Sam Baker, editor of women’s monthly Red and author (her 2005 debut novel was described by Time as one of the breakthroughs of that summer), is a pretty busy lady. Having formerly edited Company, breathed life back into Just Seventeen and has in general had a career that we would be pretty happy to have ourselves.
Below we talk to her about her career so far: what she’s done, how she’s done it and what it’s like to edit a monthly mag.
Did you always want to work in journalism?
Yes, after I’d eliminated wanting to be an actress, doctor, astronaut… All the usual things.
Did you go to university? If so, what did you study?
Yes. Initially I considered skipping uni and doing a journalism specific training course at the London College of Printing. I applied at the same time as I applied for university, but was rejected. The interviewing panel apparently thought I ‘didn’t have what it took to make it in magazines’. That was a great motivator! I went to Birmingham University and studied politics, learnt to type and temped my way into journalism.
I love the relationship magazines have with their reader. I grew up reading Twinkle, Jackie, Smash Hits, Just Seventeen, Cosmo. A good magazine speaks to its reader in a way no newspaper ever can. I’ve never regretted it.
What was the ‘big break’ of your career?
I was very very lucky. After I worked for a while in book publishing (I had basically taken the first job I could get) I took a risk, handed in my notice and signed up for a temp agency. My second temp job was covering for the PA to the Editor of Chat magazine who had just not returned from maternity leave. I was a pretty lousy PA to be honest, but I was constantly volunteering to write little news stories and eventually they took me on as Practicals Assistant (basically assisting fashion, beauty homes, food and health ie everything that’s not features) – probably just to shut me up!
You used to be editor-in-chief at Cosmopolitan – it’s an iconic magazine, so what was that like?
It was an amazing experience. It was the magazine I read at university so to get the opportunity to edit it – and meet the iconic Helen Gurley Brown – was something I’ll always be grateful for. But when the opportunity came up to edit Red, I couldn’t say no. I had worked on the dummies (pre-launch) when I was much more junior, and always felt it was ‘my magazine’. It just felt meant to be.
What’s the best part of editing Red?
Everything. I love the day to day process of putting a magazine together, I love meeting the reader, I love the fact that on a magazine like Red (that is not part of a big international brand group, like Cosmo is) you are in control of your own destiny.
And the worst?
It’s a good thing and a bad thing, but it’s no longer possible to just be an ‘editor’. These days the editor runs the show – you’re the brand ambassador, you’re a marketeer, you sell the brand, you host events, you have to oversee the online operation. All amazing opportunities, but am I a journalist any more? Very rarely.
What would you say the highlight of your career so far has been?
Too many to say. I’m very proud of the Red’s Hot Women awards, which I launched two years ago. I’m proud of my relaunch of Just Seventeen to J17 (a few years ago now), interviewing the party leaders the election before last and getting all over the papers was a big coup too. I couldn’t name just one thing.
You’ve also had novels published. Which do you prefer: magazine editing or book writing?
The two things are complementary. Editing a magazine is running a business, writing novels allows me to use an entirely different part of my brain. I’m very fortunate to be able to do both.
How can someone who wants to work in magazines make their application for work experience/jobs stand out from the others?
God, this is a hard question. Work experience/interning almost comes as standard now. Although you’d be surprised that you do still get people who come into do work experience who don’t make the most of the opportunity. Make yourself indispensible, do everything you’re asked and more. Watch, listen, learn, make sure you’re noticed (but don’t stalk!) and don’t be afraid to ask for advice.
What is your advice for anyone trying to break into journalism?
I recently employed a new PA, Marisa Bate – I had several hundred applicants and nearly all of them already had work experience. At one point I thought I’d never find someone who stood out from the crowd – but I did. Marisa, what would you say?
Marisa’s advice: I’d say all the obvious but really important things. Make sure you triple check everything, find out the name of a particular person (‘Dear Sir/Madam’ will turn people off from the start), avoid clichés (nobody wants to hear you have a ‘passion for fashion’), and keep it short and to the point – the chances are the person reading it is very busy and will make their decision to continue reading or not in the first sentence. Always make sure you tailor the cover letter and CV to that specific role at that specific magazine. Be knowledgeable about the magazine, polite and super, super keen.
Check out the Red website and follow Sam on Twitter: @SamAtRedMag.