It goes without saying that New York City is the place to be if you want to make it in journalism, particularly magazine journalism. Essence, Rolling Stone, Seventeen, Glamour, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, People — you name it and I guarantee you it’s somewhere in New York City a.k.a. The Big Apple a.k.a. The Melting Pot a.k.a. The Empire State a.k.a. The City That Never Sleeps. New York City might be known for its many nicknames, but one thing’s for sure: If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. Writer/editor/filmmaker Niema Jordan is proof of that.
Since trading in palm trees for yellow taxis and the nearly all-black attire that New Yorkers are notorious for, the Oakland native has contributed to a host of publications, including Essence, Healthy You Now, Spa Magazine and Oakland Local. Currently, Jordan serves as a reporter for Richmond Confidential and executive editor for 38th Notes. And did we mention she’s also in the process of earning a dual master’s degree in public health and journalism from the University of California, Berkley School of Public Health? In case you can’t tell, Jordan is a go-getter!
Here, the former Essence editor reveals how she was able to break into magazine journalism — an industry many consider to be on its way out.
A Royal Point of View: Back in 2008, you decided to relocate to New York City, in order to pursue a career in magazine journalism. What inspired you to make that move?
Niema Jordan: I had just graduated from Northwestern and I was sort of back and forth about it because I didn’t have a job and I didn’t have a place to live. I had a home girl in New York and I was talking to her. She had graduated from my Alma matter about a year before and she said to me, “Well, don’t you wanna live in New York?” I said, “Yeah, but I don’t really have all the things that I need.” And she was like, “Well, I don’t really know how you plan on being a magazine editor in New York unless you move to New York.” And I was like, “Oh, right!” so I just kind of went with it. I took my last paycheck. Her parents agreed to let me stay with them for a few months until I found a job.
My goal was to get in front of as many editors as possible and work whatever kind of job I could get. I had gone to the NABJ convention in Chicago not too long before that, so I made some good contacts and a lot of people said, “If you’re ever in New York, you should stop by my office,” so when I got there, I took all of them up on that during the first week I was there and went into straight hustle mode. It was a very risky decision, but I had a strong network and I had some folks I knew would look out for me no matter what was going on. Ultimately, I knew that if things didn’t pan out, I could just go home and I’d be fine. It wasn’t like, “Oh, if I don’t make it here, it’s the end of my life.” I knew I could just step back and reboot. So much of it has been about my network. That’s really how I was able to survive out there. I had a strong support system.
A Royal Point of View: California and New York are very different from each other. How did you make that transition and was it difficult?
NJ: It wasn’t too bad because I had went to Northwestern for my undergrad, which is in Chicago, so I had already been away from home for a while, so it wasn’t like getting into the New York flow from being in Cali. I’d already been separated from home for a few years. I really love New York and New York is a place where you can find so many people to connect to. There were people I connected to because we went to the same school, there were people I connected because they were from the Bay area, and there were people I connected to simply because we were straight out of college, starving students, so it was really easy for me to find some folks that I connected with once I got out there.
A Royal Point of View: Is there anything you wish you would’ve known prior to moving that would’ve made life easier?
NJ: I would’ve had some money saved up. I think outside of saving money, my advice for people who are moving to New York is do not underestimate your network because honestly, most of the jobs I’ve gotten have come through connections and word of mouth. So if I worked really well with somebody on a project, they referred me to somebody else for another project. Like I said, I’m a member of NABJ, so people have passed my resume around to other folks. Inward networking is very real in New York and it’s very real everywhere. The other thing is be prepared to actually produce and do something dope when somebody in your network recommends you for something because you don’t want to make them look bad.
A Royal Point of View: Looking back, would you do it all over again if you had to?
NJ: Yeah, I think it was very much worth it. I think that sometimes we move to New York because we have something to prove to ourselves. I think that’s why most people move to New York. And some people choose to stay while a lot of people feel like, “OK, I’ve proven that I can make it here and do whatever and now it’s time for me to move somewhere else.”
A Royal Point of View: What would you say was your first big break?
