Melissa Noel is an award winning multimedia journalist. She produces television as well as print and online stories for several notable media outlets including NBC News, Voices of NY, Huffpost.com and Caribbean Beat Magazine. Recognizing the absence of regular Caribbean/Caribbean Diaspora coverage in mainstream U.S. news media, Melissa regularly travels to the region as well as to cities with large Caribbean populations throughout the U.S., to report stories on mental health, entrepreneurship, immigration policies and practices, tourism, culinary arts and several other topics as related to the Caribbean region and its diaspora. Both domestically and internationally, she is dedicated to researching, writing, producing, and editing news stories that center on the experiences and critical issues impacting communities of color. It’s a journey she began over a decade ago as co-host of the Island Hoppin show on WHBC 830M, Howard University Radio and as a news writer for WHUR 96.3FM where she reported on news stories from the Caribbean region and West Africa.
Recently, Ms. Noel was named a 2017 International Center For Journalists, Bringing Home The World International Reporting Fellow and a USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism National Fellow.
She also received the CUNY Graduate School Of Journalism alumni award for Best National Story for her piece, Black and Undocumented: Caribbean Immigrant’s Long Fight For Citizenship, one story in a series which shed light on issues facing black immigrants in America.
Ms. Noel’s commitment to bringing attention to underreported stories earned her the 2016 International Labour Organization’s Global Media Competition for her piece, Migration and Separation: Stories of “Barrel Children” discussing issues of parental separation due to migration in the Caribbean and the diaspora.
Her dynamic global diaspora coverage was also recognized by Congresswoman Yvette Clarke when she was honored as a 2016 Shining Star Journalism Awardee and by former U.S. President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama as a 2009- 2010 White House Correspondents’ Association journalism award recipient. A proud first generation Guyanese American, Melissa Noel is committed to providing holistic stories of the Caribbean and Caribbean diaspora through her news coverage.
She is a summa cum laude graduate of Howard University where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in broadcast journalism and holds a Master of Arts degree in journalism from The City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate School of Journalism.
MN: This is a journey that really began over 20 years ago. As an eight-year-old child, my maternal grandmother would send me to the local Caribbean market in my New Jersey neighborhood each week to get the newspapers from Guyana. When my family settled in the United States it was always important to them to remain connected to home. I would read the paper with my grandmother and saw just how happy it made her to remain connected and to know what was going on back home. I knew then that I wanted to be a reporter and provide information that keeps people informed. I wanted to be the person to connect with people from all walks of life and tell the stories of their communities.I went on to study broadcast journalism at Howard University in Washington DC. While there I co-hosted the Island Hoppin show on WHBC 830AM and reported on news stories from the Caribbean region and West Africa for WHUR 96.3FM. After earning my undergraduate degree, I began working in network television at ABC News while completing a master’s degree in journalism with a concentration in urban and international affairs. No matter what role I played or what newsroom I worked in, I always pushed for more coverage of underserved communities, including adequate and diverse reporting on the Caribbean region and Caribbean diaspora communities.
MN: Being told no over and over again. Whether it was no to my story ideas or no as someone with fewer qualifications than me, got a job over me, I had to remain focused and not let those things stop me. One of the biggest challenges came when I was constantly told no when I would pitch stories on the Caribbean region. Although there are over four million Caribbean people in the United States and important stories happening throughout the region everyday, regular mainstream news coverage of the region and its diaspora is rare. Simply put I have often been told there is no budget for stories that focus on the Caribbean region or its large diaspora. What this equates are communities where many stories are underreported due to the lack of support and resources from newsrooms. I left my full time producer/ reporter role five years ago and became a freelance reporter in order to focus on improving coverage of these communities. I have spent thousands of dollars of my own money to do so because I am not only passionate, but I see the bigger picture. Another challenge is moving beyond the stereotype that coverage of the Caribbean is either weather or travel related. There have been so many times when I say I am a Caribbean correspondent and the response I get is something like oh, you must love getting to write about beaches and festivals. Yes, these are great topics to cover (I do those stories as well and love it) and I believe budgets should be increased in order to hire more reporters with expertise on the region overall, however there are many others stories.I cover business, mental health and wellness, business and tech, culture, the arts, social issues and much more. My journalism reflects my dedication to improving the coverage of Caribbean people and other underreported communities in general. I overcame these challenges by allowing my passion for this to guide me and being able to impress upon many news outlets the importance of covering this large demographic of people that help make up their audience. Additionally, I am able to show that there are commonalities in this coverage that people from all walks of life can relate to or find engaging.
