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Being Bothersome: An ELLE.com Scholar Reflection

December 16, 2016

In my day to day life, I hate to bother people. My voice shrinks when making requests, from the passage of salt at the dinner table to the lowering of volume when gathered around the TV. On this, the three year of the groundbreaking album BEYONCÉ, I’m reminded of Chimamanda Adichie’s scarily accurate assessment of the feminine condition: women are, in fact taught to shrink themselves—to make themselves smaller.

But, as a journalist, I’ve learned to be as bothersome as they come.

This weekend, some boss women-editors of some of our nation’s top publications told me and the ELLE.com Scholars that that was perfectly okay.

Bothering People

“We talk to millions of people every day, and that’s an extremely powerful position to be in,” Chloe Schama, the executive editor of ELLE.com, explained to our cohort. Hearst Magazines, ELLE and ELLE.com’s parent company, is one of the world’s largest media corporations. It publishes 21 titles in the U.S. and more than 300 internationally. Schama’s role in the Hearst machine is largely to shape the long and short term projects of ELLE.com staff writers—and freelancers. I was especially interested in how Schama interacted with freelancers.

Some publications, like ESSENCE, explained the magazine’s Features Editor Lauren Williams, have their pages filled almost exclusively by freelance writers. As a graduating senior, this is a world I’m preparing to navigate. As a dreamer, so is the role of executive editor.

Schama explained that when freelancers are needed, she often referrers to a slate of writers that she knows and trusts, but that she also seeks out writers that she admires. She could have read them in major magazines or blogs, or she could have simply encountered them on Twitter. Regardless, it is her job to fearlessly reach out to strangers.

As writers, she told the scholars, it is also our job to fearlessly reach out to editors. Fear not the professional DM slide! Schama encouraged us to submit pitches—or story ideas—to the administrators of our favorite media websites. And, she insisted, if we didn’t hear from the editors within a few days, reach out again. And maybe, one more time after that. Running a web magazine is busy, time consuming, email-attracting work. Messages get buried in her inbox all the time, said Schama. If we, budding journalists, want our voices heard, we’re going to have to be louder than the noise of the jam packed lives of editors. We’re going to have to bother them.

Make people bother

Leah Chernikoff, the website director of ELLE.com, said that the goal of site is to embody the spirit of its readers—smart, engaging, whimsical. Sometimes, it’s easy to visit ELLE.com and get caught up in the whimsical part—news about the Kardashians’ new love interests and new lipsticks to try.

However, ELLE.com is also dedicated to truth telling—and engaging its readers in truths that are not always fun or comfortable. They strive to address the social and political realities of American women from all walks of life. They did this with their Flint is Family multimedia project that profiled three generations of women in the midst of the Michigan’s town horrific water crisis. They even do it while writing about jeans.  Good publications, I’m learning, are all about making people bother to care about what the publishers care about. Chernikoff says this is where she finds the most joy in her work—“working on projects that really matter.”

Bothering Ourselves

Chernikoff and Brooke Siegel, Executive Director of Editorial Strategy at Hearst Digital Media, also emphasized that we must bother to go the extra mile for those stories. We must push ourselves, said Siegel, “we must make it our agenda to find the pathos, the emotion, the narrative in our issues that would draw the reader in.” Similarly, ESSENCE’s Lauren Williams pointed out that as a monthly publication, ESSENCE is “never going to break news,” making it critical that she and her writers do everything they can to give relatively old stories new life.

Williams is dedicated to the idea of writing about what we believe in, and writing it strategically.

Magazines, she said, “are in [her] DNA.” She grew up with her nose in the binds of The Source, Vibe, and Seventeen. Now, as a Features Editor, she makes it her business to know the DNA of her readers. “Our print subscriber is very different from our web consumer,” she said, detailing the profiles of each. All of the editors dive deep in the weeds of audience analysis to dig out the perfect story. It’s never easy, but it’s worth it.

“There is a newfound appetite for ambitious storytelling” added Siegel. It’s up to us to satisfy it.

Learn more about Mankaprr Conteh and the ELLE.com Scholars Program