She’s only 28, but Nicholson School alumna Christal Hayes ’15 has already covered some of the most momentous events in modern American history – from its most tragic, heartbreaking mass shootings in Orlando and Las Vegas to two historic presidential impeachments in Washington.
Hayes, who graduated from UCF with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, recently was promoted to national correspondent for USA Today, the nation’s largest newspaper. The publication reaches 7 million readers daily in print and online, according to data from Comscore Media Metrics .
Hayes, from Bradenton, Florida, studied at UCF’s Nicholson School of Communication and Media and started her career as a reporting intern at the Orlando Sentinel in 2015. After graduation, the newspaper hired her to be a reporter on its breaking news team, where she distinguished herself over the next two years for fast, accurate reporting.
She was the first print reporter on scene at the Pulse nightclub shootings on June 12, 2016. Her coverage of Pulse and its aftermath made her a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news in 2017. She also won a National Headliner Award for local beat coverage and an award from the Florida Society of News Editors for breaking news coverage.
After a short stint with Newsweek magazine, for which she also covered the mass shooting in Las Vegas in 2017, Hayes joined the staff of USA Today as a breaking news reporter in the newspaper’s Washington, D.C., bureau.
“I’ve never liked politics,” she says. But that’s what she ended up covering, becoming the paper’s lead congressional beat reporter covering Capitol Hill.
This summer, she was promoted to national correspondent, based in Los Angeles, covering California and the West Coast. She spoke recently with Nicholson journalism instructor Rick Brunson ’84.
Rick Brunson: After covering Washington, what are you looking forward to on this new beat and in this new job?
Christal Hayes: Every job builds on the next one. In Orlando when I was a local reporter, I could see how people were impacted by a lot of things and problems outside of Florida, and I wondered why things don’t change. Then when I was in D.C. I began to understand why things are so slow and I saw the politics that surround a variety of issues and are at play behind them. But what I was missing in D.C. was talking to the people who are impacted by a lot of this stuff. I understand how to hound lawmakers and I understand the context and the nuances that go with issues. But what passes or doesn’t pass as legislation in Washington is incredibly detrimental or incredibly helpful for people’s lives. So that’s what I’m hoping to get back to – how people are impacted and getting to write those stories that are very meaningful to people’s lives. D.C. is known as a bubble. It’s easy to get sucked into the politics. Normal, everyday people — I would argue –— don’t really care about the minuscule things that we argue and bicker about [in Washington]. They want to know about the things that are impacting them. So, it’s like now I’ve gotten to know the policy stuff so that I understand it, and now I get to talk to people and provide context and understanding for them and to try and help them understand it. I get to talk to the people and hopefully make a little bit of a difference.
Brunson: Florida woman gets transplanted to California. What’s that been like? California looms large in the national imagination for a lot of different reasons, politically and culturally.
Hayes: I’ve been spending time wandering around and visiting communities in different parts of the state. It’s so different than what you see on TV. When I came here, I thought of it as a liberal oasis. That’s what I imagined. It was going to be all beautiful palm trees with Hollywood stars and a liberal paradise. But it’s not. That’s one of the beautiful things about being a journalist: You’re always learning when you’re wrong. I’ve been wrong so many times and learning the things I don’t know always amazes me. Right now, I’m in a rural part of the state where there are a lot of vineyards and I can see Trump flags flying down the street. There are a lot of things here impacting California that are impacting the rest of the nation that I’m looking forward to covering: climate change, wildfires, homelessness, infrastructure, politics. But it’s also very different from the East Coast, and I’ve lived all my life on the East Coast. It’s been a little bit of a culture shock. But it’s why I wanted the job. It’s a chance to grow and it’s a great opportunity to learn about a new place and learn about a whole new bunch of issues.
Brunson: What do you like about working for USA Today?
Hayes: The great thing is that we’re part of a network. We have something like 500 newspapers – including dailies and weeklies – spread out across the country. Everyone who works at these papers are experts about their local communities. So, when I need to know how COVID-19 is affecting Native American tribes in the Southwest, I can call the Arizona Republic. Or if I’m working on a story about the recall of the governor in California, we have so many papers out here covering it and they put in records requests to track this issue and I can access that. The amount of collaboration we have and the way we can work on stories together, I don’t think any other paper has that. It’s one of the big things that attracted me to USA Today.
Brunson: It’s been six years since you graduated back in 2015. What’s one thing you could say that you’ve learned about the real world of journalism and what’s one thing you could say that you’ve learned about yourself?
