[Q&A] Digital Journalist Stacey Rivera: Engage Your Universe

Filed in GC Q+A by on November 30, 2015 0 Comments
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Stacey Rivera is Digital Content Director for Cooking Light and My Recipes, a new job she just began after three years at Bon Appétit where she was Director of Content Operations. She received a BA in English from New York University and a diploma in pastry and baking arts from the Institute of Culinary Education. In her career, she has worked at Cigar Aficionado, Hamptons Country, Latina and Hallmark magazines, the CafeMom website and other media properties.

It seems you were set on a journalism career early on. Has it been what you expected?

Yes and no. I was one of those people who came out of the womb swearing to God that I wanted to go to NYU and work in journalism. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know that. In hindsight I wish that hadn’t been the case because it might have been nice to take another path as opposed to being single focused.

And no, because I’ve lived through things closing and folding. I took a break and went to culinary school and thought I never was coming back, and felt good about that. I’ve turned from print to digital, and I’ve had most of my career happen while these massive shifts took place, not only print to digital but also the change in the wall between editorial and advertising. I won’t say that wall has come down. It hasn’t, but it is different.

Has that meant a constant series of adjustments for you?

I think it has. In some ways it’s good that most of my career has been at single-title [companies] not owned by a media company. In that regard, you get a much better sense of the business. You get to see more than when you work in one of the media towers. For that I’m really grateful.

The 18-year-old me wanted to go work for Condé Nast, Time or Hearst; I wanted to work on a national magazine. It took me a long time to get to my first “media giant” job at Bon Appétit. But I’m glad I didn’t because that’s how I’ve been able to be flexible through all that’s happened and how I had the opportunity to be a print person who transitioned to digital. That’s how I have the ability to work with all the changes that have come into the industry.

You’ve worked for a wide variety of publications from Playboy to Cigar Aficionado and Hallmark. Was that restlessness or grabbing opportunities?

A little bit of both. Some of it was that I got lucky. I spent the first four or five years of my career at M. Shanken Communications [publisher of Cigar Aficionado and Hamptons Country] as an editorial assistant and then assistant editor in a very traditional system. At the end of four or five years, that was the first time I saw the industry changing.  It was the 1990s; it was the first time the bottom was falling out. Who knew it would happen three more times?

I took a big risk then and decided to do freelance to move the needle. In the system I was in [at M. Shanken] I wasn’t going to be able to progress. That had nothing to do with my editors. They were lovely; it was the best first job I ever could have had. Gordon Mott, the executive editor there, was one of my mentors. I was very lucky as a young journalist to have trained with people who were real Associated Press journalists.

But there was no forward movement that I could see. So I free-lanced and it gave better titles and more money and allowed me to move around even though there was a lot of insecurity and nervousness on my part.

I spent some time at Latina, which was my first big masthead job. I was headhunted by Hallmark. I met [Hallmark magazine Editor] Lisa Benenson, who was probably the second biggest mentor of my career. I knew that I wanted to work for her. I knew what she was going to do with the resources Hallmark was giving her and that the experiment we were going to get to do was awesome.

I was there until they folded it. Which was more about it being the second time the bottom fell out. Hallmark was undergoing shifts as a corporation. I think it was a really good thing for me that I had access to a giant corporation that wasn’t media. I learned a lot from my interaction with them about how a business runs, and not just a media business.

When Hallmark magazine folded, I decided I was done. I went to culinary school and I had a baby. I didn’t think I would come back. I had made the print-digital transition.

But you did go back. Why?

What happened was that a friend of mine who had been the deputy editor at Latina when I was managing editor went back there to be editorial director. She called me and said, “Look, it’s Latina’s 15th anniversary. Come back and be a part.” It was a very particular opportunity as was the person that brought me back to publishing.

Why did you go to culinary school?

It was a personal interest. I’m a baker. When I was working like crazy and not having a personal life when I was at Hallmark I had nerve damage, like Carpal Tunnel. I needed to do exercises with my hands and rolling dough is a really good thing to do. I took recreation classes while working.

But you didn’t become a pastry chef at a restaurant?

No. I have my baking and pastry certificate, meaning I got through school. But to do that you have to do 12 weeks of externship. I worked in a specialty cake shop for those 12 weeks. Then the opportunity to go back to publishing came and I took it.

Was life as a baker would you expected?

I knew it was a lot of hard work. I think some people didn’t realize what it’s like to work in a restaurant. I loved it. It’s unfortunate but a lot of decisions come down to things like health insurance for my family. My earning potential was higher in my old job and I got lucky that when I needed higher earning potential I was offered something that was interesting to me.

Everything that has happened since then has been the result of being recruited to work on things. I have that story about LinkedIn that everybody hopes for: I was headhunted by Condé Nast to be the managing editor at Bon Appétit. Maybe it was because I was the only person they could find who had both food and managing editor experience.

