Magazine Careers: Working Your Way From The Bottom Up

by | March 10, 2009

Every magazine has a different number of people on staff. Some features-focused magazines (like Vanity Fair and Conde Nast Traveler)have mostly copy, features and research editors; fashion publications have large fashion, photo and art departments; and so on. What follows is a general list of entry level editorial, fashion, and art department positions, plus the scoop on getting promoted to the next level.

Editorial Assistants - An Introduction

An unspoken rule here is that the level at which you assist has a great bearing on how far you will go and how quickly you will get there. Assisting lower level Associate Editors, some of which have just been promoted and given their first-ever assistant, may include more menial tasks and doesn't allow for the direct experience you'd get assisting someone on an Executive level.

With most assistant level positions, salaries are usually in the same, low range. Executive Assistants (usually for an Editor in Chief, who has both editorial and executive assistants), however, get paid almost as much as the Assistant Editors, in some cases more. But you aren't in it for the money remember?

Generally, you could be an assistant for anywhere from one to five years before you are promoted from within. It all depends on how much you learn, how fast you master your menial tasks and what kind of changes may be happening within the magazine. If you are given extra editorial writing and editing responsibilities, or if you work for an Executive Editor or Director for 1-2 years, you may be able to score an Assistant Editor's post by moving to another magazine.

The department you choose to work in will have direct bearing on how you move within the magazine. Switching directions just wastes time, so choose wisely. Select something you have a personal interest in and can dedicate yourself to for the long-term.

~General Responsibilities of ALL Editorial Assistants

You will do grunt work and love it. Filing, opening and sorting mail, faxing, scheduling, expense reports, typing, research, making appointments, copying and anything else that will make the editors' lives easier. You'll need excellent organizational and phone skills, and be responsible for maintaining updated contact lists, juggling the phone, faxing and figuring out which tasks are most important and which you can hold off on in an emergency. When you get promoted to a higher position, your success will depend on just how organized you are and how successful you've been in these areas.

This phase seems never-ending at times, but it prepares you for the mania to come. You definitely need to know Excel, Word and all Microsoft Office suite programs thoroughly. It's a plus if you are familiar with Desktop Publishing software like Quark. You'll also need to know how to draft letters, make charts etc. Even though you may think that personal requests such as dry cleaning, shopping and dinner reservations are not part of your job responsibility, you'll need to realize that attitude is everything. How badly do you want to make your boss' life easier, and how much will you appreciate it when someone does it for you later on?

Salaries start at $23,000 per year plus benefits, and most large magazines pay overtime. There will be a great deal of overtime, so most months it will feel like you're making $30,000 or more.

Read on for the breakdown by specific job!

~The Breakdown:

  • Editorial Assistant, Features

    • Responsibilities
      Support one or more editors with daily administrative work. After all that is done, depending on what level editor you work for, you may also: keep contacts with freelance editors, preview and open manuscripts and story proposals, answer reader mail, contribute to small news sections 100-200 word articles in the magazine, research for Feature stories, write headlines and decks and keep track of story ideas and editorial planning.

      Getting Hired
      Experience at a school newspaper, magazine or freelance contributions to other smaller local publications are a plus. A journalism and/or English education is also attractive. Also consider the topics covered at the magazine of your choice, news, economics, psychology, fashion etc. Any education or background that could help you come up with relevant topics and ideas is essential. This may even help you specialize in a section - such as interior design or business news.

      Getting Promoted
      If you handle your administrative duties well and balance any writing or editing assignments, you could be promoted to Assistant Editor level in a year. It also depends on whom you work for. If it is an executive-level editor who allows you to take on larger responsibilities, the experience will be invaluable and essential to your promotion within or at another magazine.

  • Fashion Editor/Writer's Assistant
    • Responsibilities
      The fashion editors and writers conceive and compose stories. For an assistant, duties include administrative work as mentioned, but may include some editing, proofreading, research, caption and headline writing. You may also be able to write small stories and reporting for the Front of Book (all the pages that come before the main feature stories and photo shoots in the middle to back of book. The Front of Book (FOB) usually contains short report-style stories).

