A January post on journalist Michael Feeney’s Facebook page alerted friends and relatives that he had died at 32. The news quickly spread, leading to coverage by CNN, Fox News, and the New York Amsterdam News, a Harlem-based newspaper that focuses on the black community.
By the next day, the news was trending on Facebook. Al Sharpton, New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio, and President Barack Obama sent their condolences. “May cherished memories of your time together help temper your grief, and may you find comfort in the support of loved ones,” Obama wrote in a letter to Feeney’s mother (Feeney had covered the president for NBCBLK). “Please know you are in my thoughts.” Two funerals for Feeney drew more than 1,500 mourners, 4,000 livestream viewers, and $27,000 in donations to cover funeral costs and to create a scholarship fund at his alma mater, Delaware State University.
Just heard that Michael Feeney , young dynamic journalist died this morning. A good brother and fine journalist. Sad news, RIP Michael.— Reverend Al Sharpton (@TheRevAl) January 31, 2016
Feeney died of a staph infection he’d contracted while being treated for kidney disease at Holy Name Medical Center in his hometown of Teaneck, New Jersey. As a boy, he used to help a friend of his mother’s deliver newspapers. He was noticeably outgoing, and looked up to Fox News reporter Bob O’Brien and WWOR-TV anchor Reggie Harris, whose children were among his high school classmates. But it wasn’t until he won a scholarship award in high school for his writing that it became evident that he was serious about pursuing journalism, says his mother, Reba Willis.
At Delaware State, Feeney joined the student newspaper staff during his freshman year. By the time he was a senior, he was editor in chief. In 2005, after graduation, he interned with the Associated Press in Baltimore. From there, his career took off. Feeney went on to work at the Associated Press in Detroit, The (Bergen) Record, and the New York Daily News, where he covered upper Manhattan. He also freelanced for Ebony, NBCBLK, and the Grio. In 2010, he won the National Association of Black Journalists’ Emerging Journalist Award, given to an outstanding young journalist dedicated to fair and equal coverage of the black community.
Why was Feeney so widely and deeply mourned? Personal branding and self-promotion are common in today’s journalism landscape, and Feeney certainly made himself and his work known to those who mattered in the field. But he had other priorities. “I think it’s not enough to just help ourselves, we have to help others,” he said when he won the NABJ award. “I feel like it’s my duty to help young journalists because I know there were people who helped and encouraged me.”
Here are five lessons we can learn from Feeney.
Set a goal, and achieve it
In high school, Feeney made up his mind that he wanted to be a journalist—and he never changed it. Willis would often caution her son to make backup plans, but he would brush her off and assure her that he was confident about his decision.
While at the Daily News, his beat included Harlem, but his interest in entertainment was never far behind. Freelance assignments allowed him to write about hip-hop icons like Jay Z and Fetty Wap. Additionally, Feeney kept a blog where he would write short entertainment news articles that showed off his humor, his opinions, and his interest in entertainers.
In 2013, he wrote a blog post about singer Lauryn Hill, whose recent work Feeney called a “monstrosity.” “We can all affirmatively say she hasn’t been the same since the success of the Miseducation album … . The last thing we need is another tragedy like Michael Jackson or Whitney Houston. We need to start supporting our black heroes when they are in trouble instead of making them go even more nuts!”
Once Feeney set a goal, he would work tirelessly to achieve it, says Sonya Ross, race and ethnicity editor at the Associated Press, who worked with Feeney. Weeks before he died, Feeney had landed his dream job covering entertainment for CNN in Atlanta.
“He embodied everything that young journalists should be doing and seeking in terms of their career,” says Sarah Glover, president of the National Association of Black Journalists. “To be tenacious, to be persistent, to be focused, to be disciplined—those are all qualities that he had and he lived, and that’s what we need in our young journalists today.”
When life gives you lemons …
Feeney brought a level of excitement to the job that few others could match, says Christina Joseph Robinson, assignment editor at The Record. He was one of the first reporters on the paper’s staff to shoot his own photos and record video to accompany his articles.
Feeney is remembered by many for his positive attitude and warming smile, even when his circumstances were hard. Robinson recalls the time Feeney was sent to cover a fire in Teaneck on the day before Thanksgiving in 2008. He thought the fire just happened to be on his block, but once he arrived at the scene, he discovered it was his house burning. Smoke had clouded many rooms, blackening the stove and kitchen walls. “My 13-year-old cat, Freddi, was carried out by firefighters in the comforter where she slept,” Feeney wrote in the Daily News a year later. “She didn’t survive. It was the most helpless I had ever felt. I couldn’t stop the tears from trickling down my face.”
