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Ole Miss Alumna Celebrates First Year With PBS NewsHour

Ole Miss journalism alumna Laura Houston Santhanam recently celebrated her first anniversary as the data producer for the PBS NewsHour in the Washington D.C metro area.

Ole Miss alum Laura Houston Santhanam, who recently celebrated her first anniversary as the data producer for the PBS NewsHour in Arlington, Virginia, has come a long way from her roots in Tupelo. And if she had to choose the profession over again, the 2005 journalism grad said she “definitely” would.

“Every day I use narrative and numbers to tell stories. I really enjoy it,” Santhanam said.

She works daily with spreadsheets and constantly digs through numbers to find trends and patterns that explore current issues, using this information to to tell stories with charts and images online as well as on air.

“I’m really interested in analyzing the data and discovering what the numbers actually say,” she said. “It’s very analytical, but it’s interesting to discover what is most profound and what’s most improved – especially in terms of social issues.”

Santhanam is especially interested in using her skills to help children to live better lives. One important project she recently worked on included reporting on child welfare in New Orleans in the (years later) aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. “I helped tell the stories of what these kids experienced when they were forced to evacuate their homes and to establish new policies for their well-being,” she said. “It was a very rewarding project.”

Santhanam’s path to PBS NewsHour wasn’t direct, and at one point, she even thought she was done with journalism for good.

“I should have known better,” she said.

Santhanam got her start in journalism when she was just a high school sophomore.”Niki Peel helped me get my first newspaper job stringing Friday night football coverage for the Lee County Courier and then the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal,” she said. Santhanam went on the study journalism at Ole Miss and served as editor of The Daily Mississippian during her junior year. “That was a wonderful experience,” she said.

“Laura is very bright; I knew that from day one,” said Dr. Ralph Braseth, professor at Columbia College and former director of the Student Media Center at Ole Miss. “Some of her very best experiences came from serving as editor of The Daily Mississippian.”

Braseth said Santhanam is “all about data,” and he believes that she will one day run a newsroom again.
“In this era, the best news stories come not from hunches, but from relevant and valid data. She is armed and dangerous for this digital world.”

After graduating from Ole Miss, Santhanam briefly worked at the Chattanooga Times-Free Press before returning to The Arizona Republic in Phoenix, where she had interned as an undergrad.

“At that time, journalism’s shifting economic reality began to make newspapers everywhere ache,” she said. “I was seeing a lot of changes in the news paper world, so I decided to go to graduate school and turn my back on the profession I had chosen as a 12 year old.”

In June 2007 Santhanam began studying public policy at American University in Washington D.C. She earned her master’s degree in 2009, and then joined the Pew Research Center, where she analyzed media trends and the news agenda. “I still craved deadlines, interviews and a humming newsroom,” she said. “I itched to jump back into journalism and applied to the NewsHour.”

In 2014 she landed her current job in journalism and hasn’t looked back. “I am thankful to report the news again,” she said. “I explore data and interview policy experts and people whose lives helped shape the numbers. Those figures strengthen narrative in ways that anecdotes alone just can’t.”

Santhanam said that’s the “fun” thing about data and why she absolutely loves her job. “Each statistic represents a person with a story, and some days, I’m lucky enough to tell it.”

Santhanam lives with her husband and young daughter. When she’s not in the newsroom, she can be found cooking or performing in a Bollywood flash mob. “I love to do that when I have the time,” she said with a laugh.”

See some of Santhanam’s work with PBS here and follow her on Twitter.

Beth Harmon is editor for HottyToddy.com. Email her at beth.harmon@hottytoddy.com

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