Catching up with past student journalists

Bri Brasher

Palak Patel, pictured at left during a visit to the Boston Globe offices, is one of the many former Newcastle High School students who interned at the News Letter Journal during their high school years. (Submitted photo)

Bri Brasher

NLJ Reporter


Austin Harley, Nicole Lebsack, Mark Keierleber, Palak Patel and Kyle Jorrey all share similar backgrounds growing up in Newcastle, but their similarities don’t end there. Now, they are making their mark working in various branches of the journalism field with roots tying them to the News Letter Journal

Harley now owns a real estate photograph business in Colorado Springs, Colorado, while Lebsack is the assistant managing editor at the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and editor of the Wyoming Business Report. Keierleber is a reporter for The 74, a nonprofit education website based in New York, and Patel is an editorial assistant for Wolters Kluwer, a publishing company based in the Netherlands. Jorrey is editor of the Thousand Oaks Acorn, a weekly paper with a circulation of 40,000 covering Thousand Oaks, California, and he also serves as head of social media for the Acorn Newspaper Group, consisting of five weekly papers and one quarterly magazine. 

“It’s an amazing feeling to cover the community you live in and provide news readers can’t get anywhere else and news that they absolutely rely upon—I learned that at the NLJ,” Jorrey said, specifically in reference to working in local journalism.

Fueled by early interest and skill, each of the five worked as student journalists for the News Letter Journal, learning to work on deadline and finding their niche in the world of journalism and the many paths that branch from the field. 

Harley juggled his interest in medicine, journalism, meteorology and broadcasting until finding his way back to photography with his real estate photography business. 

“I think I got my first camera when I was 16, like a real camera, and I kinda thought it was cool, taking some portraits on the side,” said Harley, who said that he started taking pictures on auto until Amy Menerey, designer at the News Letter Journal, “peaked his interest.” Menerey showed him how cameras work and how to use all the features available. 

Harley learned that he prefers to make his own schedule after working the odd hours required of meteorologists and journalists. So he took matters into his own hands and started his real estate photography business when his aunt, a real estate agent in Colorado Springs, noticed his talent behind the camera. Harley now employs two other photographers at SoCo Home Photography, offering photos, videos, and aerial photography. 

“I never imagined that I would be doing real estate photography as a full-time job. It was an opportunity that really just landed in my lap and then blew up,” Harley said. 

Keierleber on the other hand, has always loved being a reporter. He sees the News Letter Journal as a “good footstep” in his career. He learned to write and take photographs before attending Northwest College and then Indiana University, graduating with his bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2013. Today, Keierleber covers national news and enjoys investigative reporting. He primarily reports on K-12 schools, federal education policy, immigrant youth, school security and, lately, impacts of the government shutdown. According to The 74 website, Keierleber’s work has been published in The Chronicle of Higher Education and The Courier-Journal. Still, he too values the work of local journalists.

“What’s cool about the journal and in general — local news is incredibly important — it (the internship) gave me a respect for the work that local reporters do,” Keierleber said. 

Like her News Letter Journal peers, Patel now works in a much larger market in Boston, where she earned her master’s degree in writing and publishing from Emerson College in 2018 after graduating with a degree in English from Vassar College in 2016, where she also worked for the campus newspaper. 

“It was a really big change, I think, going from being in college to working for the newspaper at home,” said Patel, who said she came home for a summer and interned at the News Letter Journal as an undergraduate. She later said, “It was very much that everybody did everything there, so that was a good experience. You learn a little bit about everything.”

Now, Patel is hard at work getting experience in Boston, one of the nation’s major publishing hubs, and she hopes to eventually “move into positions more specific to editorial and writing,” though she said she may “end up going the publishing route, depending on job availability.”

Like Patel, Jorrey and Lebsack also worked as student journalists at the NLJ, they both recall earlier memories that sparked their interest in the field. Jorrey said he was often found reading the USA Today for sports scores by age 8, and Lebsack was elected “reporter” for her 4-H club around the same age. In her role, Lebsack wrote up the notes from her 4-H meetings for publication in the News Letter Journal

“The editor at the time, Tom Mullen, had very high standards, which he did not waive for a kid writer. I remember rewriting my ‘articles’ over and over again until they met with his approval. For some reason, that challenge ultimately appealed to me,” Lebsack said. 

Lebsack said she continues to challenge herself today, especially because the field is “rapidly changing, both in terms of our readership and the economic realities of the industry.” Thus, Lebsack said, she hopes to always learn and grow in the field, something her past experience shows she is familiar with. Lebsack said she learned the “behind-the-scenes work of producing a newspaper” at the News Letter Journal in high school and during summer internships while in college. Since then, she’s worked her way up at the Wyoming Tribune Eagle from copy editor/designer to assistant managing editor. 

“I still feel so much satisfaction when I’m able to take a rough draft of a story and edit it into a narrative that might flow better, explain things clearer or just plain appeal to the reader more, said Lebsack. “I also enjoy the ability to be creative with page layout, and to help a story shine with an attractive design or an interesting infographic.”

Jorrey’s passion for the work also shines through, dating back to his time at the News Letter Journal covering Dogie sports and writing his own column. 

“I guess you could say I was hooked. In those days, I had to take all the photos for my stories, which involved developing film in the NLJ’s darkroom. I loved all of it,” said Jorrey. “After my freshman year at Pepperdine, I came back to Newcastle and worked full time at the paper for the summer. That’s when I really came into my own as a writer.”

Jorrey said he thoroughly enjoys the Thousand Oaks community where he lives, and he hopes to continue to move up the ladder, eventually serving as managing editor for all five Acorn newspapers. Then, he may want to move to a larger paper or a digital outlet, he said, possibly even pursing a novel or movie script at some point in his career. However, Jorrey is keeping his options open and also sees himself “becoming a professor and sharing my passion for journalism with others.”

“As cliché as it sounds, journalism has always felt like a calling,” Jorrey said. “Both my parents served in the Army and I see journalism as a type of public service — obviously, a very different kind. It is absolutely an integral part of our democracy.” 

Lebsack and Harley also found value in mentorship and internships and advise others to take advantage of the opportunity to explore all interests and learn as much as possible. Harley also cautioned that lifestyle is equally as important as passion in choosing a career. He is evidence, he said, that there is a niche for all. Lebsack said to be “open to learning, ask questions, and stretch your abilities.”

“Make sure that journalism is something that you want to go into, as gloomy as that sounds. Just because you have to hustle, and it’s not exactly a career with great job security,” Keierleber said. “You just really want to make sure that you’re committed to it.” 

Jorrey also encourages young journalists to “get out of your comfort zone” and “don’t just stay in your box.” He said to have no fear and go for it — “write about as many topics as you can.”

Harley, Lebsack, Keierleber, Patel and Jorrey all pursued their interests in various locations across the country, and all found their own place in the field of journalism. Despite their different paths to success, their roots lie in their upbringing in Newcastle and their work at the News Letter Journal—a small paper, growing big talent. 

“I was lucky enough to work with people who were talented and passionate about their jobs and about community journalism, and Bob Bonnar, in particular, was an extremely good mentor,” said Lebsack. “He leads by example and has the ability to teach young journalists not only how to do the job, but also about the valuable service newspapers provide to their communities. I feel very lucky that I was able to start in such an environment.”


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