Backdrop to Brooklyn: A Former Editor's Journey to VICE.com
As a student, Cooper found himself frustrated that most campus publications did not provide an outlet to cover topics he was passionate about, in a way that he enjoyed.
As a result, Cooper, along with Scripps graduates Tara Melvin, Ashley Luther and Andrew Eisenman established Backdrop magazine.
“We liked the different style of writing that we felt like we couldn’t do at The Post or some of the other publications that were available to us at school,” Cooper says. “I think we all just wanted to be able to flex our talents and explore different ways to tell stories and write about stuff that was important and exciting to us.”
Starting a publication from scratch was not easy, Cooper says. In addition to generating content, the original Backdrop team struggled with funding print copies and distributing them to the public.
Cooper’s first title at Backdrop was marketing director, a position in charge of troubleshooting. He devised a fundraising plan to sell grilled cheese on the sidewalk, a popular strategy still used by organizations on campus today.
Cooper began his Backdrop career primarily writing fashion stories. Eventually, he became interested in long form investigative stories and profiles.
“I think everybody had a little bit of a different vision and we all kind of came together to help each other do what we were excited about,” Cooper says. “We were all like-minded, but everyone had different things they were really passionate about and wanted to do.”
For Cooper, professors Bill Reader and Cary Frith were two people who had a significant impact in his decision to pursue journalism.
“Those two were very instrumental in me being confident and feeling like I could compete at the level like Vice or the national level,” Cooper says. “They taught me a lot about storytelling and made me feel comfortable and confident in writing.”
After graduating from Scripps, Cooper attended graduate school at New York University before pursuing an internship at Time Out New York and then at Vice. Ultimately, Cooper chose the job at Vice, a decision largely inspired by Reader, he says.
When Cooper began working for Vice, it was very different from what it is today, he says. The publication wasn’t as popular and catered towards alternative tastes.
“I was always into that kind of stuff, but I didn’t know you could have a career writing for publications that weren’t known by older people,” Cooper says.
Reader taught Cooper that there are jobs in journalism that exist outside of bigger publications like The New York Times or The Washington Post. Reader continues to encourage his students to pursue more unconventional styles of writing, the same way he encouraged Cooper.
“The truth is the vast majority of news outlets in the world are small-scale, community-focused publications,” Reader says. “It is myopic, and foolish, to only think of professional journalism as something done by well-known, corporate media giants.”
The first tasks Cooper undertook as an intern at Vice included cleaning up events and framing photos. Cooper thought of a lot of his work as “grunt work.” However, he believes that this hard work was part of the reason he was offered a full-time job.
Reader says it was also Cooper’s personality that allowed him to thrive in the profession as well as make Backdrop so successful.
“Cooper has that perfect blend of confidence and humility,” he says. “The confidence to get out of his comfort zone and try new things, and the humility to remember that he is a guest and a visitor in those new experiences.”
Reader recounts multiple times he witnessed Cooper in the field, interviewing those who are often overlooked by mainstream media, and always making sure to show his gratitude.
Cooper also attributes getting the job at Vice partially to luck.
“It was [about] being at the right place at the right time,” Cooper says. “That was the point when Vice was starting to expand and at the time we needed more people. My first role at Vice was to help launch vice.com.”
Before Cooper interned for Vice, someone else owned the URL “vice.com.” It wasn’t until 2011 that Vice’s online platform changed from “viceland.com” to “vice.com,” and Cooper was able to take advantage of this transition and immediately get involved.
While Cooper spent the majority of his time at Backdrop solely writing articles, his time at Vice has challenged him to experiment with video reporting as well.
Around the same time Cooper started working for Vice, a new wave of rappers emerged in a nearby New York area. Since Cooper was the same age as these musicians and he was already interested in their music, he says it only made sense for him to be the one to get in front of the camera to report it.
Eventually, Cooper’s reporting expanded to different areas, and he remained involved with both production and writing divisions of Vice.
“A lot of the stories I worked on were stories that I was doing for the magazine or doing for the website in words,” he says. “So I had all of the access, I had the story already taken care of, so it was just natural for me to be the one to host it.”
With a degree in journalism and a background in writing, Cooper found video production to be a lot easier, as opposed to producers who have only studied filmmaking. The difference lies in the fact that he had already learned how to gather data, sources and information to connect stories together.
Cooper understands the stress and struggle of trying to find a job in the field after graduation. For current aspiring journalists, the biggest tip he gives is to start working on getting paid to write while still in school.
“Being a journalist isn’t like being a doctor, where you literally can’t practice until you have your degree,” he says. “Internships are a great way to publish articles and get your foot in the door.”
Cooper firmly believes that Ohio University and Scripps prepare students for the challenges journalists often have to face.
“It’s challenging, but it’s definitely worthwhile,” he says. “I think that if you’re someone who feels like this is all they can do, like you eat, sleep and breathe it, if the only thing that makes you happy is to be a journalist and tell stories and write, then you should totally pursue it.”