Popular Culture Journalism (JOUR494): Class recap for Sept. 17 — with guest stars

My very good friends Leslie Yazel (deputy editor of the “Personal Journal” features section of the Wall Street Journal) and her husband Jeremy Egner (producer and writer in the arts & leisure department of the New York Times) came to class on Monday to talk about their careers, their work, the state of online and print journalism, editing (being an editor; being edited), how to get story ideas, how to conduct yourself in a big news operation, and how to keep up with popular culture and, most of all, how to stay ahead. That’s a lot to talk about and they were both funny, friendly and, most of all, hopeful.

And Jemma, their 23-month-old daughter, sat on the floor behind them and quietly entertained herself for EIGHTY MINUTES, people — using only a blanket, a sleepy-baby doll, a few stickers and her own stylin’ new pink Montana cowboy boots (made by real Indians — in India). Someone should have made a video of her and posted it to every mommy blog in the land. Mister Hank will buy her a pony* someday in gratitude. (*pony might not be actual.)

Leslie and Jeremy had loads of great advice, not just in class, but later over drinks at The Keep. Listening to them in class, what struck me was how random a career really is over time. Despite Type-A plans and aspirations, you must always be ready to roll with something new.

Jeremy, for example, admits to flaking off in his early 20s before he buckled down and got his degree at the University of Texas. In the late ’90s he parlayed entry-level work at the Austin American-Statesman into a column, which led to taking a job at a broadcast trade journal in Washington, DC — a big leap. While working a full time job, he decided to go for a master’s degree in online journalism at American University. And, rather suddenly, that led to a job offer from the Times as a web producer. So he went to New York — even though it meant Leslie would stay behind in Washington for a year.

Leslie went to the University of Iowa, studied journalism, worked a year for the Des Moines Register and then took a chance and moved to London, where she worked for trade magazines. She came back to the States and moved to San Francisco and freelanced. Then she decided to take a chance on New York, and worked her way into staff jobs at magazines — Maxim and then Glamour. Then she decided to try moving to Austin and freelancing. Then she got a job as a features editor at the Austin American-Statesman (after I worked there), which is where she met Jeremy. And when he got that job offer in DC, off they both went, where she landed a job as an arts editor at the Washington Post. And when he moved to New York, she held down the fort for a year and they had a commuter marriage. The she quit a job she loved and moved to New York herself, and, through connections and determination, found temporary editing jobs at Redbook and Seventeen, before landing something permanent at the Journal.

I don’t mean to turn this into an epic tale of triumph (which it’s not) and I admit it’s got a whole lot of good luck and fortunate timing as a central theme, but I do want you to see what you must do: Jump at opportunities. Network a lot — but not willy-nilly. Keep working, keep working, keep working. Keep pitching. Keep learning. When it happens, go for it, even if comes with sacrifice and hassle. Successful journalists tend to leave every comfort zone they have. The University of Montana’s j-school has a long list of alums who took the plunge and worked their way to the top, closer to home and far away. Find them and ask them how. There are a lot of obstacles in your way in the media business of 2012, but there were always obstacles.

Careers are long; a lot can happen — for good and for bad. The point is you don’t have to be an Ivy League alum or a born New Yorker to get there. (Frankly, I think Montana makes you a little more interesting.) Look back: Jeremy is from Texas. Leslie is from Iowa. I’m from Oklahoma. Nothing so special.

So this is why I’m on your asses to keep up with all forms of culture: You don’t want to get out there and find yourselves steamrolled by the coastal elites.

* * *

I didn’t give reading assignments for Wednesday, Sept. 19, but we’re going to continue with our look at how to write great criticism.

Thanks, everyone, for turning in your reported essays. Collectively, you all filed a little more than 20,000 words — which is about 1/4 of a book. Just look at the subjects you’ve written about. Taken together, it sounds like a book about American mainstream life in 2012, an echo of Henry Allen’s Going Too Far Enough:

Corn dogs, teddy bears, cowboy hats, Chuck Taylors, Chacos, calendars, Instagram, record players, baseball hats, orange earplugs, Eggo waffles, Allen wrenches, Subarus, hair extensions, old guitars, Dale Earnhardt stickers — all of it wrapped up in duct tape.


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