Steve Koepp was a young but already accomplished journalist when he decided to take a shot at making it in New York City.
After three years working as a reporter at a daily newspaper in Wisconsin, the 1978 UW-Eau Claire grad packed his bags and moved to New York, where he’d found a low-level position in a newsroom at Time Inc.
To say things worked out well for him would be quite the understatement.
Thirty-five years later, the Blugold retired after holding many top editorial positions at Time Inc., including deputy editor of Time magazine and executive editor of Fortune magazine.
Now the accomplished journalist is offering an opportunity to current Blugolds who hope to follow a similar path.
“I want to give UW-Eau Claire journalism students the same opportunity that I had to experience work on a national publication in America's media capital,” Koepp said of the Stephen J. Koepp Journalism Fellowship. “It's an exciting challenge. When I arrived at Time, I was surrounded by colleagues who had recently graduated from East Coast, Ivy League schools, which was a little intimidating. I realized that if I could compete on that stage, my fellow Blugolds could too, if given the opportunity and the guidance.”
Through the Koepp Fellowship, each year a UW-Eau Claire journalism student will spend three weeks working as a paid intern at one of Time Inc.’s New York City-based publications.
The Blugold, who will be assigned to a publication based on their interests and Time Inc.’s needs, will stay with the Koepp family during their internship.
“I want to give them the confidence and experience to know they can work anywhere they want, not just in their own backyard,” Koepp said. “It's a nice backyard, but there are a world of other possibilities too. New York City is a particularly thrilling place to live and work these days. When I first arrived in 1981, the place was in bad shape, dangerous and gritty. My neighborhood in Brooklyn didn't even have a sit-down restaurant to speak of. Brooklyn was just another outer-borough then, but now it's a brand.”
Koepp will visit UW-Eau Claire May 12-13 to celebrate the Koepp Fellowship, and to meet with current journalism students.
He will give a keynote address during the communication and journalism department’s scholarship awards ceremony at 3:30 p.m. May 13, when the first two Koepp Fellows will be introduced.
During his visit, UW-Eau Claire will screen “The Paper,” a movie he co-wrote with his brother, David Koepp. The film, which stars Michael Keaton and was directed by Ron Howard, will screen for free at 7 p.m. May 12 in Woodland Theater in Davies Center. Koepp will introduce the movie and answer questions afterward.
Among those looking forward to Koepp’s visit is Lauren French, a senior journalism major who spent three weeks in January in New York City as the first Koepp Fellow.
The Woodbury, Minnesota, native said the experience was all she’d dreamed of and more.
“I arrived in New York City two days before my internship was set to start,” said French, who will graduate this month. “Since I wasn’t used to the subway system, Steve took me on a practice run to the office in downtown Manhattan so I’d be prepared on my first day. The office was unlike anything I’ve seen before. I’ll admit to some nerves when I first walked in, but that quickly dissolved to excitement.”
French’s editors first introduced her to the breaking news desk, where she wrote news briefs and pitched ideas. She then had opportunities to write, do research and shadow professional journalists.
Her experiences varied from helping do the research for an Academy Awards diversity project to meeting with Time’s social media team to discuss ways to improve UW-Eau Claire’s student newspaper’s social media presence.
“There were so many highlights, but the first thing that comes to mind is helping humor columnist Joel Stein report on a column for the magazine,” French said. “The column served as his prediction on which presidential candidates would win the New Hampshire primary, based on their campaign’s willingness to let random volunteers help out. His thesis: The campaigns that let random volunteers do the most interesting things are in the worst shape for the primary.
“We called the New Hampshire headquarters for political candidates and asked about volunteering for a week. We asked each campaign what kind of work they had available and Trump team said they only needed someone to hold a Trump sign while waving at cars during rush hour. This indicated to Joel that Trump would win, which he did. The column ran in the Feb. 8 issue of the magazine.”
While French was impressed by the accomplished journalists she met during her internship, those same journalists also were impressed by her, Koepp said.
“She worked as a writer at Time.com, where she took off like a rocket, producing bylined stories from her first day on the job,” Koepp said. “Her editors told me that they were impressed with how self-directed she was, with a strong interest in crime reporting but a willingness to take on any task. I was pleased and proud that the first Koepp Fellow left a great impression, since the fellowship is designed to provide future internships at Time Inc.”
French, a University Honors student at UW-Eau Claire, hopes to make a career in the field of print journalism, and is most interested in legal and court reporting.