      Getting Hired
      The requirements here are much the same as a Features Assistant's. A genuine interest in the magazine you are working for, and knowledge of the reader is essential as well. Some editors may ask you to make a list of ideas you'd have for certain FOB sections, just to see how you think. But, the main concern is whether or not you will be patient enough to put in the time, do the administrative work and learn slowly. There may also be times when you are called upon to write a larger story, so any clips you have from school publications, or writing samples from essays and reports you've written, would be helpful. An internship is also a plus, as is knowledge of fashion history.

      Getting Promoted
      Some assistants wait two years, just to be passed over for a position for someone from the outside. Be sure to ask what your prospective employer's policy is on promoting from within. Others are gradually given more reports to write and pages to edit. It all depends on how quickly you work and how well you handle each responsibility, as well as how willing you are to learn the craft. The concern here is not to move up in title, but to accumulate clips and bylines. If you are an assistant who is allowed to write in every issue, and consistently given larger assignments, it is beneficial for you to remain where you are until the right opportunity arrives.

    ~

  • Fashion Market Editor's Assistant
    • Responsibilities
      There are also fashion market editors' assistants. Here you'll be doing all of the administrative work, including: calling in all the clothes for your editor's markets and assigned shoots (sometimes that means 5 or 6 shoots at once), returning all the clothes, keeping track of the items needed and there is a tremendous amount of follow-through involved, you have to be meticulous. Most of your time will be spent sitting at your desk and returning clothes or accessories from the fashion closet, which means long hours. You will not be going on any appointments unless you have built a solid relationship with your editor and she is willing to let you cover some smaller markets (like sunglasses or lingerie). This usually happens after one year. There will be long hours and tremendous amounts of scheduling. If you love clothes and would love to be a market editor, then this is the job for you.

      Getting Hired
      Market editors look for people who are interested in becoming market editors. Previous work as an executive assistant in fashion will get you in, as will an internship at a major magazine working in the fashion market department. Be professional and polished in attitude and appearance. Market editors are representatives for their magazines and always look the part. A fashion education is not essential. Organization, computer skills and ability to juggle tasks are a plus.

      Getting Promoted
      I have seen countless assistants become frustrated with the grunt work and long hours associated with this position. Most have been promoted at other magazines sooner than they would have been staying within. It is all about your boss' attitude and trust. You may start off with small markets like swimwear and lingerie or sunglasses and depending on how well you handle these responsibilities, is how long it will take to climb. It is a very competitive ladder and contacts generated are the keys, which many editors guard fiercely. It's always wise to ask up front what the chances are for increased responsibilities.

  • Fashion Editor/Stylist's Assistant
    • Responsibilities
      If you work for a fashion editor who styles shoots, you will be making travel arrangements, packing trunks of clothes, hauling them everywhere you go and keeping track of every last item you take with you. You will also be responsible for returning the items, calling the designers to get items in (although sometimes this is up to the market editors), and keeping track of ideas and ideas boards. You'll also be going on every shoot with the editor. Warning: This is very exciting and attractive to many young aspiring editors because of the glamorous veneer. It wears off very quickly and unless you have a genuine interest in photography, models, and the visual aspect of the craft, then this is not a wise choice. You are working every day of the week (weekends too), traveling at a moments notice, waking up at 5am and going to bed past 12 midnight at times. You have to love it, and realize that you are an assistant and most assistants are treated that way on and off shoots. If you have a large ego and aren't willing to do anything and everything your editor tells you, then this is best left alone.

      Getting Hired
      Stylists look for proficient, humble, hard-working assistants. You'll be keeping longer hours then they do, and they work long hours, so you need to be dedicated. You will also be working with difficult cranky photographers and models with major egos at times. To succeed, you must have a calm, patient and diplomatic manner, no matter what is going on around you. It has also common for stylists to request assistants that can commit to the job for more than a year. Usually 2 to 3 years is essential. Your background should include some work with photographers (perhaps assisting) or with another stylist. Fashion design and photography education are most desirable.