Beyond that, I let the numbers speak for themselves. Each time I did a story and I was able to show how well it did, the feedback and the impact it made, I showed that this coverage has an audience and makes a difference.
RB: You focus on the Caribbean and Caribbean diaspora in the USA what are some of the nuances of covering this area?
MN: I feel that for the most part it’s just like covering any other beat as a reporter. You have to get to know the various communities within the larger community, cultivate sources, maintain relationships, be accountable, etc. The difference is often feeling like I have to prove to larger news outlets that this coverage is “worth it” or “ has an audience”. I know that a good story is a good story and both my regional knowledge and in-depth reporting experiences will ensure that it appeals to diverse audiences.
RB: You’ve built a strong and recognisable brand. How did you do this?
MN: I started small. I didn’t try to make a big splash and do a big expose or try to get something to go viral.
Instead, I began contributing more regular work to various community and ethnic media outlets. I specifically went in and expanded the coverage of Caribbean communities each of these outlets provided.
I used social media to reach out, made sure that I tagged everything with simple yet effective hashtags and engaged with people via Facebook live, Twitter chats and in other online forums.
Beyond that I simply showed up. Whether I was reporting or not, I supported the events of Caribbean businesses, cultural organizations, youth programs, health initiatives, etc. I formed relationships with people and they got to know me beyond questions and sound bites. My engagement in the communities showed that I was not only passionate, but invested. Things took off from there!
RB: What’s the most memorable piece you’ve covered to date?
MN: I can’t just choose one!
There is work of DiasporaES, which as a part of the services offered, specifically curates itineraries for groups to experience the rich African culture of the island of Cuba.
Also, there is a story I covered called Migration and Separation: Stories of ‘Barrel Children’, which has stayed with me for over a year. For this piece I interviewed people from the Caribbean region who had gone through the experience of prolonged separation from their parents as children and the long-term impact it has had on them. I also highlighted a program that is providing a platform for people to share their stories and access resources for support.
This piece was so memorable and brought about so much, that I am doing additional reporting on the issue and look forward to sharing more stories about it.
RB: As someone who works freelance how do you navigate the uncertainty of not having a steady paycheck?
MN: I am blessed to have reached a point where I have been able to negotiate steady contracts with several of the outlets I work for; so steady pay is no longer an issue. Additionally, I teach journalism classes and am a highly sought after media consultant.
For those who want to become freelancers, the most important part is to have a plan. This can’t be a sporadic decision. It has to be a conscious one. As a freelancer payment delays are unfortunate, but they are the norm. You have to figure out what you will do to bring in steady money every week or every two weeks so your bills are paid for.
I would encourage people to start doing small freelance projects in addition to what they do already and get a feel for it. It helps to figure out what you can make, how often or if it will even work for you.
RB: What are your long-term goals and what should we expect from you in a few years?
MN: I typically like to work in silence and not speak too much about my next moves until they are solidified. What I will say is that you can expect expansion of my media brand and training of next generation of media professionals. And, of course you can expect much, more Caribbean coverage!
RB: What tips do you have for those looking to break into journalism and work freelance?
MN: You have to work at your craft every single day whether its voice coaching, improving your writing abilities, learning how to use new camera equipment or editing software, its necessary and its an on-going process. It will only make you better at what you do.
Also, I always like to remind people that being on camera is just one of many roles in the news and media industry. There are producer roles, scriptwriting, editor roles, managerial and executive roles, so many things that people can do and we need more people in those roles, particularly people of color.
Think of yourself as a business. This is especially true for freelancers. You have to market and advertise yourself and get others interested in you and what your brand is. You have to analyze costs (not just the monetary ones) as you build your brand and you have to be strategic as you move forward in order to grow.
Lastly, always remember that nothing can replace hard work and no matter what happens, don’t quit! You started on this path for a reason.