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Week of 9.18.09

Q & A: From Intern to Producer

Habiba Nosheen, who produced our show "Womb for Rent?" about surrogacy in America, interned for NOW on PBS before obtaining a degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in May 2009. Below she talks about her idea for the show, how she pitched it, and offers advice to aspiring journalists.

NOW: How did you get interested in the topic of surrogacy?

Habiba Nosheen (HN): We came to this story from a very international perspective. Hilke Schellmann, my co-producer and classmate at Columbia, is from Germany and she found it fascinating that Germany completely bans surrogacy of any kind while in the U.S. it is legal. This led me to look into surrogacy laws in Canada—where I'm from—and I found that Canada bans surrogacy for money but allows it as long as a woman isn't being paid. We were drawn to the fact that this is such a contested, emotional, and legally-nuanced issue. On the one hand you have technology giving hope to couples who could never dream of having a baby that looked like them. On the other hand you have some folks saying wait a minute...we aren't paying these women even minimum wage to use their bodies to carry a baby. We were both fascinated by this complicated issue and how little attention it has received in the U.S.

NOW: How did you go about pitching your idea to NOW's executive staff?

HN: I drafted my email to John Siceloff, the executive producer of NOW, about ten times before sending it. But we had done the bulk of pre-reporting, had a character in mind, and had access to characters when I sent him my pitch. The one-page pitch described the story, why NOW should air it, and why Hilke and I should be the ones to produce it.

NOW: What was your reaction when you found out your idea would be the focus of a NOW program with you producing?

HN: I was shocked when I received a response within nine minutes saying he loved the story and he was interested. I do recall that Hilke and I screamed with joy.

NOW: Were you intimidated by the task of producing for a national news magazine?

HN: I was excited but I don't think I was intimidated. I had a very talented co-producer who is an amazing journalist and we both said "we've got to do this and we've got to do a great job." We complemented each other's skill sets and that was a huge help.

NOW: How did your internship here help prepare you for producing the show?

HN: I know many of us joke in journalism school at Columbia University about the free labor that we often do and there is a debate about whether it's worth it or not. But I can honestly say in this case, that internship made a world of difference. It just made it easier to work in an environment where I knew what the story flow was and what to expect from the screenings. Also, I think I was lucky that as a part of the internship I really got to spend time with John Siceloff and Senior Producer Ty West. I wasn't super freaked out by them and they both really took the time to mentor me while I was an intern.

NOW: What advice would you give to aspiring journalists like yourself who are looking for a national platform?

HN: I would say don't be afraid to pitch your idea and don't be afraid of rejection when you pitch. It's important to know when the right time to pitch is and how to pitch. I know I get a million emails a day, so you have to really think "what can I say to this person that would make them want to read the next paragraph or the next sentence." It's important to be excited about your work. If you aren't, others won't be either. Also, one of the most important things journalists need to learn about is fundraising. Often people think that it's beneath journalists to ask for money to produce a story. But without the support of amazing organizations like The Nation Institute or the Fund for Investigative Journalism, who support investigative journalism, our story would have never seen the light of day. So, we searched for grants that would fund investigative stories. We wrote grant after grant and were lucky enough that people believed in our story and we were able to get funding to produce it. But there was a lot of multi-tasking. I think if you want to succeed in journalism you've got to wear a lot of different hats.

NOW: What's next for you professionally?

HN: For the next year I will be at NPR as a Kroc Fellow reporting and producing stories. Hilke is producing video stories for The Wall Street Journal. We are both also taking this time to research our next long-form story that we would love to work on together.

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