Next Stop: Your Magazine Dream Job

Chatting with Jessica Pels of Marie Claire

The site director talks the Internet in all of it’s fast-paced, wondrous glory.

Describe what a typical day at MarieClaire.com is like. The pace of the internet is fast and furious, so I like to implement as much structure as I can to help us streamline and focus on the important stuff. We start early (usually around 8 a.m.) to hit the ground running on news and responsive stories, and then we focus on our longer-lead, more thoughtful pieces later in the day. There’s so much that goes into every story—deciding what to cover, doing the necessary research to make sure we’re reporting the most accurate info, conducting interviews, finding great art to illustrate the point, writing something smart and original, and putting it all together quickly and efficiently. It’s a lot of pressure, and we do it upwards of 20 times a day. But there’s no better feeling in the world than scrolling through the site at the end of the day and feeling like we produced a lot of content were proud of.

You worked in both print and online at Teen Vogue; how have your challenges changed now that you are strictly digital at MarieClaire.com? The most difficult—but most rewarding—thing about working online is that you have to rebuild your whole enterprise every day. You wake up in the morning and you have to start all over again, because the internet is a perpetually-moving thing, and if you have an off day, you’re left behind. It’s demanding as hell, but it’s so much fun.

What are fundamental habits and skills every digital editor should have? I would say obsession is an important one—obsession with culture, obsession with the internet, obsession with creating something powerful. Also a keen awareness of brand. The internet is a crowded space, where brands often overlap each other, so knowing who you are and who you aren’t is a vital tool to establishing a strong brand readers recognize and return to. And, of course, the ability to prioritize. Site directors are pulled in so many different directions that it’s important to know what’s most vital. To me, that’s always whatever the reader sees. If it’s a story, it’s priority. Anything behind-the-scenes is something I find time for later. What the reader engages with will always be what our focus is. 

MarieClaire.com has coverage that spans across fashion, beauty, celebrities, career, and love; what do you look for to determine if something is newsworthy? It all comes back to the reader and what she cares about. If it’s something my reader would want to talk about with her friends, it’s something she should find on MarieClaire.com. For us that means everything from great beauty advice to the most relevant celebrity news to insightful career service to an eye-opening story about cross-dressing men in Pakistan. If it’s something that would make her say “huh” or “what?!” or “yes I will flag this for later,” we want to be where she finds it.

What is a favorite published piece that you’ve written/contributed to? We covered Fifty Shades of Grey pretty aggressively because it was such a compelling cultural moment and because so many of our readers were interested. And I think the goal of any good editor is to think in a comprehensive, 360-degree way about covering any one topic, so as a part of our bigger Fifty Shades plan I did an interview with a dominatrix timed to the movie’s release, just to get a sense of what that world is like, what her life is like. It was eye-opening. She was incredibly articulate, poised, and pulled-together, and it was one of those instances where I felt like I was able to show our reader something she usually doesn’t see, but is inherently fascinated by. It wasn’t easy to get the subject to agree to do the interview, but it was 100% worth it.

What can you not work/live without? My husband! I would starve to death if he didn’t feed me, but he also keeps me grounded—the nature of my job means I’m constantly assessing the value of a certain risk or am under the gun to achieve a certain goal, and he’s such a huge part of my success. He reminds me to have human moments…like, you know, when you close the computer and leave the apartment to venture out into the physical world? It’s something I sometimes forget to do.

Also: Wine Night. My bosses and colleagues always end up finding out about it because it’s such a constant in my life. Basically, I have a very close-knit group of friends, all of whom work in media, and every week we get together at one of our apartments and (as the name would suggest) drink wine. It’s therapeutic, fun, and often where a lot of good ideas come from. We’ve hardly missed a single week in the past five years, which speaks to how much we prioritize it. 

What is an industry pet peeve of yours? I’d like to see more educational support for web journalism specifically—I think more kids should be trained for this particular work. Being a successful digital journalist comes with its own very demanding, very specific criteria. 

Twitter or Instagram? Oh definitely Instagram. I mean, as a web director, I love that Twitter a) keeps me up-to-date on news and b) directs readers to my site, but as a human being, Instagram is my favorite thing ever. It’s probably my second-most frequently opened  app on my phone, aside from email. And Chartbeat.

Do you have any advice for people trying to break into publishing? I think the most important thing as a newcomer is to have something to show—a blog you’ve been writing and are proud of, bylines at your college paper, internships at startups, something to demonstrate that you’re engaged and motivated to produce content, regardless of where you are.

What word/phrase/motto do you live by? Always be better. I think driving forward is a basic function of our editorial existence…if you’re not pushing harder towards excellence every day, why bother? Maybe it comes from my ballet training, or from all my years working with editors like Cindi Leive and Amy Astley and Anne Fulenwider, but I genuinely believe that victories should power you forward more than anything else. Celebrate them, of course—victories kind of have to be celebrated to be considered victories in the first place—but use them as proof that you can do more, and better, and smarter.

Photo by Leslie Kirchhoff.

Amanda Jean Black is a guest blogger at Ed2010, sharing stories from her site onthemasthead.com. When not hunting down publishing’s elite for an interview, you can find the native New Yorker obsessing about style and culture, shopping for designer streetwear, and jamming out to 90′s alt rock.

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