NJ: My first job in New York was working at Essence. I got my job at Essence after about two months of living in New York. I was editorial assistant and I was there for about nine months. Then my dad got sick, so I moved back to California for about a year and a half. I was freelancing for the magazine during that time and then when my dad got better, I moved back to New York. And the person who had replaced me at Essence was actually leaving, so I just fell right back into my same job. And since I had more experience under my belt, instead of getting the title of editorial assistant, I became assistant editor.
A Royal Point of View: Did you have any mentors along the way?
NJ: Oh yeah. Everyone at Essence was really supportive. I guess my go-to was Charreah Jackson, who’s currently the relationships editor there. The person who mentored me and got me through with everything when I first moved to New York is Demetria Lucas, who was the relationships editor. I was working directly under her when I first started. And Sharon Boone, who’s the health editor there, is always amazing and helps me out a lot still even though I’m no longer there.
Outside of that, I’d say Kelley Carter. I met her when I was an undergrad and we had lunch one day and she basically tore my resume to shreds. She was like, “You have potential, but you’re not doing everything you should be doing. You don’t have enough internships, you don’t have enough clips. You’re graduating in a year and if you want to be able to do anything after you graduate, here are the steps you need to take.” And that pushed me in a very real way, which is important, because outside of your professors, there are certain things that people who are currently in the field can tell you that your professors can’t.
A Royal Point of View: You’re actually back in Oakland now. What led you to move back to California?
NJ: For me, my departure from New York was really about having another plan and really wanting to complete my master’s here because I really loved the program at the University of California, Berkley. I could’ve stayed in New York for a little bit longer, but I always planned on coming home. I’m actually home earlier than I thought I would be. I had a lot of other goals besides being in New York, you know?
For me, it’s a great opportunity to get two master’s degree in three years. I think I was really inspired in a lot of ways by my experience at Essence because I was working in the health department and getting all these crazy statistics across my desk about Black women and health, so I really wanted to understand a lot more at the core of those disparities and do research. So yeah, I enjoy it and I’ll be done with everything by the time I’m 30.
A Royal Point of View: As you know, the publishing industry is extremely competitive. What’s the best way to get your foot in the door?
NJ: Writing, writing, writing. I think there are certain times when we’re so focused on getting in the door when we should really be focused on doing the work. I worked at this magazine called Venus Zine and it’s not running anymore, but it was an Indie Rock magazine that focused on women in music. It was not my scene. I didn’t know anything about the majority of artists they covered. It wasn’t one of the magazines I grew up idolizing. It was a small magazine. It was one of those places where I could write 200 words for Essence and my whole family would just spas out and I could write a 1000-word story for Venus Zine and people would be like, “What is that?”
The key, however, was they were letting me write those big stories. It wasn’t so much about getting to the big names as it was about getting my clips. And if I didn’t have those clips from that small publication, Essence wouldn’t have been impressed at all. If you really want to write and you really want to edit, then write and edit if even if it’s not for the big names you grew up idolizing or the editors you stalk on Facebook and Twitter because eventually, you’ll get up to that space of writing for those folks.
A Royal Point of View: What are some of the biggest dos and don’ts in this industry?
NJ: Do write. Do hustle. Don’t compare yourself. Don’t talk shit about other people because the world is very, very small. Don’t only have one project or one thing that you’re working on, so if you have one story you’re working on, you should also be looking for your next story. Things are not stable. I’ve seen people dedicate themselves to a brand and then get laid off. What people don’t understand is that it’s all business. People can love you, you can be great at what you do, but when bottom lines are effective, bottom lines are effective.
Because it’s a business, you can’t get into this brand royalty that will leave you out in the cold. They don’t owe you anything. And I think a lot of people get lost in that and dedicates themselves and their lives to these brands and then if they get let go or the brand changes ownership and they’re going in a new direction and you don’t fit that and you don’t have any money saved up or have any other contacts, you’re effed. Don’t put yourself in that position. Always have a backup.
A Royal Point of View: You’ve worked at a number of newspapers and magazines. Based on your experience, what’s the biggest difference between the two?
