Dr. David V. Johnson, Editor and Writer, Talks About Transitioning from Academia to Journalism

February 9, 2022 | by Urte Laukaityte

Beyond Academia’s Urte Laukaityte sat down (virtually) with David V. Johnson, PhD to discuss his journey from a professorship in academic philosophy to his current roles as Deputy Editor at Stanford Social Innovation Review and Co-Editor at The Raven.

David V. Johnson received his PhD in Philosophy from Stanford.

Tell me more about when and why you started thinking about leaving academia. What was your path there?

So I did my PhD at Stanford in philosophy after doing undergrad at Berkeley and my focus was ancient Greek philosophy. At the time, you could have a Berkeley professor on your degree committee. Alan Code was the first professor I had in philosophy, I think, and contributed to turning me on to Greek philosophy. And now he's at Stanford, it is kind of funny.

I became radicalised during the Bush years and was very interested in politics and current affairs. I remember 9/11 happened the week of my orals. I remember even the day—I was obviously upset as everyone was, but felt like I had to go to the library to work because I had too much work to do. I was distracted, though, and I didn't do much work. I ended up at a bar. And I was one of those people who got into blogging, so I blogged about politics and current affairs. And I just found that I was much more interested in politics and current events than my research.

You know, my research was in Greek philosophy, so history of philosophy. And there was a disconnect between my research and what I was passionate about. I remember talking in graduate school to friends about if maybe I should go into journalism. And perhaps if I had done political philosophy or ethics, something that was more directly connected to current affairs, I might have stayed in academia, but I just had this feeling like I led a double life. When I spoke about my academic research, it was as if I was speaking about somebody else's research. It wasn't coming from within with passion. Nevertheless, I had a nice setup at Stanford. And, of course, you want to finish the degree, which I did. And once you finish the degree, you go on the job market. I landed a tenure track job at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. So I was on my way.

I moved to Baltimore, not having lived on the East Coast, not knowing anybody there. I grew up in Los Angeles, went to Berkeley undergrad, Stanford grad school. So I had a strong California background. And so I found myself living in Baltimore. At the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, I had nice colleagues, but it was a small department. And it was a bit of a commuter school. It's less so now, probably, but at that time, none of the faculty lived near the university: I lived in Baltimore, other people lived elsewhere, we would go there for the day to do our work and go home, so there wasn't much of a community. And so I found myself kind of depressed and not happy with the academic career track and much more interested in current affairs and blogging and such. I even wrote an op-ed as a professor. And I decided I want to maybe transfer into journalism.

So I applied to Columbia Journalism School, which was good for me because it was a one-year programme. Many Master's programmes in journalism are two years, but Columbia's was one year, and very practically focused. Reporting and writing gets you learning how to do journalism right away. I was accepted but then, I was also invited to visit University of Michigan for a year because an ancient philosopher there was on leave, so I was going to take her place. And I had actually given a job talk at Michigan, so I was intrigued. Michigan was a really good department—a really large, big university like Berkeley. So I thought, maybe I should try that before I decide to leave academia. I went to Michigan for the year, and enjoyed it. Obviously, it was a great department with lots going on. But I felt like if I had to spend my whole career here at Michigan, I would just be bored and depressed. And not because of the department, just because I had no connection to what I was interested in. I wanted to get out in the world and engage with the world. So I had to reapply for Columbia, actually. I didn't hold my place, I had to reapply, was accepted and decided to go. That was 2005.

You mentioned that you were already discussing journalism with your friends while at graduate school. So did you know right away that you wanted to become a writer and editor? How did you know and what drew you to those professions in particular?

I guess I felt I had something to say, but I wasn't able to say that in academia. Now, obviously, a lot of academics—either they find their self-expression in their research, writing, teaching, and speaking, or they do it on the side, as something separate from their academic duties. But I also felt socially like I wanted to get out in the world, I felt too sheltered in academia, like I was talking to the same sorts of people about the same things. And one thing that drew me to journalism and what I really enjoyed at Columbia is the ability to talk to anybody. For example, at Columbia I was given a beat in Staten Island, so I was reporting in Staten Island, a place I knew very little about. You just go there and you talk to anybody—talk to police officers, talk to teachers, you talk to people on the street. And so it's nice socially, to just get out of the rut of academia, of being in a sheltered community talking to the same sorts of people and instead just being able to talk to anybody.

And have those expectations been met with regard to what a career or a life in journalism would look like? Did anything about the lifestyle surprise you at all?

Yes, it changed me as a person. And it suited my personality, I suppose. I think academia makes you comfortable with getting away from the crowd. I mean, you speak to students, you speak to a classroom, but oftentimes people go into academia because they don't want to be out there in the world talking to just anybody. As an academic, I was somebody who could always put things off, like ‘I need to think about this before I write it’. And you don't really need to talk to people on the phone or engage with people. In journalism you pick up the phone, you call people, you're engaged, you talk to people off the street, you talk to people anywhere. So it's a very different way of being and it's nice—I find I'm much less interested in speaking than asking questions and hearing what people have to say.

