Jacoba Urist is a journalist for NBCNews and Today, where she covers health, education and gender issues. She also contributes to The Atlantic on a wide range of legal, social, and public policy issues. In addition, Jacoba has written for for Time, Forbes, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. Jacoba received her J.D. and LL.M. in taxation from New York University School of Law, as well as a Masters in Public Policy from The Johns Hopkins Institute For Health and Social Policy. She currently lives in lower Manhattan with her 5-year old son Wilson, husband and Yorkshire Terrier.
What skills and characteristics are needed to be successful in your field?
To be a good journalist I think you have to be creative and thorough-- a real stickler for getting the details right. On the first point: often, there are so many reporters and writers circling the same fish so to speak, the same new study that came out for example and you have to be able to come up with a different angle or interesting spin or take on the data. As you start getting more comfortable, you realize there are usually numerous ways to go with a certain topic. But at the beginning it can be hard. As for the second point, you have to be someone who takes very careful notes, listens closely and takes what might seem like little differences seriously. For instance, the difference between an "an" and a "the" or "many" and "most" can really change something.
What advice would you offer to someone who is starting in your field?
Well, I started off as a lawyer. I switched to journalism fairly "late in life" in my mid-thirties, after a decade in another career. But for any journalist starting off, I would say read tons of articles in the field that interests you and read the publications you aspire to write for. And of course, always read the really good stuff: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic. Oh and for goodness' sake, major in something you really love in college- it doesn't matter what and it doesn't have to be English. Try studying economics, sociology, psychology, political science, public policy...really anything that gets you comfortable with some statistics, thinking about different angles, analyzing research, developing arguments.
What do you enjoy most about what you do? What are the challenges you face?
I know journalists who say they don't enjoy the process of writing, they love having written something. But I'm the opposite. My favorite part of the process is after all the information is collected and organized, and all the sources are interviewed, and it's time to pull it all together on the page. I love being alone at my desk (sometimes with ear plugs in) and I look up and realize 2 hours have passed and I literally haven't moved an inch, only my fingers have been typing, so one leg is completely asleep. Then I know I'm fully engrossed in the story.
The biggest challenge every week or month that I face is I often have too many things I want to write about or pitch various editors to cover. Sometimes, the hardest part is saying I'm only going to be able to pursue this story this week and that means 2 or 3 other things you want to write about will have to go by the wayside.
What is one motto that has served you well in your life and career? Why?
It's never too late to turn the car around and take a completely different road. As I mentioned, I spent almost a decade in another field but I have always wanted to be a journalist and a writer. Since I was a little girl and my dad gave me a typewriter (for real, with ribbon and everything) and I took a secretarial typing class at a "business school" in my hometown one summer-- I wanted to write. But I went to law school over journalism, which wasn't, in retrospect a bad decision at all since it prepared me to make this career move and there are many similarities actually.
That said, my motto is "it's never too late." If you realize you are in the wrong profession and you have always had this dream to do something, don't let inertia convince you otherwise. Go for it! 20's, 30's 40's, it doesn't matter when you start. I think of it like the water I swam in as a kid in Connecticut. It was freezing cold and I would stand on these rocks and look down at this dark, deep water and just will myself to jump.
Thank you, Jacoba! You can follow her on Twitter. Ms. Urist has also written for the New York Times, and the Daily Beast. Check out her fantastic recent articles for The Atlantic, Should Principals Be Treated Like CEOs? and for Today.com, Play Nice: 4 ways to teach kindness and raise kids who aren't jerks.