Editor’s Note: Susanna, who is now the editor-in-chief at the Sun-Times’ Splash actually used to be my boss, when she was the editor-in-chief at Michigan Avenue. She is as smart, fearless and stylish as you’d imagine, but what I remember being most taken aback by was how approachable and nice she was. Journalism students would come to our office and she’d tell them about her career, or they’d shadow her for a day. She was always open to being a mentor and a leader, despite her super-busy schedule. Here, she shares about handling the pressure of a high-powered job, starting two magazines from scratch and, of course, advice for those hoping to follow in her footsteps. I hope you enjoy reading about her! xx- Kait
YOU TURNED A FREELANCE JOB WRITING A NIGHTLIFE COLUMN AT THE CHICAGO SUN-TIMES INTO A JOB AS THE EDITOR-IN-CHIEF OF MICHIGAN AVENUE, AND NOW ONE AS THE EDITOR-IN-CHIEF AND PUBLISHER OF THE SUN-TIMES SPLASH, ALL IN LESS THAN 10 YEARS. HOW WERE YOU ABLE TO GET AHEAD? WHAT MADE YOU SUCCESSFUL IN EACH JOB?
Everybody starts somewhere, and at 27 I was lucky to get hired as a nightlife writer. As I grew older, my interests changed and at 35, I had the chance to launch a magazine – so I jumped at it. Last year, at age 40, I was given the chance to do it again, but with Splash, I focused on building the type of product I would want to read. So it isn’t as if I had a grand plan or that it happened that quickly (trust me, things never feel like they’re happening fast enough). Each step of the way, I’ve made sure to do the best job I can do. That always prepares you for what’s next.
YOU WERE THE FOUNDING EDITOR AT MICHIGAN AVENUE, AND NOW AGAIN AT SPLASH. HOW DO YOU HANDLE THE PRESSURE OF SUCH HIGH-PROFILE AND UNPREDICTABLE ROLES?
Some people like working at start-ups and some prefer more structured environments. I’ve found that I’m the former; I really enjoy building things from scratch. To work at a start-up, you have to be willing to think about your job 24/7, because ideas come from everywhere. At the same time, none of it feels like work.
WHAT’S IT LIKE TO START A MAGAZINE FROM SCRATCH?
Terrifying! But also thrilling. You start by coming up with hundreds of ideas, and then distilling them down to fit the constraints of space, time and your budget. When it all comes together, it’s tremendously satisfying.
WHAT’S A TYPICAL DAY AT SPLASH LIKE? IS THERE SUCH A THING?
Every day is different. The one constant is that our pages are sent to the printing press every Thursday night. At any given time, we’re working on several issues, so there is no typical schedule – and our team wouldn’t have it any other way.
HOW HAS THE SUN-TIMES CHANGED SINCE YOU WORKED THERE EARLY IN YOUR CAREER?
The biggest change is technology: When I began in 2001, I had to bring photos over on a floppy disk, and there was no such thing as social media. The way we use technology continues to evolve: A big chunk of our online traffic is on mobile devices.
I’M ALWAYS IMPRESSED WITH HOW YOU’RE ABLE TO FIND SO MANY STORY IDEAS IN CHICAGO, ESPECIALLY WITH SPLASH BEING A WEEKLY PUBLICATION. YOU DON’T SEEM TO MISS A THING. HOW DO YOU KEEP THE IDEAS COMING?
I think being on the social beat early in my career was incredibly helpful; I developed a vast network of contacts, and many have gone on to hold interesting jobs. But I have an entire team of connected people who are all doing the same thing – and I love hearing their ideas every day.
BEFORE WORKING AS A WRITER, YOU WERE IN PUBLIC RELATIONS. HOW AND WHY DID YOU MAKE THE TRANSITION INTO EDITORIAL?
I always wanted to be a writer, but I graduated from college in 1995, when it was nearly impossible to get an entry-level job in journalism. I needed a job, and PR was an open door – and luckily a few years later, I was able to go back to my first love.
WHAT WAS THE HARDEST LESSON YOU’VE HAD TO LEARN OR THE MOST DIFFICULT EXPERIENCE IN YOUR CAREER SO FAR?
The hardest part of being in this business is that the industry I entered almost 20 years ago has changed so dramatically. Market forces continue to tug at everything we do. That’s also what makes it exciting – to know that we have a chance to help shape the future.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE HIGHLIGHTS OF YOUR CAREER?
I’m proud to have been a part of launching two successful publications – both during a recession. In both cases, people told me it couldn’t be done.
WHOSE CAREER DO YOU FIND INSPIRING?
A few years ago I read “Audition” by Barbara Walters, which I really enjoyed even though I had never considered myself a fan of hers. The title refers to the fact that even after decades of success, she never felt as if she had made it – every day was an audition. I’ve always felt the same way.
ARE THERE ANY WORDS YOU LIVE BY?
Live every day like it’s the start of a new year.
IS THERE ANYTHING, CAREER-WISE, YOU’D STILL LIKE TO DO?
I’ve never been good ay predicting the future. The world changes too rapidly to make a five-year plan meaningful. I hope for continued fulfillment as the decades roll on.
DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE FOR READERS WHO WANT TO BREAK INTO A CAREER IN PUBLISHING?
In some ways, it’s easier than ever before – anyone can start a blog, and if it’s good, people will read it. But, there’s a lot of noise and standing out is the challenge. I’d advise people to read a lot, write a lot, try to meet people and get a foot in the door – anywhere. It all begins with that first step.
Photo credit: Christopher Free for Project Captured