Maghan McDowell – Style Reporter, San Francisco Chronicle
“I would love a career in FASHION!”
This was the vague ambition statement Carrie Bradshaw came across in the movie adaptation of Sex and the City as she interviewed a young woman for a personal assistant role. After rattling off what she wasn’t willing to do in an entry-level position, the candidate made sure to state this goal. We didn’t hear Carrie’s response, but had the interviewee spoken with Maghan McDowell, who joined the San Francisco Chronicle full-time as a style reporter in December 2013, she might have very well received a reality check. For McDowell, who also blogs for SF Unzipped and has spent years immersing herself in fashion coverage, a journalist must be practical and business-minded.
As a former adjunct lecturer on magazine management at her alma mater, the University of Florida, McDowell is quite familiar with the zeal with which young aspiring journalists approach the field. She beamed with pride when a group of former students won third place for their start-up magazine prototype in an annual contest held by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. It’s as a proud teacher that she conveyed guidance for those who are eager to join the scores of fashion writers that saturate the market.
“Narrow down what you’re looking to cover. There are a lot more options out there than I think people realize,” she said. “Also, read, read, read – and subscribe. I had a lot of students that didn’t subscribe to the magazines they wanted to work for, and I would emphasize that they needed to build a familiarity with a publication or particular writer’s style that they might want to replicate one day.”
McDowell also underscored the importance of drive and determination for aspirant journalists. Expectations should be tempered with reality on getting through the door. “You need to be prepared to work twice as hard to get a position that you may consider is half your aspiration. This might include volunteering and working for free, but it’ll help you get the assignments you want.”
Her own fashion ambitions sprouted as a couture-minded high schooler. “It was in the ninth or tenth grade that I discovered Vogue. I was always very particular with what I wore, but that was around the time that I saw how what you wear can have a huge impact on how you feel.”
While pursuing her degree in magazine journalism, with a stop at the Savannah College of Fashion and Design, McDowell worked in internships with major lifestyle and fashion publications, where she developed a profound respect and admiration for several women who’ve made their marks in journalism.
“I admire Zanna Roberts Rassi of Marie Claire very much as a stylist, editor and naturally talented person who is tireless. I love the stories that Roberta Myers of ELLE chooses and the way she covers fashion in a smart way, because I think it’s always a challenge to stay relevant. I also love every piece Ann Friedman puts out, because she covers women and journalism so well,” she said.
McDowell also dabbled in business reporting, editing content for the North Central Business Report while she served as editorial director for Broad Beach Media. Having helped launch the magazine, she still felt she was in new territory.
“Honestly, I was a bit intimidated to cover business. But I learned that all good journalism is the same. If you know how to create a good story, you can cover any category. Business is just a term that’s used to describe what people do every day. And a lot of what I cover is the business of fashion, how people make money designing clothes.”
When asked about her move to San Francisco, McDowell maintained that Gainesville, Fla., where she was born and attended college, will always have a special place in her heart. She shared her thoughts on local fashion scenes, or rather, the perception of scenes.
“San Francisco’s style is very independent, practical and individual – with companies such as Levi and The Gap being based here, casual wear is embraced. It’s not a traditional fashion town, but they definitely know how to dress out here, as I’m blown away by the local designer’s work I’ve seen covering galas and formal events. That said, I’ve always believed, having spent most of my life in small towns but having been to many big cities in the U.S and Europe – style is about the wearer, not the location,” she explained.
“Some of the best editors and designers came from small-town America. So yes, there absolutely can be style in Gainesville, Fla., and in Missoula, Mont., and Blacksburg, Va., and Tifton, Ga., and all the other places I’ve lived.”
This approach to fashion is what delivers so well in McDowell’s coverage. Sure, she addresses the timely forefront topics, such as award show red carpets and Carrie’s – err, Sarah Jessica Parker’s shoe collection launch. But McDowell also delves into the personal and perhaps even philosophical aspects of fashion, with conversation starters such as the sexiness potential of reading glasses, whether jeans are a cop-out or not, and if Lena Dunham was still portrayed as a perfect non-perfect girl on the February cover of Vogue – amid talk of photo altering.
Fashion will always be on trend, and writing about the industry will always be a popular option among journalism students. As McDowell’s students benefited from her business and practical approach to fashion, so do her readers.
McDowell asks for very simple subject lines with dates in them if applicable. “I don’t like to have to open a lot of attachments to get to the crux of a pitch,” she explained.
Given her coverage, she also appreciates when photos are readily available in Web and print quality.
PR professionals will be happy to know that McDowell is aware of the job they have in pitching.
“I really enjoy working with PR people; they actually make my life easier. So I don’t really complain about getting pitched,” she said. “Sometimes a pitch won’t be the right fit, but for the most part – I find
PR professionals to be pretty smart and aware of what I cover. And my hat goes off to them because I see them working at whatever hour to respond quickly to me if I voice interest.”
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