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What do you do, Allan Britnell?

Like many full-time freelancers, Allan Britnell combines steady gigs with shorter assignments. He’s the managing editor of Renovation Contractor, a bimonthly magazine for contractors and custom homebuilders. He also edits for ON Nature and the Smithsonian’s American Indian. As a writer, he contributes to Fresh Juice, Precedent, Connected and, and also works with corporate clients. Allan is president of the Canadian Society of Magazine Editors (CSME). When I asked Allan about his eclectic career, he replied, “My tired old joke is that I like to get around.”

Photo of Allan BritnellJaclyn: Tell me about your magazine career.

Allan: I have a B.A. in journalism from Ryerson. I graduated from the four-year program in 1996, with my final two years focused on the magazine stream. I stumbled into freelancing by accident. There was a recession and jobs were scarce, so I started writing for whoever would take me on. (My first paid assignment was a piece on local cemeteries for the Ajax News Advertiser.) I developed a diverse stable of clients, and I really liked the lifestyle of being my own boss, not having to commute, and working on a variety of subjects. Another of my tired old jokes is that my one and only “real” job was a four-year stint as an associate editor at Cottage Life. I did a three-month contract for them and, near the end of it, then-editor David Zimmer offered me a full-time position. It was too good of an opportunity to pass up. I learned a ton, but knew that after a couple of years I’d try my hand at freelancing again. (Of course, they didn’t know that until now…) I left in 2002, and my business has grown ever since.

How long have you been at Renovation Contractor?

We launched the magazine with our May/June 2011 issue. I was hired as managing editor in February of that year. When I started, we had a media kit, a URL and a printer lined up. We built a magazine from scratch in a couple of months. I was recommended to the publisher by a good friend (and career doppelganger), Jay Somerset. In 2013, we were nominated for magazine of the year at the KRW Awards for work we did in 2012, our first full year of publishing. We didn’t win, but it was still a nice pat on the back.

What do you do there?

I discuss story ideas and get input from our editor-and-chief, Jim Caruk, but his main job is building and renovating houses. I take care of the day-to-day stuff: develop the issue themes and story ideas, assign stories to our freelancers and guest columnists, coordinate photo shoots and layout concepts with our art director, Darrell Leighton, and copy edit and proofread all the copy. (Jay Somerset is also a freelance proofreader for us.) I also write most of the copy for our departments, and usually write at least one feature per issue. Renovation Contractor represents about 60% of my time.

What are your favourite aspects of your job?

I love what I do. I truly enjoy researching new topics and still get a kick out of those eureka moments when you come up with a witty turn-of-phrase or transition line. And the editing side means I get to develop story ideas and packages that I would enjoy reading. But most of all, it’s the work-life balance that I love. As I said earlier, I quickly realized that I was well suited for the freelance/work-from-home lifestyle. And now that I’m the father of two young girls, I wouldn’t trade that freedom and flexibility for anything. I walk them to school most mornings, but can still be at my desk by 9 a.m. I’m always first to volunteer to chaperone school events – and am often the only dad who does, so I usually get picked. And for most of our life together, my wife has worked in high-stress corporate jobs, so being home most of the time really helps us cope as a family. Of course, nothing’s perfect. For one, I certainly wouldn’t mind making more money than I do. And every year or two, yet another magazine that I work for disappears, and a couple long-time colleagues announce they’re giving up and taking jobs in PR or some other (better-paying) field.

How do your experiences as a writer inform your work as an editor, and vice versa?

The two roles constantly complement each other. I can’t tell you how many times a line or passage from a piece I’m editing has inspired an idea that I could write for another publication. And as an editor, I know how frustrating it is to have to clean up sloppy writing, so I always proof my copy several times before I hit send. And you can’t underestimate the value of having a variety of tasks to handle. If the creative juices aren’t flowing, I can switch to proofing or something else less mentally taxing. Not that I’m saying proofing is a brainless task, it’s just that I’ve been doing it for so long it’s more of a mechanical exercise.

Tell me about volunteering for CSME.

