Robert Kolker, investigative reporter for New York Magazine, discussed his experience as a news reporter and his book “Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery” Tuesday as part of Mass Comm Week.
Many police officers did not think anything extraordinary was occurring when a Craigslist prostitute named Shannan Gilbert went missing in spring 2010. When police discovered four other women’s bodies of similar age and stature several months later, they came to the conclusion Long Island had a serial killer on the loose, Kolker said.
Kolker chronicled the details of the women and their killer, who remains at large, in his book “Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery.” The book shines light on the shadows of modern-aged prostitution in the United States by examining the lives of working class people who are struggling to make money, he said.
“When writing ‘Lost Girls,’ I thought, ‘here’s a chance to tell the stories of five girls from struggling parts of America the media doesn’t really pay much attention to,’” Kolker said. “Places where escorting on the Internet suddenly becomes an option for some people who realize they can make more money in one night than their friends are making in two weeks working at Wal-Mart.”
After discussing his book, Kolker went on to talk about his experience as a journalist.
Kolker received a degree in history from Columbia University in 1991, but had an interest in journalism. He wrote for his high school and college newspapers where he reviewed movies and edited the arts and entertainment magazine. After graduating, he said he bounced around looking for jobs with newspapers and magazines.
“I realized journalism didn’t just have to be being in the White House press pool or chasing a politician around or being a foreign correspondent,” Kolker said. “I’m not putting those down, but it’s not what I was dialed into as a writer. I realized that I could do micro-stories about small things happening all throughout the city, and they could be about anything.”
Kolker stressed the importance of growing and evolving in journalism. Kolker said gaining experience by reporting is the best way to get jobs working for publications, regardless of how big the media organization is and what the stories are about.
“When I got out of college I thought, boy, it’d really be nice to work for The New York Times, and I realize now that that’s part of the insecurity of youth,” Kolker said. “It’s better to be learning in a professional context than to be writing for something that just has a cool name attached to it.”
Toward the end of the discussion, students had a Q-and-A segment with Kolker.
One student asked Kolker what his biggest struggle was throughout his career.
“I have a pretty active internal critic,” Kolker said. “Like a lot of people, self doubt can be a big part of what stops me. At this point, I have a lot of strength and confidence to get things done, but I have a lot of shortcomings as well.”
Gilbert Martinez, a friend of Kolker’s and senior lecturer in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, encouraged him to travel and speak with Texas State mass communication students.
“From a mass comm point of view, he helps to explain the mechanics of being a reporter,” Martinez said. “Another thing is the important issues that are raised in this really important work (his book).”