Andre Natta: Telling Cities’ Stories.

andre-nattaIf you ever have the chance, reward yourself by having a discussion with Andre Natta. The pauses that occur in the conversation are there simply so he can evaluate the complexities of what it is he is about to say. And Natta, who did not train as a journalist—he has a degree in architectural history, with a minor in architecture—is nevertheless one of the most respected journalists working in Birmingham today.

This assertion is not made lightly. Natta was recently awarded a John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University. “I have to go in knowing I have access to one of the best schools in the world,” he remarks, quietly. This reserve drives much of Natta’s approach generally. “I come from a family that has always been committed to their community, but I have always felt like I can do more with a pen and paper than with other tools. I think of journalism for the community like this: what sports journalists used to write about on Saturday night for Sunday morning was what people used to talk about at church. Now, whether it written, or in a podcast, or on the radio, or broadcast, there are just so many more ways that people get information.”

Raised in the Bronx, Natta brings his life experience to bear when considering how to situate ideas about community, communication, and journalism.

“I’m fascinated by ideas of regional journalism,” he explains, “which is why my fellowship at Stanford looks at how we can better focus on regional coverage to understand its impacts nationwide. I think that coming from the New York area gives you an interesting perspective on considering the idea of regional journalism and regionalism in general. What people often don’t consider is that the five boroughs of New York are five counties—which work reasonably collaboratively. So, when we begin to consider the ‘big picture’ issues that need to be addressed around Birmingham, like infrastructure, or transportation, there actually are strong models for regional cooperation that may not be thought of in those terms.”

He began giving voice to these ideas when he launched the terminal, a website with the subhead “Birmingham’s hub.” “It started as a personal blog,” he smiles, “but I realized there were bigger stories to tell.” A subsequent position with local NPR member station WBHM meant that he could not focus on the site for now, but he still has the URL.

“I haven’t really thought about how the site may transform, but I believe there are still opportunities there,” Natta explains. “It may be that once the Fellowship is complete I may want to reconsider how best to use it since it already has a presence and a brand identity. This could be one way to address the problems of media fragmentation, which makes it hard to know what voices are out there.”

One of the challenges Natta faces, as he believes all journalists do, is one he describes as being either a gatekeeper or a curator. “I see the two roles—determining what gets presented, versus how it gets presented—as sharing the same information, but in very different ways. One of the biggest challenges journalists face in this regard is that people need to be critical of journalism, but not be so accusatory that they’re not able to listen to what is being reported.

“I sometimes feel that legitimacy can actually be our biggest problem and not truly understanding or listening to our communities doesn’t help.”

For the coming year, this may be less of a problem. Surrounded by 17 other Knight Fellows, and supported by prior Fellowship recipients, Natta will have the structure and space to explore complex issues and ideas about journalism, and the specific questions about it that he wants to address.

So, once again, Andre Natta is taking a chance on an unexpected, and unique, opportunity. But in the shift from architectural history to journalism, to the change from web-based journalism to public radio, and now in the move back to academically supported research, there is one constant: community. This idea centers everything that he does. Paraphrasing a quote he loves, Natta knows that we do the city—and ourselves—a disservice if we don’t try to tell as much of the story as possible. Rest assured, Andre Natta never has that problem.

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