Getting into Journalism: Becky Lucas, Conde Nast

In the world of digital publishing, Becky Lucas is a rare breed. A journalist who worked her way up from coffee girl to running a world-renowned magazine, her journey has taken in the transition from written pitches for freelance work, right through to running the daily report on her publication’s editorial analytics.

In the first post of our blog series, Getting into Journalism, Jon Wilks sat down with Becky – now online managing editor of Conde Nast Travellerto find out how things have changed, how best to pitch to a busy editor, and whether she thinks a qualification in journalism can kickstart your career.

How did you start out in journalism, Becky? That seems like the obvious place to start!

It was with Cosmopolitan here in the UK. Before I left uni I wrote to loads of magazines (using paper and envelopes and stamps) and I ended up with a few work experience slots. I tried to go to lots of different publications, and I ended up working at a few women’s magazines, a broadsheet supplement, the Telegraph and the BBC. While I was at Cosmo a role as editorial assistant came up, and I did that for about a year. That was really being thrown in at the deep end, because there were people across the features team who all needed me at once, so I had to learn how to prioritise quickly.

So you were an assistant editor, or an editorial assistant? There’s a world of difference, of course, but I wonder how many people realise that. 

I began as an editorial assistant. An assistant editor is a lot more senior, while an editorial assistant does anything that’s needed. It might be transcribing interviews, it might be getting coffees from Starbucks, photocopying, sometimes writing features or doing interviews yourself, coming up with ideas, doing research, looking after the work experience people… it’s really being a general office assistant, at the same time as being a junior writer.

So you actually started off in the traditional way, as though you were the post room girl working your way up?

Yes! Luckily they were a nice bunch. I’m still in contact with them now, which is important actually. The contacts you make along the way always come back around in different jobs and roles.

Yes, it seems to be one of those industries, doesn’t it? It’s a bit like being at university – you’re never sure who is going to end up being useful. Where did you go next? 

From there, I went to do an internship with Mountbatten in New York. They cover lots of different industries, including the media. You pay upfront to cover your insurance and visa, but then you get paid a certain amount back every week, so it’s kind of like going back to uni, but in New York while getting paid for it! 50 of us flew out together, all working at different places but getting paid the same, and – because I was in New York – I found it was a great way to start writing about the city for London titles.

When people ask me whether I think they need to study journalism, I don’t think they do. I think experience is better. Editors care more about who you’ve written for

Cosmo asked me to write about New York for them, which was great, and meanwhile I studied features writing at NYU in the evenings. Through the networking company I was working for, I ended up meeting someone from Time Out. So I got an internship at Time Out New York towards the end of my time there. That year of not working directly in journalism made me realise that it’s what I really, really wanted to do.

Were you one of those kids who were always writing stories, or did this come to you later on? 

I was always writing as a kid. At school and uni I loved English, and then I just carried on. I wondered whether I should do journalism at uni, but decided on English because I thought there are more things you can do with that, just in case I wanted to do something else further down the line.

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So, like many journalists I’ve met, you have no actual qualifications in journalism? 

Just the features writing course I did at NYU, which was a two-month evening class. When people ask me whether I think they need to study journalism, I don’t think they do. I think experience is better. Editors care more about who you’ve written for, so that’s a better place to start. When we’re hiring interns now at Conde Nast Traveller, I’m looking at lots of their CVs and it’s about where they’ve been published already. We’ll also look at the blogs they’ve created, their social interactions, and their whole online presence.

That seems to be the way these days. When you and I started, of course, none of that was important.

Well, there was no Twitter, no Facebook…

And we had to write letters! 

Yeah! I printed out a letter, and I’d send them copies of things I wrote for the uni magazine, which back in those days was the equivalent of blogging in many ways.

We worked together in Dubai, but I don’t think I’ve ever asked: what took you there?

I’d really loved living abroad in New York, and I found that it helped me get work when I came back, because you have a niche – something you can write about for your London audience. It was really difficult getting jobs in London at that time, and I saw an advert for a job in the UAE. They flew over and interviewed me here and I became deputy editor on Explorer Publishing‘s travel guides. I knew that Time Out had just gone weekly in Dubai, though, so I had an idea that I wanted to go for that.

Did you move to Time Out Dubai as an editor? 

No, I was a section editor – sport, books and TV. It was like, ‘which sections are left? You do those three!’ I did that for about six months before becoming a nightlife editor for two months, then becoming features editor, deputy/acting editor, and then finally editor. I worked in Dubai for four years before becoming editor.

So you really are an old-school example (apologies again!) of someone who really worked their way up. I find that interesting because so many people these days don’t get that experience. A lot of people arrive in fairly senior positions fairly quickly in the digital world, but the experience that you have must be invaluable. 

Definitely. My experience informs me every day. What I’ve been through in the past helps me avoid certain issues now.

Earlier, you mentioned having a niche. Do you think that’s important in journalism? Does it help in any way? 

I think it helps you get your foot in the door. When I came back from Dubai and I was freelancing again, that knowledge really helped. I wrote pieces on the UAE for big publications like Sunday Times Travel. It would’ve been a lot tougher without that angle. They knew that I had real experience of the place, so they trusted what I had to say. Backing that up with decent work that could really show my writing, I think that’s what helped me get those features.

Did you find it difficult moving into the role of an online editor? I remember being really excited by the transition, but I knew a lot of journalists who found it very difficult – and still do. 

