One glance at Samaruddin Stewart’s LinkedIn is enough to overwhelm even the most accomplished journalists.
He holds a bachelor’s in journalism and master’s in mass communication from Arizona State University. He was a photographer at three different newspapers in the Phoenix area. He wrote a photo book about a 56-day aviation trip around the world. While working at the U.S. Embassy in Budapest, Hungary, he followed Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice on their visits, taking photos of their entire day. He earned his MBA at Central European University. And, most recently, he completed a John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University.
Exhausted yet? The list will only continue for Stewart — after all, he’s only 36.
“Pretty much from the day we hired him, the assumption was we’d all be working for Sam some day,” said Damon Kiesow, one of Stewart’s former colleagues at AOL and currently senior product manager at The Boston Globe and boston.com.
Stewart became addicted to taking photos in high school, when he was living in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and his parents bought him his first SLR camera. What started as a simple hobby of documenting hangout sessions with his friends turned into a serious pursuit of researching photography programs at universities and considering journalism as a career.
While he was finishing his master’s in the early 2000s, Stewart worked at the Arizona Republic as an online multimedia specialist. At the cusp of the digital revolution, Stewart said the newspaper was fairly innovative for its time. When he was hired at AOL a couple of years later, the company was in the midst of building its brand as an online news site. In his six years at AOL, he shot photos for sports, entertainment and news and later became senior manager of the photo department.
Stewart attributes much of his online journalism track to timing.
“I would love to say I had a crystal ball and saw the future of journalism online,” Stewart said.
Nevertheless, it was his interest in technology and the initiative to learn how online journalism works that led Stewart to greater success.
“Every six months, the actual tools you use change. There was a need to keep learning,” Stewart said. “The tools you have today aren’t important; the capacity you have to learn them is what’s important.”
His ability to adapt to new technology helped him get accepted into the 2013 Knight Fellowship program, which gives journalists and entrepreneurs the tools to tackle a project intended to help the future of journalism.
Stewart’s project revolved around user-generated content — something he often ran into at AOL and an ethical problem newsrooms are facing more and more today with an increasing number of cameras in the general public’s pockets, as well as a higher demand for photographs from new consumers. If a non-journalist sends a newsroom a photo of a crime, treacherous weather or any other event happening, how are editors supposed to know if it’s real? Stewart aimed at finding out this answer through already-existing technology.
Essentially, Stewart wanted to build a bridge between journalism and the sciences available to verify legitimate photos.
His Knight Fellowship advisor, Pam Maples, thinks he’s only just started what’s sure to be a very successful career.
“I think he’s going to be involved in some really great things for journalism,” Maples said. “He’s got all the qualities, knowledge and temperament to play an important role in the future of journalism.”
And that vast resume of Stewart’s? Kiesow has one more thing to add: inventor of the “selfie” photo genre.
“He is world famous for the selfie, and he did it way before the iPhone was invented,” said Kiesow, who fondly shared a picture of them with two other AOL colleagues at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. In the photo, the four men don press passes and camera bags. On the right, Stewart’s shoulder and the top of his arm grow larger into the photo and break at the bottom edge. A classic selfie.