Hayes: I think the thing I’ve learned about myself was something that people in Orlando always tried to tell me – that burnout is a thing. After covering Pulse and the death of Christina Grimmie and the poor little boy who was killed in that alligator attack at Disney. And then I moved to Washington and covered all that’s happened there in the last few years – the Mueller investigation, two impeachments, COVID and the most insane election any of us has ever seen. Being at the Capitol covering the insurrection. That really rattled me. I always felt so safe in that building and then to be inside it and see what happened to it. A photographer I know got beaten up. It’s exhausting. I used to never have gray hair. I now have gray hairs coming out of my head. It’s been go, go, go. And I don’t think that I ever took the possibility of burnout or taking my own mental health seriously. Now I have. I’ve started going to counseling. At first it was something that I thought I didn’t need. But just talking and being able to get things off your chest, that’s helped a lot. One other thing I’ve learned to do is turn off. When I was in D.C. covering Congress, I followed about a hundred reporters on Twitter and my phone was going off all hours of the day and night with a million notifications. Now that I have this job, I’ve worked with my editors so that I can take mental health days. I also take time each day to leave my phone in the other room and then do things like go out, take a walk or just cook. I never took work-life balance seriously. Now I do.
Brunson: You’ve covered so much in the last six years. What’s one story that you’ve covered that’s impacted you the most?
Hayes: I have a few but one that comes to mind is one I worked on in D.C. during President Trump’s first impeachment trial. When you work in D.C. it seems that every reporter in the world also works in D.C. The competition is daunting and incredible. There’s so much pressure to find stories nobody else has. I was our lead congressional reporter during impeachment, on Capitol Hill for 12 hours a day. During the Senate trial I noticed all of these senators were sitting at their desks writing notes in these little notebooks. This was going on for weeks. So, I told my editor that we should ask for these notes. I wanted to see what they’d been writing for days on end and what their thoughts were about acquittal or finding the president guilty. Senators are very secretive. The House is a fiery place and the members there love to talk. But the Senate is this place of decorum and senators hold everything close to the vest. Our veteran political reporter told me that ‘There’s no way in hell they’re going to share that with you.’ But we asked and a bunch of them did. And I was able to get these notes, review them — some of them were incredibly personal — and put together a cool story. That story sticks with me because it reminds me of why I’m a journalist — when somebody tells me I can’t do something, it makes me want to do it even more. The other one I think about all the time was from when I was in Orlando. It was right after Pulse and I wrote about this man who was shot. A lot of people reached out to him and tried to help him after the story. I still keep in touch with him. It’s the kind of story I like to do that helps somebody by shedding light on their situation. Helping one person –—it’s an incredible thing we have as journalists.
Brunson: Looking back on your time at the Nicholson School, what are some of the biggest lessons you took with you that you still use now? After six years, what are some that lessons that really stuck with you?
Hayes: You’ve said this before: Journalism is just an extension of being in school — for the rest of your life. It’s the whole idea of being open to different things. You never know what kind of opportunity will present itself. I learned this from you in your classes and from veteran reporters that I’ve taken out for coffee: Anytime someone asks you to go to this place or that place to cover a story, say yes! You have to be open to trying something new and learning something new. You have to keep learning. Every single day is a new lesson and a chance to learn something you didn’t know and to talk to people who are well-versed in topics you may not know about. Something else I learned was the importance of having different tools in your toolkit so you can engage people in different ways. I learned how to do video in your mobile class. It’s so important to know how to engage people visually — from photos to videos to social media. None of that is ever going away. Right after the insurrection on Jan. 6, I was able to go into the Capitol and be our eyes and ears — with my press badge and my phone. Yes, I was writing things. of course — but the photos and videos I captured were used everywhere across our [USA Today] network. So, knowing how to shoot and put video together quickly is so important. When I was covering the Senate, I was running around the halls of the Capitol chasing senators and writing stories quickly on my phone. They are skills I use every day.
Brunson: What would you want students and faculty at the Nicholson School to know about life after graduation? What’s the journey been like for you?
Hayes: Everybody in high school and throughout college told me how daunting this industry [journalism] is. And they’re right. It’s very daunting. I mean, a lot of the people who were in my graduating class aren’t working in journalism anymore. But I’ve never felt more purpose than in being a journalist. There are a lot of industries where you can find and feel a sense of purpose. But in journalism you have the opportunity to witness history. You get to write the first draft of history. That is an incredible opportunity and it’s an incredible responsibility. And you can change people’s lives with your words. So, all the daunting pressures, all of the competitiveness, it all gets swept away when you know that this job is just so cool. I’ve gotten to do some amazing stuff. I’ve gotten to watch President Trump sign executive orders in the White House. I’ve gotten to watch his impeachment trials. I’ve covered hurricanes. I’ve flown in military helicopters that saved people and rescued dogs. You cover the worst and best of humanity. What we get to do is an art form. For all the negatives going on in the industry and some of the hate we’ve seen toward journalists in the last couple of years, I have to say that I also hear from a lot of thankful readers who are grateful for what we do. And I always try to think of them and the responsibility I have toward them. I’m also excited about the next generation and the younger folks who have joined USA Today. Even though they are just a few years younger than me, it seems like they are a lifetime ahead of me. I mean, they have figured out TikTok and I still can’t. [laughter] It’s so fun watching them and getting to work with them and seeing them bring fresh ideas. They look at things differently than I do, so we need them. I’m excited about what they bring to journalism.
This article was written by Rick Brunson and originally published on UCF TODAY. Published to Nicholson News on July 1, 2021. Edited by Iulia Popescu.
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