Journalist Meg Cox has been earning her living as a writer since graduating from Northwestern University in 1975. She was hired as a staff writer by the Wall Street Journal in 1977, at age 24, and worked at the WSJ in Chicago and New York for 17 years. She contributed hundreds of front-page stories and was lauded for her feature writing. Her beats included financial futures, agriculture, the business of the arts, and publishing.
Since the birth of her son, Max, in 1994, Cox has written for many national magazines—including Allure, American Patchwork & Quilting, Child, Cooking Light, Tthe Daily Beast, Family Fun, Working Mother, and Worth —lectured, and taught all over the country. She’s also authored five books.
Cox’s specialties are family traditions and quilting, “two wildly misunderstood topics,” believes Cox, who says, “They are thought to be old-fashioned and un-hip, which could not be further from the truth. Today’s smart parents are avid inventors of personalized rituals and celebrations that give their kids a sense of identity, security, meaning, and fun. These traditions encompass everything from meals and activities handed down through generations, to brand new rituals, including some built around cutting-edge tech devices like iPads and smart phones.”
The same is true of quilting, she insists. “The 21 million American quilters who have built this burgeoning craft into a $3.6 billion industry are educated, computer-literate, and fiercely creative. Did you know the dominant version of quilt-design software is in version 7?”
Cox’s writing and lecturing on family traditions is informed by her experience as a parent—as well as more than a decade of interviewing psychologists, religious leaders, and hundreds of families about rituals. She has been hired as a traditions spokesperson by such companies as Pillsbury, KFC, and Hallmark.
So it was a pleasure to feature Meg Cox as our February 2014 Journalist of the Month. Scroll down for our Q&A.
Be Inkandescent: What made you want to be a journalist?
Meg Cox: I’ve been a lifelong avid reader—voted class librarian in 6th grade—and I always hoped I could earn a living writing.
Be Inkandescent: Where was your first job? What did you do next? And how did you get to where you are today?
Meg Cox: My first journalism job was at a small town newspaper in Newark, Ohio. My uncle had been the 8th grade teacher of the managing editor and that was my only connection in all of journalism, but it worked. The managing editor hired me right after I graduated from Northwestern (with an English degree), and gave me the only open spot: farm editor. I had never set foot on a farm until then! The paper was acquired by a big chain and got less fun fast, so after 18 months, I headed back to Chicago. After some freelance gigs, I got hired by the Wall Street Journal’s Chicago bureau to cover the commodities market. I was 24. I had a series of WSJ beats—agriculture, food companies in the Midwest, then I moved to NYC to cover the business of the arts. Other beats included: the music business, television, and publishing. I left the Journal when my son was born in 1994 to write books. I’m working on the sixth one now, the second book in a two-book deal with Workman Publishing.
Be Inkandescent: What was your big hairy dream about being a reporter? Did it come true?
Meg Cox: My big hairy dream was not the usual. I never aspired to be Woodward or Bernstein, and never wanted to be a financial reporter either. What shocked me about the Journal is the focus on excellent writing, and the fact that it was possible for me to write about things I loved—the arts and publishing—at what I first thought was a narrowly focused publication. The dream that came true for me was being able to write freely about any aspect of the arts that I could convince my editor made a good story, whether it was rocker Frank Zappa, a hot new opera singer, or the best “fight director” on Broadway. I wrote the first articles in the Journal about rap music, and was hanging out with folks like Russell Simmons and LL Cool J when they were unknowns. As a result, I was interviewed for the first two episodes of a four-part documentary history of hip hop that is airing in February on VH1, called “The Tanning of America.”
Be Inkandescent: What was your favorite story that you covered? Is there a story you covered that you wish you could forget?
Meg Cox: Wow. I just find it impossible to single out one story, but there were two I did about very unusual theater companies. One only performed in prisons (so I went with them to the maximum security prison in Vaccaville, Calif.) and another, started by Harvard students, went into small towns all over the country and created plays with the locals. Also, I wrote about this postal worker and his wife in NYC who created one of the largest and most remarkable collections of conceptual art—the Vogels. There was a documentary made about them. There isn’t really a story I wish I could forget.
Be Inkandescent: Was there one moment, or one story, that changed your career?
Meg Cox: I don’t believe it was a single story, but what changed my career was that I kept finding ways to write about the arts even when my beat was agriculture or McDonald’s. Over time, this proved I was adept, and when the paper expanded and added a new arts job in New York, I raised my hand, did an interview, and won the job. Happiest day of my work life was when I learned I got that job!
Be Inkandescent: With journalism changing, how have you morphed with the times?
Meg Cox: I think since I went full-time as a freelance writer, I’ve seen the magazine market dwindle down and book publishing get harder than ever. I used to be able to get magazine assignments for $2,000 and up. I once wrote a cover story for Ms. Magazine and they paid $8,000, and their pay was much lower than most national publications. These days, the payouts are smaller and if you write for online outlets, you are lucky to get paid at all. Now, I still write occasional pieces for the WSJ weekend edition (the arts still), but a lot of my writing is for trade and special-interest magazines. Most of my books have been published by major houses, but I have experimented with self-publishing using Amazon’s Create Space, and I publish a free monthly newsletter for quilters that is starting to earn me real money, from advertisers.
Be Inkandescent: Tell us about your book, why you wrote it, and what you learned from the process.
Meg Cox: My most recent book was a revised, updated edition of an earlier book, “The Book of New Family Traditions.” I’ve learned that most publishers will do very little to promote books these days, so I’ve gotten savvy and more involved in spreading the word. I have a blog now on my website, megcox.com, and Facebook page. I check monthly to see if my book has been mentioned in a blog, then I comment on the blog and offer to give the blogger a free book to give away. The biggest lesson is that it’s important to piggyback on any organization you possibly can and say yes to almost any exposure you can get. I reached out to local corporate day-care centers, and after lecturing at one of them, the company bought hundreds of copies of the book—one for every parent with a kid in the center. The book was ordered by Pottery Barn Kids, which was huge. Any time you can sell 50 or 100 copies rather than five, it’s golden. And the bookstore event scene is dead, dead, dead, except for the very famous. For my 2008 book, The Quilter’s Catalog: A Comprehensive Resource Guide, Workman sent me on a 25-city tour, and most of the stops were not bookstores, but quilt shops or major quilt shows. Huge difference!
Be Inkandescent: What is your best advice for those who want to make it big in the journalism field?
Meg Cox: Hone your skills, search for mentors, and get noticed. One thing a friend of mind did that I wish I had done is that she was constantly searching for possible journalism awards for which her work might qualify. Unless you uncover a major big story, your editor isn’t going to put you up for awards. But the more awards you win, the more you get noticed. And even if you get only one, you can still call yourself an “award-winning journalist.”
Be Inkandescent: If you could do it all again, would you become a journalist? If not, what do you wish you would have done with your career?
Meg Cox: Absolutely! I was a shy child. I took up journalism so I could be a writer, but it also taught me how to ask questions, how to learn about what’s happening with people. They love to be asked, and as a journalist, you have a license to do that.