Hall: Scott Sayare ’04

Scott Sayare ’04, reporter and news assistant in the New York Times Paris bureau, began with his recent experiences on assignment in Tunisia in Hall on January 9. It was March of last year, and Qaddafi’s military campaign in Libya had resulted in tens of thousands of migrant workers flooding across the border into Tunisia. “I had been sent to write about it,” said Scott, “and I was petrified.” It was his first assignment outside of France. As he recounted this story, he wove in another one about grown-up life in the “real world.”

Though The New York Times had explained to him that he was to cover what looked to be a potential humanitarian crisis, Scott had many more questions and no time to ask them before packing and boarding the plane. Mostly he wanted some guidance for the assignment, so he called his editor, Rick, back in New York.

Scott: “Just arrived in Tunisia. So, what exactly are you looking for from me?”

Rick: (Pause) “Well, I don’t want to tell you what the story is. You tell us what the story is.”

Scott found himself in medias res in southern Tunisia near the Libyan border on his first assignment—right in the middle of things. And by the narrative technique that goes by the same name, he brought his Hall listeners into the middle with him. “In medias res,” he added, “or perhaps in mediis rebus, is also a fitting description of me.”

While Scott admits he’s done “grown up” things in his young adult life, he says he doesn’t feel like much of a grown up. “I’ve learned a great deal about a great many things in the past few years, but the world still remains an expansive mystery to me.” And he offered this wisdom to the present generation of RL boys who filled the seats he once sat in himself: Life in the real world is not as predictable or straightforward-to-prepare-for as he once thought. “It’s a process, and a messy one at that—or at least that’s what it looks like it’s going to be for me.”

Scott studied human biology at Stanford after graduating from RL, and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. Accomplished in French (he won the RL French prize for three years running), Scott spent his Stanford junior year abroad in Grenoble, France. While in college, he found himself swept up in the study of climate change. “I spent a year cornering friends, family, and anyone else I could force to listen, and lectured them about recycling, driving less, buying organic.” But his foray into science as a career ended after he spent a summer as a research assistant counting flowers. Never mind that the setting was a picture-perfect valley in Colorado nestled between snow-capped mountains. “My colleagues were ecstatic,” said Scott. “I was going quietly mad with boredom.”

It was at this point that Scott considered journalism. Without any prior editorial experience, nor having taken a single journalism class, Scott was correct in assuming his chances were slim for finding a reporter position when he graduated from Stanford in 2008, given the economic state of things at the time. But the fact that he could speak French gave him a critical edge—in France, anyway.

Scott credits his first internship in early 2009 at the Associated Press’s Paris bureau to a stroke of luck. Another brief internship at The New York Times’s Paris bureau followed before the Times hired him.

“In the Paris bureau we cover everything that happens in France that we think will be of interest to thoughtful American readers,” said Scott. Among the stories he has covered are one on the destruction of a housing tower in the banlieues of Paris known for its crime with plans to rebuild, focusing on the failure of architecture to fix social ills; one on the slow death of Parisian nightlife (the assignment “ ‘obliged’ me to stay out late at night, going to clubs and bars and interviewing owners and patrons…”); and one on Porcaro, a religious pilgrimage organized around the Catholic holiday of Ascension, for motorcyclists.

Scott also writes a great deal about French politics, including protests and the frequent public demonstrations, and was sent to Athens to cover a protest of the Israeli blockade of Gaza. But Tunisia, where he’s now spent a month over the course of two visits, remains the most exciting and personally trying experience he’s ever had as a journalist. There, where he was tossed into the middle of things (“You see?” he said, “in medias res!”), with no real preparation and under considerable pressure to produce—to get the story—for The New York Times, no less, remains among his most formative assignments. The task of “getting the story” was littered with extraneous predicaments such as difficult encounters (desperate refugees begging for help), logistical trials (no food, no wi-fi), friends made and left behind (journalistic ethics that call for keeping distance). “These anecdotes are what I remember most from Tunisia,” said Scott.

“It strikes me, looking back, that all of them are about taking charge and assuming the responsibilities of the situation, despite feeling utterly inadequate, not at all up to the task—and feeling that I was improvising the whole thing. …This, this, is how life goes. At least for me, at least for now. You do not collect your diploma, walk through a door, and leave childhood as a fully formed adult. I’m increasingly convinced that there’s really no such thing, actually.”

“It’s all much more complicated than it might look at age 13, 14, 15, 16, 17. The path that seems so simple, so clear, may well prove to be neither—I know this is hard to believe, because, believe it or not, I was you not so long ago! I encourage you to know and embrace all these complications,” Scott said, “to be always in the middle of things, and to stay open to all the rich confusions of the world.”

Scott continued the conversation with the seniors in Dr. Steven’s Economics of Globalization class after the Hall, where he took questions and discussed the value of living outside of the U.S. for perspective, about ethical issues within journalism, the future of the Euro, and the motivating forces behind the uprisings surrounding Arab Spring. (see photos here)

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