Women’s Weekend speaker Jen Chaney ’94 talks TV, journalism, #MeToo

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When Jen Chaney ’94 decided to transfer from the University of Maryland to the College of William and Mary before her sophomore year, she hadn’t yet planned to become a television and film critic, or an author. When she arrived and had to add an intended major to be included in the student directory, she said it was business.

“Why did I put that? I don’t even know where that came from,” Chaney said.

Chaney realized she wanted to be farther away from her home in Bethesda, Maryland during college, but she hadn’t decided anything else. After realizing how much she loved writing, she declared an English major and obtained a Spanish minor along the way.
While she loved the atmosphere of the College, Chaney admitted the extreme academic focus sometimes got to her.

“I don’t know how it is now, but it was very, very studious,” Chaney said. “Maybe because I wasn’t in the Greek system, that was part of it, but I remember there would be Saturday nights where I would be like, ‘Guys, can someone just go to a movie?’ … And I consider myself a fairly studious person, but I felt that, sometimes.”

Outside of academics, Chaney started working at WCWM, the campus radio station. She was the features editor for the arts and culture segment of a show called “Brave World News.” She slowly realized she wanted to do a similar job after graduation.

“You get to the point where you’re going into your senior year, and you’re like, ‘I’m gonna have to find a job, what should I do? Well, I should try to do something like what I do for the radio station,’” Chaney said.

After looking for jobs in both print and broadcast, Chaney got her first job as a reporter for a local paper in Montgomery County, Maryland. Her job at the county paper required her to cover almost anything that happened in the town of Gaithersburg, from school board elections to murder trials.

“It was just like, the widest possible gamut of things,” Chaney said. “It was great education in how to do journalism. That’s where I learned pretty much everything about how it all works.”

Chaney then worked as a staff writer at The Washington Post for almost 13 years. She eventually decided to freelance for about three years, writing for the New York Times, Salon and a now-shuttered movie-review site called The Dissolve, among other places, because it allowed for a greater freedom of choice in which stories she could write.

“I learned a great deal being at The Post, and I enjoyed my time there, but it was when we were going through the most heightened tensions about transitioning from print to digital,” Chaney said. “And there were just constant issues around that that were distracting for everybody … And for me personally … sometimes I did have freedom, but I didn’t feel it in the same way that I do at this job.”

Still, Chaney’s time at The Post allowed her to try many new things — not just for her, but for TV criticism in general.

“The show that really got me into doing criticism was “Lost,” and that was when I was still at The Washington Post,” Chaney said. “Another colleague and I started writing recaps, and that was when we weren’t doing recaps on our site … And we got a huge following for doing that … That’s not how people used to write. They would write like, a review of a show that was just starting, and that was kind of it.”

All these years later, Chaney still enjoys the many opportunities her work as a journalist has afforded her as a TV and film critic. As just one example, during her freelance years, she had the chance to write a book about the popular 1990s movie “Clueless” when an agent reached out to her about extending a piece she had written for Vulture.

“I talked to her, I liked her, so she became my agent,” Chaney said. “And then she’s like ‘Just write a proposal. Since you’ve already written an article, we can already show what it is.’ … I gave [the book proposal] to her expecting that we would kind of go back-and-forth, and she was like ‘No this is great, I’m sending it out!’ And she just like, sent it out. And within a week there was a bidding war.”

The day-to-day aspects of Chaney’s job also provide her with opportunities she greatly appreciates.

“One of the best things about journalism is that it gives you an opportunity to meet just really interesting people that you wouldn’t have an opportunity to meet otherwise,” Chaney said. “And I’m not just talking about the famous ones, but even just other people that you may have to interview … that give you a different perspective on things.”

Most of all, she enjoys the greater freedom that her current position as a staff writer and columnist at Vulture, part of New York Magazine, affords her.

“My favorite thing about the job I have now, and it’s specific to Vulture I think, is that … if you’re really enthusiastic about something, then [they’ll say], ‘Okay, go run with it,’” Chaney said.

Though she stuck with print media for a significant portion of time, and still works in it, the media landscape now allows her to report in many different forms.

“Now … I have a couple of radio spots that I do every week,” Chaney said. “I feel like, regardless of what your focus is as a journalist, you’re gonna end up needing to have all those skills. In the course of a day, you might be doing interviews, writing a story, going on the radio, going on CNN to talk about it, working on a video for whatever website or digital platform you’re doing … It’s very different from when I graduated.”

This change in required skills isn’t the only transformation that news has gone through since Chaney began working in journalism. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have brought conversations about discrimination and sexual harassment to journalism as much as they’ve brought change to Hollywood.

Chaney, like many other women, has been thinking more about the instances of discrimination she and her female colleagues have faced over the course of her career.

“I don’t feel like I have a really good ‘Me Too’ story,” Chaney said. “And I have been thinking about it a lot, because obviously everybody’s been talking about it. I do remember — and this is such a small thing — at one of my community newspaper jobs … there was another young woman reporter. And she was talking … and one of our top-level editors, I could see him give a look to another male, kind of about her, and it made me very uncomfortable.”

Chaney was later asked to work with this top-level editor on a long story about a recent murder case. She denied, asking for “any other editor in this building,” to no avail, costing her the story.

“The story got cancelled, because, ironically, it was a female editor who [said], ‘If you won’t work with him we’re not doing it,’” Chaney said. “And I was like, ‘Okay.’”
Still, Chaney said this incident, less egregious than many ‘Me Too’ stories, was one of only a few instances of discomfort in her career.

“I’ve actually been really fortunate, in that the vast majority of my bosses have been women,” Chaney said. “Like, almost all of them. Which is not to say that there’s never issues there, but not the kind of ‘Me Too’ type stuff.”
Chaney said the #MeToo movement has also affected the way she writes stories as a journalist.

“I think a lot more deeply than I used to about those kinds of issues,” Chaney said. “About how women have been portrayed, how people of color are being portrayed, or not portrayed, or not represented. I just feel like that’s such a central part of criticism now, and it didn’t used to be. … I think it’s [part of] a higher level of thinking than it used to be.”

Chaney was convinced the changes were positive, however, and that as long as young people keep putting pressure on people to step up, the changes would continue to grow, and would last.

As for the women, and other young people, who want to enter this constantly-changing media landscape after graduation?

“Know how to do as many things as you can, be as versatile as you can,” Chaney said. “I do think it does help to have an area of expertise, but … have as many ways to tell stories within your area of expertise as you can. If you can [do multiple things], you’ll have no problem getting hired. They need people who can do as much as possible.”