According to the author, “The Hysterical Girls of St. Bernadette’s” is “a book about complicated relationships, about trauma, and about what it takes for girls to be believed.”
Health Span and the Changing Digital Publication Landscape With Allana Akhtar — FannBoy Friday
"We're entering a new period for Alzheimer's. I don't think a lot of people know about that. There are a couple of new drugs that received FDA approval over the last couple of years. [The research around Alzheimer’s] prevention and how to stay cognitively healthy has been very enlightening for me."
FannBoy Friday is a weekly column from Shahjehan Khan that highlights American Muslim creatives.
Allana Akhtar is a reporter for The Juggernaut, a media tech company and community that publishes well-reported stories about South Asia and South Asians. She was previously at Insider, where she covered the emerging wellness industry and general health topics. Before Insider, she wrote about personal finance and managed social media for Money Magazine. She's an award-winning journalist with experience covering technology, business, politics and higher education for companies like Time Inc., Jalopnik, USA TODAY, U.S. News & World Report and Michigan Radio.
Allana graduated from the University of Michigan with her bachelor’s degree in political science with honors, where she served as a senior news editor for the campus paper, The Michigan Daily. She has won numerous awards for her reporting, including the Best News Story in 2015 by the Michigan Press Association.
Allana responded to my interview request email literally 4 minutes after I sent it (which itself was barely 10 minutes after finishing her piece on Hasan Minhaj), so I’m super appreciative for her willingness to make this happen so quickly.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Shahjehan: What is a major story that you've been following this year?
Allana: I think it's shifted. I only started at The Juggernaut a couple of months ago. Before that, I was at Insider [where] I was primarily reporting on health [but] also doing a lot of breaking news. So I've reported on a lot of different topics, spanning from retail to tech to finance and health, which is what I'm most passionate about.
My interests are specific. I've really been focusing on longevity; this year has been really interesting in terms of the conversation around aging. With the newfound tech interest in a lot of anti-aging start-ups, I think [that longevity is] becoming something that's a lot more talked about. And now that there's better research on ways that you can extend your health span, it’s been really interesting for me to follow a lot of the diet and chronic disease stuff, which is very pertinent to South Asians.
Shahjehan: What's something a little less well-known to people that is a passion of yours — a story that you've been following or something that interests you?
Allana: A lot of it is about health. [One specific] thing I've been following is the Alzheimer's clinical trials. We're entering a new period for Alzheimer's. I don't think a lot of people know about that. There are a couple of new drugs that received FDA approval over the last couple of years. [The research around Alzheimer’s] prevention and how to stay cognitively healthy has been very enlightening for me.
Shahjehan: What do you remember from publishing your first story or something you consider your first big byline?
Allana: A lot of my favorite bylines to this day are from my college newspaper. I was on the Michigan Daily at the University of Michigan, and I really think that was the best kind of practice for being a journalist. The University of Michigan hosted a lot of events that I covered, and I got [to cover] really big name speakers. I think a turning point in my career was when I covered Ta-Nehisi Coates when he came to Ann Arbor. He gave a really rousing, emotional speech … It was still pre-Trump [and] there was a lot of rising tension against minorities speaking up about racism during this time, so it was a really heated kind of talk. [Coates] was a very levelheaded, interesting, smart speaker … He did a private interview with me, too … I don't even think he realizes how much of an impact he had on me. I literally just asked his comms person if I could interview him for my school newspaper. You never really know what's going to happen, but he said to my face, “I was on my school newspaper too … and that was a good experience for me, so I want to help you.”
Shahjehan: How would you say the industry has changed from when you first started?
Allana: It's changed a lot, in ways for the better and also for the worse. I graduated in 2017, so that was the time when BuzzFeed was doing really well. I think that some company wanted to buy them for some exorbitant amount of money and they said no, so that's indicative how well BuzzFeed was doing. I feel like that was the era [when] journalists were starting to get really big on Twitter. Twitter has had its own issues — doxxing for people of color, [especially] women of color has tended to be a huge issue on the platform — but something great [about it] was that it uplifted a lot of different types of voices in our industry. Twitter did a really good job of highlighting the experiences of minority journalists. We’ve achieved some recognition that the media industry has a diversity problem. [I’ve] worked at a number of online first, digital first companies, [and] I do think they are a little bit more accepting or open to hiring journalists from diverse backgrounds. In my experience, there was a divide between legacy publications and digital first publications, e.g. going from the term African American to Black. I definitely came in during the heyday of digital media.
This is my theory of why Elon Musk bought Twitter. I don't know him, I don't really know what his motivations are, but I think it was because he was upset at the way that journalists were covering him [aka] accurately and factually. And I think that he was feeling frustrated with how powerful journalists were on Twitter and how much of a platform that gave them. Just the fact that he got rid of all legacy blue checks and made [verification] available to other people is indicative of how he didn't want journalists to have that kind of platform.
This past year, Insider had our first ever round of layoffs. BuzzFeed closed its whole news division. These are legacy digital media publications; these are the two companies that were doing really well when I entered the industry, and now, one of them's gone. It's been sad to see the rise and fall of digital media, but it is somewhat exciting. That's part of the reason why I joined The Juggernaut — it's growing, and it's a different type of media company. Who's to say what's going to happen next?
Shahjehan: What's your daily routine as a journalist?
Allana: I wake up and I check the news. I usually craft my Google Alerts based on the topics that I'm following, and I like doing that because then I can also get a bunch of other types of reporting. I check The Times, The Post, The Journal, Insider, Slate, HuffPost, Reuters, NPR, AP and then Al Jazeera, BBC, the Guardian.
I also check Pakistani, Indian, Nepali, Bangladeshi and Chinese media too, because The Juggernaut’s reach is so global. The morning is usually dedicated towards getting one of our stories published. Then I work on the rest of my reporting, and in the afternoon, we usually do our social posts. And then, at the end of the day, I just try to read a longer book. I do try to read more nonfiction by other journalists, but sometimes I don't want to and I just read more fun stuff.
Shahjehan: What would you say are the most important skills that a good journalist should have in the current era?
Allana: You should ask a lot of questions, not just to your sources but also to your friends, to the people around you. I think the best journalists are people who listen really well … The best journalists are the ones who are asking the questions and not really doing a lot of the talking themselves.
And also, [it’s important to] see people in an empathetic way, to make sure when you're talking to sources that you're understanding their perspective. I always try to put my sources first [because] that's a very sacred relationship … Someone's trusting you with information and their time. You have to really respect that.
Shahjehan: Who are other Muslim-identifying journalists that you admire or that you look up to?
Allana: Rana Ayyub, who did a lot of reporting on Modi and traced a lot of his history and his backstory, which is extremely invaluable to modern day South Asian geopolitics.
I've been following Asim Khan for a long time. I think he did have really good commentary on issues that were a little bit political in nature.
A lot of the people from the BuzzFeed era were also like people I really looked up to. Imaan Sheikh, who also used to work for The Juggernaut, is a really great writer. Ahmed Ali Akbar is an amazing writer.