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A Case for the Generalist—Specifically

Why having a varied and sundry background is a good thing.


Mark Newman By Mark Newman
01/08/2008 -07:13 AM






When I was kicking around the Manhattan in the 1990s, I was stupefied by some of the attitudes of the folks doing the hiring. For example, let's say I had an interview with the trade magazine Recliner Retailer Monthly.* The editor-in-chief or whoever was interviewing me would be concerned that I didn't have enough "recliner editorial experience" but was impressed by my freelance articles for Armchair Enthusiast* and Couch Aficionado.* I would do my best at convincing the interviewer that as a generalist, I could easily adapt to whatever subject I was dealing with. However, the mechanics of the ins and outs of a magazine were the same.

This attitude was not as prevalent in the world of not-for-profit or association publishing. After a two-year stint with a medical association working on its monthly and quarterly medical journals, I was deemed A-okay to be the associate editor for another publication at a trade association. In this case, the executive director had the foresight to know that there weren't that many people in the market with association experience, despite the fact that my experience wasn't exactly the same, topic-wise. Yet he knew that I could adapt to the environment within a not-for-profit a bit easier than someone from a strictly trade or even consumer background. (P.S. I got the associate editor job and became the magazine's editor eight months later.)

This is all to say that the efforts of the generalist should be praised, not buried. The first article I ever published in my professional career—while still in college—was with Marching Bands & Corps.-how's that for a specialty publication? I wrote another article for them before the magazine went belly up, but those first pieces (along with articles in Delta SKY, Alabama Alumni magazine, and Convenience Store People) got me interviews when I landed in New York City in 1990. In fact, I had more interviews my first month in the Big Apple than I did my entire life up to that point.

When I was hiring recently at Southern Breeze, the candidate at the top of my list had similar experience with another regional publication. She interviewed well and did great on the editorial tests (see my previous post, "Hiring—and Feeding—Competent Editors"). Guess what? She quit after four days because it wasn't EXACTLY what she had in mind even though I vetted all the interviewees better than Congress does with a Supreme Court nominee. But it worked out for the better because she did not exactly function well under pressure, a must-have ability as we juggle 40+ annual publications here!

So for those of you paying attention, I did not take my own advice, but live and learn.

In 2001, I became the managing editor of a trade publication published by one of the big New York trade companies. The EIC was smart, sharp as a tack, funny, and knew her industry backwards and forwards. Almost her entire work experience, however, had been at this one trade publication—an internship in college, hired as editorial assistant upon graduation, then progressed to associate editor, managing editor, executive editor and, finally, editor-in-chief. This rise took place over 15+ years or so and there was no denying she was one of the experts in her field.

Then, guess what happened? Exactly: The company folded the magazine after almost 30 years in print. Three editors were out of work. (By the way, the company—which had openings throughout—made NO effort to place us at other magazines. Some gratitude considering we received a Jesse H. Neal Award for Outstanding Business Journalism the previous year. But I'm not bitter ... much.) I went on to work as managing editor with a website that is now a highly-revered monthly business magazine before moving back to the trade realm as the ME of two monthly design magazines. My former EIC is now a consultant, and from what I understand, doing pretty well.

The point is that since I had a varied and sundry background, I was never out of work in the magazine world. Others whose experience was concentrated in a single industry more or less left publishing completely. Is it survival of the fittest? Not necessarily. But it helps if you have clips/experience from as many different fields as possible. Plus, you get the chance to learn and prove yourself time and time again and believe me, that is a very good thing no matter how old you are!

* All magazine titles are made up. If they exist, I apologize ... and am very surprised.

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