By Hope Chookazian
Applause rings out through the Humanities Theatre from an audience filled with journalism students after Curtis Brodner and Ellie Houghtaling, 2019 Purchase journalism graduates, visit their old stomping ground to give a presentation on how they covered and created a viral Twitter account during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. Brodner and Houghtaling exchange a quick glance filled with smiles as they take in the cheering and high five.
Brodner, who now sits at his desk inside the New York City apartment he shares with his partner, remembers always knowing he wanted to study journalism. “I transferred in my second semester freshman year [from the College of Charleston] into the journalism program,” he said.
“That was a bad decision, that doesn’t fit me at all,” he said laughing about his time in Charleston. “I was figuring it out I guess.”
Once at Purchase, he was active with the Purchase Phoenix, along with doing local reporting through a class that was once offered called “Community Reporting” taught by former Purchase professor Brian Kates. This class allowed students the opportunity to do local reporting and build contacts. “It was the closest thing to working in a newsroom that any of us could get,” he said.
While he had thoughts of covering music beats early on, even going as far as to intern during his junior year at HOT 97, a hip hop radio station in New York City, which he found through Purchase JobScore. However, music coverage never felt right to him. “It’s out of my realm of knowledge, I don't think it would’ve been a good fit, I don’t have any music knowledge,” Brodner said with a chuckle.
Though he wouldn’t end up covering music or entertainment news, the internship was still useful to see how a large news organization works. “I did a lot of video editing, I was definitely doing someone else's work that they didn’t want to do,” he joked. “But in doing that I got to see behind the scenes in an organization like that.”
Some of Brodner’s work in the Phoenix, like his long-form piece on sexual assault on campus and his coverage of the alleged racial motivations behind University Police officers denying rapper Maliibu Miitch onto campus to perform during Zombie Prom in 2019, would foreshadow his future coverage of police and exposing serious issues.
In the spring of 2019, Brodner graduated with a degree in journalism and returned home to the suburbs of Boston, MA, where he knew he immediately wanted to get to work so he could live independently. “I sent out 100 applications and heard back from one,” he said.
The one job, however, was across the country in the deep woods of Washington state, which he couldn’t accept without relocation pay and no support system.
With frustration boiling over he recalled thinking, “Fuck this, I don’t even want these jobs I'm applying for anymore.”
Eventually, he was able to link up with friends who were already in New York City and rent with them while working in a cheese shop.
It was through another Purchase alumnus, Ben Verde, that he landed his first gig in journalism. “He put me in contact with Liena Zagare who used to run a paper called Bklyner.”
Bklyner, as Brodner described it, was committed to writing original pieces. “It was known for writing stories with a lot of meat to them,” he explained.
Brodner began freelancing for Bklyner while working for the cheese shop, he described working anywhere between seven to 15 hours on a piece for $50 a story.
After a year of freelancing, an opening came to be on the staff where he would be hired part-time, five hours a week making $20 an hour. “She was adamant about me getting out two pieces a day,” he said. “What she was really asking me was get paid for five hours but working for eight.”
Brodner soon became fed up with the way things were going, so he left Bklyner at the beginning of the pandemic and headed upstate to live with his partner at his partner's family's house. “It was like seven or eight of us – it was kind of like a wayward home for pandemic fuck ups,” he jested.
It was during this time the Black Lives Matter protests erupted on the streets of Minneapolis and Brodner recalled thinking to himself “If they come to New York City, I want to go back and cover them, even though I had no one to write for.”
That same night protests entered the city.
Upon witnessing the protests in, he called up Houghtaling which led to the start of them covering the protests, on their own, through a Twitter page called “protests_nyc.”
Brodner was inspired by another Twitter page named “Unicorn Riot” based in Minneapolis that covers activism and injustice. “They have done great work for the past decade, but they have a stupid name,” he joked during his presentation, causing the audience to break out in laughter.
When Brodner got back into the city, he, Houghtaling, and Jordan Baruch, another Purchase alumnus, took to the streets and immediately began documenting what they saw.
“That blew up really fast, 10’s of thousands of followers within a few days,” he said.
This viral success led to large newspapers like The New York Times purchasing their content.
