Alumni Q&A: Geoff Edgers

Geoff Edgers is pictured. (Courtesy Lila Hempel-Edgers)

The Alumni Series aims to create a diverse collection of experiences at Tufts through highlighting notable alumni.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Geoff Edgers graduated from Tufts in 1992 with a bachelor’s degree in English. He is currently the national Arts reporter for The Washington Post and host of Edge of Fame, The Washington Post’s and WBUR’s collaborative podcast. The Tufts Daily spoke with Edgers on his experiences at Tufts and his journey as a journalist and author.

The Tufts Daily (TD): Where did you hear about Tufts, and why did you decide to attend?

Geoff Edgers (GE): My father is a civil engineering professor at Tufts, and I grew up in Brookline, so Tufts was very well known. From the time I was a child, [I knew that] if I could get in, I would probably go to Tufts. First of all, it’s a great school but beyond that there was tuition remission, so I was able to attend without having to pay tuition, which was quite a benefit.

TD: Did you always plan on studying English?

GE: I really didn’t have a great plan when I got to Tufts — I just started. One of my first classes was a class taught by Alan Leibowitz, who is now retired. He used to teach Melville, Hawthorne and Poe. I was not a great reader at that point, and I remember very distinctly I got something like a C on a paper on Moby Dick. He was very angry at me because I think he felt I hadn’t committed to it. You could tell he could see through my fake attempt to do it. That hadn’t happened before, and it really shook me up. I was embarrassed but I also asked myself, “What am I doing?” It sounds simple and basic but if you don’t read good stuff, you’re not going to write well. So I really became a voracious reader, hence the English major.

TD: What were some memorable classes you took at Tufts?

GE: I thought that History of Jazz with Michael Ullman was just amazing and really opened my eyes to music that I didn’t know at all. Jonathan Strong’s fiction class was also great. He just had a really great way of guiding you without telling you what to do. The time I was at Tufts, I’d be in the same small creative writing classes with my best friends Patrick Healy (LA ’93) and Darin Strauss (LA ’92), who has gone on to write novels, as well as Adam Sacks (’01), who became a magazine editor. We would be in the same 12- or 13-person creative writing classes, so Jonathan Strong and Michael Ullman were really important figures for us.

TD: In what ways has Tufts changed since you attended?

GE: Tufts didn’t have any kind of media or communications major. The only courses they had in that area were in the Experimental College. The physical structures have changed dramatically, like the music building was not in place. But it still feels like the same campus to me — it still feels like a cozy campus.

TD: What did you do for fun at Tufts?

GE: I liked to play guitar and I would hang out with people. Also, I would travel around with friends and also do stuff for [the Daily]. Doing work for outside newspapers also took up a lot of my time.

TD: What was your time at the Daily like?

GE: For a time, I was very involved and very passionate about it. I had a little bit of a conflict there because it could be a very suffocating place. I remember at a certain point I left for a little while and when I came back, it had become such an inside club. It was very hard for me to get back into it. I actually ran for Editor in Chief almost as an outsider. It led to them doing a very bizarre and entertaining vote on whether [they should] allow me to even to run and whether I could be eligible. I lost that by two votes, which was very funny to me because I think if I’d even [been allowed to] run, I still would have lost by two votes. Frankly, that made me more aggressive about writing outside of the paper. I really enjoyed my time at the Daily as an Arts editor and a Sports editor but ultimately, I didn’t want to have the Daily be my entire life. There were kids who worked at the Daily who were making it their entire lives and I [was still friends] with people who were incredibly involved, but I also wanted to write for local newspapers.

TD: What was the most interesting story you worked on for the Daily?

GE: We did a very involved story on the housing office. We determined that there were people who were taking advantage of the system. They were basically using their friends in the office to get high lottery numbers. Everything was done manually back then, so the housing lottery literally had tickets. We did an analysis and found that the same people were getting the top housing choices every year. [We] not only broke it in the Daily, but were also able to sell the story to the New York Times.

TD: What local publications did you write for, and what was that experience like?

