Terry Castleman '12 was just named a Pulitzer Prize finalist, MA sat down with him to help process this big news.
MA: Congratulations on being named a Pulitzer Prize finalist in explanatory reporting! You were named alongside two colleagues at The Los Angeles Times for “a deeply researched examination of the difficult choices Californians must make as climate change erodes precious coastline.” How did you feel when you first heard the news of being named a finalist?
I’ve been vacillating between pandemic panic and cautious optimism for a few weeks. My initial reaction was shock—this is something I’d dreamed about, but not something I expected to happen anytime soon. I was also grateful to be able to share the moment with my family. (One of the few silver linings of shelter-in-place is that my mom, sister and I were all together for the announcement.) So many people are in dire straits now; I’m still processing what it means to reach a milestone while the world crumbles.
The thing I’m happiest about is contributing to the renaissance of the L.A. Times, a vital journalistic institution feeling pressure on multiple fronts: a financial squeeze and health concerns for reporters in the field chief among them. I hope that this recognition can help with morale and generate subscriptions in a difficult time.
MA: How did this examination come about and when did you first get involved in the piece? How did you feel when the report was finished?
By the time I started at the L.A. Times (February 2019), our star reporter Rosanna Xia had already been working on a story about sea level rise for nearly a year. By March, she had invited me and my colleague, data journalist Swetha Kannan, to join her. For months, we worked together to create a news game illustrating the findings from Rosanna’s reporting. Every last detail was scrutinized—I remember at one point Swetha had placed a four-story building in the background of the game, and Rosanna immediately picked up on it. She pointed out that buildings over three stories would not be allowed in a town like the fictitious one we were creating. We made three or four totally distinct versions of the game over the next four months, tearing down and rebuilding after getting feedback. When the package finally ran in July, my first feeling was relief. The game worked properly with a large group of users, which is never guaranteed. It was also my first published project at the Times, so it felt really good to be putting something out there with my name on it. I had no idea it would end up competing for journalism awards. It still feels like a fever dream: this award, a pandemic, me living at home at age 26 and growing a beard? Totally surreal.
MA: Can you tell us a little about how you ended up at the LA Times and what your career path and the journey has looked like since you graduated from MA?
It’s been a strange journey thus far. I majored in engineering and economics at Tufts, but was always much more interested in news and politics than my required classes. Coming out of school, I felt that my technical background could be construed as an asset to a newspaper. The New York Times bit, and I spent the first 18 months of my career there. It was a tumultuous time at the paper—my first six months on the job lined up with the primaries and general election of 2016—and as one of ~10 new graduates at a company of 4000 people, I was a tadpole in an enormous pond. The advice I kept getting was to go to a slightly smaller paper that had more options for young people. I eventually followed that advice, but not before a crazy detour in 2018: I spent the first half of the year volunteering at a NGO (Lighthouse Relief) on the Greek island Lesvos running a rapid response team which supported refugees arriving on crowded dinghies, and the second half of the year as Digital Director for a Congressional race in Little Rock. I wanted some real-world experience to inform my journalistic ambitions. In early 2019, I was extremely lucky to be taken on at the L.A. Times. The last 15 months have involved a little bit of everything, but have included rebuilding the online component of our food section, covering climate change, elections, and now coronavirus, and lots of little projects in between. My future is uncertain, but then again, so is the future of society as we know it, for better and for worse.
MA: Was there a moment or experience during your time at MA that inspired you or planted a seed that you can trace back to high school?
It sounds flippant, but my experience co-founding and editing The Leek (MA’s original satirical newspaper) has served me well. We strove to be creative on deadline, and actually sort of had to do real reporting: talking to people all over campus for ideas, checking fake quotes to make sure those named in stories were okay with their roles, and the like. And more seriously, the teachers and coach who dealt with my brash teenage self, and managed to make me learn, deserve a metric ton of credit. I’m a big believer in noblesse oblige, a concept I first encountered at MA and one that feels more relevant than ever in a socially stratified world. We should recognize that attending a school like ours is a tremendous privilege, and with that privilege comes an obligation to make positive change. I hope to be back on campus to thank the staff personally once it is safe to do so.