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Yarmouth journalist's advice: Hard work matters more than technology

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Yarmouth journalist's advice: Hard work matters more than technology

YARMOUTH — As a child, Sabrina Shankman dreamed of one day being a journalist.

She was inspired by her grandfather, a career circulation director for several newspapers, who would take her to see the printing presses.

"He worshipped newspapers, and I worshipped him," Shankman said. "It planted the seed when I was really young."

Today, at 30, Shankman has already written and produced for some of the country's most hard-hitting investigative news outlets, exposing corruption and telling stories across a variety of media.

Shankman graduated from Yarmouth High School and studied journalism at New York University, and interned at The Forecaster. She then spent almost two years as a reporter with the Taunton Daily Gazette in Massachusetts before heading to a two-year master's program at the University of California at Berkeley.

During grad school, Shankman did a summer internship with the South African bureau of the Associated Press in Johannesburg. She covered stories ranging from Nelson Mandela's 90th birthday, to violent elections in Zimbabwe, to the burgeoning South African snowboarding scene.

"I was there for just two months, but it was a hell of an experience," Shankman said.

She went on to intern at the Los Angeles bureau of The Wall Street Journal and then, four years ago, moved to New York City to work for ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative news nonprofit.

At ProPublica, Shankman helped produce several "Frontline" documentaries, including 2010's "Law and Disorder," which examined the New Orleans Police Department in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Shankman pursued rumors that high-ranking police officials had issued an order to shoot looters, regardless of whether they were armed.

"I was meeting with police officers for mostly off-the-record conversations," she said. "Over time, this picture developed that in fact this had been something that was told to them. So it was just a matter of getting enough people to corroborate that story. And then over time, trying to build some trust, and trying to get people to go on the record, and I ultimately some did. That was an incredibly challenging and rewarding experience of just going down there and hustling."

Shankman also contributed to the recent book and TV documentary "League of Denial," which explores concussions in professional football.

Most recently, she took a position as a producer and reporter for InsideClimate News, a nonprofit environmental news organization that earned the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting.

Shankman said she wasn't concerned about narrowing the scope of her focus to environmental and energy issues.

"There are so many different facets," she said. "This affects every part of our lives and will continue to do so more in the future. So it's definitely an adjustment, thinking that I'm going to be living inside this framework for a while, but it's also kind of exciting because there are so many important stories to be told. I don't think it'll ever get boring."

This isn't Shankman's first time covering environmental issues, either. She wrote her master's thesis about oil development on an Indian reservation in North Dakota's Bakken shale; at ProPublica, she worked with Abrahm Lustgarten on stories about hydrolic fracturing and the natural gas industry.

Since joining InsideClimate News, Shankman has expanded her skill set even further: she built an app, called ICN Books, released last week, that increases the interactivity of e-books.

"InsideClimate writes these books, and what I'm doing is pulling in various media – whether it's photos, audio, video – and incorporating that into the story for a more immersive storytelling experience," she said.

Shankman lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with her husband, Andrew Hodgkins, a preschool teacher who previously played drums in Portland rock band As Fast As. They met in fourth grade. Their families still live in Maine, and the couple visit the state regularly, Shankman said.

Looking ahead, Shankman said she doesn't know quite what her future has in store, and that doesn't bother her.

"When I was in grad school, I expected that I would be a print reporter for life," she said. "And the next thing I knew, I was helping produce for 'Frontline.' And that somehow turned to creating (interactive content), and trying to think about new storytelling methods for investigative journalism. I feel like, in many ways, the job I want down the road might not exist yet."

Although Shankman has taken advantage of new technologies to enhance her abilities as storyteller, she advises aspiring journalists to focus less on the industry's ever-changing toolkit and more on their own fundamentals.

"There's a lot of stress put on technology right now, on the future of journalism, and learning about new cameras or web development or whatever it may be," she said. "But the people I know who do the most interesting work and find themselves constantly employed are the ones who are just really good journalists, who care a lot and work really hard, and just are always questioning their assumptions and trying to figure out what's actually going on."

Brendan Twist can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or btwist@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @brendantwist.