Pulitzer Prize winning Los Angeles Times reporter Molly O’Toole ’09 shared career advice and reflected on the journalism industry during an event titled “Inside Journalism: A Conversation with Molly O’Toole.”
During the event, O’Toole discussed her experiences as a reporter in a conversation moderated by Sun Editor in Chief Kathryn Stamm ’22 and kicked off with an introduction by Jen Maclaughlin, assistant dean and director of Arts and Sciences career development.
The conversation began with O’Toole discussing her lifelong love of writing as well as her interests in national security and foreign policy that developed during her time at Cornell. She wrote for both The Sun and campus literary magazines such as Rainy Day.
O’Toole said that she believes that the best way for students to develop journalistic skills is by getting involved with newspapers as opposed to only learning in the classroom. She credits her time writing at The Sun as formative in her journalism training.
“Journalism you really learn by doing, which just means a lot of trial and error,” O’Toole said, “You have to learn about yourself as an interviewer, as a reporter, where your strengths are and where your weaknesses are.”
O’Toole is proud of her work on immigration policy and how reporting on policies can inform the public. She described writing about immigration policy as having high stakes and significant impact on immigrant populations, citing her reporting on abuses in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention and more recent Biden Administration policies.
“The most rewarding stories are when you’re able to tell the story of someone whose story otherwise would not have been told,” O’Toole said.
O’Toole was one of the recipients of the first Pulitzer Prize for audio journalism in 2020. Her winning episode “The Out Crowd” of “This American Life” detailed the effects of the Trump Administration “Remain in Mexico” policy of returning asylum seekers to Mexico while they waited for their U.S court hearings.
O’Toole is an advocate of accurately representing and connecting to the communities that she writes about, and makes efforts to do so by continuing her studies in Spanish.
“I think it’s really important to meet people where they are, in the language that they’re comfortable in,” O’Toole said, “That’s part of my obligation as a journalist, especially when I’m not from these communities.”
When asked about problems in the journalism industry, O’Toole expressed concern at the lack of socioeconomic and racial diversity in newsrooms. She sees financial barriers as making it more difficult for people of color and people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds to pursue journalism and secure leadership roles in journalism.
“That’s part of the reason why people who come from more disadvantaged backgrounds, or who are people of color, are facing these institutional obstacles that I didn’t have to face,” O’Toole said.
O’Toole graduated from Cornell in the midst of the Great Recession, at a time when the journalism industry was struggling. Early in her career, she was advised to take a low paid job at Forbes for the prestige, but instead opted for a higher paid fellowship at Reuters.
She encouraged students interested in journalism careers to explore smaller and nonconventional publications, and not to assume that a job will necessarily be a better opportunity than internships or fellowships.
“There are a lot of opportunities out there for internships, fellowships or entry level jobs, at many different types of publications, you don’t have to only go for the big fish,” O’Toole said, “Sometimes, getting an internship at a smaller publication or a more alternative publication is going to be better for you and better for your career.”
O’Toole also discussed sexism in journalism.
“There’s definitely a boys club, especially in some of the areas that I’ve been interested in,” O’Toole said, “You have to be incredibly stubborn, and don’t take no for an answer.”
When asked how she decided to commit to a career in journalism, O’Toole explained her love for the profession.
“You sort of make this decision over and over again, every day when you get up in the morning,” O’Toole said, “ I have the best job in the world. I get to talk to people for a living.”