By Shelby Bruce
A small house that sits feet away from Eleventh Street Baptist Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky, holds remnants of memories for Nikita Stewart of her grandmother.
As a place where home cooked meals were constant, the Bowling Green Daily News was delivered every day, and a portrait of Jesus, calendar of WKU’s Men’s Basketball Team and a certificate for writing hung upon a wall.
This award that Stewart still has today, was given to Josephine Herndon for progress in writing and was the only thing her grandmother received academically because her education was stalled by racism, according to Stewart.
The memories of this house and certificate reminds Stewart of how important it was to receive an education from WKU so that she could become a writer.
Now a reporter for the New York Times, she returned to her alma mater on Monday, April 25, to give the 12th annual John B. Gaines Family Lecture Series on the importance of local reporting.
It’s a topic that she realizes was important to people like her grandmother who relied on local news to know what was happening down the street.
“She read everything and so that pretty much instilled in me that news was important to people because it certainly was for her,” Stewart said.
The early days
In a garage in Killeen, Texas, many years ago, Stewart had her first impression of journalism while helping her brother, a paper boy at the time, fold and wrap rubber bands around newspapers.
Hands black with ink from touching so many papers, Stewart recalls flipping through the articles and being intrigued with the fact that events taking place the night before were already printed in the newspaper by 5 a.m. the next day.
Growing up the middle child with three brothers, two sisters, a step brother and step sister,
Nikita helped her brother get the papers ready for his route because he was older than her, and she had to do as he said, Stewart said sarcastically.
It wasn’t until middle school when her class had a career day that she found herself fascinated with a reporter who came to talk about her job.
Stewart was struck by the idea that this woman’s job was different on a day-to-day basis, and that she wasn’t stuck at a desk doing the same thing.
Her sister, Bridgette Stewart-Ferguson, said Stewart was always an ambitious person when it came to things she wanted to accomplish.
“I remember her always being a go-getter,” Stewart-Ferguson said. “When she had a mindset, she went for it.”
On the brink of high school, in the late 1980’s, Stewart’s family found themselves moving a thousand miles back to Bowling Green, Kentucky, where Stewart’s mother was originally from.
Leaving behind friends and the comfort of Texas, Stewart was not happy about leaving to begin in a new place.
Attending Warren Central High School, she began her writing career working at the school newspaper called the Central Intelligence Newspaper.
During the summer after her freshman year, Stewart applied for a journalism workshop at the University of Kentucky but was denied admittance because of her age.
The program was looking for students who were going into their junior or senior year of high school therefore she was considered “too young,” according to Stewart.
WKU was also having a similar one called the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund Minority Journalism Workshop and had a spot available, which Stewart ended up taking.
A director of the program at the time, Bob Adams, remembers Stewart being a bundle of energy, but very smart.
“Even when she was 14 and 15 years old, you could tell there was something special about her,” Adams said.
A couple years later she received her first paying job writing for the Bowling Green Daily News as a Warren Central High School reporter making $25 a week.
Most of the stories that Stewart did at the time were features about faculty, staff and students of her high school.
One story that she wrote focused on the Napier siblings who were Warren Central High School students.
There was one of them in every grade, and most of them held leadership positions, such as president of their classes, according to Stewart.
She remembers writing the story because it was re-published in a Massachusetts newspaper, where the Napier sibling’s grandparents’ lived.
Another story was on a student who was a rodeo star and received a scholarship to go to Murray State, but ended up becoming paralyzed during Stewart’s freshman year.
Growing extremely close to the subject while writing the story, Stewart was glad that she was able to write about his journey.
“The fact that I was able to capture his glory days,” Stewart said as she reached up and began to wipe tears from her eyes. “So that was good.”
At WKU she spent a brief amount of time writing at the College Heights Herald and later got her first big internship with the Alabama Birmingham Post Herald.
One of their youngest interns that they had ever had at the time, she spent the summer writing for them.
As her sophomore year approached, Stewart decided to get involved in different ways on WKU’s campus.
In that year, she joined Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, where she eventually became President.
Enjoying the idea of power, Stewart became a stickler about attendance at meetings and recalls reading through manuals on ways to bribe her sorority sisters to come to them so they wouldn’t deliberately miss.
Letting the members know that something important would be announced at the following meeting, Stewart recalls them filing in and asking what it was about only to find it was a trick.
“I would say, ‘It’s absolutely nothing, now thank you for showing up so that we could have a quorum,’” Stewart said while laughing.
Dr. Cassandra Little was in the Graduate Chapter of AKA, which is in charge of hosting events so that potential members could learn more about their organization.
Although not an active member when Stewart was president, Little recalls her being hardworking and dedicated during her time in AKA.
“She was always such a smart young woman,” Little said.
Stewart continued her leadership positions on campus by taking a paid job working as a student assistant to WKU’s president at the time, Tom Meredith.
Giving her a taste of government and the political side of the university, she was able to meet with different legislatures and board members.
Stewart was in charge of cutting newspaper clips, researching for speeches, writing thank you letters and keeping up with Meredith’s schedule.
