Next Stop: Your Magazine Dream Job

Chatting with Sophie Donelson, Editor-in-Chief at House Beautiful

House Beautiful’s editor-in-chief discusses how she combines storytelling and design. Check out her takeover of @_ed2010’s Instagram here.

What is your career backstory?

In brief: I held a series of editing jobs at small magazines (Hamptons Cottages & Gardens, CITY magazine), grooming at a national book (ELLE DECOR), freelanced all over (Departures, NY Times, the Globe & Mail, even House Beautiful!) and picked up a few gigs working for “the dark side” at a marketing firm, helping brainstorm event ideas and angles. A few former colleagues were launching web sites at the time and I pitched in there (Curbed, and one of them introduced me to Chris Burch who was starting a few retail brands and needed someone who knew the home world on his team. All the while working there I continued to write and host video segments for Editor at Large, which had by then become the preeminent news site for interior design. By the time Hearst called, I’d had experience in print and digital media, video, retail and marketing , which is vital when leading a competitive media brand.

How did you find your niche in home design?

My niche is in writing and storytelling, but my passion and experience is in design. My first job defined the latter – I applied via MediaBistro for an assistant editor job at (then) startup magazine Hamptons Cottages & Gardens and received the job. Hearst Design Group editorial director Newell Turner hired me – and 12 years later he hired me again, this time to fill his role as House Beautiful Editor in Chief as he moved to his executive position. Many of the designers I talk with each week were contacts I made in the first year of my work.

You were named editor-in-chief of House Beautiful in January.  How have you had to adjust for the role?

The responsibilities of editor in chief are so diverse, I’ve had to embrace the mindset that attending events and parties, visiting showrooms, meeting designers and advertisers, going on TV and doing interviews (like this!) all count as “work” even though it’s fun! Before arriving, I knew I’d be leading a team, brainstorming and developing stories, planning issue lineups, and writing my editor’s letter, but I didn’t realize how much more there was to the role.

What’s a typical day for you at House Beautiful (if there is one)?

Pick two weekdays at random on my calendar and they’re wickedly different. On Monday I’ll have back-to-back meetings: presenting my December issue to the Hearst executives, hearing March pitches for the front of book from our editors, reviewing film from last week’s shoots, chiming in at the publishing meeting to help the sales team position future issues, and talking to the leader of a large NYC designer trade group about an upcoming gala. But on Wednesday I’ll be in Atlanta moderating a talk with two top interior designers, meeting a local contributing editor to chat story ideas, visiting a few showrooms to see new products and get a feel for what’s hot in Atlanta, and then seeing the building site for our next Kitchen of the Year event. I’ll fly home that night in time to kiss my son goodnight!

You’ve been an editor at several publications, as well as a brand director and consultant. What was it like jumping between two industries?

The defining role of all my job has been to find the most compelling stories behind a person or brand and to tell them in fresh and engaging ways to an audience. When I helped the former retail brand C. Wonder launch, the founder was very focused on customer service I wrote a cheeky return policy for store receipts that was actually worth reading. That copy said as much about our brand as our full-page New York Times ads (I wrote those, too).

At House Beautiful, my mission is to present exceptional design work alongside ideas for your own home. The houses we feature are exquisite, but the designer interviews are down-to-earth. The reader with a $20,000 custom sofa and one with a futon are both interested in how to freshen the look of it come spring and a good designer (and a good editor!) can speak to both readers.

What is a favorite published piece you’ve written/contributed to?

I try to write a thoughtful editor’s letter each month. It’s pretty standard to use that page to highlight the issue’s stories, “check out this story on page 29 and the great profile on page 88,” but I decided to treat my letter as if I was a columnist for the magazine – and my “beat” is the impact of design on the way we live. A reader once told me, “Oh, I always read your column” and that made me so happy.

What can you not work/live without?

Work: My managing editors. They set me and my team up for success. They’ve fine-tuned our closing schedule to avoid late nights, panic or stress. It’s much easier to be creative when you’re not scrambling.

What is an industry pet peeve of yours?

“Clean lines”, “bringing the outside in” and the myriad other clichés of design writing.

What is one skill you recommend Ed2010’ers perfect?

Spelling and usage. No one will keep reading your intro email or cover letter if you’re making amateur mistakes.

What is some advice you have for college students trying to break into the industry?

Be a voracious reader in varied topics and media. The editors who help me the most are completely tuned in to news, blogs, and mags both in our category and outside. You’ll have much more confidence in your topic and writing when you know what else is out there.

Follow @sophiedow, and see the posts from her recent #edtakeover of Ed’s Instagram account below.

Sophie takeover 1

Hello! @housebeautiful EIC @sophiedow here for #edtakeover! First stop: Outlining HB columnist Charlotte Moss (and top decorator/author) @charmossny‘s next column. Look at her Madison Ave office! ?

Sophie takeover 2

Reviewing kitchen images for a special feature in the March issue. I draw a ? on the favs! #hearstlife #edtakeover

Sophie takeover 3

My Jekyll/Hyde desk situation at @housebeautiful. Art & orchids on one side; layouts, letters and mayhem on the other. #edtakeover #hearstlife

Sophie takeover 4

At @worthnewyork for a fitting! Lots of work events to dress for — I cannot WAIT to rock this leopard sequin pencil skirt! #edtakeover

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