3 Questions with… Neal Justin of the Star Tribune

Neal JustinEditor’s note: Students in ThreeSixty Journalism’s Rookie Journalist Camp in June spent time writing a Q-and-A story about guest speakers who visited camp. Check ThreeSixty.stthomas.edu for more of these profiles, as well as student blogs.

“Part of being a good music critic is going to out clubs and listening to a lot of bad music.”

When 19 strangers arrive for the first day of summer camp, you would expect awkward stares and nerves.

But on the first day of ThreeSixty Journalism camp, one hour with Neal Justin quickly eased any tension.

Instantly, the atmosphere changed when Justin asked the strangers – the students – their names and their special talent. His presence made everyone feel comfortable around one another.

Justin works as a media critic for the Star Tribune.

“Part of being a good music critic is going to out clubs and listening to a lot of bad music,” Justin said, “and I just get physically ill listening to a really bad heavy metal band, and sick to my stomach. I can watch bad television, though. I can sit there and find some fascination with it.

Justin also is the co-founder of the Asian-American Journalists Association’s JCamp, a summer program for some of the country’s top high school journalists.

To get his feet wet, Justin worked at his high school newspaper and worked at the local community paper.

Q: What made you want to become a media critic?

Justin: I was pretty good at a lot of different things, but I wasn’t great at anything, and it turns out that’s kind of the perfect formula for a journalist, because you kind of have to be a little bit of an expert in everything. But if you’re really good at something, then you’ll probably go do that. … I love that. I love putting on a different hat every day, sometimes every hour.

… I loved entertainment. I’ve always loved arts and entertainment, and particularly television because from when I was a child to (when) I got out of the house at 18, my parents would not let me watch more than half an hour of TV, and then I got an hour on Saturday and Sunday. … I would say I became a TV critic as revenge.

I have covered more traditional news, I’ve covered crime and city politics and all of that stuff, but most of my career has been in covering arts and entertainment. I love doing music, I was the music critic at one time, but I don’t like everything. Part of being a good music critic is going out to clubs and listening to a lot of bad music, and I just get physically ill listening to a really bad heavy metal band and sick to my stomach. I can watch bad television, though. I can sit there and find some fascination with it. I just think television in particular, and the media in general, is such a microcosm of what’s going on in the world.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about your background?

Justin: I was born in Canada. I grew up in Mason City, Iowa, which is about two hours south of here. A town of about 30,000. I worked at the high school paper and also worked at our local community paper doing sports late at night.

My curfew was like 6 p.m. until I was 18. Working for the local newspaper (covering sports) I would be out on Friday and Saturday until midnight. … That’s where I got interested in journalism. Really nice town, really good school system.

I went to Northwestern outside of Chicago, and I started clerking in the summer at the Chicago Tribune, which back then, it was before emails had taken off. A lot of it was opening mail.

… I networked and bugged people until they gave me writing assignments. I got enough that after I graduated I was writing as a freelancer full time for the Chicago Tribune. This was arts and entertainment stuff, and I really felt like I needed to get some hard news experience, so I went to Rockford, Illinois, and was a crime reporter there primarily.

This was 1991 to 1993. The gangs were just starting to come out of Chicago and kind of make their home in Rockford, and none of the bad guys knew how to shoot a gun, so they would do these drive-by shootings and they wouldn’t hit anything they were aiming for. They would hit a lot of kids and innocent bystanders. It was a terrible, terrible time. But as a journalist it was a lot to cover. It was a really eye-opening couple of years. And then I came here.

Q: Have you traveled far?

Justin: I love to travel. I’ve traveled far. I’ve been to India a few times. I went to Vietnam and Cambodia a few years ago. I’ve been to Brazil. I’ve been to Europe, many different countries in Europe, mostly England but also Germany and Italy a few times. I like Italy.

I go for vacations. When I was your age, a little bit older when I could travel by myself, traveling overseas was kind of affordable, believe it or not. It’s very expensive now. So I encourage you guys when you’re looking at colleges, if you go to college, to see if you can get into some schools where they have an abroad program. I really think spending some time when you’re young traveling, if you can somehow swing it financially or get the money for it, jump at it. I just think it’s so eye-opening, it’s so fantastic when you learn more, if you do it right.

… A lot of people travel as journalists. If you’re interested in journalism, there are jobs where you travel for a living, or your get assigned somewhere like London, like Paris. Those jobs aren’t as prevalent as they once were, but they’re out there.

This transcript has been edited for length and content.