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J-School Confidential: Distilling a Premium Education

Life lessons from the mouth of a former j-school lecturer

- November 2, 2007
In this week's edition of J-School Confidential, a young magazine entrepreneur and former j-school lecturer offers his perspective from the other side of the lecture podium. The conclusions he draws about the readiness of j-school students to take on the media world will surprise even the most hardened industry vet.

My friend and mentor Michael A. Walsh -- a Visiting Professor at Boston University when I attended there, winner of the National Book Award, a 16-year music critic for Time, and screenwriter of the Disney Channel's highest-rated program -- has a saying: "I never applied for a job I got, and I never got a job I applied for."

It's an interesting paradigm shift, and the recipe for stress-free living: reach the heights of journalistic stardom by going about your business, striving to the beat of your own ambition, and making due as the chips fall where they will. It brings to mind another saying, attributed to the Roman philosopher Seneca: "Luck happens when preparation meets opportunity."

I never graduated from journalism school. I never even applied to one. When Boston University's College of Communication appointed me as its youngest faculty member -- a post I held for a year until the eight-hour roundtrip train ride from New York City to Boston became too cumbersome -- it was truly a matter of being in the right place at the right time. I was in town to see my best friend and business partner graduate college, but had some spare time to stop by the Journalism Department and show Professor Caryl Rivers, whose advice was instrumental to our first magazine's launch, copies of Citizen Culture's debut issue.

Pleased, she suggested I show the department head; I went further, offering internships to B.U. students seeking an "in" to the industry. Imagine my surprise when he replied, "Actually, one of own professors just took a sabbatical year. Do you want his class?"

Um ... sure. Thus I became a university lecturer at age 24.

The first day teaching "Magazine Business Development (for the 21st Century)", I recalled how blasé most professors seem about the new semester: another syllabus, another set of sheltered know-it-alls, maybe a bright-eyed wannabe somewhere in the mix. I was surely going to be different; after all, I was younger than half my graduate students.

From my eclectic trove of hundreds of magazines, I hauled around seventy-five into the room, spread them across four tables, and instructed the students to go buck-wild, comparing, contrasting, and charting every distinguishing characteristic. Time, Atlantic Monthly, Scientific American, Playboy, Plenty, Details, Out, Redbook, Fast Company, Consumer Reports, URB, Men's Health, Women's Health, Rolling Stone, Road & Track, Highlights, Harvard Business Review. The assignment -- "Determine what works, what doesn't, and why" -- seemed simple at first.

The boldface truth of the semester was that if you’ve got the chops to get into j-school, you’re likely better-skilled that most full-time pros.

But the students quickly learned that crafting a perfect magazine, like a perfect pitch -- like a perfect lover -- is a doomed enterprise; it's a trick question, because it doesn't exist. Cliché though it may sound, the eye of the beholder is the only gauge of interest that matters -- and that lesson applies equally well to writers, editors, artists, even salespeople. A quick glance at proves beyond the pale of doubt that that which soareth like a rocket, falleth with a thud. On the flip side of the same coin, sometimes unexpected adventures in creativity -- Reader's Digest, Consumer Reports, Mental Floss, anyone? -- yield game-changing innovation.

By semester's end, several of the most innovation concepts and designs I've ever seen in the publishing world emerged: A local magazine for the ski summit crowd, perfectly designed to fit on the bar. A magazine for single dads. Even the world's first all-inclusive weddings magazine; a particularly ambitious student team joined my company to prototype With This Ring. The boldface truth of the semester, which most journalism teachers are disinclined to tell you, emerged loud and clear and utterly unspoken before my students' curious eyes: if you've got the chops to get into j-school, you're likely better-skilled than most full-time media professionals.

Consider why:

Journalism is about simultaneously selling yourself as an expert and your stories as worth reading. Thus in media, like in entrepreneurship, failure can be more profoundly instructive than success by forcing the aspirant to be hungry and resourceful, to stand up and pay attention. Sources defect, ledes fall apart, deadlines ebb and flow; everyone gets it wrong sometimes. Even University of Mississippi professor Samir Husni, a man so revered that he's been dubbed "Mr. Magazine." Remember Sync? Suede? Success? All recently made his "Most Notable" list ... and don't exist just a few years later.

But know this: uniqueness, evocation, and persistence earn a seat at the media table -- a lesson equally applicable to writers, artists, ad salesmen, editors, and would-be publishers.

Consider 944, the best-overall magazine I've seen launch and grow over the past five years, was born in Phoenix and is curiously named (allegedly after a telephone exchange). After identifying a niche market that was growing economically yet light on competition, they put together a beautiful, well-edited product; then diversified and exploded into major markets with a solid financial footing. This all goes to prove the point that grassroots hustles can pay the bills. Time, after all, bestows credibility.

I'll never forget the day my students discussed editorial authority, piping up about whimsical tendencies like objectivity and bias that other professors sought to exorcize. "Excuse me," I asked, "but did Lou Dobbs, Maria Bartiromo, Bill O'Reilly, Erin Burnett, Keith Olbermann, William Safire, the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, and of course, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert (whose professional affiliation may as well be "America") become trusted reporters of our national condition by lacking opinions?"

Of course not.

The media knows better than anyone that our country does not suffer ambivalence. Wannabes must take note -- and take sides -- to gain authority, the endgame and grail of journalism; they must bear their teeth and integrity to the world. Live the imperative to thrust beyond the obvious, dig a little deeper, ask the uncomfortable questions, and at base, try, try again.

Jonathon Scott Feit is president & CEO/chief editor & publisher of the Feit Family Ventures Corporation/Feit Publishing Ventures, a diversified, mission-driven, entrepreneurial company that publishes Citizen Culture and With This Ring magazines, as well as the "Equality Media Newsletter."

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