‘Turbo-charge a legacy newsroom’: A Q&A with Fortune’s new editor in chief Alyson Shontell

On Oct. 6, Alyson Shontell will become Fortune’s next editor in chief, succeeding Clifton Leaf, who stepped down after four years at the helm. Shontell will be the first woman to lead the business publication in its 92-year history. 

She joins a recent wave of female editors who are the first to lead some of the biggest newsrooms. Some examples: The Washington Post named Sally Buzbee its executive director in May; London-based Alessandra Galloni became editor in chief of Reuters in April; and Axios promoted Sara Kehaulani Goo to the top edit role earlier this month.

Shontell served as editor in chief of Insider’s business vertical since 2016. She was the sixth person to join Insider, back in 2008. During her EIC tenure, Shontell doubled newsroom staff to 200, and helped launch its paywall in 2017. She will be in charge of Fortune’s content across the magazine, website, conferences, newsletters, videos, and podcasts, as well as the Fortune Connect platform, an online community for executives. Fortune launched a digital paywall in March 2020, and last year debuted a redesigned print magazine, website and app. Total circulation for the flagship print edition is 653,000, while paying digital subscribers stands at 40,000, according to a spokesperson. The company says it expects a 74% increase in digital revenue in 2021, compared to last year.

Digiday spoke with Shontell about what attracted her to Fortune and what she wants to prioritize there, as well as her thoughts on being the first female editor in chief at the company.

The conversation has been edited and condensed.

What attracted you to this role at Fortune?

I have really enjoyed building a media company from the ground up. I was on the frontlines of building a digital subscription business from scratch. Fortune is a powerful legacy brand that’s been around for 92 years. Now I can apply what I’ve learned over the last 13 years about how to build a digital media company, how to make journalism go even farther and reach people even farther, and fully turbo-charge a legacy newsroom. We need to be nimble. We need to be open-minded and try a lot of things. We have a lot of data at our fingertips, about what readers should care about and what topics we should go deeper in.

What are your first orders of business when you start your new job?

I want to put some systems in place to turbo-charge the subscriptions business even farther at Fortune. I need to know what people are subscribing to and why — what about Fortune makes readers feel like they need to subscribe, that they have to read, when there are a million other publications to choose from? We could define that a bit more, and make that a really obvious answer for people. I want to bring some clarity to that. Part of that is picking areas we want to go deep on for readers, so we don’t boil the business ocean. What can readers come to us for that we are known for that they can’t get anywhere else? That can be tech or finance or investing or markets.

We can also put more data into the hands of the newsroom to inform them, guide them and help them pick the stories that have the most impact and that people care about. More visibility with data is important. It helps the newsroom measure success in a way where they feel what they’re writing about is sustainable. KPIs for a features writer for the magazine is going to be different from what a breaking news reporter is looking at.

Do you plan on keeping the print magazine?

Yes. Having a magazine is a powerful differentiator and something you can really use to your advantage. It’s just a different format for you to reach readers in. It’s a great branding exercise, to be in people’s mailboxes and on their nightstands. It can further amplify a story, and is just another tool that we have under our arsenal that a lot of other publications don’t have. But it can mean getting pulled in a lot of different directions, with different deadlines. It’s an exciting challenge. I always wanted to work with magazines. Fortune is in a really good place with theirs, with its number of subscriptions.

What’s it like to know you’re the first female editor in chief at Fortune?

It’s a complete honor. While some people might think, “Why did it take 92 years for you to be here?” on the flipside, one of the really cool things about being a woman in business is that you can have a historic career. You can have these firsts, and what you do with your career can have a big impact. Other women might think: how can I be in one of those seats? It hopefully encourages more young women to strive for giant business careers. I have that in my mom. She was a business executive at Fannie Mae for 27 years. I saw that you can have a great family, and you can have a great career. I’m technically still on maternity leave! My baby is three months old and I have a son who is three, and an awesome husband. If I can just show other women that you don’t have to choose, that you can have both, I hope it helps other people.

It feels like there’s been a lot of attention on business publishers recently, with the way Insider has grown and with Forbes announcing plans to go public via a SPAC. Does this impact Fortune at all?

It’s a very competitive landscape. It’s a very exciting one. There’s no better time to be a business journalist, with tech eating the world and no shortage of things to be explained. It’s a tough time to be a leader of any business right now. People are grappling with lots of different things, like how to motivate their teams in a pandemic, how to work remotely — it’s all very complicated. We can help people make decisions in this complicated world, and what they need to know to help them be better at their jobs. 

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