Essence’s Editor-in-Chief, Vanessa K. De Luca, On What It Really Takes To Run A Magazine

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Imagine this: You’ve got 30 minutes – and not a second more – to have a one-on-one conversation with the Editor-in-Chief of a magazine that you grew up idolizing. What do you do? What do you say? You try not to freak out the moment the assistant confirms the exact date and time of that which you’ll be speaking with the one and only Vanessa K. De Luca, the Editor-in-Chief of Essence Magazine – a publication that I vividly remember reading while waiting at the beauty salon as a teen and seeing on my aunt’s coffee table when visiting. To say, “It’s a dream come true” is a serious understatement.

As the co-author of supermodel Tyra Bank’s 1998 self-help book, Tyra’s Beauty Inside & Out, Vanessa, who is a Columbia School of Journalism graduate, has practically done it all. With a career spanning over two decades at several publications, including Life and Glamour magazines, this woman is a veteran, and after being a part of Essence‘s editorial team for more than a decade, Vanessa was named Editor-in-Chief last August.

Here, Vanessa discusses how she went from being an editorial assistant at Glamour to landing her dream job of being the Editor-in-Chief at Essence, as well as the daily challenges that come along with running a magazine.

A Royal Point of View: How does one work his or her way up to becoming an Editor-in-Chief of a magazine?

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Queen Latifah showing us exactly what royalty looks like on the cover of Essence Magazine’s current issue.

Vanessa: Well, that’s a good question. I don’t know that there’s any one particular path to follow. It just so happens that in my case, I was already at Essence and I kind of worked my way up, which I think was extremely helpful being able to now run the magazine because I have an understanding of what every department does and what their needs are. You know, when I first started out, I was in fashion and beauty, so I got a real sense of how that department runs and the relationships that need to be built, in order to make those pages look amazing. Working with the beauty director and cover editor, I got a sense of what went into coming up with the concepts for a cover and the team you need to assemble – all that.

Working in almost every department of the magazine on the editorial side has really given me a sense of what some of the strongest content is in the various sections and what to look for in editors for those particular sections. And then I think it’s also been very important to work with the business side of the publication as well and understanding what their needs are. As an executive editor, which is the number two position, I got a chance to work with the sales team, marketing team, and PR and promotions team and really understand what it takes to make the magazine sell. And I think an Editor-in-Chief’s job now is not just putting together great content. It’s also being able to be a brand ambassador for a magazine. You may have to do a lot of public appearances and you have to comfortable and flexible with all of it.

A Royal of Point View: What makes a great Editor-in-Chief?

Vanessa: I think it’s being flexible. And I say flexible because the current climate of media – it changes daily, and you really have to be able to shift and move as the business changes and be comfortable with that. If you’re not comfortable with that, you’re really not going to survive in not only print media but digital media and any other extension, whether it’s eCommerce or doing more live events. Whatever the case, it’s not enough to just think of the magazine as your only footprint. You really have to understand there are a number of ways to reach people and then be decisive enough to know which are the right ones for you and your brand and which ones you can pass on because they’re just not a good fit.

A Royal Point of View: A lot of people fail to realize that once you become the Editor-in-Chief of a publication, the position becomes less creative and more managerial. What skills are required to succeed as EIC? I know you mentioned once that knowing how to balance a budget is a must.

Vanessa: For sure. There are so many skills you will need to have and be comfortable with, such as managing a budget and having a conversation with your finance team about how to manage your costs. I think one of the greatest skills is being able to evaluate talent and to understand what’s a good editor, what’s a good writer – you know, who’s going to be a good asset to your team and then evaluable how that person fits into that overall plan for your team. Some of the best people I’ve ever worked for have said that you want to surround yourself with people who are stronger than you are. You want to surround yourself with people who have strengths, talents, and abilities that maybe aren’t your strong suits. And then you also have to be comfortable allowing those people to do what they do best and not feel threatened by it or feel any less because everyone has different talents.

Danai-Gurira-Laverne-Cox-Nicole-Beharie-and-Alfre-Woodward-for-Essence-Magazine-October-2014

The ladies of prime time: Alfre Woodard, Laverne Cox, Nicole Beharie, and Danai Gurira shine on the cover of Essence Magazine’s October 2014 issue.

