When Molly Eichel told her parents she was declaring a major in Journalism, they were less than enthused.
“I got them both on the phone and there was silence on the end of the line…my dad goes, ‘Alright, have fun not paying back your student loans,’ and then he hung up,” she explains with a laugh. “And then my mom goes, ‘Well don’t do amphetamines! When I did the college newspaper all I did was amphetamines.’”
The fact that both of Molly’s parents are themselves former journalists might make their immediately negative reactions surprising (or maybe that’s what justifies them). In defense of the Eichels, this news came as quite a surprise – but “they’re very happy now,” she assures me.
Journalism was a career path Molly had tried consciously to avoid (“I didn’t want to be in the shadow of my parents constantly.”) She may never have taken a reporting class had she not been encouraged by the TA of a media course – a general education requirement at NYU, where Molly graduated in 2008. Despite her initial reticence, she was hooked: “After class three, I went to the Journalism department like, ‘Well, you got me.’”
Fittingly, her first foray into the student newspaper was also unintentional. When the Washington Square News published a review of Le Tigre’s album, “This Island,” that was riddled with errors and careless misinterpretations, Molly sent them an angry e-mail in response.
“I was like a hardcore Riot Grrrl in high school; I had my Sharpie feminist and anarchist signs and everything,” she explains, a surprising revelation given the orange apple-printed dress, demure cardigan, and round, rimless glasses she has on when we meet. Nevertheless, college-age Molly channeled the spirit of Kathleen Hanna as she pointed out the review’s flaws. Though its author went on to become one of Molly’s good friends at NYU, he didn’t initially take so kindly to her scathing comments. If you think you can do so much better, he told her, then why don’t you write for the newspaper? And so she did.
In addition to holding positions as the music editor and, subsequently, the arts editor at the Washington Square News, Molly interned with Time Out New York and Salon during her time at NYU. She also wrote album reviews for treblezine.com on the side, though she admits: “that was mainly so I could get free records.” After graduation, she turned down a Condé Nast editorial internship to return to her native Philadelphia as the deputy arts and entertainment editor at City Paper. From there, she went on to the Philadelphia Daily News, where she currently works as a features reporter; she jokingly refers to her beat as “cool people doing cool things.” Molly describes the Daily News as a “rag-tag bunch of misfits,” peopled by characters like Barbara Laker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, who still jumps up and down when she finds a good scoop; Stephanie Farr, who covers “weird crime” stories, like the recent Delaware County woman who hid thirty-six vials of crack in her vagina; and Jack Morris, the 83-year-old obituary writer from South Philly who can still do a mean push-up and runs daily past a cemetery to say hello to departed friends and remind them that he’s still alive and kicking – (“This man will outlive me,” Molly says with certainty). The Daily News’ readership can also tend toward the eccentric: one woman sends Molly a typewritten letter every week, espousing celebrity conspiracy theories (apparently Khloé Kardashian-Odom’s real father is O.J. Simpson.)
While this potentially unhinged National Enquirer reader isn’t representative of Molly’s audience at the Daily News, there are certain socioeconomic realities of her readers that she must take into account. The trick is to be aware of these factors, but never to condescend because of them. Molly cites this as the most important lesson she’s learned about criticism, one she gleaned not from her years of experience as a professional writer, but much earlier, while working part-time at a video store in college.
One of her most loyal customers was an old, tattooed, gay man from the East Village with a pug named Snuffles and a penchant for popping a sleeping pill before he came in to select his movie. He often took Molly’s suggestions about which films to rent, and on one occasion he asked her if she thought he would enjoy The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Casey Affleck’s sprawling, slow-moving nearly-four-hour drama. Molly, a student of Cinema Studies in addition to Journalism, dutifully sang the praises of the movie’s cinematography, direction, and performances despite her gut feeling that it was a little, well, boring. That is, until the customer interrupted her.
“He looked at me and he goes, ‘Molly, I have three dollars and one night: should I rent this movie or not?’” It was a moment of clarity for her. “You’re telling people who only have a certain amount of money and a certain amount of time what to do with that time,” she explains. And sometimes, the best and most entertaining way to spend that time is not on intellectually lauded “cultural vegetables.”
Part of Molly’s commitment to embracing the accessible and the lowbrow might also stem from the condescension she herself has experienced from other journalists for the kind of writing that she does. “There’s a joke in our department that no one loves a features writer,” she says, nonplussed despite the attacks on her chosen career. She’s long made peace with the fact that writing news-breaking stories – “the stuff that gets the glory” – just isn’t for her. As a professor at NYU once told her, Molly cracks way too many jokes in her leads to make it as a hard news writer (advice that came as a relief because she was often bored by that stuff anyway). But she doesn’t look at feature writing as a kind of consolation prize. On the contrary, Molly understands and defends the value of what she does, both for the paper and the morale of the city. The Daily News prides itself on tearing down the fourth wall, and its most recent reader survey reflected a widespread complaint that the paper was focusing too heavily on crime, on unhappiness. This is where Molly’s skills become invaluable.
“You need to know what crime is happening on your block, but you also need to remind yourself that the city you’re living in is really great,” she explains. “Newspapers really need that; they still need that gooey center in the middle.”
And Molly Eichel – who times her gym visits so that she can watch NCIS on the treadmill, who’d rather watch Die Hard than The Master, who once ate at Subway to support NBC’s constantly-on-the-verge-of-cancellation but much-beloved Chuck, is happy to provide that gooey center for as long as she can.