Sennott Calls Evolutions in Media Exciting and a Challenge

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2011 OPC Scholars from left: Stewart, Rappleye, Pena, Camm, Oltsmann, Chakanetsa, Makan, Chen, Madhok, Murray, Besant, Kuruvilla, Bailey, and Tang. Photos by Michael Dames

More than 200 guests attended this year's OPC Foundation Scholarship Luncheon and watched a record $28,000 in scholarships go to 14 graduate and undergraduate students who aspire to become foreign correspondents. The luncheon was held at the Yale Club in midtown Manhattan on Friday, February 18. (Watch the speeches)

This year, the OPC Foundation launched two new scholarships in memory of two of its most distinguished members: the Walter and Betsy Cronkite Scholarship and the Jerry Flint Scholarship for International Business Reporting. The Cronkite Scholarship was established last year with seed money from CBS News. The Cronkites' son, Chip Cronkite, was on hand to bestow the award to inaugural recipient Alex Pena from Florida Gulf Coast University. Chip Cronkite said his parents would have been honored that Pena received this first award. Pena said that witnessing corruption in Ciudad Juarez changed him and how he viewed news reporting. "It's important to be on the ground and telling those stories," Pena said. "You can bet that I'm using this money to continue coverage in a city that needs it."

The Jerry Flint Scholarship was founded by his wife, OPC Foundation board member Kate McLeod, at the time of his sudden death in August. She spoke before presenting the first Jerry Flint Scholarship to Natalie Bailey. "There are many Flint stories," McLeod said. "What is not known about Jerry is that he helped young reporters. Gretchen Morgenson, Allan Dodds Frank, Rose Brady, so many names that are prominent in journalism today. He hired all female stringers back in the '70s at the The Times. He hired the first African-American reporter, also female, at Forbes. He was still encouraging young reporters last year. They said he was one of the few senior people who ever gave them the time of day."

The keynote speaker was Charles M. Sennott, executive editor, vice president and co-founder of GlobalPost.com. Sennott said that in days when it seems like there's a dark cloud covering international reporting, "the OPC is a gem...an island we can all retreat to." He also relayed his trajectory as a reporter, telling a good yarn about growing up in Boston and wanting to be a reporter for the Boston Globe, and how being a crime reporter for The Daily News during the editorship of Pete Hamill put him on the story that continues for him to this day.

He said his path to journalism was an old-school way of climbing your way up and that this path doesn't exist anymore. He read the Globe growing up and had a brother who worked at the Boston Herald at night who took him courtside to watch Larry Bird in his rookie year. That sense of being "courtside" on history for Sennott is "what it's all about."

Sennott worked for a small NPR affiliate, went to Columbia School of Journalism, worked for The Record in Bergen County, New Jersey, and talked his editors into sending him abroad to Ireland and Nicaragua. He did anything to be sent abroad but had his eye set on New York where he worked at The Daily News for seven years when it was led by Pete Hamill. Sennott told a story about Dennis Hamill, Pete's brother, "and this will get me right into [a story about] Cairo," he said to laughter.

Sennott was a street reporter in 1993 and was near the World Trade Center when he heard a loud bang and then sirens. "As any reporter would do," Sennott said. "You walk toward the sirens." He saw smoke pouring out of the parking garage of the WTC and bumped into Dennis Hamill who had two things: a Con Edison hat and a yellow legal pad. Hamill said, "you take the pad; I'll take the hat." Sennott said they walked past the police lines and into the parking garage. "We're all thinking it's a generator that blew up," Sennot said. "But through the smoke and sprinkler system, we saw the four-to-five story crater with all the cars piled on top of it and we looked at each other and said, ‘it's a bomb.'"          

In that moment Sennott experienced something he will never forget. "New York City shrugged that story off as a crime story," he said. "The response was tough, noble and very New York, but we didn't see these forces building, nascent al Qaeda."

Imitating his editor, the chain-smoking Bill Boyle, Sennott inhaled a fake cigarette, "You should go."

"Where?" Sennott asked.

Sennott gave another mock inhale. "Stay with the story."

"What do you mean?' Sennott asked.

"You should go to Egypt."

So Sennott went to Egypt and called Boyle on the phone who asked: "What are you doing in Egypt?"

"You told me to go," Sennott said.

"Usually you get approval for that," Boyle said. 

"Following this story opened me up to this unrelenting anger  against U.S. foreign policy," he said. "Those threads became what I did for the next 18 years. It began as a police story."

Sennott grew disappointed with a new Daily News editor's lack of commitment to the story – the new editor saw it as an isolated act of terrorism – so Sennott left for The Boston Globe and eventually was sent abroad.

After coming back from tough reporting assignments in Afghanistan and Iraq, Sennott became a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, which gave him a year to consider his life. "You realize that being a journalist is like being in a cult. They never give you time to think. They keep you kind of hungry, on edge, tired."           

Instead, he had a year to ponder if international reporting was ending, maybe he should start something new. The result was GlobalPost, lauched in 2009, which now has 100 correspondents around the world filing reports, video and photography. After Sennott's speech, he and the scholarship winners huddled in the center of the room. Perhaps GlobalPost now has 114 correspondents.

Go to www.opcofamerica.org for photos and videos of award winners and speeches and Sennott's keynote address.

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