Being able to recognize that talent and give them a chance to shine – I think that’s where everybody wins. I think that’s why we have such a strong magazine right now. The people who are on this team are really quite extraordinary. And I had a hand in either hiring or developing many of the people, and I understand what their strengths are and how to play up those strengths. I mean, that’s just two things you’ll need to know well beyond just being a good editor. You also have to be open to admitting your weaknesses and tap into some of the other members who live, sleep and breath those skills so that you can become up to speed. Having knowledge of the digital space, especially social media is critical to being an editor-in-chief in today’s world. You have to know what’s going on.

A Royal Point of View: Did you always know you wanted to become an Editor-in-Chief of a magazine?

Vanessa: Once I made it to the number two position, [which is the executive editor], yes, I thought it would be great to become an Editor-in-Chief at Essence, but truly, I have always wanted to work at magazines – my mom and I used to make our own when I was kid.

A Royal Point of View: What was your first big break?

Vanessa: I would say it was probably my first job in publishing as an editorial assistant at Glamour Magazine. That really was my first big break for two reasons not just because it’s Glamour magazine, and it’s a great publication, but also because the position that I had allowed me the opportunity to write, which is what I was looking for. As I was evaluating different jobs, I didn’t just want to be the editorial assistant who just gets the coffee or makes the Xerox copies and all of that. I also wanted to have the opportunity to write.

Once I found out that this was position allowed for that and that I would be responsible for writing a column every month, I thought, “This is great because I’ll get a byline, and I’ll get a chance to start building up my clips and have some examples of my work to show people.” The great thing about Glamour is that they didn’t care if I wrote for the other sections of the magazine. So once I had been there for a couple months, I started pitching other editors of different sections, so I got to write for other sections of the magazine as well. I would say that’s really what helped me the most just because it was a great way to get my feet wet.

A Royal Point of View: You were named Editor-in-Chief of Essence last August. Were you the least bit nervous? Or did you feel that you were ready by then?

Vanessa: I would say it was a little of both. Whenever you go into something new no matter how long you’ve been in the business or watched a number of people in that position – I had a been there for a while and seen a lot of different people in this position and saw how they approached it and how they handled the role – that doesn’t mean that you necessarily know how you’re going to do it yourself. You have a thought in your head of how you would like to run the magazine, but you don’t really know for sure. I felt confident that I had a good understanding of the audience and what kinds of stories we should be telling and what I wanted the magazine to represent, but I didn’t know for example, how often I would be asked to do speaking arrangements.

Once you step into this role, like I said, you really have to be more of a brand ambassador and be out meeting new people and helping people get to know who you are so that they gain a better understanding of what your vision for the magazine is, hat you bring to the table and what you’re trying to accomplish. It really becomes more about seducing if you will and really trying to help people connect with the brand.

Jill-Scott-for-Essence-Magazine-September-2014

Jill Scott looking fierce and rocking it on the cover of Essence Magazine’s September 2014 issue.

A Royal Point of View: What’s been the most rewarding aspect so far?

Vanessa: Seeing your vision come to life. A few months into becoming editor-in-chief, I realized that it was time for the magazine to have a redesign. And we really had to rethink the look of the magazine from the order of the magazine to the layout. Every new editor wants to come in and put their personal spin on the magazine, but I truly felt that the magazine needed a refresh – not a total overhaul, but just a refresh, a different look and feel. So I’m very proud of the fact that we were able to do that. We worked on it for months. And I know for a fact from the feedback I’ve been getting – people have to been coming up to me in person or sending an email or tweet – that it’s made a difference. The book feels different. And it’s all been really positive.

A Royal Point of View: And the most challenging?

Vanessa: Bringing our print and digital efforts together so they would be seamless.

A Royal Point of View: I’ve noticed that since you’ve been in charge, Essence‘s covers have improved 100 percent. What were some of your goals for the magazine going in?

Vanessa: Improving our social media presence was another big goal of ours. We wanted to reach a million “likes” on Facebook and grow our engagement on Twitter and Instagram. We just wanted to have more of a presence. And I believe that over the past year, we’ve been able to do that. We definitely achieved our goal in terms of Facebook. We’ve made great strides on Twitter and Instagram and social media campaigns from beauty to natural hair to something much more serious like our #HeIsNotASuspect campaign. That came after the Trayvon Martin verdict. And I think more than 20,000 people posted across our social media platforms in support of that particular effort.

