The September Issue

My latest Netflix selection:

The September Issue

I found out about this documentary of the editor of Vogue magazine while browsing documentaries on the Netflix site. I have been fascinated by the magazine business since I was about nine years old and I started a tabloid about my neighborhood (all made up and intended to be funny...no one ever saw it except my parents). At age thirteen or so, I received a free sample of Sassy magazine in the mail--still the best teen magazine ever produced...at least during Jane Pratt's days there--and decided at that moment that I was going to work for a magazine.


I finished high school, filled out college applications, and listed journalism as my major (and I completed the "magazine journalism" track at UA). Three weeks after school ended (and after a very interesting interview and offer from Disney to be Cinderella...which I turned down), I ended up at as an intern at Southern Living magazine. I first interned in the features department and then, because there weren't any permanent positions available just yet, I turned around and did a second internship in the copy editing department. That internship started in September and, by the second week in October, I was hired full time in the copy editing department (amusing because my copy editing teacher said I would never be one...but, then, he was talking about newspaper...and that is true!).

Here's the irony: My first official day on the job was spent at Disney World. (Our conference was down there and it was a blast.)

I enjoyed my time at Southern Living and I learned that I am really good at some things in the magazine business and not so great at others. I learned exactly what my strengths are as an employee at a magazine: I am really good at talking with and working with readers and vendors. I do much better with any copy that ISN'T homes related. And, I am good at flow and content editing (not so much style...which still plagues me, damn the ever changing CMOS). In any case, I learned a lot, but that happened in the late nineties and it was the heyday of SL. We had lots of money and lots of opportunity. We put out not only our monthly magazine but also several other magazines and special interest publications, including special issues of our own magazine. It sounds like it should have been super busy and not enough time to breathe...and, if you were high up on the editing staff, it was. The thing is, I was an entry-level employee. We had tons of staff in those days and my main responsibility was editing and fact-checking homes text and the calendar. The problem: there is only so much to do if you are limited to a single section. So, I would ask others to give me things to do and they would, but I still spent a huge amount of time being unproductive and feeling miserable and restless. Again: this had nothing to do with the environment or the people. I loved my coworkers and my boss and the entire thing...when I was super busy.

Well, after a year, I knew that I had had enough. Our editor, however, gave me some of the best advice I have ever heard. He said, "Give it another year, Susie. If at the end of the second year you still feel out of place, then leave. But know that you can always come back." He really was the most amazing person and I adored him and so many others at the magazine. Well, at the end of two years, I still felt horrible. So, I left. I went back to school and began a new degree: English. After I had been gone about two months, my copy chief at SL called me and asked if I would be interested in going freelance as a copy editor in the department. Usually, the magazine required a six month wait to rehire a former employee as a freelance copy editor...but, like I said, those were the days when business was good and money wasn't as much of an issue. So, I went back. I only worked when I was busy and I did all kinds of things. I was one of the main editors on the first three Weddings issues (something that I surprisingly loved because of all of the new detail and copy), I got to edit lots of travel publications, and I basically just stayed so busy that I was a happy camper. I did this for approximately 2.5 years, until I realized that graduate school was taking over my life (by that time, I had begun my master's degree in English lit.). More editing jobs would come, and of course I am back working for another magazine now, and I still love it. And, I still love the excitement and rush of stress and production cycles.


The energy of a magazine is a strange thing. And the people who work at magazines are an interesting lot. Once you have been around long enough, you can spot who is a newspaper person and who is a magazine person. Now, at SL, I spent most of my time in the copy department, but I loved to watch how things worked all the way around...from ideas meetings to cover meetings to "story boarding" to ego clashes to the infamous "muffin meetings" (a specially called meeting downstairs at our lovely complex...we would be served muffins to distract us from either the good news or the bad news...muffin meetings meant extremes). High strung writers and editors vs. the cool and intimidating ones. The dynamics of higher management and the personal relationships that were gold or that would blow up in scandal. It was all there. We worked in very posh surroundings, had amazing parties and events, and frequently received incredible perks.But, in spite of all of the great things, as with any publication, there was an incredible amount of stress. Like I said, under most circumstances, I love it. (Not so much in my last production cycle...ugh...but I am over it!) Still, it can make you feel sick in anticipation. The worry that you have made a mistake, that the photos are wrong, that someone spots an error in the printer copies...all the million little things that could be wrong and reflect poorly on you. I still get that sick feeling every time I open a newly printed issue. But that is good. Because it makes you work harder.
Still...and FINALLY I am getting back to the subject of The September Issue...it is unnerving to watch my former existence on screen (NOT that I was anything close to the status of Wintour...I was so entry level that it isn't funny!). I started to feel sick to my stomach again...and not in a good way. The publication I work for now is incredible. We have a small staff and a very good work environment. It is comfortable and, even though I still get nervous about things, I feel good nearly every time I work (and when I don't it usually has nothing to do with the magazine!). But this documentary is great and exciting on many levels, and I think most people (who like documentaries) would enjoy it. And watching Anna Wintour and her staff working on ideas and the issue brought back both the good and bad memories of working for a monthly and for such a large operation. Southern Living is to regional magazines what Vogue is to the fashion magazine industry. While at times I both feared and loathed her, I also found her fascinating and immensely complex.

My mom and I frequently play a game where we imagine who we would most want to sit down to dinner with and have a long conversation. The people can be alive or dead. Never--not once--do we pick people who would have "niceness" or "friendliness" or congeniality as their primary personality traits. The people we choose might be capable of those things (like Anne Rice, for instance, who is someone I would love to talk to), but the fact of the matter is that the most interesting people are the ones who have an incredible amount of complexity to them. We may not agree with them or like them, but we can learn incredible things from them. I think Anna Wintour (who, clearly, is a different person at home and around her daughter) would be one of those people. She can't afford to be "sweet" but she is fascinating...as is the industry she works in and loves.

In the film, near the end, she mentions her sister and two brothers, all of whom are successful in industries very different from the fashion industry. She said that they found her profession "amusing"...and it is is easy to see how hurtful she finds those comments. It is as if they consider her unimportant and her job demeaning. Nothing could be further from the truth. Fashion is not my thing at all...but I love Vogue. Those two statements seem like they couldn't go together, right? But, for me, I love Vogue for what it is as a publication and as a vehicle for artistry. There is nothing more beautiful than a Vogue photo shoot well done. In the end, I guess that is why I love working for magazines. It isn't just the journalism side...that is for newspaper folks. For me, magazine work allows so many things to merge: creativity, writing, energy, construction, artistry, interpretation, opinion and criticism...and, most important of all, the story of people and of a people.

The industry, some say, is dying out in its present state. Most of the people I worked with over ten years ago have either quit Southern Living or been let go. They will go on to do wonderful things, and I sincerely hope that Southern Living endures in this tough race. Newsstand and subscription sales are tough. Digital media and E-readers are changing everything. But I really believe that magazines are incredibly important to our culture. The format and approach may have to change, but everything must change. The one thing that won't is the driving force behind it. Once you get into the business, it consumes you and, if you do things the right way, your readers will go along for the ride.

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