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Telling stories through words and music: meet the NYT editor and her band

An editor at the New York Times and a musician, Sara Aridi manages multiple projects every day. During the pandemic, she launched the alternative music project Everstill, where she is a songwriter, bassist, guitarist and vocalist, among other functions. With W Insight, Sara discusses her journalism path, growing a music career after hours and coping with New York City loneliness.

J. Socha: We met at the Columbia Journalism School in New York City a few years ago. Did you always want to work in journalism? 

S. Aridi: Actually, I didn’t. The closest aspiration I had was when I was a child and I wanted to be an author. I was just always reading one book after another. And then I studied in Lebanon, I majored in sociology, but I also did a diploma in media studies. Living in Lebanon as a young adult was so influential on me, because I saw such extremes. I was at this gorgeous campus along the coast with prominent thinkers and educators from around the Middle East, living this glamorous lifestyle. But there was also a lot of poverty, corruption. And I had never seen that extreme.  

I would literally walk to campus and I’d have to pass several panhandlers on the street. So that, I think, is what inspired me to become a journalist, because I just wanted to shed light on it. So that’s why I ended up going to Columbia. 

And now you are an assistant editor and a writer for the New York Times, which sounds like a dream job for many aspiring journalists. What should one do to get a job at the Times? 

I don’t know if you remember this, but the Times did come to Columbia to talk about their fellowships and internship programs. I had such little faith in myself because I had very little experience before Columbia and because I had seen how much more knowledgeable my classmates were. I had been living in the Middle East for seven or eight years, so I wasn’t used to American journalism. I felt like I had to learn everything from the ground up. I remember when the Times came to campus. Either I had a class or I had a deadline, or I just thought, I’m never going to end up there. I honestly didn’t even go. 

But when I finally got hired by the New York Times a few years later, I think it was a combination of luck and being at the right place at the right time. The company was hiring a lot of people in my position and I had the benefit of doing a lot of different things before working at the Times. I had four internships before  I came to the Times and one job, and I had the master’s degree from Columbia and all of my internships and jobs covered different things. So one, I was doing radio reporting and booking guests for a program and fact-checking magazine articles. And second – I was covering breaking news and aggregating and writing about global and domestic news every day. Also, I was editing pop culture websites and managing social media accounts.

So I came with a little bit of experience in each of those things. And frankly, the job that I started with was news assistant, which is a job that differs depending on the desk, but you’re essentially assisting the desk with whatever they need. Some of the desks really just needed you to answer phones, to connect editors with reporters. Other desks gave you more responsibilities, like managing social media accounts, writing little blurbs for the paper. When I interviewed with them, I think they just needed someone quick. 

So I would say for someone who wants to work at the New York Times – just take any opportunity as it comes, because you don’t know what it’s going to lead. Look at it as a means to an end. And don’t sell yourself short.

I went into that interview somehow with a lot of confidence because I had set up my own website. Columbia taught us to look at ourselves like a brand, and I took that very seriously. I think my online persona portrayed a lot more confidence than I did in person. But when I sat in that interview, I understood I needed to sound confident. 

Sara Aridi
Sara Aridi (photo provided by Sara Arii)

You’ve been at the New York Times for about six years, That sounds like a long time for a millennial. 

I know, right? And I have to say, for a while, it felt like a relationship that I was trying to get myself out of. But then another part of me said no. In the beginning, most people who were in my position, kind of sensed that they weren’t going to be getting top reporter positions because they were starting at the very bottom. And many people were telling us, we should go somewhere else and get more experience. And a lot of people did that. I have many co-workers who left and took on better positions at smaller papers. But I was just thinking, I never thought I’d go to The New York Times. My father didn’t get past fifth or sixth grade. My mother didn’t go to college. I’m only the second person in my extended family to get a master’s degree. So I felt grateful to be there.

Yes, six years is a long time, but I think it’s because for the first few I really was just trying, whichever way I could, pitching this person, meeting that person, raising my hand here, learning a lot, making mistakes. I think it’s great that we now live in a time where you don’t have to feel pressured to be somewhere for too long. But at the same time, the Times is such a huge company where it’s very common to just stay there for decades and be able to take on so many different things. I’ve technically been in three jobs since I started, but I’ve done more than just those three jobs working on many different projects. 

And apart from the fact that you’re doing so many projects with The New York Times, you recently launched a music duo project called “Everstill”. 

I probably shouldn’t say this, but music has always been my first passion. It has been the most constant thing in my life since I was six or seven, when I started playing the piano. As I got older, I started to sing and play the guitar, the bass, the drums. And I had been in so many bands since my college years. When I moved to New York, at Columbia, I wasn’t playing music because obviously we didn’t have time to do anything else. But after graduating, I thought that although I’m committed to journalism, I can’t possibly just put music away, because this is the one thing that brings me joy no matter what. So I joined a band as a bassist for about a year. They were really fun. They were called 68creep. Then I thought I wanted to do something a little more challenging, and I joined another band called The Ver Sierra as a bassist. That band was more like progressive alternative rock. Again, I was there for about a year and a half. They were great, but I wasn’t writing my own songs; most of the songs had been written. When the drummer and I came in and kind of picked up where people had left off, it wasn’t creatively satisfying. I had been writing my own songs since I picked up the guitar. So I started writing some new songs.

Right before COVID, I reached out to the drummer from the last band I was in. I told him I have these songs and I’m thinking of just doing everything myself, but I need a drummer. He agreed to join me. We started working on the songs, thinking we’d practice together and then of course the pandemic hit. So we ended up doing everything remotely. I recorded it all from my home; we mixed it remotely. We would just get on Zoom calls and talk about the songs. It was a very weird time to make an album, but I guess it worked out for the best.

