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Q&A with Maureen Farrell ‘01, Reporter, The New York Times

Published By Duke Arts / published on: October 4, 2021

In this interview for the Duke Entertainment, Media, and Arts Network (DEMAN), Maureen Farrell ‘01 offers advice for students and alumni hoping to pursue a career in journalism after Duke. This Thursday, Oct 7 at 8pm, Farrell will be in conversation with her co-author Eliot Brown about their recently published book, “The Cult of We: WeWork, Adam Neumann, and the Great Startup Delusion.”

Major: English; Minor: Art History

What are 2-3 ways your Duke experience helped prepare you for your current career role and/or previous roles?

My four years at Duke were a journey, a meandering one. I started as a pre-med student, but the coursework didn’t inspire me the way other classes did. To my parents’ dismay, I left the pre-med track and started taking a very wide range of classes — art history, philosophy, feminist studies, Marxism, Milton. Both the institution and the friends I made at Duke led me to take chances and feel comfortable exploring the world and not hewing to a straight path.

There was perhaps no better preparation for a career in journalism than getting comfortable with the journey. To develop as a journalist, you constantly need to pivot and rethink your career and the stories you tackle. It’s also important to tackle stories by looking for the answer with few preconceived notions about what it will be. Secondly, there are endless opportunities to practice the craft of journalism at Duke. I wrote for The Chronicle, a publication that could rival or best many local news outlets, and took some incredible classes at Sanford School of Public Policy. In one class, I had the honor of partnering with one of the most formidable journalists I know — my friend Keturah Gray — whose work at ABC News inspires me every day.

How did you make the transition from Duke to your career? What are a few helpful takeaways from your first years out of Duke?

I wanted to go straight into journalism but struggled to find a position in the industry right out of Duke. Instead, I spent two years working at a think tank in New York, The Century Foundation. I did research for their projects and helped out in PR. While the work and people were interesting, I missed the excitement of a newsroom, which I experienced during several internships. I decided to go to journalism school and spent a year at Columbia University earning a masters degree. From there, I got my first job covering mergers and acquisitions at a small, nascent newswire called Mergermarket.

My advice for students is to try out a lot of different things. Each job, however imperfect, will guide you and help you figure out what you really want to do and how to get there. A decade or two down the road, you’ll also find out that not only will your bosses serve as your mentors, but so will your colleagues. Invest time in relationships and friendships with your coworkers.

How did you decide what you wanted to do after Duke? And how did you make transition(s) to different fields?

Internships helped a lot. I always had an interest in journalism but I spent the summer before my senior year working as an intern for the so-called dean of New York political journalism Gabe Pressman. During the summer of 2000, while working under him at the local NBC affiliate in Manhattan, Gabe Pressman, who was in his 70s, was chasing down politicians to insist they answer his questions. He was a force of nature and an inspiration. The internship was intense but the most fun I could imagine having in a job. While I didn’t go straight into journalism, I knew from that summer the broad outlines of what I wanted in a career. I’d suggest trying as many internships as possible during your time at Duke (even during the semesters).

What is your favorite thing about working in your profession? Most challenging?

In some ways, journalism can feel like being back in college. You’re constantly learning about new areas and meeting some of the most interesting people imaginable. Your task is to learn from them and share this knowledge with the world. It’s a challenge to tell stories in ways that engage readers and make the subject matter interesting and accessible to them. It’s a challenge but also the joy of it.

What are 2-3 pieces of advice you would offer to a student interested in your field(s)?

  1. Internships. Internships. Internships. Try to land as many as you can at different publications. Meet people. Ask people questions and see what you really like about the profession. The journalism industry is large and varied. You’ll learn what you love to do through this process.
  2. Be flexible. Many of your classmates will have landed jobs before they graduate. It’s difficult to do that in this industry and often even once you land your first job, it may be a paid, post-graduate internship that may or may not offer you a full-time job when it concludes. You’ll have to take chances; become comfortable with uncertainty; find a way to make ends meet on a low salary for awhile; and jump at opportunities quickly as they come along. That said, if it’s what you ultimately want to do, I can’t imagine another career that’s as exhilarating!