June 16, 2020

Week One at NYU’s Summer Publishing Institute: Start Big

By Amelia Johnson, NYU Summer Publishing Institute 2020 student

It was Day One of the first ever virtual NYU SPS Summer Publishing Institute: instead of gathering in a lecture hall, the members of the SPI class of 2020 prepared our notebooks, tested our audio and video, and logged in to Zoom. All 49 of us united across cities, states, and time zones to learn about the publishing industry at a time when being more conscientious consumers and creators of media feels more important than ever.

In the opening session of the magazine portion of the program, Jessica Pels, Editor-in-Chief of Cosmopolitan and our keynote speaker, urged us to “see opportunity where others might see challenge.” When NYU had earlier announced plans to move SPI online, all 49 of us saw opportunity instead of challenge, and took the leap to seize it in uncertain times. We have already been rewarded for it numerous times over in the invaluable advice offered to us from media and magazine professionals from their homes.


Many of us came to SPI with a limited understanding of what a magazine could or should be, and the keynote conversation session was an eye-opening lesson in the never-ending possibilities that magazines and digital media have to offer.

Magazines are full of stories, visuals, interests, and people who dedicate their work to finding the best ways to serve, educate, inspire, and intrigue their audience: “Surprise and delight,” as Jessica Pels told us. We learned about the teams of people behind magazine and digital media brands—from designers to writers to editors, all coming together to create a product that people will consume and share with those around them.

“What exactly is a magazine...and what isn’t?” asked an end-of-the-day panel, and to quote panelist Kevin Nguyen, Features Editor at The Verge: “A magazine is made up of the people who work there. They make the content that they want to see in the world.” We kept this definition close to our hearts throughout the rest of the week.


After learning what a magazine was and was not from knowledgeable professionals, the SPI students set out on a journey to go even deeper and understand the nuts and bolts of how a magazine functions. Print magazines make their money from a number of sources, including advertising, and spend it on everything from magazine distribution to photoshoot expenses—though the age of COVID-19 may have created a new market for photoshoots done at home and over Zoom.

Brands are all about creating loyal audiences and finding ways to monetize their content to continue to serve those audiences. Joanna Douglas, Head of Branded Content at POPSUGAR, talked to us in depth about the importance of native advertising to engage audiences and increase revenue.

At the end of the day, we broke into small groups with NYU SPI alumni to share their wisdom and experiences in the industry and pass on their best advice to us as emerging professionals.

Believe in what you are doing, was a piece of particularly memorable advice left with my small group from an alumna. Believe in the people you are working with.


Of course, we all wanted to hear about the entry point to jobs in magazine media: the edit test. Lauren Iannotti, Editor-in-Chief at Rachel Ray in Season and Reveal, walked us through the elements of an edit test and how to ace it. We learned from there how to build a feature story and the best qualities one needs to be a good feature writer: confidence in writing and the ability not to say the first and most obvious thing, according to Sarah Smith, Executive Editor of Prevention. We then mastered “heds and deks” (headings and the subheads that often tell more about the story itself) and gained advice on how to pitch to some of our favorite magazines and digital websites like Vulture.

Some advice about both applying and pitching: follow up, follow up, follow up.


We got a crash course on magazine visuals from some superstars in the industry. Mike Schnaidt, Creative Director of Fast Company, urged us not to worry too much about the execution of an idea. Start big. Work your ideas out of your system, then think about what is actually possible and go from there.

Lauren Lumsden, a video expert most recently at Condé Nast, walked us through video production and the different types of videos that a brand might create: celebrity interviews, short documentaries, real people non-documentaries, and more. She urged us to not worry about making mistakes. We will make them, and we will learn from them. Sarah Rowe, head of design experience at Scholastic, introduced us to User Experience Design and how to consider the needs of your audience, teaching many SPI students about a career path we did not know existed.

At the end of the day’s session, Hunter Harris, Staff Writer at Vulture, briefly appeared to answer our questions about her life and the industry. She offered us advice on integrity and the importance of showing that you know what you think and have the voice to back it up.


On the last day of the week, my classmates and I turned our eyes and ears to the other important facets of working in magazines—copyediting, fact-checking, and audience development. A key part of building and keeping an audience is to make yourself essential to your readers. Anna McGrady, Growth and Analytics Editor for HuffPost, urged us to always have a strategy, but never plan one for a social media platform solely for the sake of being on the platform. (For example: if your brand is not right for, say, TikTok, don’t create a TikTok presence just for the sake of it.)

Next up was a discussion of how brands are using podcasts to expand their audiences, led by Jenny Kaplan, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Wonder Media. Podcasts are more popular than ever with so many people working from home and will be the media platform to watch in the future.

This year’s Summer Publishing Institute is full of long days in front of screens, but my classmates and I are no less excited about everything we have learned from the speakers and everything we will learn in the weeks to come. Stay tuned for our recaps of the virtual reality of SPI 2020!

Amelia Johnson is a recent graduate from the University of Iowa. She loves digital media, young adult literature, and the oxford comma, and aspires to work in Children’s Book Publishing.

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