Interviews – Media – Peter Howarth

Peter Howarth, 35, has been UK editor of Esquire magazine for the past three years. He trod an unconventional path into journalism, reaching the editor’s desk via the Paris catwalk. He began his journalistic career by writing freelance magazine features. We asked him about his job and what advice he would give aspiring journalists

How did you get to be editor of Esquire?
As an undergraduate in Cambridge I worked as a catwalk model for British designer Paul Smith and sharpened my knowledge of fashion by working as head of menwear at Nicole Farhi. While I was working there I started writing as a hobby and had articles published in Arena and Glitz magazines. I eventually left to concentrate on freelance writing before becoming style editor on GQ magazine. The job involved writing, liaising between the fashion desk and the editorial guys. I was editor of Arena magazine, before being headhunted to become editor of Esquire.

What makes a good magazine editor?
You need a good visual sense as well as an understanding of what makes good copy. You must appreciate that you have to make something that will look good on a coffee table. Being monthly, it must also hold people’s attention.

If you look at the great magazines Esquire, or Vogue in the 1960’s, for example – they are absolutely documents of their time. They are full of the issues of their day. You need to have a nose for what cultural things are most important at that moment.

You also need to be a team player: a good editor is someone who recognizes they can’t do it on their own. You need the vision and the guts to decide on key issues, but you must inspire belief in your team and listen to them. No-one has an endless supply of ideas and being a good listener is vital.

How does magazine journalism differ from working on newspapers?
The pressure. With a newspaper you have to produce a story for the following day. We have a month with rolling deadlines. Newspapers compete for stories and exclusives in order to sell. Magazines can create such strong brands that people will buy them because of the brand, almost irrelevant of who is on the cover. The pressure at a newspaper tends to create a harsher working atmosphere – one that is very competitive. Whereas I like to think a good magazine will be the result of good teamwork.

Will the Internet have a big affect on the magazine industry?
WAP technology could affect newspapers, but the Internet is no substitute for holding a glossy magazine in your hand. Magazines are vehicles for entertainment, not for news.
Magazine sales will decline as a result of the Internet, but only when the technology and the content gets better. Also, until the actual site branding is strong enough, competing sites will not capture the market. I cannot see a reader of Vogue relying instead on Vogue Online. You need a reason to exist before you can have a distinctive brand voice.

What was the lowest point of your career?
When I walked into the Esquire office for the first time, I was expecting a thriving office with loads of great people to greet me. But after Rosie Boycott had left, half the staff had gone elsewhere. There were five feature articles in a draw and I had to get an issue of Esquire out in two weeks!

How do you get to work for a magazine like Esquire?
Ideas are currency. You need plenty of them. Every editor in the world is in search of ideas, as you need thousands of the bloody things to fill your pages. You also need incredible persistence and you need to be a great networker. This job is about meeting people and developing contacts. There are thousands of writers out there better than the ones employed, but they do not have the people skills.

What would you do if someone marched into your office and said employ me?
It depends on what they were like, but we certainly take people on work experience. The guy we had last week just rang me up and said I want the job. You can also send in ideas, but you have to accept that a lot of commissioning editors will steal them. One way of getting round this is by saying, ‘Here are five of my ideas which I’m doing for other magazines, which will give you an idea of what I can do’.

Always follow up with a phone call. A piece of paper lying on a desk is useless – you need human contact. Ideally go and see someone. It is much harder to turn someone away when you have actually met them. I am surprised by how few people ring me up and say, ‘Can I come and see you’. Another crucial thing is to have something in print, whether small or large. You just have to prove that someone has had the confidence to publish your pieces.

What’s the money like as a freelancer?
Terrible. Though the money at Esquire is all right. We pay £350 ($560) for 1,000 words. As a jobbing freelancer, you have to write an awful lot of words to make a decent living. That’s why the majority of freelancers end up in staff jobs.

Any other tips?
Try starting on a niche magazine. That is how I started. If you’re willing to write for them for free that is pretty attractive, because they have small staffs and little money. It gives you a foot in the door. Secondly, never ever miss a deadline. Editors will pick a worse writer if they think he or she is more reliable, because deadlines are sacrosanct. Thirdly, keep a cuttings book. It’s far more impressive to have a chronological record of all your main work. Lastly, put yourself about. Go to parties or Guardian lectures or whatever.

Do you enjoy your job?
It’s the best job in the world. As you climb the slippery pole, think about whether you will want to continue as a writer or an editor. I think the function of being any type of editor is being able to release your ego. Editors who either commission what they would have written themselves, or who try and rewrite everything according to their own style and taste should not be editors. A good editor will commission a piece of work in the knowledge that journalist is going to write the piece in a way they wouldn’t.

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