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Recess Interviews: Khan T'10 on working for 'Full Frontal with Samantha Bee'

Naureen Khan, Trinity ’10, a former local and national news editor for The Chronicle, has gone to write for publications such as National Journal and Al Jazeera after her time at Duke. Currently, Khan is the lead researcher the satirical late night show “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,” currently the only late night show with a female host that has also received rave critical praise. Khan spoke to The Chronicle’s Dillon Fernando about her time at Duke and her experiences in the journalism and the media industry. Khan’s conversation with The Chronicle has been condensed for clarity.

The Chronicle: What got you really interested in journalism?

Naureen Khan: I went to a Chronicle meeting my freshman year and I wrote my first story and I was a bit of a shy girl. I was still trying to find where I would fit in at Duke. I really love that it brought me out of my comfort zone. 

For one of my first stories I had to call the mayor of Durham and I remember it like working out a script...and when he deviated from the script, I would panic, hands shaking, all of that. But I love the thrill of asking important people questions or getting to tell interesting stories about the Duke community.

In a college environment there wasn’t all the competition that there is in the general journalism world. It’s a unique place to be in just how all these stories that not everyone has access to, and it was the first time I had done journalism and I loved it, loved it, loved it, loved.it.

Freshman year [first semester] I wrote a couple of stories and then second semester I really ramped it up, and then my sophomore year, I was spending way more time at The Chronicle than in my classes or in my dorm. Yeah, it was just a great experience for a shy girl.

TC: What was your approach to getting a job after your time at The Chronicle? Was it through internships, networking, or just randomly applying to things?

NK: It was a little bit of everything, The Chronicle had a partnership with the News and Observer so we had some internship slots there. I worked there between my junior and senior year, and it was a great experience to be reporter in a real newsroom. The reason it was really great because it sent you out reporting on the first day. I was driving around in my Toyota Corolla all over the Raleigh-Durham area, but I was just really doing reporting and lots of things that were scary for me—but great experiences. After I graduated, I had an internship with the Austin-American Statesman sort of learning how to do some nose to the ground reporting, talking to total strangers and cold-calling elected officials.

After that [internship], the editor for the Chronicle then actually referred me for a job at The Atlantic. They were looking to hire a lot of young people for the National Journal re-boot. I was at the National Journal for three years, and then an editor at the National Journal helped me get my job—so it kind of naturally connected. I think naturally in the course of your career you meet people who are willing to help you and great mentors, and I feel privileged to have that.

TC: So at the National Journal and Al Jazeera, how big of a jump was it to those big publications?

NK: I think The Chronicle grounds you in the fundamentals. Of course, in The Chronicle office people are walking around barefoot. Obviously the professional setting is a little bit different, and it changes things when you’re getting paid money. At the National Journal, I was at sort of an entry level position. There were all of these great fabulous reporters all around me, and I was learning so much from them. I think The Chronicle prepared me very well for my first journalism job. I was prepared, but then, obviously, there’s the other part of learning how to be a Washington reporter for the first time which requires its own particular skill set.

TC: Moving to "Full Frontal." You talked a little bit about how you got into it through a connection at Al Jazeera, but that’s not necessarily a job that most people naturally see for journalism. What got you interested in working for a show like that?

NK: So it happened organically in that I wish I could say that I had the foresight to say that I wanted to work for a late night satirical news show, but it wasn’t really like that at all. I had been at Al Jazeera for two years and then National Journal for three years, and I had fun political reporting for an outlet. I knew that I wanted to do something different, but I didn’t really know what that was. So when the friend of mine at Al Jazeera had gone for John Oliver, she emailed me and said this new show is starting up, and I think you’d really like it. The host is Samantha Bee and it’s late night, so I know you’ll like that. I thought yeah, I could be into that. I like jokes. It progressed from there.

You can’t always plan for things. You have to be open to opportunities when they arise. And again, I guess the thread tying every step of my career together has been fear, getting past that fear and facing new challenges.

TC: So you talk a little bit about the fear, and I think that’s something a lot of current Duke students have to kind of get out of their comfort zone and to try new things. So can you talk a little bit about how you dealt with that uncertainty or self-doubt throughout your career so far?

NK: It’s a cliché, but you can’t let your anxiety dictate what you do. It’s a cliché, but stepping out of your comfort zone is finding a way forward and letting yourself be led by what you like doing, your passion. I think the value of being 22 is that you have time. You can sort of eat ravioli out of a can or ramen or whatever while you figure things out. You don’t have to immediately go off to law school. By the way, law school was my backup plan. I took the LSATs and applied. I knew that I would regret not taking this opportunity if it came along. Moving to Washington for the National Journal job, not knowing anyone. I slept on an air mattress for nine months. I lived in this tiny apartment out in Virginia. The Al Jazeera jobs were one of the dream jobs. For this job, I moved to New York and went to go work in television. But I felt that I had to do these things where I would always regret not taking the chance.

TC: What exactly is your role at "Full Frontal" on a daily basis?

NK: I’m a researcher and actually the fact-checker on our show is another Duke grad. He graduated in 2015, I think. So once a segment idea gets green-lighted, then we research behind it and it gets assigned to one of us. We sort of do the leg work on it—meaning we dig up the information that we think is important or valuable and then we share it with the writers and the producers. We all sort of talk about where the story should go and what we think the important themes are. From there, the writers sort of make it and they’re brilliant jokes and make it something you want to watch. We do more research along the way. They’ll come back to us and then we’ll sort of collaborate on getting them what they need. Everything on “Full Frontal” is grounded in fact and reality and truth, and we’re doing things that we feel are important. We’re highlighting issues that we all feel are important. So not every day is the same. It sort of depends on where the show is and what people are interested in and some weeks and crazy and some weeks are a little bit lighter. But I would say just as much reporting and making phone calls, trying to figure out specific information here that I did at Al Jazeera or National Journal.

TC: One of my favorite segments is when Samantha shows the clip of Ted Cruz during a college theater performance saying, “Why am I persecuted?” So are you guys in charge of finding those clips, those segments? Or is it more just finding the background of the issues at hand?

NK: Yeah, that’s sort of the mandate of my team. We sort of dig up all of that lovely video material. The Ted Cruz one, the video was actually in a Boston Globe story and we sort of unearthed it. A lot of our job is to find funny tidbits that may already be circulating out there, but that not a lot of people know about. Our video research team, they do a great job finding funny and absurd things that really crystallize what the spirit is of the current political moment.

TC: Is there anything that you wish you could have done at Duke or in The Chronicle that you didn’t get a chance to do, but you would recommend for current students?

NK: Oh man. No, actually. I think I did everything with The Chronicle that I meant to do. I had a great time. I made great friends. I think I could have left with the stories that I wanted to do by my senior year. I’m totally drinking the Kool-Aid of The Chronicle. I love The Chronicle. I value what I did there so much, as much as anything else I did at Duke. I’m still really good friends with the people that I met there. If I could go back to past me, I’d tell myself to pay a little more attention in my classes. I’d work on my papers and appreciate the academic experience more. I was so involved in The Chronicle that sometimes I jumped out of my other stuff. I’d say really appreciate your professors and get to know them if you can. Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself and make friends.

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