Brent Cunningham, Columbia Journalism Review’s managing editor, came to the magazine in 1999 on a fellowship and was convinced to stay on as managing editor. Founded in 1961, the magazine’s mission is to serve as “both a watchdog and a friend of the press in all its forms” and “encourage and stimulate excellence in journalism in the service of a free society.”
What’s the philosophy of Columbia Journalism Review and has it changed over time? Its mission was one thing when it had the field entirely to itself. But now everyone is a media critic or has the ability to broadcast those criticisms. Today, it’s more of a magazine of ideas about the media and society. While there’s old-fashioned media criticism in there, the pieces I like the best look at something that’s interesting in society through the lens of media, whether it’s immigration, healthcare or something more abstract, like class or race.
When it comes to submissions from freelance writers, do you prefer queries or complete articles? We’ll read a complete article but I prefer queries because it’s easier for everyone involved. What’s often misunderstood by people who pitch us is that, because we’re housed in a university, we’re an academic publication, but we’re really not. We’re a magazine.
How far ahead should writers think in terms of the timeliness of an article idea? We come out six times a year, so the lead time is two to four months. So if you’re going to pitch something that’s imminently timely, I’d encourage you to think about our website.
Does the magazine contribute to keeping journalism honest? Yes. I think a magazine like this is important because anybody can be a media critic, but most of that comes from a very partisan, opinionated place. Our magazine has a very clear idea of what quality journalism is and why it’s important in a free society.
Is there anything you’d like to see more of in the way of submissions? I’m 41, my co-editor is 56 and we’re white men. If we had a huge budget, we’d make a point of hiring a very diverse staff—by age, race, gender, ethnicity. But without that, we do rely on unsolicited queries to point things out that are blotted out by our blind spots.
What are the most important elements you look for in a query? We’re small enough and we pay little enough that we definitely are open to new and young writers. A lot of people who write for us do have a lot of experience. But you must be able to convince me, either in the way you present the idea, or in examples of work that you’ve published somewhere, that you can execute the idea in a professional way. There are things going on in journalism that a 25 year old will be much more tapped into than I am. If she can make me understand the relevance of it, I’ll be happy to work with her.