Julia Kagan, 63, is an award-winning journalist with an extensive background of publishing and editorial experience. Currently, Kagan is working toward an MFA in creative nonfiction at the Bennington Writing Seminars at Bennington College in VT, while also working on a book of science journalism.
A member of the Journalism and Women Symposium for 20 years, Kagan served in the positions of president, treasurer and board member. She was Health Director of Ladies’ Home Journal from 2005 – 2010. She was previously National Editor-in-Chief of Back Stage and Vice President of Content at Zagat Survey. From 1996 – 2003 Kagan was employed by Consumers Union/Consumer Reports and worked as Vice President and Editorial Director, Editor of Consumer Reports and Deputy Editor of Consumer Reports.
She was a visiting professor of journalism at Indiana University in Bloomington for two years beginning in 1991. Prior to teaching, Kagan was Editor of Psychology Today from 1988 – 1990. For the nine years prior to that she was Executive Editor and Articles Editor of Working Woman magazine. From 1977 – 1979 Kagan was Senior Editor at McCall’s magazine.
She is co-author of Manworks: A Guide to Style and a contributor to The Working Woman Report and the Working Woman Success Book. She won the National Magazine Award in Personal Service in 2003. In addition to the magazines where she worked, her articles have appeared in Self, Allure and Genetic Engineering News, among other publications. She graduated from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania.
Kagan was interviewed by Leah McClure, a senior undergraduate student at the University of Iowa pursuing Bachelor of Arts degrees in both dance and journalism and mass communication.
Leah McClure: Why did you become involved in journalism?
Julia Kagan: I grew up reading Life magazine and was particularly interested in the work of Jane Howard. I also must admit that the chance to travel and have adventures was as interesting to me as the writing. I was fortunate to be able to start my career as a fact-checker at Life’s rival, Look. The magazine folded after a year, in 1971, but at least I was able to work briefly in that world.
LM: How do you define journalism today?
JK: I come out of magazines, so most of what I will say has to do with them. But globally, journalism is the professional gathering and dissemination of information about the world and how it works delivered in a variety of media—print, broadcast, radio, online and, if we consider them separate, through social media.
LM: How do you feel about the status of objectivity existing in journalism today?
JK: Many of the protections that shielded journalists from the commercial side of the business are under attack, with increasing pressure for product mentions and such in the so-called objective media. In addition, there is a growing category of media that is up-front partisan. In addition, blogging and other forms of citizen journalism deliver information without the training and supervision of professional journalists. And, in the area of investigative journalism, many important projects today are done with the support of foundations; in the past, this, too, might have been considered less objective than the publication funding the research on its own. So there is both commercial and political influence on the media today, much more blatantly than in the past. Not that there wasn’t always some of this—for example, in magazines, topics that had advertiser support (meaning advertisers were eager to have positions opposite articles on these topics) got more space in magazines than those that did not. If a magazine’s page count had to be cut because there was not enough advertising, the article on dental health would be kept while the one on politics or the environment, which did not have an adjacency, might be cut.
LM: How has technology influenced or affected your career?
JK: Strongly. I predate computers (both print and digital photography) and lived through their introduction and the ability they give us to file more easily from remote places in the world. When I first started in magazines, they were still printed with “hot type,” meaning the words were carved into copper plates. I remember when we once had to change a story at McCall’s because someone had died. The first three lines were changed, at a cost of $10,000 a line in 1970s dollars. The rest of the story couldn’t be touched. And of course, deadlines had to be much longer. Another way technology has affected the field, if not my career, is that whole categories of jobs (such as retyping articles for the printer) no longer exist. On the other hand, it is much easier to edit an article. I have a finely developed obsolete skill: estimating on a paper galley exactly how many lines I have cut. It’s as useful today as being able to cut a really fine point on a quill pen. In addition, it has broadened our job responsibilities. Before I left Ladies’ Home Journal, I had launched both its health blog and the HealthLadies twitter feed. We were expected to do this in addition to our regular jobs. And it also means that when you design stories today, you think of how they will appear across multiple media.
LM: How will technology affect the future of journalism?
