At 10:30 a.m. on an unseasonably hot spring Monday, Kyle Mazza, who just celebrated his 20th birthday, crosses Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. precisely as the sign turns to “Walk,” beating the crowd that has formed behind him. His light grey suit billows in the wind, though his sky-blue paisley tie is safely tucked inside his jacket. A press pass dangles around his neck and he has parted his lush brown hair in the middle so it sweeps out over his forehead and dark eyebrows. He needs to get to the White House by 11 a.m. to cover a ceremony. Since seven a.m., he’s been monitoring his emails for updates from the apartment in Alexandria he rents during the week.
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Mazza is likely the only self-taught founder of a news and radio organization to gain White House press pass privileges, and did so as a teenager no less. He covered briefings and events during the Obama administration for UNF, or Universal News Forever, the site he created at eight years old. But his present prosperity comes at a time when Trump has implemented a “war against the media,” banning accredited news organizations like “the failing” New York Times, CNN and Politico from the press room. Trump favors conservative outlets and berates the “dishonest media” at his rallies. During his rise, he legitimized alt-right publications like Breitbart and InfoWars. Several grassroots outlets have cropped up at the press briefings this year, like The Gateway Pundit, which assigned Lucian Wintrich to be its first White House correspondent. Unlike these openly right-wing outlets though, Mazza says his content remains neutral.
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In February, Mazza caught the attention of President Trump and, thus, the broader media world. During Trump’s first solo press briefing, Mazza squeezed in a question about what Melania Trump does for the country. It elicited an amiable response from the heated president, who had gone on a media-bashing rampage.
“Now that’s what I call a nice question. That is very nice,” Trump responded.
Mazza nodded his head in thanks. Afterward, several news outlets profiled Mazza for mitigating the president, like The New York Times and NorthJersey.com. Some people derided his authenticity on Twitter by putting quotes around the words “UNF” or “reporter.” Liam Stack of the New York Times tweeted: “The reporter who asked the softball Melania question at Trump’s press conference was nineteen. His TV network was made up.” Several replied back defending Mazza and praising his audacity, like Marissa Isgreen who tweeted: “I just don’t understand how as a fellow journalist you’re upset with this kid pursuing his dreams.” Mazza’s Twitter banner is now a screen grab of himself posing the question.
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Even after Mazza’s bout with fame, the acronym UNF probably means nothing for many. Several young political reporters for mainstream media outlets said they hadn’t heard of Mazza or UNF when asked for an interview. The site is Mazza’s cherished creation, and his adoration for it is apparent not only in how he plugs his URL and social media handles into conversation or says, “We have an international audience” when talking about his one-man publication, but also the literal lengths he has gone to get a story. During the presidential election, he drove from Pennsylvania across to Kentucky and down to Florida to cover both candidates. Now, he cruises to Mar-a-Lago when President Trump holes up there or arrives on Air Force One, driving fourteen hours just to get a shot of the plane. Recently, he left D.C. at eight p.m. and pulled up to the compound at ten a.m. the next morning without having stopped. It helps that he sings in the car.
“Anywhere I could go, I would go. Anywhere I could drive, I would drive to get the story. That’s how much determination I have,” he says.
Mazza grew up in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, and uses expressions like “Alls I can say is . . .” As a kid, he preferred watching the news to cartoons. He got his first police scanner at eight and now owns eleven, in addition to twelve amateur radios and ten emergency radios. That same year he researched how to buy a domain and purchased the web address for UNF with financial help from his parents. He learned how to report by reading books and maintains a strict, no opinion, facts-only policy.
“I believe if you have an opinion in reporting, you’re not really a journalist,” he says.
Mazza made his start by writing local stories, particularly breaking news like car accidents, shootings, and fires, and covering the courthouse. He once drove 90 minutes to Connecticut to report on a crash. Later, the public information officers suggested what public relations lists to sign up for and he figured out how to get a local press pass. Several years ago, he obtained a New York press pass to cover Mayor Bill de Blasio. Now, he’s down in D.C. every week covering President Trump, which is why he needs the apartment in Alexandria. He still reports in his hometown and the surrounding area on weekends. Mazza doesn’t track readership numbers and he doesn’t compare UNF to other outlets.
“I’m doing a public service by reporting the news and getting the facts out there,” he says. “I’m not tied down to an editor that gives me things to do. I can choose the questions that I want answered.”
It takes Mazza 20 to 40 minutes to write an article, which tend to be brief. He hasn’t changed the website since its launch, and it retains an early-aughts interface, with lots of white space, little color and a pixelated logo. A “Breaking News” ticker spits out headlines across the top and articles are organized by categories in a right-hand column. He has plans for an upgrade, though won’t divulge details.
“He’s a real go-getter,” says Marty Herstein, the director of the Connecticut School of Broadcasting in Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey, a technical school Mazza graduated from in November. “He sort of finagled his way into getting press passes into all these major events and started covering New Jersey politics, and bang, you’ve seen what he’s done in the past six months. He carved his own niche and he’s working his butt off every day.”
Mazza is hard to pin down and his whereabouts often remain uncertain. The last-minute release of President Trump’s schedule disrupted his plans to return to New Jersey for local reporting. James Comey’s sudden firing kept him frazzled in the White House until midnight.
But Mazza doesn’t mind the job’s unpredictability. He has no intention of slowing down or even pursuing other careers in journalism.
“I want to keep running UNF News until the day I die,” he says.