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so what do you do?

So What Do You Do, Sam Schechner?
The media people in your neighborhood.

BY DARBY SAXBE| Only 25 years old, Sam Schechner took the reins as editor-in-chief at Shout magazine almost two years ago and has shaped the New York-based publication into a must-read blend of arts, culture and politics. Shout has a wide enough range that it can feature The Yeah Yeah Yeahs on its cover one month and presidential aspirant Cory Booker the next, and the mag boasts a stellar lineup of columnists including J.T. Leroy, Timothy "Speed" Levitch, and mediabistro.com's own Jonathan Ames. Not bad for an editor who secretly wants to work for the MTA—"I'm fascinated by the subway system." Here, Schechner discusses his "soul-killing" dotcom job, favorite Shout features, and why he wants "a ton of pitches" from freelance writers.

Birthdate: September 6, 1977
Hometown: New York City
First Sunday Times section he reads: Week in Review.

What was your first media job?
In high school I worked as a pre-press designer for college newspapers. I did layout for the Pace University Press and the Rutgers newspaper, and even got to secretly fix a couple of typos. As for starting in journalism; I edited my high school paper, and after swearing I'd do other things in college, I ended up editing Brown's alternative weekly. After swearing I'd do other things after college, I ended up editing Shout.

How'd that happen?
Shout found me—I basically fell into my dream job. After graduating from college in '99, I went and got an internet job like everyone else. I worked for the "largest teen portal in the world," Bolt.com, editing the music and gaming sections. This, I discovered, was deeply soul-killing. The site is made up of user-generated content, so I had to take content that teens supposedly wrote and rewrite it. After nine months, I had gestated fully and I quit.

I did some writing for a Latin American business website that eventually folded, and took on freelance odd jobs, fun stuff like proofreading Verizon ads. Shout, at that point, was a magazine looking for an editor and a direction. I met the publisher through a mutual connection, we had some dinners together and our visions seemed to mesh. Still, I was totally surprised when he hired me. It was exciting and deeply scary. I started with a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of questions. There was a staff partially in place, so they held my hand as I learned the ropes. All magazines are a group environment but here it's such a small office; we're always talking to each other. It took a little while to get my editor legs, and I'm still learning.

What do you like best about your job?
I enjoy the actual mechanical work of editing articles, as well as writing, when I get the chance. There's something about it—I feel like a blacksmith. It's a craft. Also, generating ideas is fun. I come up with insane ideas all the time, and it's very gratifying getting the chance to put them in a magazine. And it's exciting to get hate mail. I get a fair amount. People don't like people who edit magazines, apparently, especially magazines that make fun of George Bush and Rudy Giuliani. I have a postcard on my wall that calls Shout "the missing link between Chomsky and Disneyland." I think that's brilliant—we should use it in our press kit.

So what is Shout trying to do, exactly?
It's hard to distill—I don't want to limit it too much by labeling it. We think that the intersection of pop, politics and underground culture is a perfect place to put a magazine. There are a lot of people who are interested in that kind of mix. We aim to provide something that doesn't really exist in any other magazine; really good arts and culture coverage, great literature and music, plus a feature well that delves deeply into political and economic issues. We've done some great features: a piece on the history of the mohawk, an exposé of the NYPD's vandalism squad, a profile of someone who might be the next U.S. chess champion. One of my favorite pieces was a photo essay on street handball—we got some of the best handball players in the city, probably in the world, to come together and play some games while we took pictures. My sense is there's nothing we can't write about—a story about NASA, a trip to Mars, whatever... We can talk about politics and culture in the same sentence. I aspire to run the kind of articles you might read in Harper's just as I aspire to run the kind of articles you might read in a pop culture magazine.

What books are on your bedside table?
I mostly read submissions! But because we do literary coverage, I do get some good books—by people like Lewis Robinson and Gabe Hudson. Right now I'm reading a new book, Hunting in Harlem, by Mat Johnson, who also writes for Shout.

What about magazines?
All the New York-based independent publications, any culture magazine. From London, I love Sleazenation and The Face. On the train, you'll see me reading Harper's and The New Yorker—I like to dig into the long feature. I'm pretty promiscuous; from The Nation to The New Republic to The Economist.

How should freelance writers go about pitching Shout?
[Ed. note: Shout magazine folded in February 2003.]
Since we only have a staff of seven people, almost everything in the magazine is freelance. Staffers do service copy, so I'm looking for freelancers to write front-of-the-book stuff or features. I want real story ideas. I get 40,000 emails a day telling me about some band, some actor, some novelist who's cool—but I already have people telling me who's cool, I want to know what the story is. I'd rather run a trend piece than a profile; I like to look at larger trends and use individual people to illustrate them. So writers should focus on identifying something interesting in culture that they want to analyze. I'm definitely open to bringing in new writers—I've assigned things to people I've never worked with before.

What kinds of hours do you put in?
Oh, you know, I crawl into the office hung-over at one, stay for a few hours, go out for a long lunch. Just kidding. The hours are long—sometimes we put in 12-hour days. We're not clock punchers here. Luckily, I work with a staff where everyone really gives a shit. Everyone cares. That's what makes it possible.


Photo by Emily Wilson.

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