GE: The Arlington Advocate was one of them. The only way to get good at writing is by writing: It’s kind of a catch-22. It’s like, “How do you get good at it while you do it?”  You have to get someone to hire you to do it. What I found was that there were all these papers around, and they were eager to get stories covered. There’s an endless amount of news in local places: Every town has like five meetings at night. I just went to them and said, “Look, you don’t need to pay me, I’ll do it for free. Just make sure that there’s an editor and that I get my name in the paper.” So I covered planning board meetings, bike trail openings, forums on domestic violence. I carried a camera around too and took pictures of people and asked them what they thought about, you know, the Red Sox. I just did the same things that you could do for the Daily except on a little bit of a more nitty-gritty level. I started getting bylines, so when I graduated, I had actual stories. They weren’t good stories, but I had something … The professional editing was [also] helpful in giving me perspective.

TD: What did you do after graduating from Tufts?

GE: As soon as I graduated, I traveled around Europe, and when I got home, I took a job as a reported at the Sudbury Town Crier, which is a weekly paper that still exists in Sudbury, Mass. I was their only reporter. I wrote eight stories a week; I wrote the editorials; I took pictures. If a horse got out and walked across the street, I was there. I went to the school committee meetings, I went to the finance committee meetings. I did the police beat and I worked like 90 hours a week, getting paid for 40 of them. I worked that job for six months. I went on to a small daily paper for 10 months, then I went on to a bigger paper and worked that for a year. I kept trying to get ahead. I worked almost 12 years at the Boston Globe on staff as their local Arts reporter. When the Washington Post expanded and created a national Arts reporter job, I applied and got the job. The post has been growing dramatically in the past few years and that’s what I get to do now.

TD: Why did you decide to become an Arts reporter specifically?

GE: I didn’t want to be a reviewer because I felt like I didn’t know the disciplines for that, like covering the symphony orchestra world. But I also wanted to do something special and I didn’t want to be a part of a pack following around politicians or just doing the same thing. What I found was that there weren’t many people writing about the arts as a serious magazine beat would, like doing profiles or investigative pieces, but in a very ambitious way. In some cases, you had an arts story that would come into a newsroom and they’d say “Oh it’s an arts story, give it to the intern.” I thought that they were amazing stories. There were amazing characters, things to turn over that weren’t being turned over. So that’s why I went into it.

TD: What advice would you give to students who are interested in journalism as a career, especially if there is no specific journalism school or major at their university?

GE: I would say that the things you learn in a journalism news writing class — structure, how to do a lede and how to use quotes — are not that hard to get accustomed to. The thing that makes you better is your work ethic and also your ability to learn a whole range of things — to read, to study things, to be curious, to ask questions, to learn how to communicate. You can’t really teach that in a news-writing class. So to me, being able to get out of Tufts having read great books, having experimented with story form and having had instructors who were really dynamic, that to me was far more important than taking a class that told me how to do a background paragraph. I was able to track that stuff down by just reading the AP guide to news-writing.

TD: How might those students get involved in writing for local publications?

GE: Just be pretty confident and recognize that you’re offering a publication a smart and enthusiastic person who’s not going to charge them a lot. So just go for it. Also, there are stories everywhere and people don’t really know how to tell them. A lot of times you come home when you’re doing your assignment and you might tell somebody about what you did, or something you experienced or the way that someone talked to you. And then you go to write the story and you don’t put that in there. But usually, the thing we’re telling others about the story is what’s actually really interesting. It’s the thing that we shouldn’t forget. That’s my attitude: Live the story. I love what I do, but also I’m never not doing it.

TD: What is one piece of advice you’d give to graduating seniors at Tufts?

GE: It’s pretty simple. Remember that there are so many people who’ve gone to school before you have and there are all these accomplished people in all these fields. You shouldn’t forget that you can reach out to those people. It might seem scary to reach out, but humans are ego-driven people. Those people will be flattered to have a student come to them and say, “Hey, I like what you do. Can I meet with you to talk with you about how you got there?”

TD: What is one piece of advice you’d give to incoming first-years at Tufts?

GE: Don’t get stuck. Don’t let yourself get boxed in socially or professionally. Try to keep your options open so that you’re able to explore different ideas and different groups.

TD: Do you have any book recommendations?

GE: The “Beastie Boys Book” (2018) is pretty amazing. I also tell everybody to read “The Sellout” (2015) by Paul Beatty. Jonathon Strong is a wonderful writer — “Quit the Race” (2017) was an excellent book.