When the call came, I thought, “No way.” But then I met Adam Rapoport, the editor, and it was incredibly hard not to get on board, not to see what the brand was doing, not to understand that it was a lightning in a bottle moment and hard not to want to take part. I’m lucky that he wasn’t looking for someone who fit a traditional role. He was really open to me. I told him I can do a lot of things; I’ll only take the job if I can work on a lot of things. He had a lot of foresight and understood that digital was coming. He had spent a year rebranding the magazine and he knew that next was going to be this new frontier of all things digital and he was going to need someone who could do both. I owe an incredible amount to him.

You’ve mentioned mentors and editors who have helped you. How important has that been for you?

Right off the bat, let me say that none of this would have happened if it weren’t for Barbara Nellis. Not that I ever worked with her, because I didn’t. But she was willing to make a phone call for me and though the years to have a person I could talk shop with has been invaluable.

Her daughter and I were roommates at NYU. I was coming up on the year I supposed to intern, and Rebecca, said, “You should talk to my mother. She’s worked at Playboy for years.” From that moment of being 19 and knowing I wanted to have an internship, being able to talk to her about what a magazine is like and what I could do and her making that happen was a huge opportunity. She had a phenomenal career.

I’m usually the person who executes. As that person, you have to believe in the person above you. You have to want to execute their vision. I’ve done the best under people who were smart and clear about what they wanted me to execute and why.

Having a mentor like Gordon Mott when I was young was so important. He covered wars for the AP; he could type 100 words a minute. I was at Playboy when Kevin Buckley was there [as executive editor]. Lisa Benenson was originally a reporter for Newsday. These are major journalists who inherently showed you the right things to do. I’m sure there are things I do all the time that are informed by their voice somewhere in the back of my head.

How difficult was the shift from print to digital for you?

It wasn’t difficult, but I don’t want that to sound like, “Oh, it was easy.” But I think if you are trained as a print journalist, the web isn’t hard. I don’t know why people think it would be. It’s the inverted pyramid [article construction] and great headlines. It’s not hard.

But the pace is different, isn’t it? It’s immediate.

The pace didn’t bother me. I originally started on a weekly and we used to do a 24-hour shift to get it out. What’s great is that your day can be slammed and crazy things can happen and you can publish 18 times and run around like nuts but the day starts and ends. You’re not working on the same material for weeks at a time and there’s something good about that that I like.

I also like analytics, which is something traditional editors supposedly have a hard time with. I like the constant measurement. It’s great to see that something you’re doing or writing is resonating immediately. It’s a little addicting; you get a little high off it. It’s also good to see when things may not be bringing huge traffic swings but are resonating with the right audience.

So while there’s some hesitation about using analytics to drive content decisions, I think it has made me a smarter editor. Just because I was open to that immediate feedback loop, I think it made that transition easier for me.

Do younger people coming into journalism have the right skills?

 Yes and no. Do they understand the comma? No. Are they good reporters in a different way? Yes. When I was coming up you had to get quotes and you had to do research. They can do it so much faster. It’s not great that you can consider a celebrity tweet a quote, but frankly you can. Their base source materials are so much different than ours were. That’s real. So do I think they were trained the way I was? Nope. They were not, but that’s OK. And that’s why it’s important that they have access to people like Adam Rapoport and some of my former editors because there’s that balance.

You have to publish so much and be so flexible. We post eight times a day, which in the web universe is not that much. Fashion or beauty sites can publish 60 times a day. At CafeMom we posted 45 times a day. That’s a lot of content.

If you’re not a generalist, you’re dead in the water. If you don’t know more than just your stuff, how are you going to produce enough content? The fact that younger people come a little more well rounded is helpful.

Do you see print continuing?

Absolutely. I have no question about it. Do I think it will be the same? No. But the reality of it is that this generation of social media also likes tactile experience. Do they buy magazines? Yes, they do, but differently. Will we see the heyday of 20 magazines in every category and everyone’s doing well? And will newsstand again be what it was? No. I think all those things are going to be different. But magazines will be around.

Is that future exciting to you?

It is. What we do is never going to go away. People are always going to need service. No one has enough time in their day to find out all the things we know. There’s always going to be a need. Every platform that’s growing is based on content we produced, really.

What do you tell young journalists that they’ll need to succeed?

I tell them to be generalists. It’s important that they’re engaged with their universe on multiple levels and that they read a lot, which has never changed. I tell them magazines are not what they think they are, that publishing is not what they think it is.

They need to understand that you don’t walk in the door and write. That’s not what this is, at least not for everyone. Your voice is not going to be heard from the first day. You have to work up to that. That’s difficult for some because with social media they self-express constantly. But not everything you write is awesome and going to get printed right away. That is a difference. They speak up for themselves a lot more. They do assume their readiness sooner.

I talk about patience and understanding multiple platforms and why it’s important to have your own voice but also know how to adopt a voice. And I talk about how they should know what they want to work on. I’m involved in a lot of hiring, and it’s frustrating when someone comes in and says, “Well, I can work on print or digital. I don’t really care because I just love the brand.” That’s great but no. You may get to crossover.  You may get to work on digital if you work on print and vice versa but you’re going to have a job. They need to know that.

The more successful hires here have come in and known what they wanted. They knew they had an interest in something. It’s important that they were focused enough to be clear about what they want their workdays to be.

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