The magazine industry is under threat. The digitalisation of journalism and the explosion of online content means there’s never been more competition for readers or advertisers. “That’s why I’m obsessed with being different,” says Farrah Storr, editor-in-chief of Elle Magazine.

The fashion magazine has undergone a transformation over the past 18 months to become a super-luxe title. Its print edition is one of a rare few that has actually been invested in recently. The page count has been upped, as has the paper quality. And the website gets 1.3 million unique visitors a month, according to Comscore data.

“I can commission 3,000 word pieces,” says Farrah, who in February was named Editor of Year in the women’s monthly category at the BSME Awards. “The challenge is getting our newer, younger and digital audience to realise the value of long-form journalism on ink and paper.”

In this latest instalment of our Editor Under the Spotlight series, Farrah outlines her career path to the top, discusses being labelled ‘controversial’ and how the pandemic has changed Elle for the better.

How Did You Start Out In Journalism?

To cut a very long story short, when I was a young teenager growing up in Manchester, my elder sister won a writing competition in More Magazine. Part of the prize was work experience in London. It led to a junior writer job there and within 18 months, she was editor. So that opened my eyes to the world of the world of journalism and glossy magazines.

I moved to London for university to study French and English at Kings College with a plan to find work experience on magazines in my spare time. I knew that was the only time I’d ever be able to work for free. I started out doing music reviews by doing vox pops outside gigs late at night for Q magazine and when I graduated my cuttings helped me get a features assistant job at Woman & Home magazine.

What’s Been Your Route To The Top?

I did the opposite of what everyone usually tells you to do. I moved around very quickly – every 18 months or so. I was very ambitious, very driven and needed earn more money. Each time, I was taking a promotion and worked my way up from features writer at Good Housekeeping to features director at Marie Claire in Australia, which I was terrible at!

When I got back to England, I freelanced briefly – which taught me to treat freelancers well – before I got a job as deputy editor on Top Sante. I was there when I got offered the editor job on the soon to launch Women’s Health.

“I did the opposite of what everyone usually tells you to do. I moved around very quickly – every 18 months or so.”

Farrah Storr

Until I took that job, I’d never really found what I was good at. I liked running a small team and having the freedom to be creative. Women’s Health was a really successful magazine launch and the making of me in a way.

When Cosmo was relaunched, the CEO at the time asked me to run it. My team and I got the circulation up by 59 percent by keeping the older audience but bringing in younger readers as well.

Then Elle came along and despite someone telling me early on in my career I wasn’t the ‘type’ for a fashion magazine, here I am at the magazine I always wanted to work on – at the very top.

So my advice to anyone wanting to progress in journalism is to move quickly – if you do a good job and understand audiences and what sells, you really can do anything. And always look for opportunities – that’s particularly important if you hate networking, like me.

When you put plus-sized model Tess Holliday on the cover of Cosmo, a healthy vs unhealthy row erupted and you ended up in a heated TV clash with Piers Morgan. Your recent Elle cover showing a lesbian couple kissing also caused a stir. Do you like to provoke a reaction?

People often tell me I’m a controversial editor. But I don’t think of myself that way at all. What I’m interested in is the other side of the story. I like freelancers who come to me with ideas that no-one else has the balls to publish. From those ideas, I see the headline, the cover line, how I’m going to sell it, how it’ll cut through the white noise from all the other content that’s out there because it’s got a point of difference.

What I’m interested in is putting stories and issues in front of people and giving them the facts.

I got into journalism to help people make up their own minds, not tell them what to think. But I do see it as my job as an editor to get the world talking – and that’s what some of my covers have done.

How Have You And Elle Fared During The Pandemic?

Well, I haven’t had my hair cut in a year and I’ve done a lot of gardening, which has become a passion I advise everyone to take up.

But on a more serious note, things have changed a lot. Now a large part of my time is spent having one-on-ones with my staff to make sure they’re doing ok.

It can also be difficult at times to ignite creativity when you can’t all huddle together. Of course, we’re all on Zoom but it’s not the same.

We’ve also just hired a features director who lives and works in Cheshire. There’s no way we would have done that before but now none of us can think of a reason why it’s not going to work.

Farrah Storr

We’ve also had to adapt to the change in culture. People aren’t shopping the way they were so we’re doing more on styling your existing wardrobe and we’ve started doing lots more on homes and gardens.

But there are also clear benefits to have come from the situation. We’ve had to break up our existing networks and work with lots of new contributors who have no previous connections to Elle and it’s been brilliant. We’ve also just hired a features director who lives and works in Cheshire. There’s no way we would have done that before but now none of us can think of a reason why it’s not going to work.

The Commission: “Tell me about the secret lives of women”

I know how hard it is to get into the business and everywhere I’ve worked, I’ve brought in initiatives that provide opportunity for people who are outside the sphere of influence and don’t know anyone in the media. That’s how Cosmo House, which offered young writers paid work with somewhere to stay, came to be.

At Elle, our September 2020 issue was done in partnership with the Social Mobility Commission. We brought 12 young women, 16 to 18-year olds who have had very little career guidance or access to the creative industries, from across the UK to London to do paid work on the issue. And they are now being mentored by my team.

Diversity and opportunity are at the heart of what we do at Elle, so I invite WiJ members to pitch me an 800-word article for our series The Secret Lives of Women. This is an ongoing series where ELLE looks at the secret, sometimes shocking lives women live beneath the surface. The piece will feature online and the fee will be £240

Make sure you have point of difference and convince me that your unique experience makes you the best person to tell the story. Don’t be afraid to pitch a big idea.

Email your pitch to wijpitchtome@gmail.com by Monday 22 March, including a suggested headline, a photo of any case study and proof of your Women in Journalism membership – either the month your direct debit goes out, or for new members the date you joined.

In January, Women in Journalism member Maxine Boersma secured a £750 fee through the Editor Under the Spotlight pitch she submitted to Josephine Forster at the Daily Mail’s Femail Magazine. And Ashlee Elizabeth-Lolo, secured a £400 Hello! commission and her first byline in the national press when she pitched.