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J-School Confidential: Stepping Off The Swag Express

In pursuit of the cultural reporting she prefers, our writer jumps from an upwardly mobile editorship to j-school

By Kate Dailey - August 31, 2007
Welcome to our new series, J-School Confidential, filed by media experts in the making. Our rotating cast of emerging journos will take on that great media debate -- to j-school or not to j-school -- while chronicling their tales of learning the craft both in the academic settling and on the ground. They range from a writer who gave up a plum women's magazine editor spot to pursue graduate training she hopes will lead to work as a cultural critic to an overachieving undergrad who breaks TV industry news and has his own news radio show, all on top of the government degree he chose to pursue instead of journalism coursework.

In the fifth installment, former up-and-coming women's magazine editor Kate Dailey talks about leaving her job for j-school. Will her decision to further her education broaden her career opportunities?

This time last year, I was living the dream -- the food and nutrition editor at Women's Health. I was an up-and-coming editor at an up-and-coming women's magazine: traveling to conferences, lunching with writers, distributing my ever-expanding cache of exotic oils and organic snacks amongst my coworkers like a well-shod Robin Hood.

Too bad I was miserable. I had little interest in nutrition and, due to some bureaucratic machinations, was 50 percent of our magazine's Emmaus, PA office -- a lonely gig in a lonely town. Where my coworker went home at night to a gorgeous home, a gorgeous daughter, and a gorgeous husband, I spent my nights with a sullen roommate, frozen Indian dinners, and Veronica Mars. I was expected to be in New York often, and the constant bus ride between the two locales, the endless search for cheap hotel rooms, and the chaos of keeping two separate offices was taking a toll on the quality of my work and whatever waning enthusiasm I had for it.

[My boyfriend] had hot tips, I had hot muffins. This was not the type of journalism I had dreamed of while reading the biography of Nelly Bly in fifth grade and Virginia Heffernan's Slate columns in college.

At the time, I was dating a dogged, talented, relentless reporter/writer for a news magazine. One day, he called me as I took a cab back to our New York office. I had just left a particularly lovely lunch -- the publicist for a new brand of fiber-rich baked goods had taken me to Ono, where we sat outside and gossiped about the natural food industry, and she sent me home with a huge gift basket full of treats.

The boyfriend was out of breath, talking quickly, loud traffic on the other end of the phone. After doing extensive digging on an insider-trading story, he told me, an assistant US attorney was finally ready to talk. "It's off the record, but he's giving me everything," he said. "Names, documents -- I have to get to City Hall before 4, but he's giving me everything." It was at that point I realized -- he had hot tips, I had hot muffins. This was not the type of journalism I had dreamed of while reading the biography of Nelly Bly in fifth grade and Virginia Heffernan's Slate columns in college.

I left my job in the fall, totally demoralized and heartbroken. Still, it was a new beginning, and I was ready to finally write the pop culture stories and cultural analysis I wanted to write (the psychology of hold music, and the increase of male nudity on prime-time cable), but never had the time. Now, I had all the time in the world, plus the motivation of impending poverty, but I didn't have the confidence -- or maybe the contacts or the discipline -- to make it happen.

Grad school seemed like a good way to break through all of these barriers -- and because I didn't have any real plan, telling people I was waiting to hear from Columbia sounded like more of a life plan then telling people I was underemployed, hanging out in my underwear, and sleeping too late in my Philadelphia apartment. Both answers were have been true, but the first had a bit more panache.

Besides, graduate school had always been in my plans -- shuffled off into that vague, nebulous "later" that usually never comes around. I was the least educated of all my friends -- doctors, lawyers, PhDs -- and since I'm a snob, this bothered me. I loved school, but I couldn't picture going back for three or four or seven years only to emerge with a PhD, a load of debt, and no guaranteed job prospects.

Columbia's MA program was only ten months, the coursework was fascinating, and it seemed almost tailor-made to help me land my dream job. I'm taking a two-semester seminar on arts and culture reporting (one of the four MA concentrations, along with business, politics, and science), as well as journalism theory and classes in the greater graduate school -- film criticism, feminist theory, history, etc. I'll learning from the best in the business and, at the very least, will walk a way with an expensive but impressive Rolodex.

Since I've left my old job, I've been contacted about a few interesting, well-paid service gigs that would put me right back on the rock star track. They weren't exactly what I wanted to do, but I would do them well, and thought I could advance up the masthead quickly. I was nervous about taking almost two years off -- the ten months for school and the ten months I spent getting my act together in Philly -- especially because in my mind, everyone wants to be a cultural critic, and who am I to waste time and money pursuing some ambiguous, perfect career?

But I ended up lonely and miserable at my last job because I took the safe, less satisfying gigs when I should have been living poor and hungry in New York. And after a weekend at Columbia's new student orientation, I left more invigorated and excited about my career and my potential than I'd been in years. So why shouldn't I get to do exactly what I want?

Kate Dailey is moving into her first New York apartment this weekend. Classes start Tuesday.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: We'd love to add more voices to this series. If you'd like to share your take on pursuing journalism in and out of school, email us.]

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