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"The job is perfect for you" is what Fenner says she was told by her old roommate, Liz Miller. "What she meant was that the wonderful thing about Chicago magazine is that it has such a broad mandate," says Fenner — food, fashion, politics, crime, and what have you all show up in its pages, and her career in magazines has also been all over the map. At Time Inc. she's worked for People and Fortune as well as Money, and in 2005 she disappeared for a couple of years to be executive editor of the team that launched Women's Health.
Fenner says that at Chicago, where she begins September 19, she wants to "continue the tradition of really great long-form and really spot-on service journalism," and make the product "indispensable" in every medium, online, tablet, and print.
There is a fair amount of rote and ritual in service journalism. At the moment the Chicago website flogs such evergreens as "Chicago's Top Singles," "50 Most Beautiful Chicagoans," and "Best Hair Salons in Chicago and the Suburbs." When Babcock retired he talked about the tension — psychological as well as editorial — between long-form and service. "You do have to fight what sometimes can be kind of an internal weariness about tackling those subjects," he told me. "You have to be pushing yourself and pushing your staff to approach them with freshness every time. But the reason those articles do repeat themselves is that they are gobbled up by the public. We weren't just tossing out those perennials because we didn't have the imagination to think of something else."
But as for what he felt proudest about as an editor, he said, "I think we were able to consistently turn out narrative nonfiction equal to the narrative nonfiction produced anywhere in the country—better than a lot of it. It's really an art form." Babcock mentioned a speech by John Updike at the Chicago Humanities Festival that he admired so much he printed it. "I wonder how many people read the damn thing," he allowed. "I got a nice note from Updike and that was about it."
Says Fenner of this tension, "I think that’s part of the reality magazines are facing. You do the cover packages that will obviously be of great service to people and make them pick it up, but then they open it and see, 'My God, there's this wonderful penetrating feature story here!' It’s a balance. You do main cover stuff that will sell you so you can do the good stuff inside."