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J-School Confidential: Balancing Books and Bylines

Our almost graduate discusses using his classroom work to land bylines in major papers and magazines

By John MacDonald - November 16, 2007
In this week's edition of J-School Confidential, a third semester NYU student sounds off on the difficulties of getting published while immersed in schoolwork. He details his successes (including an upcoming article in The New York Times) and examines his failures (two NYT rejections), while showing how NYU both helped and hurt his freelancing career.
Here's the tricky thing about j-school: it's a professional education dressed in liberal arts finery. This tension between the vocational and the intellectual is what makes the best programs so exhilarating, and what makes them, at times, so frustrating. Journalists must think critically and read voraciously, but they're not journalists if they don't publish, if they don't engage with the world outside the classroom. Figuring out how to do both is j-school's challenge.

It's probably fair to say that I enrolled in the most bookish of NYU's graduate journalism programs -- Cultural Reporting and Criticism. Our program's founder, the late Ellen Willis, was The New Yorker's first pop music critic. We read Pauline Kael and Jane Kramer, Lester Bangs and David Remnick. We meant to be cultural critics, to write long-form nonfiction. (We still might.) At best, we felt ambiguous about hard reporting, at worst, terrified.

CRC has been great -- intellectually rigorous and combative -- and entirely unique. Few journalism programs begin with serious discussions about students' listening and reading habits (Wilco, Broken Social Scene; Zadie Smith, John Banville). But while I haven't always pushed hard to get published, CRC has done little to help me do so. I suspect this would be true for many programs, but it's certainly been true for mine. With graduation just months away, the need to balance bylines and academics -- commitments that often seem mutually exclusive -- has become even more of an issue.

This is not to say that publishing is impossible -- it's not. Or that I haven't -- I have. It's just that one can't expect your program to do it for you. The trick is to engage with journalism's rich literature without hiding behind it.

My first major success came last summer, a full two-thirds through my degree. All spring semester I had been working on a profile of a nonprofit arts group and avant-garde radio station -- Williamsburg's free103point9. Doubting that mainstream publications would be receptive to such an obscure subject, I pitched it cold to the Brooklyn Rail. The Rail's music editor, it turned out, loved free103 and always thought they deserved more attention. I got 1,500 words and a full page. The lack of a paycheck seemed a small price to pay.

The Rail was painless -- and it was all mine. Besides casual recommendations from friends and faculty, I had made the connection on my own. And since I filed the piece during summer break, there was no need to accommodate two deadlines or two, often opposing, sets of expectations. Most importantly, I developed a relationship with a respected arts publication. Next month the Rail is publishing my 1,200-word review of Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia.

Getting into The New York Times would be a different story. Last winter, I pitched the City Section a short piece about the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. (My professor had given me an editor's email address.) "The topic is interesting, but a little too programmy for our tastes´┐Ż But thanks for thinking of us," the Times wrote back. At least I got a response.

This time the Times gave me the thumbs-up. My piece is slated to hit stands later this month.

Earlier this semester I tried again, this time pitching a story about a trio of performance artists in Brooklyn. Yes, the Times said, we'll take it on spec. The reporting went well, they even sent out a photographer. I sweated over my 500 words, had a professor look over my draft, and sent it in. A couple days later, I got a phone call. They liked it, but not enough to print.

NYU made sure I got another shot. The City Section editor I spoke with earlier visited my class. All eight of my classmates had pitches. We sold four of them, mine included. And this time -- after trekking up to Inwood to interview tenants about a particularly noisy neighbor -- the Times gave me the thumbs-up. My piece is slated to hit stands later this month.

I owe most of my success to my professor's City Section connection. Although his class is a perfect example of how tricky it is to publish while pursuing a full-time degree, there's little question I would have gotten such a sympathetic response to my query without talking with the Times in-person.

Now, more than ever, I want to be out in the real world freelancing. The idea that I might have what it takes to make a living (or part of a living) doing so is intoxicating. NYU hasn't given me any clear answers. But situated as it is on the line between a professional and a liberal arts degree, I don't know if it's a question J-school can answer. I've got to find that out for myself.


John MacDonald is a graduate student in the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University. He lives in Brooklyn. He can be reached at jmacdonald324 at GMAIL dot COM.


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