I always knew it was important, but yes – I did find it difficult initially. As a print editor, it was tough to find any time to focus on the website as well, and that’s why I’m pleased with the job I do now. It’s purely digital. But I know that a lot of journalists, especially those who have worked with a single title for decades, find it very difficult to see the two strands as one. Most I encounter are enthusiastic, but it’s hard to find the time.

When we spoke recently, you were telling me how you use Google Analytics every day. As an editor, that’s obviously a huge change from the way we did things before. Do statistics have a role in editorial meetings these days? How much do you make use of them? 

Actually, I think the fact that I really embraced that side of things helped me get the job I have now. You have to remember, too, that as a print editor I was all about copy sales. So it’s just different kinds of numbers. I find it great that you can get so much more analysis online. Every morning I’ll do a traffic report, and every week I’ll have a meeting where we look at the most viewed articles. We’ll look at the posts and analyse why posts a particular piece might have done well. It’s hugely important.

As a print editor I was all about copy sales. So it’s just different kinds of numbers. I find it great that you can get so much more analysis online

At Conde Nast, all digital and print editors – and they’re not one or the other now, they oversee both – are being encouraged to analyse and listen to numbers. We all have targets to hit every month, and every title is sent all the results for all of the other titles, so everyone can see how all of the other sites are doing. The other thing about working with stats is that it gives you a better insight into who is reading the publication – the type of reader. It’s not just volume, because then we’d be Buzzfeed! It’s about getting the right audience and keeping the tone.

And that they’re actually spending time reading it. 

Yes. Dwell time is obviously a big focus.

That’s interesting. During the time that I spent working in a marketing agency, I felt that page views became far too important. What do page views actually mean? Somebody could click on your page and just leave. It doesn’t mean they’ve spent any time with your brand. Dwell time, I think, is also slightly difficult to deal with because somebody could just leave their browser open for ages, walk off and make a cup of tea and forget about it. I wonder, do the stats influence how you’re going to write, and what you’re going to write about?  

We’ll always stay on brand, but we’ll also look at the numbers and see how we can boost our traffic. We need to write so many articles, and we need to make improvements all over the place, but the team is not huge. So we really have to focus on winning readers and improving the quality of the website, so both of those things can be influenced by analytics.

Do you hire freelancers? 

At Conde Nast people tend to keep their freelancers in the building, and they move around titles. Our picture editor is a freelancer. Quite a lot of people start freelance, move to contract, and then go permanent. But we do hire people out of the building to write for us.

How do you go about picking freelancers? It’s something I always felt I was terrible at! 

It differs from editor to editor, from what I’ve seen, comparing Time Out and Conde Nast. Expertise on a place is great, as is a kind of familiarity. I use Alexi Duggins from Time Out London, because I know him.

I don’t have a lot of time to spend reading, so pitches have to be bang on brand

And that goes back to what you’re saying about keeping contacts. 

Yes. I worked with Alexi at Time Out, so I know that he’s great and he files on time. He knows about all things quirky, so he wrote about quirky restaurants in London for us, and I knew that I could trust his research and knowledge, and that his writing style works for us at Conde Nast Traveller. Other people that email me – if they live in the place they want to write about, that’s great, and if they show me some examples… I don’t have a lot of time to spend reading, so they have to really be bang on brand, similar to things that we run ourselves.

When you say that, do you mean they have to be bang on in the pitches that they throw at you, or in their email writing style? 

I think they need to keep it concise and to the point, and just say, ‘I’ve got this idea, this is why you should run it, and here are some work examples.’ It helps if they say they know someone at the title already, because then I know that they’re vouched for.

And there’s nothing worse than receiving a pitch from someone who clearly hasn’t researched your brand. 

Right! I had someone who sent in a bad pitch this morning. I used to work this woman briefly at Vanity Fair, and she has gone freelance now. She has been emailing me a lot. In the end we asked her to write a piece on spec so that we could see her writing. We told her we were running more quirky, funny listicles, and she sent back a piece that wasn’t our style, and the tips weren’t that great. We’d already sent her a piece on which to model her article, and it was nothing like it. She’d spent all of this time writing it, it was off-brand and it wasn’t right, and it just kind of annoyed us. We had to spend more time deciding whether to give feedback or not, or even to continue. So it’s about paying attention to the style and making sure that, if you’re writing a list of tips, they’re different, and that they’re for the reader’s benefit rather than to please the hotelier.

So it’s important to be audience-centric while staying on brand, and pitching to the editor in the understanding that he or she has very limited time?

Yes. But I remember that when I was at Time Out, a pitch email came in from a girl and she was completely kooky. She was funny. The email wasn’t particularly polite. She was confident – almost arrogant – and she kind of jumped out of his inbox. He got her to write some features and a column, and it really worked. So you don’t have to be formal all the time.

I guess timing is also a big part of it, isn’t it? It might just be that the editor is having a rare slow day and might just happen to see what you’ve written. 

Yes. You have to be persistent, too, and have a really thick skin.

Did you have a lot of rejection letters back when you started? Back when you were licking stamps? 

You don’t really get rejection letters. You just don’t hear back from them! I don’t know if that’s better or not, and I constantly feel guilty for not replying to every freelancer that emails, but you just don’t have the time in a working day to do that. I only wish I did!

Becky Lucas was speaking to Jon Wilks for Content Insights. Click to find out more about how we work with editorial analytics.

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