One thing that surprised me is that having a PhD and an academic background was kind of a negative on the job market rather than a positive. I think things have changed because a lot of people with PhDs have gone into other careers, including journalism. But at the time, I found that people thought I was overqualified for the entry positions I was going for. Or they just thought it wasn't a good fit. And I found for a lot of the jobs I've gotten, I've been hired by people who had PhDs themselves or went to graduate school. So that was surprising; I thought it would be either neutral or positive and oftentimes it was a negative.

You mentioned you went to Columbia for journalism school. Do you think that's necessary to break into the field?

It's not necessary. For me, it felt more comfortable to do it that way. What it gives you is really practical training and connections to people. So not only the professors are there, but the students you're in class with become your colleagues. And so that gave me all sorts of connections in the career, which was nice. It’s definitely not necessary, though. I've seen a lot of academics who write on the side and then transition into a writing career. Or they have training in editing in a sense, either editing articles or as a grader, and then get into editing.

Also, especially with the internet, there are so many niche publications that people can start at that are maybe affiliated with their own research, whether it's French literature or economics. There are platforms that they can transition from, where they can do good work that has journalistic value so that journalistic organisations can say, ‘Oh, this person is interesting!’

Following up on that, you've recently started a new magazine called The Raven, which is affiliated with philosophy as an academic discipline. What made you decide there's a need for more public philosophy? And would the same thing apply for this magazine as these other examples that you gave? Could someone from academia transition more easily that way, do you think?

Potentially. Going back, I was an intern at Harper's Magazine, which is a literary magazine with interests in current affairs. In conversations with editors and other people there, I found that they thought philosophy is a literary style rather than a discipline. They didn't really understand the discipline. Many of them were MFA people, that is, into literary style. And if a person wrote in the right style, it was philosophical—no matter if the arguments were bad or if they didn't answer the obvious objections. So I felt there was room for literary philosophy that was really philosophical, and I thought there were philosophers that I admired who could write in that way.

And actually, David Velleman [co-editor at The Raven] was one of them—I became friends with him when I visited Michigan. He was somebody who could write in a way that was philosophical and yet also accessible and interesting. He picked interesting topics, he said interesting things, and he wrote in a way that could be accessible to an audience who also reads The New Yorker or Harper's.

So from my perspective, it was trying to create a readership and an audience that had interest in philosophy written well and also a wider educated audience who would be hungry for that type of writing. Especially we philosophers who might read a philosophical piece in a magazine and think, ‘This is not very good’ or ‘This is stupid’, you know. David himself was retiring from NYU and was looking for his next thing; he was moving to Baltimore, where he had family. And I think he took an interest in trying to achieve this. He, as an academic, felt that the journals were getting very tired, very niche, debating issues that are of interest to a very select audience, and not written very well, not very interesting—he’d stopped reading the journals. He wanted to get involved in trying to help philosophers write for a broader audience about more interesting issues. So we married our interests together in this project.

We just started with very little money, enough money to basically create a website and pay some artists, as well as the web designer. So if we have more money, it might become something more. We've thought about things like maybe bringing graduate students at Johns Hopkins aboard as editorial help—that might give them training in editing that they might take on elsewhere. We are obviously helping, or trying to help, philosophers write in a vein that might be accessible to a public audience. And you see philosophers writing now for The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement or the London Review of Books, and so on. That's becoming more common, although sometimes we might think philosophers who write for a magazine may feel somewhat constricted by their expectations. I mean, they're serving their own readerships that aren't necessarily interested in philosophy per se.

So we're hoping to build the discipline of writing philosophy in a way that's accessible to a broader readership. We're obviously not the only people who do that. I once worked at Boston Review, they publish a lot of philosophical pieces that are really interesting and along the same lines, but they also have a broader mandate, they do lots of different things. We don't publish poetry and fiction, for example, and we don't publish other things they publish, such as stuff in politics, sociology, history, and so on. We have to find it philosophical. And ideally, the features are really doing interesting philosophy, or philosophical work making progress on an issue.

So in light of all this, what's your workday like these days?

Well, I have a day job. My day job is deputy editor at Stanford Social Innovation Review. It's a magazine that's similar to things like Harvard Business Review or MIT Technology Review. That is, it's based at a university, but has a wider audience outside of the academic circles, though it's a bit of a niche readership. We focus on philanthropy and civil society. We're based at a research centre at Stanford called The Stanford Centre on Philanthropy and Civil Society. We're focused on nonprofit work, philanthropic foundations, and collaborations among the various sectors: the business sector, the public sector, the nonprofit sector, and how they work together to solve social problems. I'm suited to it because I have an academic background, so I can tackle abstract ideas and anything from organisational management to sociology. We tackle all sorts of different stuff, and I'm able to translate it in prose that's accessible to a broad audience. So I find that my academic training generally has helped me with this. I'm interested in ideas and it's an ideas magazine, even though I really knew nothing about the nonprofit world and the philanthropic world.