Spending the rest of her days in college as his student assistant, she started to spend summers interning with the Lexington Herald Leader and the Courier Journal, which turned into her first job out of college.
The Real World
Graduating from WKU in 1994 and receiving her bachelor of arts degree in journalism, Stewart moved to Louisville and began writing as a night shift reporter covering various different topics.
From police reporting to courts to being a bureau chief writing about the Western Kentucky region, she reported on many stories until leaving for Westchester County, New York, to work for Gannett News Company.
From there she moved to the Star Ledger in New Jersey and then the Washington Post, where she worked for nine years covering local government, public corruption, and working for the investigative team.
One story that Stewart recalls being difficult because of pure exhaustion but one of the biggest stories of her career, was the 2010 mayoral election story called the Shadow Campaign.
Assigned to work on daily coverage of the Adrian Fenty campaign, Stewart began to uncover corruption that was happening behind closed doors.
Through a lot of negotiation and agreement, Stewart was able to be granted access to write the story as long as she did not release it until after the campaign was over.
Keeping Fenty in the dark through reporting, Stewart was able to talk to everyone around him, including some family members to get more information on what was happening.
No matter the outcome of who won, Stewart knew it would be a story.
“My idea was win or lose, this is gonna be a story,” Stewart said. “I am going to show the inside of this campaign.”
Fenty had previously been elected into a D.C. Council seat in 2000 and later became mayor of the District of Columbia in 2006.
When re-election came around in 2010, Fenty allowed his confidence to rule out the comments that he was receiving from constituents about having an offensive leadership style, according to Stewart’s Washington Post article.
Prior to another candidate coming into the campaign, some of Fenty’s people within the campaign began to question the tactics that were happening behind closed doors.
On March 30, Vincent Gray announced his candidacy and made a direct statement to Fenty’s secretive campaign style saying that the city needed more “inclusive and transparent leadership,” according to Stewart’s article.
Many people who were once supporters of Fenty, were now switching to support Gray because of Fenty’s attitude towards the campaign, which ultimately resulted in him losing.
Spending months dedicated to this story, Stewart was able to release it moments after hearing that Fenty had lost.
“When he lost, I hit the button like boom, and people were like what in the world, oh my gosh so that was a great feeling,” Stewart said. “I honestly think he was even surprised at what he read.”
One of Stewart’s editors remembers the work that she did on the Shadow Campaign and how impressed he was with the outcome of the story.
“Her work with the Vincent Gray and the Shadow Campaign was excellent,” said Jeff Leen, her investigative editor at the Washington Post for a year.
When Stewart decided to leave the Washington Post to go to the New York Times, Leen sent a letter to staff members about her departure in which he called her, “one of the best investigative beat reporters” that he had ever seen.
Hearing that Stewart received a comment like this from an editor was not much of a surprise, Adams said.
“That’s a huge newspaper, one of the top newspapers,” Adams said. “To have an editor say things like that about someone you know…it makes me very proud.”
Although leaving the Washington Post was something that Leen didn’t want to see her do, he knew that with being a good writer like Stewart also comes other opportunities.
“It’s bitter sweet seeing good writers leave,” Leen said. “You just kind of learn to live with it.”
Stewart now lives in Manhattan with her husband Brian Henderson, a former Washington Post graphic designer and now a freelancer and her 17-year-old daughter.
Continuing her journalism career, she works as an investigative reporter for the New York Times covering what is known as the “misery beat,” which focuses on homelessness and social services.
Back on the Hill
At WKU for the first time in years, Stewart stands in the front of a crowd of students that came to hear her speak about local reporting.
Looking into the crowd with trembling hands, Stewart is shocked with how many people are there because she thought that no one would show up.
“I am just overwhelmed by seeing so many people come out tonight,” Stewart said as she looked into the crowd. “I was afraid that no one was going to be here and I’d look up and there’s so many familiar faces and some new faces so this is great.”
She extends her thank you’s to those who invited her to speak at the John B. Gaines Family Lecture Series and to the professors that helped her get to where she is today.
Stewart shares her gratitude to the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund Minority Workshop for being the foundation for her career and to the Gaines family for giving her, her first paying job as a reporter for the Daily News in high school.
She recognizes AKA and her sorority sisters that are sitting in the crowd, four rows back.
Giggles erupt as Stewart shouts “skee-wee,” a saying that AKA members use, to her fellow sorority sisters who return the same response.
Becoming teary-eyed, Stewart extends her last bit of thanks to her friends and family in the crowd, and apologizes for being a “crier.”
“I’m a crier y’all so get ready,” Stewart says before beginning her speech.
Laughter fills the room once more and she calms herself so that she can start.
Beginning with her move to Bowling Green, she shares her journey of how she got involved with journalism and incorporated the importance of local reporting with a lot of her personal experiences.
Students in the crowd listen intently as Stewart shares what she has learned throughout her time as a reporter for various publications, and the impact that WKU has had on her career.
She tells how the university took her, an African-American woman with a grandmother that had little education, and created a path for her success.
The certificate that Stewart’s grandmother received for progress in writing that once hung on a wall in a little house in Bowling Green has been placed elsewhere.
Now, this award hangs above her desk at the New York Times.