I’ve been on the board since 2009, and have been president for a little more than two years now. But to be completely honest, the wonderful and hugely talented Jessica Ross should be president. She’s been on the board longer and is endlessly generous with her time and expertise to the entire industry. She was about to have her baby when my predecessor, Bob Sexton, announced he was ready to move in. I was the most senior person left, so they gave me the fancy title.

What role do you think CSME plays in Canadian magazines?

Editing can be a very isolating job, particularly if you’re a freelancer. I joined CSME primarily for the social and networking aspects. But in my years on the board, I think we’ve put on some really interesting and informative career development panels and sessions. But at a recent board meeting, Kat Tancock – another incredibly talented person who’s extremely generous with her time – suggested that we really should take more of a stand on issues facing the industry, and I wholeheartedly agree. Step one towards that is an event we held in November on the future of interning and what recent legal rulings mean for the industry.

What would you like to see in CSME’s future?

We’re a national organization, but most of our members and all of our events are in Toronto. We’ve been taking baby steps to get satellite events going elsewhere. Anicka Quin, editor-in-chief of Western Living, is our one non-Toronto-based board member, and she’s done a lot to raise our profile – and solicit input – from mags in Western Canada.

Do you have advice for people who want to break into magazines?

Rule number one: Don’t miss deadlines. Ever. Rule number two: See rule number one. Also, the Canadian magazine industry is a small one, so if you make an effort to get out to events (shameless plug alert!) such as those put on by CSME, you’ll quickly get to know people and make connections. I’m sure I’m not the only editor who pays closer attention to pitches that come in from people I know than cold calls from complete strangers. And because it’s such a small community, you really can’t afford to go around burning bridges or submitting sub-par work.

Allan Britnell is on LinkedIn.

This interview has been edited for length. 

What do you do, David Lee?

One of the best things about the magazine industry: the people who work in it. I’ve met so many smart, talented, creative types who are passionate about what they do. I’m featuring some of them in this blog, Q&A-style, starting with David Lee, associate photo editor at Hello! Canada. David and I go way back – we went to the same high school in Scarborough in the mid-’90s, graduating a year apart. David moved on to Ryerson’s journalism program, magazine stream. He’s been at Hello! Canada for three and a half years.

David Lee

David Lee

You were a yearbook photographer in high school. Did that influence your career path? Prior to working on the yearbook, I was already intensely interested in photography, so being able to take photos and use a darkroom only increased my interest in the field. I was also heavily influenced by the work of National Geographic and Time magazine photographers and how powerful an image could be in terms of telling a story. I took that passion with me to journalism school, where I ended up being the visuals editor for the Ryerson Review of Journalism in my final year. That position landed me my first photography-related job as an intern, then as a photo researcher, at Canadian Business magazine.

When did you know you wanted to work in the media, and magazines specifically? It was pretty early on. Before I had even decided to go to journalism school, I had always loved reading magazines. The gorgeous photography and in-depth feature writing were so compelling to me. It wasn’t until I went to university, though, that I knew working in a photo department was something I could do as a career.


What are your main duties? Basically I help research photos for stories, assign some of the photo shoots, and keep in touch with the agencies and photographers who provide us with photos. A huge chunk of my time though is involved with determining and obtaining rights to photographs. With such high-profile subjects and lots of exclusive images, making sure all the rights are in place is an important aspect of my job.

Whom do you work with at Hello! CanadaWe’re a pretty tightly knit team here. Unlike most traditional newsrooms, a lot of the stories are generated because of a photograph. For example, the news of Angelina Jolie’s engagement broke with the release of a photograph of her wearing an engagement ring. Jennifer Aniston’s engagement news broke much the same way. When we find stories like that, the editorial team has to jump in and research the story behind it. I can’t really think of very many other newsrooms that have that kind of dynamic. It’s certainly different from a traditional monthly magazine, that’s for sure! On the flipside, the editorial team has to keep the photo department informed of what subjects they’d like us to photograph and what stories they’re working on. The art department sits between both realms and lets us know if there are different photos that they’d like to use or they need more images to flesh out a story.

