2017 Alumna of the Year: Ellen Nakashima

News editors make the argument every semester at info sessions: apply to the Daily Californian, even if you’re a rising senior. One semester could make an impact for years to come.

Case in point: Ellen Nakashima, a 20-year veteran reporter at the Washington Post, didn’t join the Daily Cal until the summer after she’d graduated in 1984. Nevertheless, it was here that she got her first taste of journalism, where she said “the bug bit,” launching a reporting career that would span the globe.

After breaking huge scandals that have shaken the White House to its core, she’s been named as the paper’s 2017 alumna of the year by the Daily Californian Education Foundation.

Faced with a slow summer in 1984, Nakashima joined as a staff writer and later served a brief stint editing the paper’s international page. She remembers fondly what quickly became a news-packed year.
Berkeley was as much in the center of the national discussion then as it was today. The community was alive with anti-apartheid boycotts, and everyone from students to professors to politicians was taking part. Nakashima’s beat made her a frequent attendee at Zoning Adjustments Board and Planning Commission meetings, regarded today as a rite of passage for new reporters. She recalls that year’s city council race, like this past year’s, was particularly exciting.
It was also a year, with Walter Mondale challenging President Ronald Reagan, and choosing Geraldine Ferraro as the first female running mate of a major party ticket. One of Nakashima’s favorite moments was being present at the World Affairs Council covering the event where the historic announcement was made.
“It was exhilarating,” she said. “All of that in one short year that I was actually at the Daily Cal.”
Nakashima decided next to take a break from journalism, the idea being to travel Europe or Costa Rica. Coasting on the dollar’s favorable exchange, she hitchhiked across Europe. When she lost her return ticket home, she decided to stay.
“I was having such a great time in Italy,” she said. “It was so beautiful, why don’t I stay here for awhile and maybe earn some money for a return ticket home? And instead I fell in love,” she said.
Five years and a master’s degree in journalism later, she returned to the U.S. with the aim of someday going back abroad as an international correspondent. As she built up a portfolio reporting metro from Boston and Hartford, she took Arabic lessons angling for a position in Cairo.
Instead, she was offered a position in the Post’s Southeast Asia bureau in Jakarta, Indonesia. It was 2002, in a critical moment for the rise of Islamic extremists groups in the region following the September 11 attacks and the start of the Iraq War. Her husband, Alan Sipress, a former correspondent in the Middle East whom she met through the Post, joined her in Jakarta.
“We had never thought about [going there], but we thought about it and said, ‘Hmm this could be interesting,’ ” Nakashima recalled.
It was an eventful four-year tour, during which Nakashima would frequently fly to the southern Philippines or Thailand to cover stories. At the same time, bird flu and fears of a SARS pandemic tore through the region. Then in 2004, Indonesia was hit with one of the deadliest recorded natural disasters, the Indian Ocean Earthquake.
“There was bird flu, SARs, the tsunami,” Nakashima remembered. “Wars, pestilence, and terrorism.
After her tour ended, Nakashima returned to the Post to report on privacy and technology, helping bring government programs of widespread surveillance into the mainstream. She currently resides in Washington D.C. with her Sipress,  the Post’s National News Editor, and their daughter.
She was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2014 for reporting on widespread federal government surveillance programs and policy changes resulting from leaks by Edward Snowden. The relentless pace of news and the political climate, particularly under the Trump administration, has made journalism increasingly a team effort, Nakashima said. In the past year, often with colleagues Craig Miller and Adam Entous, she broke the story of the Russian government hack of the Democratic National Committee. She brought to light information on exchanges between officials of Russia and the Trump administration, including those that led to the forced resignation of Mike Flynn.
Nakashima said the Post’s edge over other news outlets comes from the strength of the relationships they’ve built over the years with senior sources. But with the increased use of anonymous sources comes a painstaking effort to ensure their accuracy. If one reporting team member picks up a tip, for instance, colleagues cast a wide net to double and triple check.
“You don’t want to risk getting something wrong, which would enable critics, the president, to say ‘You see, this is fake news,’ ” Nakashima said.  “You don’t want to fuel that type of criticism so we’re under intense pressure to corroborate information.”
In her contact with the White House while reporting on national security,  Nakashima noticed a definite change in the tone of interactions with the Trump White House, which is “so chaotic right now” with a number of competing factions and power centers.
Nevertheless, she’s optimistic about where journalism is headed compared to five or six years ago, buoyed by talented young reporters and, at the Post, the “shot of energy” from new owner Jeff Bezos.
“If you put all the stories together, it’s a pretty impressive body of investigative work of journalism,” Nakashima said, referring to the current news landscape. “We’re also doing the investigation at the same time as in fact the Hill is and the special counsel is, and I haven’t seen anything like that before.”
Nakashima will be honored at a reception in Berkeley on Oct. 14, and will be the keynote speaker at a Daily Californian alumni event Oct. 20 in Washington, D.C.

Comments are closed.