“This internship gave me access to experiences my classes can’t provide,” French said. “The communication and journalism department does an excellent job teaching journalism students how to handle news at city and state levels, but this fellowship with Time gave me hands-on experience with news on a national scale.”
Interacting daily with Koepp made the fellowship even more meaningful, said French, who lived with the Koepp family during her stay in New York City.
Koepp, who retired in March after 35 years with Time Inc., is a writer and editor who most recently served as the editorial director of Time Inc. Books. In that role, he supervised the publication of dozens of trade books and hundreds of special-edition magazines under the imprints of Time, Life, People, Sports Illustrated, Entertainment Weekly and others.
“Steve and his family’s generosity went above and beyond from the week I found out I received the fellowship to the weeks after I came back to Eau Claire,” French said. “His support went past the huge professional opportunity — he personally made sure I knew how to get around the city, invited me along on family outings and talked with me about how my internship was going. The experience wouldn’t have been the same without Steve’s personal investment in the success of the fellowship.”
The Koepp Fellowship was one of several high-impact experiences that enhanced her UW-Eau Claire education, said French.
“In addition to the fellowship at Time, I’ve been lucky enough to go on an immersive reporting trip to Selma, Alabama, and serve as the editor of UW-Eau Claire’s student newspaper, The Spectator,” French said. “Each experience has helped me have a well-rounded student journalist career.”
French said she’s happy with where her college journey has taken her, though the path that got her here was completely unexpected.
After all, she came to UW-Eau Claire with plans of being a forensic biologist.
“The path to my major was not quick or clear,” French said. “Even just two years ago, I thought my future belonged in public relations. It wasn’t until I started taking major classes in PR that I realized I might have to start from square one again; I just wasn’t feeling excited.
“An introductory journalism class was required for the PR major. I took intro to journalism and PR at the same time, and one completely swept me away. My journalism class challenged me, engaged me and taught me the value of reporting as a tool to instigate change. I declared my major by the end of the class and haven’t wavered since.”
She’s grateful that alumni like Koepp have never lost sight of where they honed their skills and gained the knowledge that helped them achieve great success, French said.
Koepp’s experience as an intern at the Waukesha Freeman newspaper helped inspire him to establish an internship for current students.
“The experience of working elbow-to-elbow with hard-boiled but kindly mentors was unforgettable,” Koepp said. “By their example, I learned that a reporter has a license to ask hard questions and the well-informed authority to make judgments. Even as a beginner.”
Koepp also gives credit to the journalism faculty who helped to nurture his talent.
“I learned from great professors, most notably Leslie D. Polk, who had worked at the Wall Street Journal,” said Koepp, who received an Outstanding Recent Alumnus Award in 1990 and was inducted into the Alumni Hall of Honor in 2003. “He was a cultural maven and expert on in-depth reporting who had very high expectations of his students. In his gruff demeanor, he could only be compared to Prof. Charles Kingsfield in ‘The Paper Chase,’ but he was dispensing tough love that really inspired students to pour themselves into the work. His scathing, hand-written notes on my first paper in a critical writing class were highly motivational.”
While much has changed in the field of journalism since he was a student, future journalists still need a strong liberal arts base, Koepp said.
“Students should focus on getting a liberal, wide-ranging education as well as learning the technical side of their profession,” Koepp said. “While the working world is bristling with new technology, it keeps changing in surprising ways, so it's important to focus too on the principles and fundamentals of your field: What's the purpose of this work? What's the impact on society? Those issues will abide no matter where the technology goes.”
Koepp has maintained close ties with his alma mater, but it’s been years since he’s been on campus.
He expects UW-Eau Claire to look different, but he also expects the feel of the campus to be the same.
“A few years ago, I was reading a profile of Justin Vernon in The New York Times and laughed out loud when I read a passage that described Putnam Drive as ‘a dirt road that slices through the mountains near the University of Wisconsin campus.’ The writer's description of the big hill as a mountain range was clearly a case of the big-city writer trying too hard to emphasize the rustic aspect of the campus, but on second thought, I realized that he could be forgiven for the romanticized description.
“In spirit, the big hill and the physical beauty of the campus does loom large in the memories of UWEC alumni. So maybe the writer had captured something important after all.”
Photo caption: Lauren French spent three weeks interning for Time Inc. in New York City thanks to a fellowship program created by UW-Eau Claire grad Stephen Koepp, a longtime Time Inc. writer and editor.