Chicago magazine's new editor: 'I've been reading it for years'

Growing up in the affluent North Shore suburb of Winnetka, Beth Fenner lived the kind of life Chicago magazine celebrates. She still remembers attending summer concerts at Ravinia in Highland Park and classes at Regina Dominican High School, the small college preparatory Catholic school for women, in Wilmette.

Now more than two decades after she graduated from the University of Notre Dame and moved to New York City to make a name for herself in the magazine business, she’s coming home to take on the biggest challenge of her career.

On Monday, Fenner was named editor-in-chief of Chicago magazine, succeeding the legendary Dick Babcock, who retired in April after a record-setting 20-year run. Her appointment is effective September 19.

“Beth is a very energetic person with a great blend of editorial experiences and leadership across several subject areas and distribution channels (print, digital and often contributed to broadcast),” Rich Gamble, publisher and general manager of Chicago wrote in a memo to staff and fellow execs at Tribune Co., parent company of the magazine. “She will be instrumental in helping us move the Chicago brand to the next level.”

At 47, Fenner is just three years older than Babcock was when he took the reins of the monthly magazine (though the chances that any future editor could last 20 years in the job seem hard to imagine). For now, she joins a growing sorority of top editors in town, including Mara Shalhoup of the Reader, Susanna Negovan of Michigan Avenue, Cassandra Gaddo of Today’s Chicago Woman, and Kerrie Kennedy of Sheridan Road.

Except for a two-year break when she launched Women’s Health magazine for Rodale Inc. and served as its executive editor, Fenner has spent her entire career with Time Inc. publications, based in New York. Her most recent position as assistant managing editor of Money followed senior editorial posts at Fortune and People.

Although her parents didn’t subscribe to Chicago while she was growing up, Fenner told me she’s made it a point to pick up the magazine whenever she’s visiting her family here or just passing through O’Hare. “I’ve been reading it for years, and I’m really looking forward to being part of its next iteration,” she said.

“I’m so excited about it because Chicago is such a strong brand, and it blends long-form, narrative, serious journalism with fun service journalism,” she said. “I’ve done both in my career: Money and Women’s Health are service, at People I did fashion, and at Fortune I did serious long-form stories. Chicago is a magazine where I can do all the things I’m interested in altogether. That’s great.”

So what is Fenner’s vision for Chicago?

“I do think it is too soon to say, although I have some idea about how to improve things,” she said. “Chicago is great, but like all print magazines right now, there are some challenges. One of the things I’ll be looking at are covers. Are we selecting the right things for covers to really sell the magazine in the way that it needs to be sold to appeal to as many people as possible? Is the coordination with online where it needs to be? Down the road, budget permitting, I think we have to start thinking about tablets and apps and ways that we can connect with readers in ways they want to be connected with.”

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)