David Johnson -- Journalism
Tell me about when you started thinking about leaving philosophy and why.
I thought about it in grad school. During the Bush years, I became obsessed with politics. That’s what I wanted to research, that’s what I wanted to talk about, that’s what I wanted to write about. I began by blogging extensively about politics, the way a lot of people were doing at the time. But I’d made this long-term commitment to become a professor of ancient philosophy. I had a nice stipend at Stanford, and teaching wasn’t burdensome, so I felt I might as well finish my PhD. And of course, when you finish, it’s time to get a job. I was going with the flow, swept along with the current, even though I often thought that I wanted to change course.
Were you still interested in ancient philosophy or was that becoming less compelling?
No, it was still very important to me. I finished my PhD in 2002, landed a tenure-track job, and I was on my way. But sometimes, in talking about my research, it felt as though I was talking about somebody else’s work. It wasn’t coming from my heart. I didn’t leave academia until 2005.
My job at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) was a nice first gig, although all of the professors were commuting. It didn’t have a university community like you’d find in, say, Ann Arbor or Palo Alto. I’d moved from California knowing no one in the area and my life felt monkish, as though I was living there alone. Two years into the job, I applied to Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, which offered a 10-month program, instead of the two years typical of many other masters program. If you wanted a quick transition into journalism, that was a good way to do it.
Were you applying when I knew you at Michigan?
Yes. I was accepted to Columbia around the same time I was invited to visit Michigan for a year. The big question for me was, well, are you really sure you want to leave philosophy? Maybe you should try a different department, a really large, excellent department with lots of smart people. I went to Ann Arbor, but I also reapplied to Columbia. I was accepted and decided to go.
Michigan was a better experience. But I knew if I had to spend my career in Ann Arbor, I would not be happy. I felt in retrospect that I was probably depressed in Baltimore, feeling lonely and not enjoying what I was doing. So unhappiness was a motivating factor, too. There were many factors.
Tell me about Columbia.
It’s one of the top programs for journalism, and it accepts a lot of career-changers. At the time it was very newspaper-focused, but they teach everything: TV, radio, magazine. Being a former academic, I felt more suited to magazines.
What kind of coursework did you do?
The big course in the first semester is called RW1, or Reporting and Writing. You find and write two stories a week, every week, on an assigned topic. Your instructor serves as a stand-in for your editor at a newspaper. Every student is assigned a neighborhood in NYC. I got Staten Island.
How did this compare to answering the big questions in philosophy?
It’s funny, because in philosophy there are a lot of people who are shy and socially awkward, but that’s OK, because you spend your time reading, writing, and thinking about texts. Some people are better than others at debate, discussion, and social interaction at a wine and cheese hour. I tended to be more shy and reserved. But at journalism school, you get over that quickly. It’s a skill that you learn in journalism school, especially RW1: getting information as quickly as possible, by whatever means necessary. If you need to engage somebody, if you need to call them, you pick up the phone and call, immediately. As a philosopher, the tendency is, oh, it’s such a pain dealing with practical matters, such as talking to people… I’ll call them tomorrow. I’ll just send an email. Journalists, by contrast, need to know now. They pick up the phone and call.
It’s a completely different approach to the world. It’s much more proactive, rather than reflective. I found it refreshing, even though I went into philosophy partly for psychological reasons: I am more of a reflective, passive person, and I don’t like confrontations. But in journalism, you get over that tendency quickly and it’s a great skill to have — to take action when you need to know something. It’s a skill that would have helped me as a philosopher, because I think the tendency in philosophy is to stick to your texts and your reflections, to your own mind, when actually a lot of good philosophy is done by being proactive, having discussions, sharing your ideas, being willing to have them criticized and dismantled — and not feeling embarrassed by it. In journalism you develop that habit. You put your copy out there, and you can’t be a perfectionist about it. You get it done. That’s another habit I wish I had as a philosopher: you just write, get it on paper, don’t worry about little infelicities in your explanations or mistakes, don’t feel worried about being revealed to have thought something really stupid, because in journalism you don’t have time to worry about that. And actually, in philosophy, worrying about that is also stupid. You just have to keep working at it until it’s right.
I asked you a sort of snobbish question: what was it like to go from thinking about “big” questions to “little” questions? And what you said, if I understand correctly, is that journalism taught you important work habits—being proactive about getting answers, getting things done and not stalling for fear of criticism.
