Many of the tutors at Varsity Tutors are more than just highly effective teachers; they have significant professional accomplishments and experiences to share with their students. Evan Benn, a Varsity Tutors tutor specializing in undergraduate and graduate school admissions essays tutoring, is a successful journalist with an impressive professional track record. Evan graduated from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2004 and went on to work for The Miami Herald as a hard-news reporter for five years. He later relocated to St. Louis where he landed a position at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, moving through several different positions until becoming the regular food critic and beer columnist, amassing a substantial online following in the process. Evan also serves as an online columnist for Esquire.
VT: How early of an age did you begin to show an interest for journalism? Was this always the career you wanted to pursue?
Evan: My childhood dream was to be a commercial airline pilot. That's sort of a hard one to sell to your parents. Luckily for me, I realized at a relatively young age that I enjoyed writing. Specifically, I liked writing newspaper stories. My middle school newspaper staff took a field trip to our local paper, The York (Pa.) Dispatch/Sunday News. I think my peers were a little turned off by the newsroom atmosphere -- the frenetic typing, the ringing phones, the harried way editors and reporters communicate on deadline. But I was instantly hooked. I asked the editor if I could hang out after school. She said yes, and every day from the time I was 12 years old, I went to the newspaper to shadow reporters, editors and photographers.
VT: What specifically drew you to newspaper? What do you think of other areas of journalism? E.g. magazine, television, etc.
Evan: My newspaper career has allowed me to write magazine pieces and appear on television from time to time. That's always a great rush and a fun way to stretch the skills I learned in journalism school and beyond. But for me, there's nothing as satisfying as a well-told newspaper story. On television, you only have a few seconds -- maybe a minute or two, at most -- to tell a story. In magazines, sometimes the stories go on for 10,000 words or more, which is fantastic for writers, but not always for readers. Newspapers, I think, hit that sweet spot of giving readers the facts they need and the details they want in a nice, neat, timely package.
VT: Where did you decide to attend college and how did you come to that decision?
Evan: I attended Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism (now the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications). Around my junior year of high school, when I knew I wanted to pursue a newspaper career, I blindly sent emails to dozens of journalists across the country, asking their opinions of whether I should go get a journalism degree from one of the top programs (Northwestern, Syracuse, Missouri) or something a little more general, like political science or English, from a strong liberal-arts college. Their answers were pretty much divided 50-50. What gave Medill the edge was a program I attended there the summer before my senior year in high school, called the National High School Institute. It was a great introduction to the campus and the journalism program, and it's what prompted me to apply early decision.
VT: Describe your experience studying journalism at college. What were some memorable courses and professors that made an impact on you?
Evan: Medill gave me a wonderful baseline of knowledge and skills I needed to practice journalism in the real world. Northwestern's core arts-and-sciences programs also were invaluable. At Medill, I learned a ton from Marcel Pacatte's copyediting course. I credit that class for my passion for grammar, newspaper style and editing (and tutoring!). And David Protess' investigative journalism class changed my life. Under David's tutelage, we reported on actual murder cases in which there were possible miscarriages of justice. In my group's case, we discovered that a man who had been in prison since 1978 was innocent. We tracked down the real killer and got him to confess on videotape.
VT: What was your first job out of school and how easy or difficult was it to attain? What kinds of responsibilities did you hold? How long did you stay there?
Evan: About a month before I graduated, I was offered a job as a general-assignment reporter at The Miami Herald. I had actually interned at that paper during college. Medill has a program where it sends all students to a professional media outlet to intern for a semester, and I was matched at the Herald. Miami is just such an incredible news town -- there is never a dearth of major, and often weird, stories coming from South Florida. I jumped right in, getting to cover breaking news, crime, courts, hurricanes -- basically a little of everything. I worked there from 2004 until 2009, when my wife and I moved to St. Louis. That's when I joined the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as a features editor and writer.
VT: How did you initially land a beer column and what do you enjoy about covering the craft beer scene?
Evan: Initially, my primary duty here was editing, with some writing as well. A week after I started, the person who had been writing the paper's monthly beer column left St. Louis, and the food editor asked if I'd like to take on that role. I didn't know much about beer, so I approached that beat like I would any other: I got out of the newsroom and talked with local folks who are experts on beer (brewers, brewery owners, home-brewers, beer enthusiasts) and told their stories. Along the way, I increased the column's frequency to twice a month, plus daily blog posts, and helped develop a free smartphone app about St. Louis beer. In 2011, I wrote a book for the paper called "Brew in the Lou: St. Louis' Beer Culture -- Past, Present & Future." To me, it's an incredible treat to cover the local craft-beer scene, because it is ripe with passionate people who have interesting stories.
VT: How do you personally approach teaching someone to become an effective writer?
Evan: A lot of the work I do with Varsity Tutors clients mirrors the approach I take to writing in my daily life. It's very easy, especially in high school with SAT’s looming and heavy coursework, to sleepwalk your way through writing assignments. Students often fall back on big, impressive words from the thesaurus or on writing clichés they've been reading their whole lives. My goal is to get them to push those out of the way and really get to the heart of what they're trying to say. I try to help them find their voice and be comfortable putting that into words. So, just like I try to start all of my stories and columns with a compelling lead (first sentence) and then make sure every subsequent paragraph pushes readers on to the next one, I help students do the same.
VT: Would you ever consider education as a full-time career path?
Evan: Maybe! My mom taught 3rd and 5th graders for more than 30 years, and my dad, an attorney, gets great pleasure out of a graduate-level business-law class that he teaches. Writing for newspapers is and always will be my first love, but I do enjoy the opportunity Varsity Tutors has given me to pass on some of what I've learned to others.
VT: In this modern age of blogs, tweets, Facebook, and other social media, what does it mean to be a journalist?
Evan: The role of a journalist has certainly changed, dramatically, since I graduated from college nine years ago. Back then, the only tools I needed to report a story were a pen and a notepad. I'd go out, do some reporting, then go back to the newsroom and write an article for the next day's paper. Done. Today, reporters in the field are armed with digital recorders, video cameras, iPhones, and are always connected. If we're out at an assignment, we'll tweet updates to our followers, maybe post something on Facebook. Once we get back to the newsroom, our first task is to quickly post something to the web, then work on whatever video or photos we've taken, maybe tweet or post to Facebook again. And THEN we turn our attention to the story for the next day's paper. Modern-day journalists are versatile multitaskers who must be prepared to deliver news in whatever format their readers expect and demand.
VT: How do you see journalism evolving over the next 5-10 years? What are the biggest challenges and opportunities facing the field?
Evan: Traditional journalism outlets like newspapers, magazines, and television stations are adapting to the shift to an online-first publishing model. Many have already made great strides in this. The trick is and will continue to be finding a way to monetize that online model. While folks above my paygrade try to sort that out, journalists will continue to play a crucial role as storytellers and news-breakers, afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted. The Internet has given us many powerful tools to do our jobs better and faster than ever before. We must embrace those changes and adapt with them.
VT: What advice do you have for aspiring journalists?
Evan: Keep writing! The world will always need bright, talented, eager journalists to tell stories, no matter the medium. Write anywhere you can: for blogs, school newspapers, personal essays, magazines. Get clips, and keep a portfolio of your work.
Check out Evan’s tutoring profile.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.