Greg Howard is currently a writer for The New York Times, and was recently named to Forbes’ “30 Under 30” list for 2017. He has written for a variety of publications, including Deadspin, The Village Voice, The Dallas Observer, and Esquire. We spoke with him about his experience at NYU (which included a nerve-wracking elevator ride) and his journalistic writing thus far, centered on what kinds of topics he enjoys writing about.
What did you study at NYU?
I went to the journalism school, but it was for magazine writing, which was a specialization, and I [studied] under Meryl Gordon [Director of Magazine Writing at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute], but I had a bunch of teachers—David Samuels, Lisa DePaulo—who were two of my favorites along with Meryl. Magazine [articles] are profiles and investigations, [and] more of a long form thing, so [it consisted of] how you would go about constructing a long form story. It was a lot of fun. We put together a fake magazine as a small group. A lot of us wanted to become magazine editors, not just writers, so you could take editing classes and stuff like that. It was cool.
Do you have a favorite memory from your time at NYU?
I have a lot of favorite memories. We were a good group of friends, about 20 of us, and all of us hung out all the time. My favorite memory was when Cathie Black from Hearst [Magazines] came to speak at NYU and I had wrote how much I wanted to work for Esquire in my application letter to NYU, how reading a few of the Esquire articles made me want to become a magazine writer. And Esquire had internships, and when Cathie Black came to speak to the magazine program, Meryl Gordon pushed me into the elevator to escort Cathie Black back down while she was [here]. There was an awkward silence for a long time [in the elevator] until I blurted “I love Esquire!” as we got to the bottom. She said to email her, and she gave me her card, and from there it turned into getting the internship at Esquire. That was the one moment, I guess scholastically, but there were a bunch.
What made you decide to pursue a Master’s degree?
As an undergrad I went to Loyola University Maryland and took fiction classes, poetry classes, and a couple of journalism classes. Journalism was what I gravitated to, and I realized I wasn’t that good at it, and that was why I wanted to go to graduate school. And this program [at NYU] was the first one I looked at. It ended up being, after I looked around and applied to a bunch, the one I wanted [to attend]. I knew enough in undergrad that I liked doing [journalism] but I didn’t understand how to. I didn’t major in journalism, just creative writing, so that’s why I went to grad school because I [felt] I needed to focus on just doing that.
How has your educational experience at NYU shaped what you do now?
I was able to tailor my magazine experience here [at NYU] to exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to become a versatile magazine writer where I could do profiles and investigations and essays about a variety of subjects. The magazine program taught me to do that. Furthermore I can draw a direct line from [being in] the magazine program to where I am now. I started off at The Village Voice—they came to NYU to recruit. They were excited that I had internships at Esquire and Slate, which I got here [at NYU]. I used clips from classes here to show that I could profile and report. From The Village Voice I went to Deadspin, and from Deadspin I went to The New York Times. Also being around other people who were trying to do the same thing you do, it’s a very specific, tight specialty, and being in a group of 15-25 people who all are kind of going through the same troubles and have the same fears that you do, and not just in grad school, but as you leave, those [people] become your peers. It’s good to have shoulders to lean on.
What is a typical day like for you at The New York Times?
It depends. Right now I am drafting a profile. I got it in kind of early; I still had a couple interviews to do so I took care of those. I had to email some people on some data that I needed. I looked over notes, got writing and remembered I needed to come here [for this interview]. All the days they vary depending on what story you are writing, what kind of story you are writing. I am in touch with my editors pretty regularly. I have a few that help me out a lot. On Tuesdays, we have pitch meetings and the whole editorial side gets together and we pitch ideas on what could be the next [issue] or issues down the line. It’s cool because I’ve been there about a year now and [am] starting to see stories that were created in those types of meetings. [I see] how they start as sort of half ideas and are coming out the other side as actual stories. So that’s really cool. That’s maybe the coolest thing about being there just as a younger person kind of seeing all these ideas that are coming from all these really smart, capable people. The pitch meetings are cool because they aren’t necessarily stories you want for yourself, they’re things in the news that you are interested in or pissed off about or whatever. Everyone’s kind of talking about what a story could be. It’s really low stakes because you’re not saying “this is what I want to do,” it’s like this is what I think the magazine should be covering. You have other people chipping in, and it’s a really exciting time. If no one is really excited by your idea, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad idea.
Do you do any writing outside of The New York Times?
I mostly only do that. I could freelance—but I don’t really understand how they do it. I get so focused on how [a story would] fit the magazine. If it’s not good for me or good for the magazine then it’s not a good story. I think it’s a personality type. I have some friends who are freelancers and they are really entrepreneurial. I couldn’t do it. The good thing about the internet is it kind of democratized the whole thing. Anyone can become a writer. It’s a better time for writing. You have people saying I have to pay my dues or I’m not ready yet. Ready for what? A lot of writers now get opportunities earlier and I don’t see it as the death of journalism or the death of the English language or anything.
What are your favorite stories to explore and document? What draws you to write about those topics?
I have played sports all my life, been black all my life, listened to music all my life; politics is something that interests me, and interests me more the older I get. For me it’s always very personal the subjects I am interested in and choose to write about. It’s more like self-discovery. That’s what I am interested in. So far my career has been as easy as “if you are interested in it then go ahead and write about it”. That’s the one thing about magazine writing, but also working at a general interest website like Deadspin has been so rewarding that I haven’t been pushed one way or another. Sometimes it’s bad to have that much freedom, but so far it’s been rewarding. Almost everything I write feels like I’m learning for the first time. I love it. It feels like I am changing and getting smarter in new ways in everything that I write but it’s a little more difficult to get the ball rolling every time.
Do you have a dream story or interview you would like to do?
The cool thing about being at The New York Times Magazine is that if you can’t do [a story] there, then you probably can’t do it. So that’s been the incredible type thing. I did have stories that were maybe [I thought] down the line, but I don’t feel like that anymore. They trust me to tackle these dream stories and to chase them. They support the institutional muscle and the resources and name itself.
Do you have any advice for students or alumni pursuing a journalism career?
I would say if this is what you want to do, just keep doing it. I think being at The New York Times, and finishing the program here, and saying I am from NYU, it [got me] better prepared than most of my peers. When I first graduated I moved to Dallas, came back to New York, moved to Miami, came back, and was desperately poor for a long time and I had monster student loans, of course. But you realize you have the ability to do something because you were selected to this program and a lot of your peers would not have been selected. You do have this experience and you do have talent which is why you were brought in to it. You have to have the stamina and the stubbornness to kind of keep going. Everyone gets their chance. I don’t know of a single person who never got a chance. It always comes, it’s just what you do, do you recognize it, and what do you do once you get it. My actual chance came to build a career with Deadspin. I started writing about soccer, but I saw on the website there was space for me to write about stuff outside of sports, and there was space for me to do longer profiles and investigative reporting, and I asserted myself and [grew] as a writer. I had good editors. It didn’t matter what the name was, the editors at Deadspin were going to make me a lot better. [With] the classes and everything I learned here [at NYU] I was able to apply it and really start my career.