Naval Intelligence Officer’s Skills Prepared Him for Journalism

May 04, 2018
Andrew McCormick

Even before he arrived at Columbia Journalism School last August, Andrew McCormick had a lot of the skills required of a good reporter.

He had just spent seven years as a naval intelligence officer. The last two were at the headquarters of the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet in Yokosuka, Japan, where his duties included collecting intelligence on regional adversaries, including China, Russia and North Korea. Before that he worked with a Navy SEAL team based in Virginia Beach, Va., and accompanied them twice to Afghanistan and once to East Africa.

“Intelligence is constantly pulling from a wide variety of sources, condensing and distilling information to tell a story,” he said. “And you’re doing it under a tight deadline because the admiral wanted it yesterday.” That ability to work under pressure will be useful as a journalist, he added.

But he admits he had a lot to learn when he got to Columbia, where journalism students are sent out on assignments throughout the city almost daily. “The breadth of human experience you have access to here in New York is invaluable to someone who likes to tell stories,” he said.

His master’s project was about two former New York City cabdrivers, one in his 60s caring for another in his 70s as he ages. The story literally came to him in the lobby of Pulitzer Hall, where one of the men was looking for an investigative journalist to help him find missing pension fund money for his friend, who had just been admitted to a rehab facility. “I really fell for this guy’s story,” McCormick recalled, “someone who would go to any length, including randomly walking into a journalism school on a Friday afternoon, to help his friend.”

As it turned out, there was no pension fund, but there was a good story about the men themselves and a friendship that goes back more than 30 years. McCormick also wrote about Puerto Rican migrants who fled Hurricane Maria’s devastation as they tried to find affordable housing in New York. His story about a jazz band at an American Legion Post in Harlem was published in the Sunday New York Times in April.

He also appreciated getting to know the many international students in the Journalism School. Among about a dozen students in a class about reporting on China, for example, more than half were from Asia. They could discuss the culture and politics of the region, he recalled, while “I could name the Navy bases,” he said with a laugh. He was surprised to find four other veterans at the School, three from the Navy, among nearly 700 military veterans on Columbia’s campus.

Soon after graduation, he leaves for Hong Kong and an internship with the South China Morning Post, pursuing an interest in Asia that grew out of his travels in the region while he was stationed in Japan. He then will return to New York in the fall for a nine month fellowship with Columbia Journalism Review.

“It’s a great opportunity to learn about the media, how people relate to the media and how they consume media, which is so important now,” McCormick said. “It felt like a natural fit for my interests.” He hopes to be able to write long-form magazine-style features as well as shorter articles, while he continues to explore New York City. And after being constantly on the move during his time in the Navy, he’s looking forward to being in the same place for a while.

McCormick, who was born in Dallas and moved to Louisville, Ky., when he was 10, says he joined the Navy to see the world, just as the advertising slogan promises. He was in the Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps for all four of his undergraduate years at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and hoped to go overseas after graduation. Instead, he was posted to Washington, D.C., then to Virginia Beach, Va., before heading to Japan.

A political science and film major at Vanderbilt, he views journalism as a good way to combine his interest in politics and storytelling. “It’s a way to be part of what’s happening in the world.”

—By Georgette Jasen