Kealey Boyd, AB’01, AM’10, is a Denver-based writer and art critic. Zeba Khan, AB’03, AM’03, is deputy editorial page editor at the San Francisco Chronicle and the recipient of a 2023 UChicago Alumni Award. Ben Steverman, AB’99, AM’99, a feature writer at Bloomberg News, is currently a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan. The three shared their thoughts on the journalism field and the benefits of a humanistic education.

How did you get here?

Steverman: When I was an undergrad, I thought that I wanted to do either publishing or journalism. I started out in publishing, did a couple short stints at publishing places, realized it wasn’t for me, and went back to grad school at Northwestern and got a master’s degree in journalism.

I covered local government, first in the western suburbs of Chicago, then for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. When I moved to New York City in 2006, I started covering business, because that’s the job I could get. It was never my intention to be a business journalist. But that was the eve of the financial crisis: this incredible, complex, amazing story to cover as a stock market reporter and then moving into personal finance and covering the financial fallout of that disaster.

Khan: I definitely did not have a traditional path into journalism, but I don’t think it’s an accident that I ended up in Opinion, because it’s where you unabashedly advocate for your ideas.

Coming from a grassroots-activist kind of family, I was taught to speak out and organize for the ideas and causes I believe in. That upbringing led me to launch Muslim-Americans for Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign to get out the vote in Muslim communities at a time when that population was not as civically engaged. From that experience, I was introduced to an organization called the Op-Ed Project, which taught me how to craft my ideas into powerful arguments—taking my advocacy from grassroots organizing to the page.

I began writing op-eds in earnest and working with the Op-Ed Project to train others from historically marginalized communities to do the same. Eventually, I was fortunate enough to be selected as a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford, which led to the position I have today.

Boyd: I graduated from the College with an Econ degree. I worked on Wall Street as an investment banker, then as a structured-product salesperson. I got burnt out right before the crash and had already started applying for graduate school. When I was done with my art history degree, I moved to Denver, where my husband was working.

For somebody who studied Yuan dynasty ink painting, it was not a great job market. I did lots of odd jobs. I taught as an adjunct everywhere. I did administrative work for the Denver Art Museum. I did museum education at the Clyfford Still Museum. I was chatting with other teachers about the lack of arts reporting and criticism in Denver. And I thought, Rather than throw stones, why don’t I throw in my hat? In 2015 Hyperallergic, a national art publication, accepted my first-ever pitch and I was hooked. I have been a freelancer since, publishing with the Los Angeles Times, the Art Newspaper, Art Papers, and others.

How does your UChicago education help you as a journalist?

Khan: UChicago didn’t teach me what to think; it taught me how. I took a course, Methodologies on the Study of the Middle East, with John Woods [now Professor Emeritus of Iranian and Central Asian History in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations]. One of the books we read was The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon. We analyzed the author, the time period he was writing in, what was going on in his society, and how all that influenced him. It was a fascinating exercise. The practice of looking at a subject from multiple angles has stayed with me and continues to contribute to my work to this day.

Boyd: I learned that there’s you, and then there’s the work—and to separate them. Sometimes I receive feedback or rejection from editors that maybe other writers would deem as mean, and I just never take it that way.

Also, I would crash any workshop on campus, even when uninvited. I went to the East Asian art workshop that was run by the Art History department—I think Katherine Tsiang [PhD’96] ran it at the time. I just loved it and built a lot of lasting relationships that I still keep today. I suppose Chicago taught me not to wait for an invitation.

Steverman: I write about the economy. I write a lot about inequality. I write a lot about technical policy questions. The hard thing is to dive into those details and come back out and be able to explain them to a regular person. I really think my humanities education helps me ask, every day: Why does this matter? What’s important here?

One of my specialties is the sort of “scoop of ideas”: finding a perspective on a subject that no one else has brought to that subject before. There’s a new way of thinking about tax policy and the racial wealth gap, for example, in the work of Dorothy Brown, who I profiled for Bloomberg Businessweek. Or there are new ways of measuring wealth inequality. I really attribute that curiosity to my years at the University of Chicago and all those eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels that I read in Hyde Park.

Any advice for aspiring journalists?

Steverman: There was a time when media organizations offered lots of entry-level jobs to generalists. Many of those jobs at newspapers and magazines have disappeared, but there are still opportunities for people who bring something unique. Try to leverage your strengths and then deepen knowledge that might be valuable. If you can publish one good article on a topic like artificial intelligence or climate change, or even something far more specific or offbeat, editors are likely to seek you out for other assignments or jobs.

Khan: Don’t wait for permission to write, podcast, or produce. Explore different mediums on your own and see what you’re excited by. Gather experience and create a portfolio so when that opportunity comes, you’re ready. If it means getting a job just to pay the bills while you hone your craft for a bit, so be it.

Boyd: I look for holes in the national arts conversations and aim to provide a different perspective that is often informed by leaning into the local. They say to write what you know, but that doesn’t have to be the personal. Observe what is happening in your community and let that instigate your research.

Photo Creds: 
Photo courtesy Ben Steverman