      Getting Promoted
      After 2 to 3 years working with a top-notch stylist at a major fashion publication or a cutting edge magazine, you can go to a smaller publication and style your own shoots. Usually most assistants begin to freelance on the side for lesser-known publications in order to build a portfolio. Without a portfolio it will take you longer. Please be advised that this is tricky - most major companies do not allow employees to freelance (there may be an intellectual property laws stipulated in your contract). You could also look for an opportunity to style style smaller shoots for your employer - perhaps still life styling - and if you have the right eye for your magazine, you may be promoted.

    ~

  • Photo Assistant

      Responsibilities
      Administrative responsibilities abound here as well. But you'll also log in and return film and portfolios, correspond with photographers, assist with travel arrangements for shoots, order prints, prepare expense reports, invoices and budgets, send issues to contributing photographers, and organize countless files for the department.

      Getting Hired
      An interest in photography, especially the type used in the magazine you've chosen, is a must. Knowledge of and an educational background in photography are also beneficial. Being good with numbers and budgets is essential, as are follow-through skills. You may also have to be diplomatic when faced with irate requests from photographers and other editors.

      Getting Promoted
      After 1 year you should be able to move up to Assistant or Associate level, where you'll have direct relationships with photographers, organize shoots, and have developed a good eye for the kind of look your magazine prefers. This takes time, however, and it all depends on how quickly you learn your craft.

  • Art Assistant
    • Responsibilities
      You'll probably be doing more administrative follow-up and page proof trafficking here than anything else. There will also be photo research and art research, where you will find pictures and photographs from agencies for relevant pages. Computer knowledge and use is essential, since you will be using scanners, Quark and Photoshop.

      Getting Hired
      A BFA and folio of past layouts or design projects you've worked on in school is needed, in addition to extensive knowledge of Desktop Publishing programs.

      Getting Promoted
      To get promoted, you will have to master the look of the magazine you work for, and after work under someone who allows you added responsibilities with pages. This usually comes after 2 years. It is an enormous responsibility to manage the total look of a magazine and many places require you to have added education in mastering copy fitting as well as visuals.

    ~

  • Production Assistant
    • Responsibilities
      You'll be responsible for maintaining the deadline schedules of the magazine and following up on all internal delays, in addition to the typical administrative duties. This department focuses on all stages of editorial production, from beginning concepts, page numbers and budgets to final approvals by editors and editors-in-chief. Your job will be to learn this and master it, eventually taking some of the pressure off your superior.

      Getting Hired
      A genuine interest in management and production is essential. Don't take this job as a back door to another department. You have to be extremely organized, willing to work long hours, and able to work well under pressure and when things go wrong. Knowledge of Quark and Photoshop is also a plus.

      Getting Promoted
      After a solid year at this job, you may be able to demonstrate the responsibility and attention to warrant a promotion. It really depends on how much your supervisor thinks you're capable of.

  • Copy Assistant
    • Responsibilities
      In addition to administrative duties, usually for the Department and Copy Chief, you will be responsible for maintaining records of what pages and projects have gone through the departments as part of the production process. You may be asked to line edit short copy and fact-check on credits as well.

      Getting Hired
      An interest in the written word, familiarity with the Chicago Manual of Style and a journalism or English background is key. Experience at a newspaper or internship is also a plus. Attention to detail and the ability to work long-hours under deadline to get the job done are required.

      Getting Promoted
      Pitching in to lighten the load wherever you can here is the fastest way to a promotion; familiarity with your magazine's writing style and effective line editing will also give you a leg up in a year.

  • Research Assistant
    • Responsibilities
      This is also called fact checking. You'll be responsible for the department's administrative duties as well as any research requests that come in from other editors. This department's responsibility is to be certain that every fact it publishes is correct. Your job will be to help them do that. This is great for someone who loves research and fact-finding.

      Getting Hired
      This is also not a back door position into another department and there is careful screening for that. A 2-year commitment is usually preferred. Attention to detail and a great deal of follow-through are essential. Also have knowledge of Lexis-Nexis, Baseline and other research sources.

      Getting Promoted
      Being dedicated to tackling anything, from the longest features to the smallest reports, will help you rise quickly. Promotion is more an issue of being in the right place at the right time - i.e., whenever an opening comes up.

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