From there came volunteers and citizen journalists who would send in pictures or videos, and one of the editors that day, editors including Brodner, Houghtaling, Baruch and Janet Burns, a freelance writer for Forbes and Gizmodo, would structure them into tweets.
They would also monitor police scanners, where Brodner says they allegedly heard scandalous things from cops like “I just want to shoot these guys.”
“Just [cops] being morons, they had to know people were listening,” he said.
Brodner reflected on one of the more brutal incidents he’s witnessed at one of the protests.
“I watched a cop grab a clergywoman by the hair and smash her head into a car,” he said.
Earlier that evening, Brodner interviewed that clergywoman, who was wearing unmistakable religious attire, and told him she went up to every police officer present and asked them to remain peaceful if the crowd remained peaceful, which the crowd did, he recalled.
During his time covering the protests, he was able to support himself through unemployment checks. Once those stopped, Brodner found himself at a crossroads with the need to get back into a paying job.
A recruiter from NewsBreak, an app which he describes as similar to Google newsstand or Apple news, reached out and he got hired in a wave of 30 to 40 people. “We were aggregating and kind of just writing other people's stories,” he explained.
There was some opportunity to write independent stories, though he had to push for it, so
when he got the chance he would write about immigration and customs enforcement (ICE).
He detailed having special contacts through which he got these sources to tell their stories.
“My boss squashed it, she was like this is too risky, we are putting ourselves in legal jeopardy,” he said. “I was very frustrated, if this is the news, this is the news.”
One story he covered was about a man in jail on a hunger strike where he would later be transferred to another jail where they allow force-feeding. “She said ‘don’t publish it until I look at it’ and then she refused to look at it,” he said, “Then someone else broke the story when I could have two days earlier, which is deeply offensive to me.”
Eventually, he got moved from writing to curating push notifications and recalled being told not to push certain stories.
"I was like what the fuck? That's a bunch of news,” he exclaimed. “For example, the Prince Andrew stuff, we can’t just ignore a member of the royal family's pedophilia.”
This lack of work was leaving him feeling depressed, but a friend, who left NewsBreak and went to 1010 WINS, reached out and told him about a job opening.
Since he had that connection, his application was fast-tracked and he was hired within a week. “That is how I got to where I’m at now,” he said.
Brodner, who was very proactive about gaining contacts throughout school, offered advice to students. “Not once did I get a journalism job because I applied to it,” he said. “ Rely on contacts, it's 100% about who you know.”
These days, he still works for 1010 WINS remotely, as a digital content producer, “Which means I get to have six jobs instead of one,” he joked.
On Wednesdays through Sundays, starting at 2 p.m. until 10 p.m. he is hard at work, though he has the chance to start his days off slow, usually with a cup of caffeinated tea and some errands.
When the clock strikes 2 p.m., he opens Slack, a messaging app that WINS primarily uses, and lets the team know he's in for the day.
After checking in, he goes through his email, which he described as a deluge of press releases, “I have subscribed to like every politician's press release in the state,” he said,
“That's really how the government communicates with the press.”
He describes his time at work as very fast-paced with very little downtime. He explained how most of his daily stories are from press releases or court reports.
“I do that straight until 10 p.m, then I go to sleep,” he said with a laugh.
At the time of this interview, he was working on a piece about the homeless sweep in New York City ordered by mayor Eric Adams. “I’m going out to interview homeless New Yorkers about if his crackdown has impacted them, and if it’s changed their lives,” he said.
Brodner is a strong believer in the power of narrative. A narrative Brodner discussed is the wording used in the news. The media has come under scrutiny repeatedly over their use of the word “thug” and similar language while covering stories of the Black Lives Matter protests, or an incident involving a Black person while using neutral, or sympathetic wording for a white person, like “mentally ill.”
“You can do it in little ways, it doesn’t have to be this insidious propaganda supply,” he explained, “By saying ‘homeless New Yorkers,’ instead of ‘homeless people,’ it's a way of communicating to the reader that they are members of our society as well, and not just objects that weather the streets and make you uncomfortable when you walk by them.”
Brodner expressed not appreciating the average news slant and actively trying to undermine it. “There are stories that aren't being told and that’s a disservice to people,” he explained. “Being hyper-intentional is a good way to be a better writer, and express an ideological perspective through your writing.”