I guess one other thing that I didn't get from academia that I've got from journalism is how collaborative it is. Obviously, there is collaborative work in philosophy—people co-write articles, they work for journals, the journals have an editorial team, there's refereeing, and so on. There is collaborative work in departments, but it still didn't feel like a very collaborative effort because it seemed like your research is yours, and you're lucky to get people to read your work and give you feedback, it's nice when that happens. You have to find your community and it’s work to do so. Whereas journalism is essentially collaborative—every magazine has a group, a staff who works together to put out the magazine. You're bouncing ideas off each other, you're working with writers. And, ideally, publishing is a collaborative effort with a writer and an editor or a team of editors. I like that it's a team activity. And I did feel like academia was isolating and kind of depressing in that way, it wasn't as socially engaging as I'd like.

Obviously, with COVID, I'm still working from home, although we might be back in the office fairly soon. I'm spending most of my day fielding emails, editing articles, doing Zoom editorial meetings, and stuff like that, as we all are. And then, on the side, when I have time, I work on The Raven. I have to carve out time on weekends and odd hours, which is hard when you have an eleven-year-old, family stuff, and all that. I used to write a lot for public audiences, but I haven't had the time or energy for the past, say, two years. I'd like to write, although I also don't have the hunger right now to express myself in any way. It's enough just handling the world. Before SSIR, I was at Al Jazeera America, and I can't imagine what it would have been like to cover the Trump years. That must have been a nightmare, just news every weekend.

Continuing that thread, during your career, you've worked for a variety of publications. So what kinds of similarities and differences are there between the sort of work you get to do at, say, The Raven as compared to Al Jazeera versus Stanford Social Innovation Review and other publications?

Well, I started my career out of journalism school at a newspaper, the Staten Island Advance, which is a daily newspaper that covers Staten Island. From there, I left and did an internship at Harper's, which was a monthly magazine. And then I went to San Francisco magazine, another monthly magazine, then Boston Review, which was, I think, bimonthly when I joined them. And now I think they might even just be quarterly but I'm not one hundred percent sure. So part of it is timing, in that when you're in a daily newspaper, you're rushing to report and write every day. It's very stressful—very different from an academic career where you have more time to think about things and write and then rewrite. It didn't suit me, the daily thing. It did give me training in how to type up something really quickly. And that's one thing you learn in journalism, especially in a newspaper: not to get too fond of your copy, because you're just going to write it up and give it to other people, they're going to copyedit it, and so on. So don't get too hung up on your words. There are going to be a lot of people involved in making it either sound better or if it sounds worse to you, it's going to be better for the audience. You don’t get too hung up on that.

Whereas now, I work at a quarterly, so we're working on a three-month time horizon. I have much more time to think and we work over several drafts with writers. I think that's more suited to my academic background. I don't like to rush too much. The pace at Harper’s, where I was an intern and then worked as a researcher, was really more intense, and it was a monthly magazine. A monthly schedule is still pretty intense, let alone The New Yorker—obviously, they have a huge staff, but it’s weekly or biweekly sometimes. And that is, I'm sure, very intense.

More generally, we hear a lot of negative appraisals regarding the state of journalism. Do you think the landscape is, in fact, changing over time? And, if so, is it actually getting more difficult? Or has it always been difficult, and it is just difficult in a different way somehow?

It is getting more difficult, in that we still haven't solved the business model problem in journalism. How is it going to be paid for? The traditional model is that advertising pays for the journalism. With the internet, the advertising money went out the window. Are people willing to pay for the product? That's sort of unclear, except for maybe the top newspapers, like the New York Times, to which people are willing to subscribe. Their subscriber model seems to be working. But are people willing to subscribe to their local papers? If not, how are they going to pay for themselves? That's still a big problem.

Philanthropists may step in but, well, they have and then they backed out. For example, California had this wonderful magazine, the California Monthly, which won a lot of awards—it was an award-winning magazine. Like the New York Times Sunday Magazine, it was weekly, and just like any top-flight magazine. They would tie it to the Pop-Up Magazine, which was a sort of public audience venue-type production where they would produce a magazine on stage and people would talk through stories on stage. Laurene Powell Jobs invested in it. And then, she and her Emerson Collective backed out, so they went out of business. The same applies to a lot of other publications—wealthy philanthropists have stepped in and then stepped out. So it's unclear what the future of the business holds.

