September 2, 2007

A career in brief

An interview with…

SouthFloridaCEO magazine

When she ditched her PR job in Detroit and moved to South Florida almost a decade ago, Rochelle Broder-Singer was looking for more than a change in the weather. She wanted a new career.

“I pounded the pavement to research absolutely every publication – newspaper, trade journal, magazine, you name it – in the entire region,” she recalls. “It took me six months to find a job.”

But it wasn’t exactly what she had in mind. A magazine called Miami Business was launching another magazine called LatinCEO. The print journalism major (from the University of Evansville in Indiana) wanted to write.

“They wouldn't hire me as a writer because my previous job had been in PR, not journalism,” she says. “So they hired me as the research director. All my reporting skills helped other people with their stories. I think it was almost a year before they let me write so much as a news brief!”

She badgered editors for assignments – “whether on a news brief or writing a section of a story for another reporter” – and eventually clawed her way up from research director to assistant editor to associate editor.
LatinCEO closed, Miami Business became SouthFloridaCEO, and one day, the managing editor spot opened up. “I walked into the editor's office and asked for the job,” she says. “I got it.”

When that editor left in January, Broder-Singer took over – eight years after she wasn’t allowed to write a brief.

Why do so many journalists say they want to work in magazines, when they have no idea what it involves?

I think it sounds glamorous. And they’re often more familiar with magazines than with newspapers. Many are voracious consumers of magazines. Others like long-form stories more than short-form and see magazines as a way to write those. Still others think the pace and/or the schedule will be better.

What's are the big misconceptions that newspaper journalists and students have about working in magazines?

The biggest is that it's a lesser form of journalism somehow, and also that it's easier or a step down the ladder. Some think all magazines' editorial content is advertising driven. We have that Chinese wall, not any different from any major newspaper. But I do know some magazines don't have that wall.

Before you got into it, what was one misconception YOU had about working in magazines?

That there would be lots of publications at which I could work! I didn't think about the limits of geography or the fact that I'd end up on a particular trajectory, or that the really, really big magazines are all only in New York and I don't want to live in New York.

What's the biggest pleasure and the biggest frustration working in magazines?

The single biggest frustration is probably the time lag. From the time you start reporting a story to the time your readers see it can be a couple of months or more. It makes it tough to get an exclusive, and it makes it tough to keep pieces timely. The other thing many people struggle with is juggling multiple projects with multiple deadlines. You might have something due in two days, in a week, in two weeks, in two months – but you have to simultaneously work on all of them. The expectation is that much of your work will have several weeks or more of reporting in it, so you can't simply wait until the week before to start on everything.

The biggest pleasure is having more time to work on the copy, especially as an editor. I rarely have to let things go if they're not up to the standard I want them to be at. I have the time, in fact the obligation, to keep editing them. Another pleasure, especially for us at this magazine, is getting to write for a very sophisticated audience, with a high level of education and understanding. You get to use sophisticated language and cover complex subjects. We also have the space to do a lot of analysis of what we're reporting on, and the time to give some perspective.

What was it like working in PR?

I won't lie to you: I didn't enjoy it. But I did learn a lot. It's made me more sympathetic to good public relations people I deal with in my work. You deal with a lot of rejection and competing demands of unrealistic clients and media trying to get good information. But now I understand how the industry works, so I think I can better navigate it to get the information/interview/photo shoot I need. It was tough to make the transition back to journalism, though. Editors didn't take me seriously because I'd been out of the field.

A career highlight that sticks in your mind?

A good portion of my career has been as an editor, so I think most of the highlights are about other people's work – stories they landed on covers after I'd edited them. But when I was doing more writing, I did get to interview Mike Jackson and Mike Maroone, the CEO and president, respectively, of AutoNation. I'm originally from Detroit, so the auto industry is very near and dear to my heart. Getting to interview a couple of died-in-the-wool car guys, who run the largest auto dealership chain in the nation and the largest company in Florida, was exciting for me.

Any amusing professional gaffes?

Most of the amusing gaffes revolve around me trying to speak Spanish, since I'm a gringa and only studied the language. I once spent hours calling chambers of commerce in Latin America. I was supposed to be asking them about the largest corporations in their nation. Instead, I kept asking them, in Spanish, about their fattest business.

Any weird/awful dues-paying stories?

Earlier in my career, I had a boss who regularly screamed at me. I was paid well, so I kind-of considered myself as having "hazard pay." It didn't faze me until one day in the bathroom someone in the company who didn't report to her said to me, "I'd never want my daughter working for someone who spoke to her like that."
In between full-time journalism jobs, I did have a couple of other careers, with some weird work. One of them was working as a technical writer for a government contractor. I wrote service manuals for 7-ton and 10-ton military trucks. One of the projects involved writing the service manual as the prototype truck was being built out in the shop. I spent a lot of time crawling on the trucks, doing things like taking apart exhaust systems and putting them back together.

If you could surgically implant one piece of career advice into the skulls of college students and young professionals, what would it be?

Sharpen your reporting skills whenever possible. It sucks, but you have to pay your dues. That job working a beat, covering a city out west, is incredible preparation for whatever you want to do next. Work it hard, seek out news stories, assume there are really interesting stories out there. Attend the city council meetings.

The people I've worked with, and hired, who have done that – whether it's working for
The Miami Herald's Neighbors section or working for one of the suburban weeklies – understand how to sniff out news, source a story, turn a "no" into a "yes" for an interview request, and can tell when someone is giving them a line or really telling the truth.