Impact Insights Blog

MEDIA MOMENT––Emily Nonko, Brooklyn-based Freelance Journalist

August 2, 2018

Members of the media and PR pros can be friends. Yes, really.

That sentiment is the basis behind the “Media Moment,” a Q&A that gives our blog readers a better insight into some of our favorite journalists, reporters and media personalities. We ask some questions and our media pals weigh in.

Now, enough about us! Let’s welcome Brooklyn-based award-winning freelance journalist Emily Nonko. She regularly writes about real estate, architecture, urbanism, transit, history and more for the Wall Street Journal, Next City and Curbed New York. Her byline has also appeared in the Atlantic, New York Magazine, Village Voice, New York Post (which is how we first met her!), Observer and CityLab, among other publications.

Emily, thanks for being our guest this month. Can you tell us a little bit more about the stories you write and what excites you about them?

Thank you for having me! I got my start in New York City real estate, architecture and neighborhood reporting. I focused on local news, whether that be new development or the impact of gentrification in a certain neighborhood. In New York City, unfortunately, the appetite for local news greatly decreased over the past five years. I had to shift, writing more about design, luxury real estate (not just in New York, but internationally), and also urbanism stories around the country.

At the moment I’m most enjoying the stories I write weekly for Next City, which typically profile innovative organizations and people working to make the cities they live more equitable.

How long have you been a journalist and what brought you into this field?

I’ve considered myself a writer most of my life. Transitioning to journalism was a way to monetize it, and pay off very hefty student loans from NYU, where I studied journalism. By my senior year in college I saw the journalism landscape changing – there were few opportunities to break into print media, and though online journalism and blogging were on the rise, we weren’t learning it in school. So I emailed the founder of a Brooklyn-based real estate blog, Brownstoner, and asked if he needed any help. An internship there turned into my first reporting/blogging job out of school.

So it was totally by chance I ended up on the real estate beat, but I’m happy I did. When I transitioned to freelance, I found there was a huge demand for real estate stories. It’s kept me busy at various publications and I have a lot of flexibility in my beat. I’m as likely to write about a $50 million penthouse as I am the struggles of homeless youth in New York City, and what it’s like for them to navigate the shelter system here.

What are a few fun things that most people might not know about you?

Well, I live the freelance life, waking up and working from my apartment in my pajamas. It’s not really for everyone, but I absolutely love it. I can eat ice cream during the day and watch television on my lunch break. So there’s a degree of laziness I really like about it, because it’s balanced by working extremely hard and turning around solid work to my editors.

What is one of the most memorable stories you’ve written so far?

It’s been exciting to expand my coverage outside of New York and tackle longer, more complicated stories. To that end, I really enjoyed reporting out the resiliency initiatives taking place along the Gulf Coast of Alabama for Next City.

It’s a kind of real estate story, as it hinges on how we can make buildings more resilient after a devastating storm like Katrina. But I dug deeper and it got more interesting: years of grassroots organizing across communities of different income levels; building a language based on resiliency where it had never existed before; and finally enacting change through private industry as well as local and state politics. The reporting also challenged some of my assumptions about what grassroots organizing looks like in a southern state.

I’ll also say this story is thanks to a PR contact, who I briefly connected with while reporting a different story about building resiliency. She represents a nonprofit, who only got a brief mention  in the prior story I worked on. But I told her I was interested in pursuing more resiliency-related stories and she suggested I look into Alabama. Ultimately, the nonprofit she reps got significant coverage in my Next City piece.

Tell us – we promise not to hold it against you – what is your biggest PR pet peeve?

I don’t like getting news that is outside of my beat, and then pestered about whether I’d like to cover it or not. If you haven’t spent time to know what types of stories I cover, I don’t feel the need to spend time letting you know I’m not interested.

I’ll say what I love, too. My schedule as a freelancer is unpredictable – a pitch may sit with an editor for months before they decide to move ahead, and assign me a story that’s due in a week. When a PR rep can meet me at that level – meaning they are well prepared and can quickly connect me to sources – it’s greatly appreciated. When I can depend on you like that, it means I’ll come to you for other stories, too.

I also value honest communication in my PR relationships. If something can’t be done, or you’re working on something and unsure it’ll happen, just tell me! I know things won’t always work out like we expect, so establishing and maintaining honest communication through a story process makes a huge difference.

How many hashtags are too many? (All of us at Impact are looking to impose a legal limit)

I have to say, I’m not a fan of hashtags. The best journalism is complex, it forces us to look at seemingly simple stories with depth and nuance. There’s something human about it that is ideally going to resonate with your audience on an emotional level. There’s no real hashtag for that!

What is the one piece of advice you’d give anyone looking to pitch a news outlet/reporter?

I’ve found this industry to be completely random and unpredictable – I’ve struggled to find a home for great stories, timelines are unpredictable, articles are always at risk of getting killed or significantly changed – so my best advice for anyone in this business (which I often remind myself) is take a deep breath and go with the flow. When things don’t turn out as planned, move on. Don’t let it discourage you, this business requires hard work and a thick skin.

In terms of pitching stories – what’s the most human element about your pitch? What’s emotional, or scary, or exciting about it? Who’s the quirky character you are really drawn to? Those elements are what really interest journalists, rather than a straightforward breakdown of “XXX trend is happening,” etc.

You live in Brooklyn, not too far from where our offices are in the Hudson Valley region. What’s a hidden gem anyone visiting Brooklyn should check out?

I have so many recommendations, here are a few. I’ve been obsessed with Grandchamps, a Haitian restaurant in my neighborhood of Bed-Stuy. A really good place to eat and a chill place to work. Every summer I spend Tuesday nights in Red Hook, their outdoor movie series at Valentino Pier is magical. Get a drink at Sunny’s after. On Sundays, check out the drum circle at Prospect Park, then get a cocktail at Erv’s after.

If someone wants to follow you and your work, how can they connect socially? 

They can follow me on Twitter @emilynonko, where I try to do a decent job of posting my stories. And if you decide to read, thank you so much!