NJ: I love magazines. I’m so a print girl, I’m so a magazine girl. I love the time that you have to spend on a project. I guess the biggest thing is how much time you get to spend with your words. Yeah, that’s probably the biggest thing for me. Also, I like not having the pressure of having to stay super current because a magazine’s lead time is three months in advance, so right now, I’m thinking about October, November, December and what stories I’m going to pitch. I’m already at the end of the year instead of having to anticipate what’s going to be hot next week.
A Royal Point of View: How do writers pitch fresh ideas to print when online content is constant? Do you have any brainstorming techniques?
NJ: Read different things. On one hand, the things you see in print aren’t that different from online. It’s just more in-depth. You’re thinking new people, you’re thinking slightly different angles. Even print may have their themed issues. You know that every year, InStyle is going to do the body issue, you know that in October everybody’s going to do a breast cancer story. It’s really about discovering new angles. And you can’t get new ideas if you’re consuming the same things all the time. So sometimes the idea is getting offline and reading something in print that might you inspire you take a different angle. Read things that are not on your beat and you’ll see a new way of thinking. What we write reflects our experiences. Consume differently and you will get different ideas.
A Royal Point of View: How can writers make their pitches stand out?
NJ: Know the publication. Know and be able to articulate why you’re the best person to write the article you’re pitching. Don’t send things at strange hours. No one is going to respond to you if you’re emailing them at 5 o’clock on a Friday. Don’t be afraid to follow up. Don’t be an a-hole. Try to get face to face with people. I know it’s increasingly hard because not everybody has for you to sit down with them and have you pick their brain, but join organizations. Join NABJ, join SPJ. Go to a networking event because an email is one thing, but in-person contact is still so key and important. People are busy, so if you can get in front of somebody and you can talk to them, then do it. If you can join an organization, if you can get somebody to recommend you, do it. Networks are important.
This is the other thing: Give your editors what they ask for and give it to them when they ask for it. The easier you make your editor’s life, the more they will assign you stories. When you miss a deadline, you’re not only messing with their schedule, but you’re making them look bad when they have to go back to the meetings and say where their stories are in the process.
Editors talk to each other. Someone may see something you wrote and say, “What was your experience working with this girl? That story was really good.” And if your editor has to say, “Actually, she didn’t turn in the story on time and I did the largest rewrite I’ve ever had to do in my life,” you not only ruin your chances with your editor, but you also ruin your chances with the editor she talked with. So much about this business is about your reputation. You have to protect your reputation.
A Royal Point of View: For those interested in becoming an editor someday, what makes a great editor?
NJ: I don’t know. I know my favorite editors to work with as a writer. I like editors who give good direction and feedback. When I was an editor, my focus was really about understanding your audience, getting them the information that they need and doing it in a creative way, but that’s the writer’s job as well. It was also about deadlines and being able to work with a team and having certain outside contacts and having relationships with people who would then get you access to something else.
A Royal Point of View: When we were in the process of setting up this interview, you mentioned your journey in the world of journalism is ongoing. Do you feel like you still have some ways to go?
NJ: I still have so far to go. I think that’s why I found it so interesting that you wanted to interview me because I was like, “Oh God, I’m still trying to find my way,” but I understand that it’s good to talk to people who are in different phases of their careers. You know, I get that, but I have not made it at all. I think in terms of my journey, I would still love to get to the point where I’m writing a bunch of magazine features. I still need to get to a point where I have a few documentaries under my belt. There are so many things that I want to do.
I kind of discovered early on that I’m much more of a freelancer. I like working on multiple projects, so I wouldn’t say that my goal is to become Editor-in-Chief of a magazine or anything like that. I would also like to teach journalism because it’s very rare that I see someone that looks like me as a professor, so I would like to be that for somebody. I think I’ve accomplished a lot, but I still have a lot more writing and learning to do. And if I ever got a point where I felt that I’ve done everything I needed to do, then I think it would be time for me to switch careers.
A Royal Point of View: Where do you see yourself 10 years from now, professionally speaking?
NJ: Alright, I’m just going to throw some things out there. So 10 years from now, I’ll have a couple documentaries under my belt and a few cover stories. And I will be splitting my time pretty evenly between Oakland and New York, but I’ll be traveling a lot and working on a lot of interesting projects nationally and abroad.
Be sure to follow Niema on Twitter and check out her website.