That’s so impressive you did that! I remember people making huge plans for the lockdown, myself included, and they were so stressed and focused on following the horrible news that they didn’t make it happen. 

Thank you. I mean, honestly, I was also depressed. Those first few months here were terrible. But I think that’s why I needed to play, because there was literally nothing else to do. Before COVID there were so many distractions in life. You know, I wouldn’t pick up my guitar some days because I’d say, I want to go to the gym, or I’d rather go see a friend or there’s a movie I want to watch. But when COVID hit and we were literally forced to be by ourselves, I had no excuse.

Everstill, In Your Dreams

And do you plan to continue working on your music?

Yeah. My drummer was actually in Italy for the last year and a half. He just got back a couple months ago and I had taken a break from music over the summer just to enjoy life again because things were opening up. But I knew that obviously we were going to make a second album and hopefully this time we learn from our mistakes. We just practiced together for the first time in person, a few weeks ago. 

Sara Aridi, white and black

I’m always curious about creative people with different personalities working on one project. How do you manage different creative approaches? Were there any arguments in your collaboration?

It’s interesting, because when I approached my drummer Luca, I told him, these are my songs. But I really wanted him to bring whatever he thought worked because I do trust him as a musician. We have similar tastes and I’ve seen him perform and I played with him. For the most part we agree. Like for one of the songs on the album, I initially wrote it as an acoustic song, just myself and my guitar and nothing fancy or anything else on top of it. When Luca heard it, he said: this really needs a stronger ending, let’s add drums, let’s add more guitars. Initially I thought, no, this is a sad song. But then we tried his idea, and I actually preferred it so much more. When I’ve been in bands, the more people there are, it’s just harder to manage. You know, you have different personalities, different viewpoints, different schedules, different priorities. I think that’s why as much as I wish we had a full band, I just know it would be so much harder for us to get anything done.

How does the creative process look for you? 

A lot of the songs are just things that I wrote over the years when I was very moved, either by a relationship that I was either enjoying or mourning or missing someone. The last new song that I’m working on is just about this thing in my room. I won’t go into details, but it’s just a thing in my room that keeps reminding me of someone that I’d rather not think about. It’s me trying to move on with my life and I’m doing so much better than when I was with this person. Yet this thing keeps reminding me of them and I can’t let go of it, you know?

What are some of the biggest challenges for you right now in terms of working on this project? 

For one, I’m someone that’s always nagging other people about time. I just feel like there’s not enough time in the world to do everything. My job obviously is my priority during the day. After hours, sometimes things come up and I want to make sure that I’m on top of them. When I write stories, those are not for my day job. Those are extra stories that I’m freelancing. So I would spend my weekends and afterhours and sometimes before my shift doing interviews and transcribing and recording and writing. And then I had to decide between, okay, do I spend my free time working more, or do I make music? The second challenge is deciding what’s the next step and giving myself deadlines. Right now, for instance, we’re planning our first music video because Luca’s back and we want to do something together and it’s really all up to me.

And another challenge is simply living in New York City. New York has always felt like a lonely place to me. It’s not as easy as you think to meet other people. You might have acquaintances and people that you can get along with here and there. But to actually have a sustained relationship, whether it’s a bandmate or a friend or a lover, it’s not easy. I think it’s just because life has gotten so much more stressful now, especially with COVID. So if it were easier for me to just find people that I would instantly connect with creatively and emotionally, I would probably create a band. But for now, I have to accept the fact that it’s okay to do everything by myself and hopefully later, you know, I’ll be more excited and more willing to bring on other people.

Do you have any time-management advice for other creatives? 

I’m always trying to think, how can I make the most out of my day while also not go crazy? I think in the fall, I pushed myself the most. I was asked to go back to Columbia as an assistant professor, and it was just for one class. It involved being in class two days a week and also editing assignments for several hours beyond the week. I managed to get my supervisor to approve it so that I could still work with the New York Times five days a week. He had to shift my schedule around and I literally did not have a single day off for two and half months. It was hard. My advice – it’s really just about knowing what your priorities are, and being able to say – no, I’m okay rejecting this party invitation because I’d rather go to the gym or I’d rather be at home alone or I’d rather see my family.

And if you’re working a lot and you feel stressed, then you remind yourself, why are you doing this? Is it because you’ll get extra money for it? Is it because it will help you in your career? That’s what helped me. When I was teaching at Columbia, it was such a great opportunity. I wouldn’t have said no unless I really couldn’t make it work with my job. It was amazing to be back at Columbia knowing that I went in there knowing nothing, you know? So I felt very flattered that they had asked me to do it. I learned a lot. I met new people. After a year of the pandemic, I thought, why would I say no to any opportunity again, unless I have to? 

But then, it’s important to be kind to yourself as well. It’s great to have priorities, but it’s nice sometimes to just sit at home and watch TV, if that’s what you want at the moment. So be kind to yourself as well. 

So how do you rest? 

I consider playing music a rest, but if not, I go to the gym a lot or I try and watch the Great British Baking Show, which is so calming and peaceful and it helps me not to think about work or music or any real world problems.

Interview by: Joanna Socha

Edited by: Diana Asatryan, Phyllis Budka 

All pictures of Sara Aridi were provided by Sara. The featured photo is a combination of several pictures from Sara,  cottonbro from Pexels and elements from Canva.

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