At the magazine I work for, even though we're at Stanford, we don't get any money from Stanford. We fund ourselves through subscriptions, webinars, and conferences. We're lucky in that we have content that practitioners in the field are willing to pay for. It's an important magazine in our field. People, who are experts at the work that foundations, nonprofits, and academic researchers do, want to subscribe to us, they want to pay for webinars, and so on. That's not true for everything. It's not true for philosophy. You are not willing to pay the same price to hear a philosophy talk. I mean, are you willing to pay anything for a philosophy talk? You’re a grad student, you can see those for free at your department. You're a member of the APA, so you have to pay a fee to see talks there and to give a talk there. But the pay model is different, obviously.

There are lots of exciting new ventures that are happening in journalism like The Raven, I'd hope, and The Point magazine has picked up well. I don't know what their model is, but I know they have a subscription service people pay for—I have subscribed. I'm a lefty so I subscribe to Jacobin magazine. I don't quite understand their business model, but they have a subscription base. There are lots of new exciting ventures, but they're small. Can you make a career out of working at publications like that? Well, you can get your start there. But I live in the Bay Area, I have a daughter in school, and we have to think about things like paying for college. How do you make that work exactly? I get paid pretty well, but it's a niche publication at Stanford. There are not that many journalism jobs in the Bay Area. There's Mother Jones and Wired—those jobs are hard to come by, and I don't know if they pay as well, actually. So it's a challenge.

Who has money to pay for journalism nowadays? Well, private universities, maybe. I work at a magazine based at a private university, and The Raven is affiliated with a private university so there's that. But it's not going to save journalism. Like academia itself, it's under a lot of strain. And we don't know what the future holds. In academia, there are too few jobs for the candidates out there. The money is drying up and states aren't willing to pay for great public universities the way they once were. And so journalism is under strain just like academia, and the jobs are few and far between. What's weird about journalism is that it seems like to really make it, you have to spend time in New York or Washington, DC. That's not one hundred percent true, especially with remote work, but it seems like to prove yourself, you kind of have to go through those places, and a lot of people just stay in New York, or stay in DC.

That’s interesting. Is that also true for magazine writing or primarily just newspaper writing, would you say?

I think it's true for both, although not necessarily, because people can make their name off of writing anywhere. New York editors take interest in people's writing anywhere, they're looking for new writers. If you make a mark for yourself in publications, they might want you to write for them. So I think you can be a writer anywhere, but it's hard to make a living as a writer, even for top magazines. You’d be amazed—I know a lot of writers who write for top magazines, and yet the way they're really making it work is they're married to somebody who has a job that pays better. So a lot of people who think they're interested in writing end up being editors because that's where the stable jobs are. But then you're giving up on time to write to edit other people. A lot of editors write, but they just don't have a lot of time for it. And then for editing, it's hard to make it without going through New York or DC.

So what advice would you give to someone who is a PhD candidate considering becoming a writer and editor? Or should they just aim to do something else instead, in light of what you've said?

It's hard to make it as a career, but not impossible. The way you learn is by doing, so look for opportunities to write and edit. By writing, I mean, it can be about anything you're interested in—focus on finding places to write and finding editors who like what you're writing about. That can be anywhere—there are lots of small publications to start with. You just want to get in the habit of writing, putting things out there, and working with editors.

So obviously, there are lots of ideas-based magazines and philosophically affiliated magazines, or if you're an academic in a different area, just magazines that are small but affiliated with your field and that you might want to write for. There may be magazines you already read, and you think ‘I should write for them’, or else try to find ways to edit for or work for them in some way.

It's hard to get your foot in the door, but there are opportunities as interns or fellows, where you get some experience in exchange for either volunteering or low paying work, where you're doing very menial tasks. Usually it’s either copyediting, or proofreading, or fact-checking, which is where you basically ensure that all the facts in the article are correct by doing a lot of phone calling or research online. You’ll be amazed as to how many basic errors there are in draft copy—just misspellings, numbers that are wrong. Just because the person mistyped the drug, say: they are looking at the right research paper, but then they just typed it wrong. So I did a lot of fact-checking at Harper's and that's how I started. My first real job at San Francisco magazine was research editor, which was basically fact-checking as well.

And so if you want to do it, you should just start doing it. And if you want a job as an editor, the entry-level jobs are fact-checking and copyediting, so get good at those. It takes a while for somebody to trust you to actually edit a piece of work with a writer. Oftentimes, you need to be lucky to get into a job where you can do that because no one will trust you until you show you can do it well. But it's like, if you don't trust me, how do I start doing it? How do I get experience? It's sort of like a waitering job, they only want people who've done it before, but then how do you start?

Urte Laukaityte is a PhD candidate in the Philosophy department and a member of the Beyond Academia Speakers Committee. If you would like to be part of our speaker series, contact her at urte.laukas@berkeley.edu or on LinkedIn.