thought. Sometimes I think Neon Tommy has a reputation of being a rabid dog, but I’ll take that over being labeled a dinosaur.

It’s also a testament to the caliber of talent that USC Annenberg attracts. Neon Tommy is not stocked with a bunch of amateurs or bumbling student journalists, but actual, legitimate journalists. Our writers and editors are published in the LA Weekly, the Los Angeles Times, VICE, Jezebel, The Daily Beast, Huffington Post, etc. We have the talent to run a world-class operation. We know it and now Los Angeles knows it too.

And I’d be remiss to say that none of this would be possible without Marc Cooper and Alan Mittelstaedt, who always challenged us and never let us settle. They created the blueprint that we ran with, and we created something beautiful.

The other thing that has made us such a trend-setting operation is our commitment to experimentation and committing resources to how we distribute content. We spend a lot of man-hours training students on SEO practices, social media guidelines, mobile platforms, etc. We publish content exclusively through other distribution channels, like Medium and Tumblr. We spend time thinking about how our content is consumed on other platforms, and how we should develop content for those platforms. We train students on analytics.

These are the skills that the outside world respects, needs and hires for. It’s why I’m working where I’m working — in the same building with legendary Neon Tommy editor Callie Schweitzer, no less.

We are also lucky to have the encouragement and guidance of last night’s lifetime achievement award recipient, director Willow Bay. She has been one of our biggest supporters and a tremendous leader since joining the school. Willow has opened new doors for graduates and is committed to a future where the university produces not just great student journalism — but great journalism, period. She’s not just an administrator, she’s a visionary. I’m honored to know her, and I cannot think of a more deserving recipient.

My personal accomplishments are triumphs that I share with equally talented journalists — Brianna Sacks and Matthew Tinoco. Being able to interview Daniel Ellsberg, a piece of living history, was something I will never forget. As a fan of great journalism, it was a nerd-out moment for me.

Tackling the unbelievable farce that is the MLK Community Hospital, a subject of community interest that both the LA Times and LA Weekly has largely neglected until recently, was something I am proud of. The story there isn’t finished. I hope Matt and I simply got people to recognize the ridiculousness surrounding the hospital, and maybe our wins raise awareness.

My last bit of advice to students now entrusted with taking the Neon Tommy brand and building it within the Media Center? Never stop questioning authority, never stop being curious and just never stop. You’re not students, you’re journalists. You’ll never have as much freedom as you have right now. It doesn’t get easier. Now is the time to rattle cages.

And save me a slice of pizza.