From Denison to Report for America and beyond: Alina Panek ’20

December 12, 2023

Alina Panek graduated from Denison in 2020 with a hunger for good journalism and a goal to help shape a changing industry.

She worked at CBS2 Chicago on breaks during her four years in college and moved on after graduation to a fellowship at Report for America, which supports journalists covering underserved populations. She now uses her experience to help the American Journalism Project open nonprofit newsrooms across the country.

At 26, Panek already has made waves.

When she arrived at Denison in 2016, the journalism program was in its infancy as the narrative nonfiction writing academic concentration. Panek didn’t know if it was what she was looking for, but she was going to find out.

Jack Shuler, director of Denison’s journalism program, recalls how Panek walked into his office during her sophomore year, armed with questions and big ideas.

“She came to my office, sat down, and was, like, ‘This is what I’m gonna do, okay?’ And then she did it,” Shuler said. “She had a goal, and she found people who wanted to support her, which was all of us.”

Having found a home for her ideas, Panek quickly set them in motion. She took on an independent study with Shuler and landed a leadership position at The Denisonian, Denison’s student newspaper.

“I went to one [Denisonian] meeting, and it was so different from what I’d experienced in high school that I didn’t know if it was right for me,” Panek said. “I wanted it to be more of a community, so by my senior year, I tried to rebuild the program so that we’d all lean on each other [in writing and reporting]. … It was one of the most rewarding experiences I got out of Denison.”

Between gaining experience doing collaborative journalism and rethinking the organization’s structure, Panek found her time with The Denisonian shaped her future in the workforce.

In particular, the guidance of Denison journalism instructor Alan Miller, who was then both the Denisonian advisor and the executive editor of The Columbus Dispatch, led Panek to more experience in professional journalism. By her senior year, with Miller’s encouragement, Panek landed an internship at the Dispatch, which allowed her to work in a metro daily newsroom before graduating.

Her passion for journalism, however, began long before her college years. Growing up with a librarian as a mother, Panek spent her childhood immersed in the world of her town library.

“That was my child care,” she said. “I was there every single day. I was constantly reading, constantly interacting with people.”

“My experience at Denison taught me first-hand the impact of local news and community.”

As her love for writing grew deeper, Panek joined an after-school journalism program in her elementary school, igniting a fire that hasn’t stopped burning since. Her interest in writing and community engagement grew throughout high school, where she found a home at one of the best school newspapers in Chicago. By the time she began her college search, she knew she wanted to be somewhere she could pursue empathetic, meaningful journalism.

Graduating during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Panek returned to CBS2 in Chicago, where she had worked as an intern. This time, she landed a position at the assignment desk – the heart of any newsroom. Even while working 40-hour weeks, she took on a fellowship with Report for America, which eventually turned into a full-time position on its Advisory Council. Between the two positions, Panek experienced both hands-on journalism and behind-the-scenes work.

“I got to work in a newsroom, [and]…I got to see the eagle’s eye view of the industry at large, and see the need for young reporters. There’s so much change in the journalism industry right now that I wanted to be more involved in building [it].”

To achieve this, she moved into nonprofit development in Report For America before transitioning over to the American Journalism Project, where she is helping to create new newsrooms and hire young journalists.

“Working on nonprofit development came very easily to me, because it’s basically like journalism, but of all the best things. You get to set your own deadline; you get to talk about impact; and you get to read reporting from other journalists and talk about how great they are!”

Often, a young journalist just needs a few people to see her drive and believe in her ideas, and Panek found that at Denison.

“My experience at Denison taught me first-hand the impact of local news and community. Now, I use that insight every day at the American Journalism Project, with the ultimate goal of garnering more sustainability and securing the future of local news.”

Barely four years after her graduation from Denison, Panek is making a tangible impact on the journalism industry, working to ensure its longevity and producing jobs for eager post-grad journalists just like she was.

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