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An Interview with Erika Allen

I was introduced to Erika Allen through her fantastic work for VICE, where she is the executive managing editor of global news, and I greatly admire her talent as an editor and her dedication to her craft. She has also worked as an editor at The Cut, The Outline, VICE Magazine, Times Insider, and, and she's part-time faculty at my univesity, The New School (she's also an alumni).

Erika is also skillful writer, and I particularly love her overlooked contributions to T Magazine. Her interview with Lyn Elizabeth Paolo, the costume designer of Scandal gave me a new appreciation for an aspect of the show that I had previously ignored, and her summary of Peter Som's digital fashion show was succinct and oddly prescient. Erika has also written for Promax Brief and the New York Times, where she's covered everything from the importance of gender to massage therapy to how vape pens became a fashion statement. Her interviews for the Making It Last section are especially captivating. I feel fortunate to have journalistic role models like her.

Who are your inspirations and what lessons have they taught you?

I bet everyone mentions their mother, but my mom really is one of my greatest inspirations. I ask her about everything. She’s taught me so much about empathy and open mindedness and how important trying to understand other people is. She’s just so thoughtful and kind and hard working and those are the things that I strive to be in my life and work.

When did you realize you wanted to go into journalism?

Probably when I was in high school. Both of my parents worked in journalism at various points, so it was something I was always aware of and surrounded by as a kid. They worked in radio and television. My grandfather was also a radio journalist; he was always recording interviews he did with me and my brothers. But I was obsessed with magazines. I love everything about them; even boring ones feel and smell so nice. I’d buy loads of them and think about what types of stories I’d put in my magazine if I had one. I’m also sort of a nosey person, so interviewing people always appealed to me — what a great job to just get to ask people whatever you want to know about them or about whatever they know about. I'm not a reporter now, of course, but I am still totally committed to storytelling.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Gosh, there are so many things I’ve thought of that I’d tell my younger self if I could and I cannot remember any of them. So I guess I would say, “Write it down” — whatever “it” is. I wish I were better at journaling and jotting down memories and ideas. I often feel like if I’d gotten into the habit when I was younger I’d be better at it now. I make lots of to-do lists now, and when I write it down (on paper, in black ink) I (usually) remember to do it.

What is the best part about your job?

Every day is different. I don’t know if it’s because of the company or the nature of my role, but I work with so many different teams and parts of the business and it’s really rewarding to see that collaboration come together. I like to have new challenges every day or week and to solve for different situations. I think it takes a certain type of person to enjoy and crave that variation at work, but I like it. I also really like the people I work with, so even really difficult situations are not so difficult to navigate because we work well together.

What is the most challenging part of your job?

Every day is different. Ha! Also, communicating across time-zones can be a challenge. It sounds very basic, but in a world where we’re so used to being able to communicate instantly, working across timezones and not being able to have those on-the-fly conversations can be hard. So much can get done in a quick Slack chat (or IRL chat, when those could happen), and it’s harder to do that when someone’s logging off at the time you’re logging on. But ultimately, the most challenging parts of my job are the parts I like!

What work are you most proud of?

Oh, so many things — this year/last year, just getting through each day is something to be proud of. But in more concrete terms, last year I co-led the launch of a new news brand at VICE called VICE World News, bringing together teams from around the world that traditionally hadn’t worked together before, to create a truly global news product. So much work went into it and while it’s still young, we’ve seen a lot of success so far. I’ve also worked with teams across the newsroom on our 8:46 Project, which is dedicated to VICE’s continuing coverage of systemic racism and inequality. After the police killings of Black people across the country last year, VICE recommitted to the important coverage of systemic racism and the fight for racial justice and equality; working on that project has been really important and rewarding. We launched a series I conceived that revisits the sources and subjects of previous reporting we’ve done on systemic inequality and I’m really proud to work at a place that’s long seen the value and importance of telling those stories.

What makes a good pitch?

Focus. I always tell students that they should have a clear understanding of the “why now” and the “why me” of their story ideas, but I think in general one thing that really makes a pitch strong is just not trying to take on too much. If there is lots to say about a story, it doesn’t all have to go into one piece — maybe you have a series or a beat. So I really encourage people to have a focused angle. The other thing I think makes a really good pitch is a strong understanding of the publication; it’s tone, POV, and past coverage. Often people pitch great ideas to the wrong place because they just want it placed somewhere, but knowing where your story will fit is an important part of pitching.

What do you think are the most important skills for a young journalist to develop?

Listening diligently! I know that sounds obvious, but it applies to so many important elements of journalism (and life) — listening diligently to subjects will make you a better interviewer, listening to the world will make you a better writer and thinker, listening to writers and other editors will make you a better editor. I think being able to listen and hear things other people don’t is what makes someone a journalist, in some ways! Listening and fact checking are the two very important skills for a journalist to have.

What’s been the most transformative experience of your life?

This is maybe meant to refer to a professional transformation… but in terms of the most transformative experience of my life I’d say it was getting a cat! I had never had a pet before and didn’t really get it until my husband and I adopted Mouse, our cat. I love her so much! Truly obsessed with her! Professionally speaking I would say that every time I have gotten a new job it’s been transformative. I learned so much during my time at the New York Times and I forged some of the longest professional relationships I have, in addition to some really strong personal bonds and friendships. Leaving there was transformative in that it opened doors and also my eyes to so many different opportunities in digital media. Going to the Outline was hugely transformative; working at a new media company and trying to do something really different in a rapidly shifting landscape was fun and tough and helped me further hone my skills as a leader. I again formed deep friendships and working relationships, one of which is a big part of why I came back to VICE. I think every job is transformative in some way, whether it’s an opportunity that teaches you what you want to do or one that teaches you what you don’t want to do.


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