Looking forward: New editor putting her mark on Chicago

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As Chicago magazine’s new editor-in-chief, Beth Fenner has been careful not to second-guess her predecessors’ decisions. But in an online chat with readers last week, she broke the news that we won’t be seeing a repeat of The 50 Most Beautiful Chicagoans.

Hallelujah.

For my money, that March 2011 cover story may have been the most vacuous in the magazine’s 40-year history. For Fenner, it’s about staking her claim on worthier subjects.

“What I want to know is: Is this story something that helps readers, or informs them, or engages them?” she explained. “If a story doesn't meet those criteria then I'm not sure why we’re running it.”

Fenner, 47, has been on the job since September, shortly after she was hired to replace Richard Babcock, who stepped down voluntarily after an unprecedented 20-year run. Given the monthly’s long lead time, the current January issue is the first for which Fenner feels responsible from cover to cover. So she took the occasion to introduce herself — and a few new features she initiated — in an editor’s note to readers and in the online chat.

 “As a reader, when you open a magazine and see that there are different sections, you think: “Whoa, I don’t remember seeing that here,’ ” she told me in an interview last week. “Readers get kind of attached to a magazine if they’ve subscribed to it or read it for a long time, so I felt it was important to speak directly to them and tell them the reasons for some of these changes. I was also asking them to tell me what they think about them, and opening up a dialogue in a way that I think is important these days.”

Among the new features Fenner launched is a page devoted to Chicago politics, showcasing the outstanding work of blogger Carol Felsenthal, among others. She’s given more room to Jeff Ruby’s Outer Drive column and moved it up from the back page. She’s added a neighborhood Insider’s Guide. And there have been a few other tweaks here and there.

A native of Chicago’s North Shore, Fenner spent most of the last two decades editing Time Inc. publications in New York. The hometown to which she returned seemed much more vibrant and energetic to her than the one she left — both qualities she hopes to infuse in the Tribune Co.-owned magazine.

Given a choice between stories about Chicago’s past and examinations of high-profile crimes (both favorite themes under Babcock) or pieces on forward-looking trends, it’s clear which Fenner would choose.
 
“Chicago has a rich and storied history, and I like good stories that reference that,” she said. “But I want to make sure that our coverage reflects the vibrancy of the city and the things that are happening now. When people who read us go out to a dinner party, I want them to talk about the stories they read in Chicago magazine because they touched such a nerve, they were about the topics on everyone’s minds and that everyone wants to talk about.

“I know there are a lot of people who care about those kinds of [historical and crime] stories, but I don’t think I’m interested in seeing them as often. Look, journalists all have different interests, right? That’s what makes magazines interesting. And every editor is going to make a magazine that has a little bit of a different look and feel than his or her predecessor. My interests are little more what’s going on right now.”

The recession’s toll on advertising has forced Chicago to undergo retrenchment. Two of the magazine’s recent spinoffs were affected, with Chicago Fashion reabsorbed by the main magazine and publication of Chicago Home + Garden reduced from six times a year to four. As a result of staff layoffs, there’ll be a greater reliance on freelance writing.

In addition, Fenner said she doesn’t plan to hire a new managing editor to replace Shane Tritsch, a Babcock protégé who resigned last week after 18 years in the No. 2 job. Instead, she plans to reorganize editorial roles internally.

Look for Fenner also to make improvements to the magazine’s website, introduce a new tablet app, and boost interaction with readers in other ways. Toward that end, she finally activated a long dormant Twitter account last week.

“I want people to read us and engage with us. If they’re interested in what the editor-in-chief of Chicago magazine has to say, great, follow me. That’s fine. The main thing is I want everyone to know how incredible our brand is, and the great things we have planned for the year ahead. We are going to produce the kind of great journalism going forward that people expect from us. I just want people to come along with us, and they won’t regret it.”


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