Going to “little” ideas, going from studying the Good to reporting on homelessness in Staten Island, was in some ways refreshing. You’re interviewing ordinary people on the street and you have to go up to them and say, “Hi, my name is David Johnson. I’m a student at Columbia Journalism School, and I want to talk to you about something.” It’s nice to have that habit, to be just able to talk to anybody and not feel worried or embarrassed. And it’s great to talk to ordinary people; I wish more philosophers did. However, over time it was frustrating to write news articles about local events. I was less interested in doing newspaper reporting, learning about things that happened yesterday afternoon, rather than tackling big issues. I was more suited to magazine journalism.
Tell me about the kind of work you found after finishing your program.
When I was given a beat in Staten Island, my professor set up an internship with the Staten Island Advance newspaper. They gave me a job after school as a general assignment reporter — that is, they can assign you to write about whatever is happening that day. It was a nice job to have right out of school. I made as much money, or even a little more, than I was making at UMBC. But I was thirty-five years old. I didn’t want to invest all of this time to get really good at newspaper reporting, which I wasn’t sure I even liked. I was more interested in magazines and I also had a book project in mind. So I decided to quit, which was risky because it was burning a bridge on the newspaper path. (Typically, the idea would be, you start at the Staten Island Advance, and work your way to a New Jersey paper such as the Bergen Record, and if you’re really good, you make it to the New York Times or the Washington Post.) I quit, worked on my book project, and freelanced. Some months later I applied for and got an internship at Harper’s Magazine.
A lot of people get started in magazines by taking internships, which are typically unpaid. So here I am at 36, taking an unpaid internship. It sounds absurd, but it’s not that unusual.One of the editors who interviewed me for the internship, Ben Austen, had been a high school teacher before he left for journalism and was an intern at Harper’s. It was an excellent experience: at Harper’s, the interns do the reporting and fact-checking for the Harper’s Index, and then each intern is assigned another task. Mine was to find interesting texts for the Readings section. (I love to tell philosophers I was the person who found and convinced Harper’s to publish David Lewis and Philip Kitcher on God and the problem of evil.)
I should mention that I was fortunate enough to have savings to take a career risk and accept an unpaid internship. I was single and I had some savings to back up a gamble, so I decided to do it. When I was visiting at Michigan I asked Juan Cole, who is obviously a well-respected blogger and academic, how he managed to balance both. He basically told me that he had tenure, so he could do what he wanted, and he spent much of his time then doing what amounts to journalism. I felt couldn’t take the same path. I wanted to take a gamble and get away from academia. If I had faced more constraints on my circumstances, such as a family or a lack of resources, I might have stuck it out in academia and tried to do journalism on the side. Many grad students and professors do that.
At any rate, I was at the Harper’s internship for four months. It was a fabulous experience: you get to know the editors, attend editorial meetings, and work on some really cool stuff. While I was there, Rick McArthur, Harper’s publisher, hired me to work as a researcher on his book. I was hoping to get a job on Harper’s staff, but that didn’t work out and I had a hard time finding my next job, thanks in part to bad timing — that was concurrent with the 2008 economic meltdown. I spent my time doing freelance fact-checking and editing.
My first real full-time job after Harper’s was at San Francisco magazine. It’s a regional lifestyle magazine but has very good journalism, a bit like New York magazine. I was getting married in San Francisco and my wife’s family is from the Bay area, so it seemed like a good reason to move back. The editor who hired me, Nan Weiner, did a PhD in English at the University of Virginia. I became the research editor: I ran the fact-checking department, which reviews every factual claim in the entire issue and ensures its accuracy.
If you pick a major market like San Francisco, can you build your career there?
It’s hard in San Francisco. The major media jobs are in New York and Washington. At Columbia, the professors recommend that students build their careers somewhere else, and if they do good work, they’ll be hired back to New York. When you’re on the magazine track, it’s easy to get an entry-level job in fact-checking or copyediting. Both jobs are good skills to learn. But to edit a text, to be the lead editor, to commission writers to write for the magazine, to shape articles to make sure it’s a good story — it’s very hard to get to that point.