We’ve won awards for our work and those efforts, so there’s just so much to be proud of – even the fact that as my first year as editor-in-chief, we were nominated for the American Society of Magazine Editors’ General Excellence award for service and lifestyle magazines. We had never been nominated in that category before. I thought that was a major achievement because it goes back to your mission statement and are you serving and representing that mission well. To me, that signaled that other editors in this industry are noticing that we’ve made some changes and that we’re headed in the right direction. I feel great about this first year and how much we’ve been able to accomplish and the recognition we’ve received. And I credit all that to having a team that really understands our mission.

A Royal Point of View: What advice do you give to those of us who want to be in your shoes someday?

Vanessa: Make sure that you’re building your skill-set on every single level. And I say that because I find that a lot of times people want to achieve a certain level – they want to be an editor-in-chief, but they may not have had completed all of the steps, so there may be some things that they’re totally unprepared for. They may not be prepared to have a conversation about how to balance a budget, they may not know anything about the digital aspect or social media, which they absolutely should, they may not have had any media training, so if they have to appear on camera, they’re really uncomfortable with it.

There are just so many things to learn along the way. And I truly believe that taking the time to learn those skills and not rushing is important because when you finally get to that point – and only you know when you’re truly ready – you’ll be absolutely confident in executing the job and you’ll know that your skill-set is solid. There will be so many other challenges that come your way, so you want to hone those skills as much as you can, so that you can focus your attention on the new things you need to learn when it’s time.

Michelle Obama gracing the cover of Essence Magazine's August 2014 issue.

First Lady Michelle Obama gracing the cover of Essence Magazine’s August 2014 issue.

A Royal Point of View: How do up-and-upcoming journalists find mentors to work with?

Vanessa: That’s so interesting. I attended a conference last week and one of the breakout sessions was about mentoring and sponsors, and what I loved about the advice they were giving was that a lot of times, people will come up to you and say, “I want you to be my mentor.” And it’s not that easy. A mentor relationship is a two-way street. The person who’s asking has to have something to offer the person who they’re asking. Where I think people make a mistake a lot of times in mentor-mentee relationships is that the mentee will think, “Oh, it’s the mentor’s duty to drive the relationship,” when actually it’s the reverse. It’s the mentee’s responsibility to reach out because that person who’s mentoring is really busy, they have a lot going on, and they might not always have the time.

If you’re going to have mentor-mentee relationship, it’s important that the ground rules must be laid out very early on, as well as what the expectations are going in. I think it’s important to get to know each other a little bit better, in order to make sure that it’s the right fit because even though that person might have a job that you aspire to have someday, that doesn’t necessarily mean that their style fits yours. So when you’re seeking out a mentor, you really want to do your homework and think about what this person is like, how they represent their brand, and would they have the right energy and mindset to be a good mentor to you. Also, think about what your responsibly is in the relationship as well.

A Royal Point of View: Thousands of people would jump at the chance to write for Essence. What makes a great pitch? And what sections are open to freelancers?

Vanessa: So if you go to the masthead and look under “Departments,” you’ll see entertainment, health, relationships, and personal finance and career – all those sections use freelance writers. It’s really important that before people pitch something that they study the magazine and not just the last two issues but at least the last six months, even the last year because I cannot tell you how frustrating it is and this happens all the time, when I get pitches for story ideas that we just did. It shows me that you don’t read the magazine. So first, know who you’re pitching and what they’ve already done. People pitch me columns all the time because they just want to write in their own voice, and we don’t do a lot of columns – that’s not something that we do – so why would you pitch something if you haven’t seen it?

For most freelancers, where you fit in is that you pitch a really amazing idea that the magazine has never done before, and you have some kind of expertise in it whether it’s because it’s a beat that you’ve covered regularly or because you have a connection with experts that would be willing to speak on the topic. There has to be something really unique about not just the story idea but also about why you’re the right person to write that story.

A Royal Point of View: Is there anything you wish you would’ve known about when you were just starting out in this business that would’ve make your life a little easier?

Vanessa: I wish I had known how important it is to network and send thank you cards – both are extremely important.

Be sure to follow Essence Magazine on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+, and Pinterest. To subscribe, click here. You can find Vanessa on Twitter @Vanessa_KDeLuca and on Instagram @VanMommy.

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