Right after Eliot Brown ’06 graduated from Macalester with majors in history and geography, he moved to Peoria, Ill., for an internship as a general assignment reporter. (“I wrote about pumpkin festivals,” he says.) Next came an internship at the now-defunct New York Sun, followed by three years at the New York Observer, where he covered real estate and politics. Then Brown heard that the Wall Street Journal needed a real estate reporter. For six years and counting, he has covered the real estate and financial world from his Manhattan desk.

How does your work connect back to what you studied at Macalester?

There’s a direct line from my work now to how things were packaged in both history and geography at Macalester. Geography is seeing the importance of place and space. That runs with me on a daily basis—that’s what the whole major was about, and that’s what a lot of my daily reporting activity is about. My geography capstone focused on a failed development project in St. Paul, and that’s in line with what I covered at first: fights over development, city planning, housing policy. That was back in 2007, before everything crashed. Then I did more financial journalism, and that took awhile to conceptualize.

A lot of journalism is about critical thinking. History, as I understood it, was less about being able to recite who won which war in the 19th century, and more about connecting concepts and ideas and seeing patterns. That’s what good journalism is, too. It’s not just about learning facts. It’s seeing them intelligently and presenting them coherently.

What’s your workweek like?

I usually write one or more stories per week. We have a real estate section that comes out on Wednesdays, and most of my stories are for that. Then I’ll work on long-term stuff. My days are a mix of trying to figure out those stories and then calling a bunch of people for interviews. I usually do interviews by phone. I call people I know for off-the-record background information and then talk to other people on the record. Sometimes I travel for stories. I went to North Dakota in February last year for a story—I got to these little oil boom towns in the middle of nowhere, just as things were starting to fall, and saw these real estate developments that were starting on the premise that things were going to keep growing. The Journal still heavily invests in long-term work—it’s quality over quantity. There’s one featured front-page story per day that’s 2,000 words, and each of those stories can take a year or longer.

What about the comments section?

The rule is, don’t look at comments on your story online. People say stuff that, if they said it to you in person, you’d slap them across the face. It’s vile and vitriolic. Though my email address is at the end of every story, I get shockingly small amounts of email. By far the most email I’ve ever gotten was back in Peoria when I wrote about a police campaign to increase ticketing at stoplights.

What is print journalism’s future?

When I was in college, there was so much talk about the death of newspapers. The hunch was that newspapers would probably be in print for five to ten more years, then who knows? Well, it’s 10 years later, and they’re still here. Print is still so lucrative because of the ads, so that’ll last for awhile. Local news is getting decimated because that local model doesn’t work, and that’s bad for the country. National news works, but it’s more microtargeted now. In New York and Washington, D.C., there might be more media jobs than when I started out—but now they’re for the kind of publications people read in a silo. It’s not like you have a generalist newspaper in a way that’s growing. That’s a sad state of affairs.

How does your liberal arts background help you?

If you’re coming from a liberal arts background, it’s easy to get into the field. You have to learn how to tell a story in a concise way, but it’s about skepticism, critical thinking, and asking the right questions. You’re either born with that, or you really hone or gain it in a broad educational setting. And then it’s having historical context from other things you’ve read or heard. I’ve gotten story ideas from things I learned and wrote about in Mac history classes.

What’s your advice for Mac students interested in journalism?

The Mac Weekly is an amazing resource and a beautiful thing where, over pizza, you end up putting out an entire paper that people actually read. The Twin Cities still has this rich resource of places where you can freelance or get internships. It’s not hard, if you’re persistent, to get into those places and do some work. I took one journalism class at Mac and didn’t do any graduate degree—the trick is to get the experience. I interned at City Pages and was totally thrilled by that opportunity.

What’s the most satisfying part of your work?

When we get to do a project or write a piece that contributes to public debate and the shaping of an issue in the public’s mind—and then you hear people repeating your arguments back to you. I wrote a front page piece awhile ago about an immigration program that wasn’t getting much sunlight, and the piece became a big part of debate in D.C. That’s thrilling.

Even if newspapers are a sinking ship, it’s still a great ship to be on. Even if they rely a lot more on sensational headlines and clickbait than they used to, it’s still this beautiful part of our society.

February 6 2017

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