So here I am at San Francisco, I wrote several pieces for the magazine, including a long feature. But the job didn’t pay well, certainly not for someone getting married, and I was eager to write and edit more. A Web editor job opened up at Boston Review, which is co-edited by Joshua Cohen, and I jumped at it. Boston Review is an excellent magazine that publishes features on international and domestic affairs of wide public interest. Josh Cohen and I had mutual connections at Stanford, people who could tell him to consider me. I was hired to commission and edit content for the website. It was my first chance to edit stuff, and the material happened to cover subjects I really cared about.
Could you have just contacted Josh Cohen earlier in your career and gone straight into this position, or did you have to jump through the various hoops you cleared?
Would he have hired me if he thought I was a really smart grad student? I think he might have if he could see I was engaged in public writing and wrote really well. Maybe if I had already written for Boston Review or gave him another independent reason to think I was a good fit for the magazine. The reason they hired me over other candidates, I think, was that the co-editor was also a philosopher.
Boston Review was an excellent move for me. In retrospect, there’s a good reason why it’s hard to get an editing job: it takes experience to learn how to do it well. The person at Boston Review I learned the most from was the managing editor, Simon Waxman. When I edited copy, it would go to him, and he would restructure my work or re-edit as well as copyedit it, and that would frustrate me, but his judgments were usually spot on.
Is editing anything like giving students comments on their papers before they revise and resubmit them?
No, it’s more practical than that. You use track changes in the text and redo it for the writer. You start to rewrite the essay and try to augment the writer’s arguments and style. Some writers need very little editing, but sometimes editors have to rewrite the whole text.
There is a question of how you do that: With the writer’s consent? With the writer’s helpful input? It’s a matter of figuring out how to interact productively with the writer to make the text better. It involves relationships and teamwork: you and the writer creating the text together. The writer gets the byline, but it’s the editor who ensures the text is ready for public consumption.
So I learned a lot at Boston Review, but the pay wasn’t great and it was not, practically speaking, a senior position. For a time, I also worked as a weekend editor for Alternet, a web-only progressive journalism outfit, for extra money.
Tell me how you came to Al Jazeera.
In the spring of 2013, there was an announcement about the launch of Al Jazeera America (AJAM), a well-funded company where you could do excellent journalism. I had a friend who was hired rather early in the process, and she suggested that I apply for the opinion editor job. I started in August 2013, three years after beginning work at Boston Review. The offer was a very hard decision for my wife and me. We had a young child, and Alternet offered me a full-time job that could allow me to stay in the Bay Area, but at half the salary Al Jazeera was offering. The problem was that the job was in New York.
I became the senior opinion editor for AJAM’s news website. I led the creation of the opinion section and managed a team of three other editors. That meant commissioning and editing lots of opinion pieces. If you’re going to have a site with three or four op-eds a day, five days a week, plus two on Saturday, two on Sunday… if you’re going to have that much content, better to have a group of people who can write regularly as columnists. So I had to recruit those writers. Then you have people cold-pitching or submitting all the time, and you have to evaluate them. And you’re also constantly following the news: There’s a train derailment, and we should commission a piece on train safety. Who do we get to write that? I’d find an expert and ask them to write something. So you’re editing the work of regular columnists, fielding submissions, tracking the news, and finding new people to write. [Since his interview, David has become Senior Editor at Stanford Social Innovation Review. -- Editor]
What is it like to move from writing your own stuff to editing other people’s stuff? It’s clearly a move up, but it’s not a typical progression for an academic.
I don’t think that’s necessarily true, in that many academics edit books and get other professors to submit pieces on a topic. It’s obviously not a big part of the job, but people do it. If you’re an editor at a news publication or magazine, it’s not as though you’re commissioning on a single topic. At Al Jazeera, you’re covering the world… the world’s your oyster. Becoming an editor gives you broader reach because you couldn’t possibly cover it all by yourself.
Also, writing is hard. As an editor, you get other people to do it, and you polish it, make sure it’s a really good piece of work.
This is a different from the academic paradigm where you’re important to the extent that the microphone is yours and you’re speaking into it. The idea of moving up involving giving the microphone to other people...
Editing is not simply giving your microphone to other people. You pick who you are going to give the microphone to and record what they say. Then you go through it and clean it up and make it really cool, make it something that the writer likes and the audience will like. You make it better than they would say it.
