Pomona Alumni in Journalism Write “The First Draft of History”—Saahil Desai ’16

Color portrait of Saahil Desai

Saahil Desai joined the staff of The Atlantic in 2018, where he is a senior associate editor and covers politics and policy. Before The Atlantic, he was a digital editor at The Washington Monthly. Following his graduation from Pomona with a degree in public policy analysis/politics, Desai became a “Morning Edition” intern at NPR. During his undergraduate years he was also an editorial intern at The Washington Monthly and The American Prospect. He was active in journalism while at Pomona, serving as campus editor and staff writer for Claremont Port Side, opinions columnist and associate opinions editor for The Student Life newspaper and assistant to the sports information director.

What attracted you to journalism?

Initially, landing a job in journalism felt as impossible as winning the lottery or making it to the NBA. I didn’t know any journalists growing up and thought of it as a hobby rather than something that could realistically become my job. What made me want to take the plunge career-wise is the same thing that still excites me about it today: the chance to tell stories, whether they’re gripping narratives or policy explainers. The unique privilege of being a journalist, I think, is making complicated, arcane material—policies, academic studies, corporate earnings reports—interesting and accessible (and sometimes even fun) for regular people. It’s both completely valuable and completely rewarding when done right. I doubt it’ll ever get old.

How did your Pomona College experience prepare you for your career?

It’s hard to imagine I would be in my current position without my time at Pomona. Like so many other first-semester freshmen, I came into college eager to hone my writing skills, and like so many other freshmen, I only had a hazy sense of what I wanted to do beyond that. Four years at The Student Life helped me learn the basics of journalism, but I owe my career most to two of my politics professors: David Menefee-Libey and Susan McWilliams Barndt. They taught me how to write in a way that’s energetic but not overwrought, and lucid but not boring. It sounds easy enough, but it’s quite hard to nail.

What has surprised you about being a working journalist?

Before becoming a journalist, I hadn’t realized the value of being willing to say one of the most awkward phrases around: I don’t know what that means. No one likes to cop to their own ignorance and blind spots, but biting the bullet is a surprisingly valuable skill for journalists who end up spending a lot of time reporting on complicated topics. If you don’t understand something, chances are readers won’t either.

What has been your most memorable experience so far in your career?

The pandemic changed lots of peoples’ jobs. For me, it marked a career-altering turn. My background is in politics and policy, but in March 2020, The Atlantic needed more editors to help cover the coronavirus, so I pitched in. In the past two and a half years, our stories have reached levels of popularity I could not have previously imagined. That good journalism can “save lives” is a bit of a tired industry cliche, but I firmly believe our coverage has done just that. It’s nice to see that other people feel that way too: One writer on the team, Ed Yong, won a Pulitzer Prize for his pandemic stories.

What energizes you as a journalist?

No matter what, work is work. The drudgery is somewhat inescapable. Still, what continues to make me so passionate about journalism is the privilege of getting to create stories that change how people think about themselves and the world. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as the realization that something you put so much work into has made even just a marginal difference in someone’s life.

How does a journalist do work to be proud of in these polarized times?

It’s a strange time to be a journalist: Lots of people are skeptical of the work that we do, and the media landscape continues to get even more politically fractured. Sometimes, it can feel like it’s impossible to reach people who won’t already agree with you. I think that it helps to remember that even still, America is a lot more nuanced than Team Red and Team Blue. The divide is real, but good, probing stories can challenge people on both sides of it.