Dotty Winters chats to Terri White, editor-in-chief of Empire magazine, about her life in journalism, trusting your judgement and why it pays to be “fucking irritating”.
At 29 Terri White became editor of ShortList, the only female editor of a men’s magazine at that time (and the first in a decade). She went on to win Editor of the Year for a Men’s Magazine (British Society of Magazine Editors), become editor-in-chief of Time Out New York and was named in Folio’s 2015 list of Top Women in the US Media. Not bad for a kid who grew up in a single-parent family on a council estate in Derbyshire.
The first in her family to go to university (English Lit, at Leicester), it was here White got her first taste of journalism, as arts critic for the uni newspaper, a role she took because “no one else wanted it” and where she used her power to write “more about Germaine Greer than anyone else”. She then moved into men’s magazines.
After the interview for her first real role (as a PA and editorial assistant) White was convinced she hadn’t got the job. Her mum came home with a job application for a drive-through McDonald’s, but before she filled it in she phoned the editor and left him several messages. The editor, who went on to become White’s mentor and friend, later told her that he’d never interviewed anyone who wanted a job that much.
Tell me about that first job…
When I started as a PA I was really confused about why I was answering someone else’s phone. It was very clear to me that I should be a writer. In those days women joined as PAs or fashion assistant, rarely as writers. I was lucky.
The magazine I joined (Later) was very progressive. The editor there always saw my potential and recognised my hard work. He became one of my mentors. We are still friends now. When he started Nuts magazine he offered me a role there and pushed me forward in lots of roles. Women’s magazines had never really ‘spoken’ to me, so men’s magazines felt like the place I wanted to be.
I came to London with a few quid in my pocket, just enough to last a couple of weeks. You could do that then. You accepted you’d live in a shithole for a bit but you could work your way up. It’s so much harder now and I think class is more of an issue than gender now. You need rich parents to be able to afford to live in London and do unpaid internships. I think it’s harder than it has ever been.
You mentioned one of your mentors, have there been others?
My first editor definitely saw my potential, and the culture he led was one where gender wasn’t an issue. I do think women face some different challenges in journalism than men do, so it has always been really important to me to have female mentors.
“In my 20s I was always terrified of making mistakes. I thought one could end my career. Now I’m 36 I realise that I will make them and there is always a way back.”
At 22, I worked at Woman and Home, a magazine that felt a bit outside my comfort zone. My boss had been one of the first female editors on Fleet Street and was one of the hardest editors I ever worked with, very diligent about fact checking, really detail focused. Even now, when I write or edit it is her voice I hear in my head.
You mentioned the challenges for women in journalism, what are they?
Some of the issues are the same as for women in any senior jobs. There’s a tendency for people to view women’s behaviour through a specific prism. The 80s culture of superwomen, and ‘having it all’ became an expectation on people – and journalism requires a lot of commitment and long hours. The pressures on women, especially those who have children are still different and more acute.
What is the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Someone once told me “to always trust your gut”. I used to think this was really overrated. I thought everything needed to be logical, that decisions should be rationalised. You can rationalise ’til the cows come home, but ultimately I think you DO know in your heart what you should do.
It might be illogical, it might be irrational, it might not be what other people would do, but it might still be the right choice. I give my gut instinct a lot more credit these days.
What do you think is the biggest mistake you’ve made in your career?
I’ve made quite a few mistakes.
In my 20s I was always terrified of making them. I thought one mistake could end my career. Now I’m 36 I realise that I will make them and there is always a way back. I left ShortList to work for a national newspaper. It didn’t work out and I left after a few months. I had to freelance for a while.
I realised how much of my identity was tied up in my job title. I felt cast adrift, wondering, “What the fuck do I do now? Who am I?” That was my biggest mistake, I let myself get sucked into thinking like that. It was a shock, but a useful one. Being defined by a title, by a business card, is bullshit.
What advice would you give to someone who wanted to follow in your footsteps?
It’s easier said than done but you can’t worry about what people think about you. When I was a young manager I worried too much what my team were saying about me. It made me self-conscious and self-critical. People will question your judgement – it’s definitely going to happen so you need to hold your nerve. Your judgement is valid. You can’t control what people will say about you and you have to remain steadfast.
You’ll also need passion and tenacity. I’ve always been really fucking irritating – if I want something, I go after it. I think women worry more than men about being pushy. There seems to be a preoccupation with women having to be seen to be nice. I don’t think men sit there worrying about whether people will think they are nice.
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Nascent stand-up, fan of fancy words, purveyor of occasional wrongness, haphazard but enthusiastic parent, science-fan, apprentice-feminist.