It makes us much more mobile, and able to work with reporters from around the world—or be one of those reporters. It completely changes the way we work and our responsibilities, as described above. In many cases, one journalist may be expected to take photographs, do video for web casts and report and write stories. Previously, she would have worked with a reporter or camera operator. It makes us able to do more, but also means we have to do more. And it requires a wider range of skills. I do not know if it will affect how long reporters (especially women) can work; whether, for example, your appearance will hamper your ability to work after a certain age because you have to appear on camera as well as report and write. I hope not.
LM: What one word would you use to describe the status of women in journalism today?
LM: What role(s) will women have in future journalism?
JK: In some ways, they will continue to make inroads. There are many more women at all levels, especially in magazine and book publishing. The cynical voice would say that this is because there are fewer jobs and they pay more poorly than they used to, so therefore more women are allowed to have them. The pink collar ghetto argument. The majority of journalism students are now women. However, the power jobs at the most powerful and best-paid places still have more men than women. It’s very different from when I applied, when the women at Look were almost all in research and the few who were promoted to writer took 7 or 8 years to get that promotion, compared to men (they also started as researchers) who were promoted by the third year or fired. This was just after the Newsweek strike in March 1970.
LM: What do you think the voice of women bring to journalism that differs from that of men?
JK: We all bring ourselves with us when we research and write. Women bring a different life experience that may make what they notice about an issue different from what a man notices. Some interview subjects may respond differently to being questioned by a woman. In most cases, a skilled professional will do a good job no matter what gender, but you get the best coverage of society if the group of journalists involved represents a wider aspect of society. This is not just gender—but race, ethnicity and economic background.
LM: What changes could be made within the journalism industry to help women with children balance the work-life and family relationship?
JK: Obviously, we continue to need paid childcare leave for both men and women. In some ways, technology can help in that it enables people to take their work with them when they’re not in an office. On the other hand, it can make it very difficult to be at home when they are at home. The expectations of speed of response, and 24/7 coverage and filling a multiplicity of roles are making jobs more time-consuming than ever. Ideally, employers would have more people to cover the jobs, but I’m not sure this will happen.
LM: What made you decide to go back to school to earn an MFA in creative nonfiction?
JK: I had two reasons. The professional reason is that I may want to teach again. I went to work at 21 and never got an advanced degree, which most employers require except for visiting faculty. An MFA is considered a “terminal degree” (there are no, or almost no, Ph.D.s granted in fine arts), so it is the next best thing to a Ph.D. for applying for teaching journalism or writing. The creative reason is that my college degree is in history and I’ve learned all my writing on the job. I wanted to develop my skills and learn to write outside of the formats I’ve used for most of my career. The Bennington Writing Seminars program enabled me to grow very much as a writer.
LM: What has been most gratifying for you about your career in journalism?
JK: Feeling that I have sometimes been able to make a difference. And having a box seat on history—the chance to interview people at the forefront of change in the fields where I have worked: health and science, women’s issues, consumer issues, workplace issues.
LM: Do you have any advice for young professionals starting out in journalism?
JK: Develop a wide range of skills—words, still and moving images, audio; writing, image making, editing. Build expertise in a variety of fields. In my time I’ve made a living as an editor, a writer and a teacher; it’s been helpful to me to have all those expertises to support myself. I’ve worked both freelance and on staff. Also be sure to learn any new technology that shows up in the field. And expect that you will. I’ve used at least five different types of word processing, for example—and that was before blogging and Twitter appeared. And have fun. Very few people make a huge salary in this field, but if you can find a place for yourself you’ll never be bored. In fact, the great advantage of technology is that the jobs it eliminated were often the boring ones—such as retyping edited manuscripts. Because editors do their own edits, they have far fewer assistants than when I started in this field. On the other hand, the assistants who are there have much more interesting jobs. And learn skills thoroughly—how to research, interview, write. And do enough research to know your topic well so that you can’t be fooled by the spin the people you interview may try to put on it.
This is part of a series of profiles of JAWS members by University of Iowa students. For a complete listing, see this page.