There’s another difference. Obviously I’ve heard this in academia: if you edit texts rather than writing your own books, that’s a lesser achievement. A lot of great academics write their own books and edit books, too, but if you just edit, that’s obviously a demerit. One of the reasons why it’s different in journalism is because it’s very difficult to make a living writing. To make a living as a writer you have to be really excellent. The magazine market is shrinking, there are very few staff jobs, and freelancers only get paid per piece. The most stable path in journalism is to be an editor. Or a staff writer at a newspaper, but then you’re a reporter, not a writer: you report what the editors wants you to report on; you typically don’t have the freedom to choose your topics. But a lot of editors do write on the side.
How does a philosopher get started in journalism? Do you go to grad school? Do you get a job?
You don’t have to go to grad school in journalism. If you demonstrate that you’re good at producing content that has value, you can make the transition. Magazines are interested in good writing, in ideas, in smart people, and they might take you on board even if you don’t have the resume for it. I could see a magazine hiring a public intellectual who hasn’t worked at a magazine before. So journalism school isn’t a necessary step. But for me, as a humble philosopher with questionable self-esteem, that seemed a necessary step. It was good for me, because it allowed me to transition comfortably into journalism in ten months.
When you look back on philosophy as an academic discipline, what do you think? What would you say to people who are thinking, should I stay, should I go?
Philosophers have a skill that’s marketable. They think clearly, they’re critical thinkers, and they write clearly, in the sense that they’re precise and understand argumentation. They understand the importance of making something transparent to a reader — although not always! That’s a marketable skill that can be taken lots of places. Also, more than ever before, readers are interested in the ideas of philosophy: consciousness, ethics, political philosophy. There’s Aeon, which publishes philosophers. There’s Slate. There’s The Stone, the New York Times’s opinion section for philosophy, edited by Simon Critchley. What Simon Critchley has that many philosophers don’t is that he can write and edit for a public audience — he can steer others to write pieces that have wide public interest.
I could certainly have stayed in academia. If I had stayed, I think I would have been happier if I had picked a field that was more closely tied to current affairs, such as political philosophy or ethics. You might wait 10 years to get to a department you like, but it might be worth it for you. For me, no question, leaving was the right decision. It suited my personality; I felt like I was embracing something that I was meant to do. And I went through many struggles to get where I am now: low pay, joblessness, struggling to get things published. But I never once doubted that it was the right path. One reason was that, at the very least, it wasn’t boring. I was bored as an academic. Bored and unhappy. And journalism was exciting. It had some pitfalls — I was never sure whether I was going to make it — but at least I was trying.
You had some skin in the game, for the first time, it sounds like.
I was talking to all sorts of people from all walks of life, working on interesting stuff, putting it out there for a public audience, and provoking reactions.
Did it help to have a wider audience?
Yes. Ideally, if you write for an academic publication, you have some audience, but that’s often not the case. In academia, you’re too often writing things that you suspect no one will read. But in journalism the audience varies. Boston Review might get one million page views per year. At Al Jazeera, I edited one piece on the state of journalism that garnered half a million page views.
But it’s also important to get your work to the right people. You can write something for the Daily Mail that gets 4 million readers, but you’re writing for the Daily Mail, say about how a celebrity looks on the beach. I’d rather publish for Boston Review and get read by 100 smart people who care about what I’m writing about.
Any advice for philosophers who are thinking about leaving on how to think about the choices ahead of them?
There are more opportunities to do work outside of academia than ever before. There are many more venues to write for. In retrospect, I don’t think I had to go to journalism school, if I were more courageous about getting out there. There are lots of opportunities if you just look for them and be bold in pursuing them.
There’s one other thing I should mention: one thing I was surprised to learn was that there was a stigma in journalism against hiring PhDs. I remember applying for an assistant literary editor gig at The Nation and Rick MacArthur, whom I was working for at Harper’s, called Katrina vanden Heuvel to promote me, and told her, I’ve got this great guy, former philosophy PhD, etc. She responded flatly that he sounds overqualified.
Does overqualified mean expensive to hire, or…?
It means, primarily, he won’t be happy if we hire him for this menial job. That’s true.They think if you’re a PhD, you’re not going to fit in, for whatever reason. Whereas at San Francisco magazine, the woman who hired me was PhD. Josh Cohen hired me at Boston Review; my boss at Al Jazeera America was Sam Haselby, a history PhD. For the three major jobs that I got, I was hired by former PhDs. It helps to find people who value your credentials, and they’re out there.