The house was unlivable, and his family’s belongings were destroyed, but no one was hurt. The family lived in hotels and temporary housing for the next year while their home was under construction. “Everybody was like, What do you need? And he was like, I’m just so happy that my family is okay and we’re going to be okay,” says Robinson.
Feeney echoed that sentiment in the Daily News piece: “Whether you’re spending this Thanksgiving eating turkey or taking in the parade, stop a moment to be truly thankful for everything you have.”
Lack of diversity in newsrooms is still a problem
Feeney worked at the Daily News from 2009 to 2014, when he was laid off in a series of staff cuts. There weren’t many minority reporters in the newsroom to begin with, and even fewer after the cuts. Feeney did not go silently. “I’m really disappointed that the New York Daily News continues [to] find ways to decrease the number of black journalists that work for the paper, especially in a city where blacks make up a quarter of the population,” he said. “From the death of Eric Garner to the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, it is important, now more than ever, that our newsrooms reflect the diversity of our communities. They have to do better.”
As two-term president of the New York Association of Black Journalists until last year, Feeney’s main goal was to help his fellow black journalists maneuver through the industry. He started a “Chat and Chew” lecture series to create a space for black journalists to come together and connect. Chapter meetings were held at various news organizations to give members more insight into the industry. “We wanted to show people this is what The New York Times looks like if you are interested in working here,” says Josh Barker, a reporter for the New York Amsterdam News who was vice president of NYABJ at the time.
Feeney’s initiatives, like membership drives and open networking to place black journalists in jobs, are credited with winning NYABJ the Chapter of the Year award in 2013. “He had so much promise in his career and he had so much promise within NABJ,” says Glover, the NABJ president and social media editor for NBC Owned Television Stations. “I personally believe he would have been NABJ president one day soon.”
You get what you give
In 2011, a college friend and fraternity brother of Feeney’s named Deon Hampton called Feeney for help finding a job. In less than two weeks, he said at Feeney’s funeral, his friend had secured Hampton an interview at The Record. Hampton ended up getting a job as a staff writer. He currently works for Newsday.
“He not only sought out the best for himself in terms of internship opportunities and employment opportunities, but he always shared his knowledge with others,” says Glover. “You could see firsthand he was very passionate about ensuring other young journalists also had the same opportunities he had, and [the] exposure he had.”
This was especially striking given Feeney’s age. “At 32 years old, you don’t know everything,” says Jay Levin, a reporter for The Record. “But here he was in a position where he was still learning, but he’s imparting what he knows.”
Feeney was especially helpful to students. He had served as an advisor for the student paper at William Paterson University and regularly returned to Delaware State to speak to students about opportunities in journalism, and to share his personal story. In 2014, he gave the keynote address at Delaware State’s convocation. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from or where you’re raised, you still have an opportunity to make your mark on the world,” Feeney said in a university video.
Feeney also helped bring speakers to the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and spoke at a recent Columbia Journalism School Association of Black Journalists (CJABJ) event, titled A Discussion on Race in The Media. “He was very helpful answering questions that the students had, advising them on how they can move forward in their careers as journalists of color, and how to use your race to make you basically a better hire—someone who can diversify the opinions and the culture of the newsroom,” says Cydney Tucker, a Columbia Journalism student and president of CJABJ.
Feeney’s mother was as surprised as anyone by the avalanche of condolence calls and cards she received when her son died. “He did these things that I was not even aware of,” she says.
Feeney knew practically everyone. “Every time he had to get a new phone, they’d be like, Oh, we can’t transfer all these numbers,” his mother recalls with a chuckle.
Once he won the NABJ Emerging Journalist Award, he was on a lot of people’s radar within the industry. His mentors, Sarah Glover of NABJ and Sonya Ross of the AP, agree that Feeney knew how to make connections with the right people. But Feeney wasn’t just an expert networker. He stayed in touch, a habit that served him well. For Glover, the fact that Feeney kept in touch after they met transformed their relationship from one between a mentor and mentee to a real friendship.
In the weeks before he died, Feeney reached out to many friends and acquaintances to tell them about his new job at CNN. He checked in with some while he was in the hospital, as well.
At Feeney’s funeral, Josh Barker of the Amsterdam News remembers people asking why President Obama wrote a letter to Feeney’s family. While he says people didn’t say it outright, the questioning was in the vein of How could I get the same type of response?
Feeney’s selflessness and concern for others should inspire all journalists, for their own betterment and that of the industry.Carlett Spike is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @CarlettSpike.