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So What Do You Do, Cheryl Brown, Editor-in-Chief of Allrecipes Magazine?

'My primary challenge is to bring the community to life on the printed page.'

By Amanda Layman Low - March 12, 2014
Cheryl Brown has navigated the career jungle gym, honing her editorial know-how across both digital and print platforms. She is never one to turn down an interesting opportunity. For example, in addition to her coveted editor-in-chief role at Meredith's Allrecipes magazine, she's also a partner at a New York City bar, which gave her "a different perspective on an audience, what people do and what they need." She even spent the first six months in the trenches, out on the floor -- managing, hostessing and dealing with media inquiries. But her full-time baby, the print incarnation of, was recently released upon its loyal audience of home cooks. Brown shares her success story, her take on what makes print an enduring and unique art form, and she also serves up some advice for breaking into this competitive market.

Resume: Worked at Gourmet magazine for a decade, starting as an editorial assistant and working her way up to senior editor. Transitioned to managing editor of Disney's Wondertime magazine, then to digital/editorial director at AOL, overseeing and Arrived at Meredith in 2011 to oversee Transitioned over to Allrecipes in 2013.
Birthdate: "I'm an Aries. Let's leave it at that!"
Hometown: Westfield, Mass.
Education: Amherst College
Media mentor: "Colleen Curtis, who hired me at AOL. Her creativity and big-picture thinking is off the charts, but what's really impressive is how she leaped among media platforms -- she's done magazines, newspaper, television and digital -- and she's a rock star because of it."
Best career advice received: "Colleen Curtis said, when asked if you can tackle a seemingly insurmountable project, 'don't ever say no. Instead, say, sure, I can absolutely execute -- it would take X, Y and Z resources to make it happen.' Be upfront about what would be required to pull it off, even if you know those resources are as impossible as the request itself."
Guilty pleasure: "I'm ashamed to admit I've become addicted Candy Crush. So instead of reading the Times or doing something useful or intellectual with my subway ride, I'm playing that damn game."
Last book read: The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud
Twitter handle: @Allrecipes

Tell me about your food-media background -- how did you break in?
When I moved to New York City after college, I intended to go into book publishing. I had a very romantic vision of what that would be like, thanks to a summer internship at David R. Godine Publisher in Boston. Nothing was opening up at any of the big publishing houses, and I was panicking about money, so I took a roving internship at Condé Nast. You get to work at a bunch of titles; they move you around to wherever help is needed. I figured out pretty quickly that fashion and beauty weren't going to be my thing, but I was enjoying magazine work and an editorial assistant position opened up at Gourmet, and I thought 'Food and travel, that's cool.'

How did your decade working at Gourmet shape your career?
Gourmet was really my seminal job that gave me the confidence to move forward with food editing. It taught me how to cook and how to ask questions. When I started recipe editing, it was terrifying because it's such a foreign, specific world. Recipe editors knew I was pretty green and junior to start, and they would take my questions initially with a grain of salt, like, 'Oh, she doesn't know this' or 'She doesn't know that.'

"All media brands want to be on whatever platforms their consumers are using. The consumer is clearly digital and mobile savvy, so in this case, print was the missing link."

So I would take the manuscripts home and I would cook from them. Then I would go in to work the next day, armed with my questions. Being able to tell my editors that, 'Last night I made X, and I struggled over this direction,' they took on a whole new respect for me. My understanding of food and cooking and recipe editing went through the roof. For the first time, I really understood what a recipe is supposed to tell you.

People underestimate how challenging it is. Nowadays, you can pop onto YouTube and check how something's done if you don't understand it. But when I was at Gourmet, back in the day, it wasn't that easy. Sometimes explaining something that's so simple when you see it but trying to say it in words is really challenging.

Describe the unique model of Allrecipes. What's your mission for the magazine?
Allrecipes is one of the first magazines born out of a website -- it's reverse engineered, so to speak. All media brands want to be on whatever platforms their consumers are using. The consumer is clearly digital and mobile savvy, so in this case, print was the missing link. My primary challenge is to bring the community to life on the printed page. I have to make sure the conversations, the personalities and the real-life vitality are coming across loud and clear. The second layer is to constantly reinforce the relationship to the site and spotlight all the things that is known for, while still bringing in new content. It's a crazy fun project.

Do you think this web-to-print model will become the standard in the future?
I can't say whether it's the future or not, but I do think that all media brands are going to be exploring options like this one. There's so much talk of being on all platforms, but print is very much an active platform and I think it's not to be overlooked. The opportunities are different, and the way it serves the consumer is different.

"Print is very much an active platform and I think it's not to be overlooked. The opportunities are different, and the way it serves the consumer is different."

It's so funny, having worked in both mediums. Digital is about utility, about finding what you need right away, getting a lot of ideas and instruction quickly. I think what print speaks to is a little more of -- I don't want to say leisure time, because I don't think anybody has leisure time these days, but I think magazines bring a curation to the table that other platforms can't do in the same way. Nobody can do photographs like magazines. Magazines don't have to be driven by SEO, so they're able to bring attention to really interesting stories or unusual topics. In my magazine, I call them hidden gem recipes: recipes that maybe don't have 9 billion page views, but they're still really good and I think people should know about them.

What career advice would you give to journalists hoping to break into food media?
Don't be afraid to try something that isn't part of your intended 'career plan,' and don't avoid jobs or tasks you think are at a level below where you currently are. Some of my most important learning moments came from trying things that had nothing to do with my day-to-day job. For instance, when I switched from print to digital, my world was rocked in a lot of ways. I remember learning to program a website. I sat down and I had no idea how to make it go live, how that even worked. So I was doing entry-level programming and coding that any assistant can do -- they were actually all doing it better than me because I was learning. But I have a completely new skill set and career path because I took that chance with digital.

Also, I think it's always helpful to do tasks that your staff is doing, because then you fully understand what the effort level is and you can be a better manager. But also you really know whether a task is really so difficult that it takes that much time, or if somebody is just not being efficient. You honestly don't know unless you've done it yourself.

And I have to say, in reference to all those stops in my career between Gourmet and Allrecipes, working for a few mass-market brands was a step in a different direction, too. But actually I think those experiences put me in a good place for this position, helped me understand what the average home cook needs and wants, because the truth is Allrecipes is the whole country. It truly is all of America.

Amanda Layman Low is a freelance writer and artist. Contact her on Twitter @AmandaLaymanLow.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of Mediabistro Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of Mediabistro Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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