“The reality is, if I hadn’t have had my baby, I would still be editing EMPIRE now,” Terri White tells us in the latest episode of Media Voices. “And that’s a hard pill for me to swallow, because you don’t imagine that you would have to make that choice in this day and age.”
Terri White is one of magazine publishing’s modern legends. From her editorship of titles like Shortlist and Time Out New York to her most recent role as Editor in Chief of EMPIRE magazine, she has become an icon; ballsy, brutally transparent, and a seemingly unquenchable passion for her job.
Which is why the news that she would be leaving the top job at her beloved EMPIRE – that she still today calls the best job in the world – came as such a shock to many in the industry when it was announced at the end of June.
After her last day at Bauer, White agreed to come on the podcast. She spoke to Peter Houston about the changes she’d made at the magazine, from opening up the brand to a wider audience of both readers and contributors, to inspiring staff and cultivating the passionate community of new and longer-term subscribers.
But she also expounded her reasons for resigning from the magazine. And her reasons are ones every publishing executive should pay very close attention to, before this industry loses any more supremely talented women.
A small team with big ambitions
The EMPIRE team is made up of just eleven people. Like almost every other magazine, it has faced cuts over the years. “As magazine publishing has got into a trickier and trickier spot, our ambitions haven’t stopped,” White explained. “So the brand has continued to get bigger, but the resources continued to get smaller.”
This has meant the EMPIRE team is now the smallest it has ever been. But it also has the most amount of products, and is across the most platforms it has ever been. But because of EMPIRE’s nature as a specialist title, the team are also incredibly invested in the subject matter.
“The biggest asset EMPIRE has is that incredible group of 11 people who work across the magazine, podcasts, the website, social events,” said White. “They live and breathe EMPIRE, and their passion is the fuel for what keeps that [reader] gang together, and keeps that gang vibrant and alive.”
However, passion can only go so far when there are so many facets of the brand to keep alive, and a workload to match. Being Editor in Chief of a brand like EMPIRE is – unsurprisingly – demanding, but working long and hard has never been a problem for White. “I’m a grafter; I believe in the power of hard work,” she emphasised.
But in February 2020, the arrival of a little person changed everything.
A choice between two loves
Facing a number of health conditions during her pregnancy, White knew that she wouldn’t be able to sustain that level of work for much longer. “I flagged that when I came back from maternity leave, we were really going to have to look at this situation, because it’s probably not going to be feasible,” she said.
Unfortunately, after returning from maternity leave, the situation showed no signs of improvement. Just before her resignation in June, White was working longer hours than ever, including a handful of 19 hour days where she saw her son awake for just twenty minutes.
“I ended up in a spot that I think a lot of women end up in,” she explained. “I loved my job more than any job I’d ever had, it was everything I’d always wanted to do. But after nine months of being back from [maternity] leave, I was completely exhausted.”
Despite offers and counter offers about additional resourcing for the team, White was unable to come to an agreement with Bauer Media about how to fix the situation. “I basically had to look at what I wanted my life to be,” she said. “For me, it was becoming a problem of how you morally and ethically lead a team under that much pressure with resource becoming smaller and smaller.”
Tragically, it’s an outcome White foresaw as soon as she found out she was pregnant. “I cried to my boyfriend and said that I was worried it was going to mean the end of my career,” she recalled. “He said, ‘Don’t be daft’.”
But we all know women who couldn’t make it work either. Women whose childcare costs take up too much of their salary to be worth it. Women who can’t make the 5pm meeting because they have to pick their kids up from school. Women who work late into the night to fit a demanding role around the demands of children. It’s almost always women forced to find some semblance of balance between their jobs and their families.
It’s tempting to lay the blame at Bauer’s feet. But White was careful to emphasise that this wasn’t a problem exclusive to Bauer, citing that many senior women at the company make their roles work alongside a family. She believes her situation is quite specific, exacerbated by editing a specialist title, which like many has always operated on smaller teams than lifestyle titles, and historically been staffed mainly – though not exclusively – by male editors.
Famously outspoken, White is not one to shy away from fighting for the support she needs to be able to do her job well. But eventually, it got too much. “I just lost the will a little bit,” she said. “I just thought, I need to make the best, most positive, most healthy choice for my family. And this is the only choice I can make in this scenario.”
Squeezed revenues squeezing out talent
The issues raised by White go further than simply childcare. “Publishing is in the tightest spot it’s ever been,” she commented. Most British publishers have seen budget cuts in some form or another in recent years, even on more successful titles.
Diversification has become a key way of combating declines in ad revenue; a primary source of income for most publishers even a decade ago. But these new products, whether it be podcasts or social media accounts, often end up falling on the shoulders of already-stretched editorial staff.
Talking about the future challenges facing magazine publishers more generally, White fears there is a reluctance to invest. “It needs to see an immediate return because of the squeeze on profitability these days, that none of those big ideas which will transform brands and will make them endure for decades, everybody’s a bit too fearful to do that.”
White worries that without proper investment in big ideas, British publishing will be stuck in the position of managing decline and cost-cutting, leaving editorial teams spread even more thinly. “Everybody’s doing what they can in the time they’ve got, and really not doing the very best work they could do [with more resource],” White said. “I see that everywhere.”
When there isn’t much wiggle room in budgets for teams, and staff are already stretched managing a brand across multiple touchpoints, it makes it more difficult to enable the flexibility needed to balance a demanding job with a family. This inadvertently ends up squeezing talented women like White out of top roles.
A call for longer-term change
White wants the industry to find ways to help change come about. “Employers, instead of just saying they want to keep women in employment, they have to make practical, tangible differences to allow us to stay there,” she emphasised.
White even considered changing her approach to editing to try and make her own situation work. “I had a thought in my head where I could scale back – not just to make my workload more manageable, but for the whole team – we could scale back the ambitions for EMPIRE. There is a less ambitious version of it that is still great.”
“We were putting out world class magazines every issue with incredible access, incredible gets. And we were always pushing and pushing. I had to sit and look at, was there a model where we did less ‘stuff’?”
But she decided that approach wasn’t for her. “That isn’t the way I like to edit,” she said pointedly. “The ambition is what gets you up and gets your belly going. That’s what always drove me and the team.”
White has got plenty to keep her busy, with her memoir Coming Undone – which is being adapted for TV – freshly launched in the US. She’s also working on her first novel and a second non-fiction book. “I’m immensely privileged to be able to walk away from a full time job,” she acknowledged. But although these projects provided her with a safety net, she wants things to change for those who might not have the same options.
“This is awkward to talk about…but the reality is that we have to start having these conversations about women in employment,” she emphasised. “People are talking about why we haemorrhage women after they have kids. The way it’s presented is, we make a choice. We go, ‘Oh, I’ve had a baby. Now I don’t need a job.’
“That isn’t what happens. It’s that life becomes too difficult.”
For those who end up in unworkable situations, White believes it is important not to feel embarrassed or ashamed. “What I’ve learned since having a kid is that we have to make difficult decisions sometimes,” she said. “And all you can do is cross your fingers and hope you’re making the right one.
“That’s what I’ve done. And we will see if it turns out to be a massive fucking error.”
Listen to the full interview with Terri White, former Editor in Chief of EMPIRE magazine, here: