Meredith Rollins '93: Editor Navigates Waves of Magazine Industry
Issue   |   Fri, 10/20/2017 - 01:45
Photos courtesy of Meredith Rollins
Rollins aims for “Redbook,” a women’s lifestyle magazine, to be a place for her readers to relax but also enable dialogue on women’s issues, such as the lack of women running for local office.

Meredith Rollins was named editor in chief of Redbook, a Hearst magazine, almost three years ago after spending her career working for a variety of magazines. Her passion for good content and willingness to try new things has guided her throughout her career in the so-called “dying” magazine industry. The English and French major started to make her way up the publishing ladder immediately after graduating and has never looked back.

On Finding her Passion
Rollins described how she always knew that she would be working with books. She was an avid book reader, which she claims is the result of not being a “sporty” person, yet she never fancied herself an author growing up. When she came to Amherst, she majored in English and French and felt it was “obvious” she’d end up working in book publishing. Her studies focused on creative nonfiction and she wrote a memoir for her thesis titled “Falling From Grace.” After writing on a couple of student magazines and interning at some publishing houses during January terms, she landed an assistant editorial position at a Random House publishing group straight out of college. She made fun of herself for thinking she could negotiate her starting salary when she got the job, only to be told that no, that was what the salary was.

Rollins worked under a nonfiction book editor and found the job to be incredibly intellectually stimulating, but was not satisfied by its slow pace, “Between the excitement of buying a book and actually getting a manuscript, two or three years could go by.” After a couple of years in book editing, Rollins decided to move to an industry with a faster turnover rate, and so began her career in the magazine world.
Traversing the Magazine World

After Random House, Rollins worked at Harper’s Bazaar in the features department, where she covered all of their book coverage and celebrity interviews for a few years. From there she found herself at a political magazine called George Magazine, which was edited by John Kennedy Jr. but folded shortly thereafter when Kennedy died. Her next job was at the New York Magazine, where she stayed for several years, editing features and reporting stories. The magazine came out weekly, which Rollins described as “being a hamster on a wheel, but in the best way.”

Rollins then decided to switch things up and went to W, a high fashion and celebrity lifestyle magazine. She imagined that she’d be doing the editing and story assignment job to which she had grown accustomed, only to find out she was also expected to write features about fashion and big celebrity covers. She remembered thinking, “Well, I don’t know why you thought I could do, that but that’s great!”

Rollins continued to search for different experiences and prioritized working with interesting people over sticking with a specific content genre. She found herself at Lucky’s, a style and beauty shopping magazine that no longer exists, because she greatly admired the founder, Kim France, and wanted to work with the people on her team. “You pick different contracts for different reasons,” she said. She stayed for six and a half years before being asked to join Redbook, a women’s lifestyle magazine she had actually never read before working there, “even though it’s for a person who’s exactly at my point in life.”

Rollins chose the job in order to work on a general interest magazine. She was an executive editor for four years before being promoted to editor in chief in 2014. Since then, the magazine has made AdWeek’s Hot List every year. Now her job description includes deciding on the overall direction of the brand, working with advertisers and marketing, and reporting to the corporate floor. While excited by the challenge, she misses the hands on editing and working one-on-one with writers on stories, which she’d been doing for the last 20 years. “It’s no less interesting … but not what I thought I was going to be doing when I got into magazine editing,” she said.

Weekdays in the City, Weekends in Connecticut
Rollins balances out her high-stress life in the city by getting away every weekend with her husband and two boys to Litchfield, Conn., where they own a three bedroom gardener’s cottage and co-own the White Hart Inn with writer Malcolm Gladwell and chef Annie Wayte. In a recent article from The New York Times, Rollins describes her typical Sunday, which includes quality time with her sons (one of whom is a master egg chef at just 9 years old) and various outdoor activities. They often enjoy dinner at their inn before driving back to the city in preparation for another week of work, “It’s two good sides of a very full life.”

Originally from a suburb outside of Chicago, Rollins has stayed in the Northeast since she began high school. After completing boarding school at Taft, Rollins was admitted to Amherst early decision and then moved to New York City straight out of college, where she’s lived since. When asked why she never returned to Illinois, she said, “I had an amazing childhood but it’s not what I want as an adult. Suburban life is just not for me.”

Time in Amherst and Abroad in Paris
Rollins did take a hiatus from the Northeast when she spent her entire junior year in Paris. When asked about the most memorable part of the year she said, “I hadn’t realized how unfluent I was until I got there.” She had a group of French friends who, at the end of her time there, realized she was actually funny.

“There’s this gap between what you think you’re saying and what’s actually coming across,” she said. “I realized most of my friends there thought I was just kind of dim. My brain was barely accurate because that was all the words I could muster up. And then finally at the end when I was really fluent they realized, ‘Oh, she has a personality!’”

Rollins doesn’t remember much of what she did during her time at Amherst, “I have terrible short term and also long term memory.” However, she is still very close with many of her Amherst friends. Her friend, Ted Lee ’93, who was with her in Paris, introduced her to her husband, Conley Rollins Jr. She blames her husband for the fact that she’s only gone to one of her reunions, “He’s five years younger so we’re on the same reunion cycle and every five years we end up at his Harvard reunion.” She’s thankful that Amherst has formed the bedrock of her friendships, partly due to the number of graduates that end up in New York City. She even works with her friend Kate (Westerbeck) Lewis ’94, who runs digital editorial for Hearst.

Reflections on Print Media
While Redbook is enjoying record success under Rollins’s tenure, the future of magazines in general is in jeopardy, as many companies are folding. “It’s an interesting point of inflection for print magazines, generally,” she said. “I think that print will always be part of media landscape, might morph and change but it’s not going anywhere.” Rollins argues that the newspaper industry has reportedly been dying in the last decade but is still a go-to source for news, especially today.

“In a world filled with suspiciously sourced content, [such as with] the 2016 election, I would far rather get my information from a print magazine, no matter how old fashioned that may seem, because you know it’s been researched and fact-checked and vetted and that it’s beautifully written because it’s being held to a standard,” she said. “I do feel like that’s more important than ever.”

Her passion for women’s content is apparent when discussing how the current social climate affects a lifestyle magazine such as Redbook. Rollins strives for the magazine to be a place where women can escape from the tension and pamper themselves and find confidence in their appearance but also learn about women’s issues. She aims to talk about “political topics” in a way that is applicable to the lives of the women who are reading the magazine.

Some relevant topics they’ve covered in the past year include: the high price of infertility, women’s lack of access to health care and how women can get involved in local government. “If you’re part of your kid’s PTA and can fundraise for that, there’s no reason you couldn’t run for city council!” Rollins said. While every part of women’s lives is political, she places value on providing her readers a way to relax.

When I asked what advice she’d give to a hopeful young journalist, Rollins talked about her editorial assistant, Stacia Affelt, who began working for her straight out of college just last year. Because of reduced staff sizes, Affelt gets more hands-on experience in the magazine. She writes for the website, does research and contributes to the social media content, on top of the typical assistant work.

The industry is definitely changing, but Rollins thinks there are still opportunities for passionate writers, “Take as many experiences as you can,” she advised. “What I look for when I hire someone is less ‘did you work at a magazine or newspaper in college?’ and more ‘do you know what this magazine is about, and do you care about the content, and do you write whenever you have the chance?’”

“Whatever happens to the magazine industry three decades from now, people want great content,” she said.