Hello! Canada is a weekly publication. What is a typical week like for you? Typically our week starts out on Wednesday after we’ve closed last week’s issue. The editorial department will give the photo department a list of photos to start researching for some of the givens in the book: What’s On and the Lifestyle section. By Friday, we’ll have a sense of what stories we’d like to put into the news section of the magazine, and we’ll start putting some photos together for those. Once Monday rolls around, it’s basically non-stop until we close the magazine on Tuesday. A lot of the news that we cover happens from Friday to Sunday, sothere will be a lot of photographs to pore over and stories to consider.

Hello! Canada Avril Lavigne wedding cover

When choosing images, do you work with guidelines, or do you have a lot of freedom? Every magazine has a visual style and Hello! is no different. There would be photos that would look obviously out of place in our magazine. Within the style of the magazine, though, there is still a lot of freedom. For major events like the royal wedding of Prince William and Catherine, there were thousands of different images to choose from. For a more typical news story, there are still a variety of things we can try. For feature stories, we can be a bit more creative as well and try things that we wouldn’t normally try in a news story, but again I think that’s true for any publication. Although the pictures we choose may differ from other publications, I think the process the photo department goes through is very similar.

What are some of your favourite issues, features or photo assignments? I’ve always liked when we do our big portrait-focused issues, like our Most Beautiful Canadians or Hottest Bachelor issues. We get to use photography from some of the biggest names in photography in our magazine. Some names that come to mind are Annie Leibovitz, Mario Testino, Herb Ritts and Peter Lindbergh. It absolutely never gets tiring to look at the stunning photography from the masters of portraiture. Aside from that, anytime there’s a huge news event like the royal wedding or the coronation anniversary, it’s really exhilarating to see the wealth of images coming in and just having so much to choose from. Getting to photograph a celebrity is always exciting. Working with talented people in front of the lens and behind it is always satisfying. Our recent fashion shoot with Avril Lavigne for our Canada’s Most Beautiful issue is a perfect example of that. Celebrity photographer Mark Liddell, who shot the story for us, worked extensively with Avril before, and I think it really shows in the pictures. Where sometimes a celebrity will be really stiff working with someone they’re unfamiliar with, the results you can get when the shooter and subject have a great rapport are fantastic. Sometimes when things go really well, it can lead to other opportunities, like getting the exclusive on her wedding photos, which Mark Liddell also shot for us.

How do you approach a big story like the royal baby? With big news stories, we go into the event with a plan in mind but it’s always difficult to know exactly what you’re going to get. You can guess at what kind of photos there will be, but until the event actually happens, there are no guarantees. For example, with the royal baby, we knew ahead of time that they were going to be coming out of the front doors of the Lindo Wing of St. Mary’s Hospital and that they would pause for a picture, but that only really guaranteed us two or three different kinds of photos. Getting the Middletons and Prince Charles and Camilla visiting the hospital were unannounced extras for us. The various expressions that they had and the interaction between the two was different from when William was brought out from the hospital by Diana and Charles.

How does choosing photos for print and web differ? Choosing images for the web is a bit different because of the way images are consumed. In print, you have very tight control in terms of how one photo relates to other photos on a page and how that arrangement tells a story.

At magazines that don’t have a photo editor, who researches and selects images? Some publications use a freelance photo editor or photo researcher on a per-project or per-story basis. Some publications will just use the art director to research the photos.

What tips do you have for people interested in being a photo editor? While there are courses out there to get started, most of the skills related to being a photo editor are learned on the job. Aside from time on the mountain, though, the best thing you can do is immerse yourself in photography. Learn about photographers from the past like Henri Cartier-Bresson, who defined The Decisive Moment, and current photographers like Edward Burtynsky, whose landscape photography is unparalleled in my opinion. Take this and apply it to whatever publication you’re working for, or want to work for. In my case it’s all about celebrity photography, so I try and keep on top of all aspects of the business, like the agencies (Getty, Reuters, AP), candid photographers and celebrity portraitists.

How about advice on image selection for editors who aren’t photo editors? I think most people have a visceral response to photography – you probably already have an idea of what makes a good photograph and what doesn’t. What a photo editor brings to the table, though, is being able to choose the best photograph from a group of the best photographs. That’s a much harder thing to do. Then to take those best photographs and put them together into something that tells a story is another thing on top of that. I think that sometimes editors forget that the photo editor’s job is much like an editorial editor.

Cover images courtesy of Hello! Canada.