Special Report

Why NYU?

Why NYU: Got a Great Idea? AJO Can Help You Get That Byline


June 6, 2024


Special Report: Why NYU?


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This article is part of our “Why NYU? Your Story Starts Here”  branded content* series explaining what it is like to attend NYU’s American Journalism Online master’s program with testimonials from current students and recent grads, Learn more about the program here.  

On Dec 20, 2022, AJO student Ben Shimkus sent me a message via Slack:

Would I be able to send you a pitch for you to review?

Of course! I wrote back. 

The pitch he sent was for an investigation he’s begun into sexual assault allegations against actor and drag star Shangela. Shangela, 43, had transformed her star-turn on several seasons on “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” into red carpet appearances, invites to the White House, and appearances in movies like “A Star is Born”. She even competed in a season of “Dancing With the Stars.”

But Ben had information about a dark side. Ben was already a strong reporter and talented writer, but crafting a pitch that will sell to a major news organization is its own particular skill. I suggested edits to make his draft stronger: tweaking the lead to best grab the editor’s attention, helping him fold in his experience to bolster the case for why he was the person to write this feature, and refining the language to make clear how much reporting he’d already done. 

Ben made the changes and the next day, he messaged me:

Julia!! Buzzfeed took the pitch!!

Over the next few days we communicated about the rate they’d quoted him, the fact that the lawyer who needed to look at the story was currently on vacation, and how he planned to continue reporting in the meantime. 

A week later, Ben messaged saying that he’d heard one alleged victim filed a criminal complaint in Louisiana. He asked: “How do I obtain a report like that?”

As a longtime crime and justice reporter, that was an easy one for me: I suggested he get in touch with the clerk of court in the county where the paperwork was filed. Things were moving along smoothly, until Ben’s story ran headlong into ugly reality of today’s media environment: on April 20, 2023, while Ben’s piece was going through the editorial process, Buzzfeed News dropped a bombshell: it was ceasing publication.

Suddenly, dozens of journalists at the Pulitzer Prize-winning publication no longer had jobs. And Ben’s story no longer had a home. 

“I felt terrible for the sources,” Ben told me. “They had taken a massive risk, speaking about their allegations. Suddenly I had no guarantees their stories would make it to light.”

Ben wasn’t going to give up. He believed in this story, and so did AJO. Feature Writing Professor Laurie Shapiro, who has deep industry connections, helped Ben brainstorm which editors to pitch; Reporting the News Professor Liza Hogan jumped on multiple Zoom calls at short notice and odd hours to guide Ben’s conversations with editors; and Investigative Reporting Professor Melanie Hicken helped with storytelling structure. 

Finally, Ben sold the story to Rolling Stone in October 2023, and on March 18, 2024, the magazine published “Actor and Drag Star Shangela Accused of Multiple Sexual Assaults.”

“There is no way I would have published this piece without the constant guidance from my professors,” Ben said. “I’m forever grateful for all of my AJO professors.”

*These articles look like journalism, but they’re actually what is called “branded content.” Branded content is content – written, audio, video – that mimics journalistic work but is paid for by the brand or company (in this case, AJO) that publishes it. It is, basically, a kind of advertising.

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