In conversation with

Hannah Nathanson

Features Director at ELLE

hannah nathanson elle

Introduction

Introduction

Hannah Nathanson has the job of dreaming up and publishing the most relevant and interesting stories for one of the UK’s most forward-thinking women’s magazines. As Features Director at ELLE, she’s often found scouting out new voices and fresh themes. She says: “The features that I find most satisfying are the ones that are shaped as the result of spotting various trends and threading them together to form a really strong and innovative story”. Here, Hannah gives us the lowdown on content at ELLE – from editorial WhatsApp groups to weekend-long, real-life events. And – of course –  she shares some of her favourite stories.

Question and Answer

What stories did you engage with growing up?

From my dad making up bedtime stories about squirrels to The Famous Five and Sweet Valley High books, I read quite widely growing up, and there was always a tradition of storytelling in the family. I remember my uncle doing brilliant voices for The Wind in the Willows characters; he was particularly good at Moley and Ratty! I went through a pretentious stage in my teens when I read Thomas Hardy and I remember vividly picking out, and loving, Where Angels Fear to Tread by E.M Forster from the local library. I’m glad I did go through this stage though, as now I don’t really read any of the classics, which I miss.

"I remember my uncle doing brilliant voices for The Wind in the Willows characters; he was particularly good at Moley and Ratty!"

Do you remember your first experience of magazines? How do you think their cultural currency has changed since then?

I remember buying magazines like Sugar and Cosmo, and my older brothers would always tease me for reading them and then steal them to find out about teenage girls! I always read the magazine supplements when my parents bought the weekend papers, particularly Sunday Times Style and I loved the way they combined everything from fashion to fitness and beauty.

What’s the driving mission behind ELLE?

ELLE is a fashion magazine that is bold, upbeat and forward-looking, with a real focus on the new. It’s also traditionally, and still is, not just about fashion, but the stories around fashion. I’ve always loved how well it combines fashion and features; there is a real emphasis on storytelling, whether that’s via an amazing fashion shoot of the season’s trends or a zeitgeisty feature by a brilliant journalist.

elle magazine michelle williams
"ELLE is a fashion magazine that is bold, upbeat and forward-looking, with a real focus on the new"

Can you name any specific stories you’re especially proud of publishing? Is there a common thread that ties them together?

The features that I find most satisfying are the ones that are shaped as the result of spotting various trends and threading them together to form a really strong and innovative story. A recent example is a big piece we did in the summer of 2018 called ‘Let’s Play Ball’ by Nellie Eden which was all about women’s sports collectives and the rise of team sports. I’ve also enjoyed commissioning a social observation piece on marijuana before other fashion magazines, as well as more entertaining pieces, like Eva Wiseman writing about ‘Generation Flake’.

hannah nathanson bookshelves
bookshelf hannah nathanson

What do you look for in a pitch?

It’s an obvious one, but conciseness! And something that hasn’t been featured in previous issues of ELLE. It immediately shows the journalist hasn’t done their research or read ELLE for a while. I also instantly delete emails that say: “I thought the idea would be a perfect fit for Stylist [or any other magazine]…”. You’d be surprised how often this happens!

What do you love to see in a press release? And what do you hate to see?

Again a short, well-written press release is much more eye catching than a really wordy, convoluted one. I personally prefer a short email, with an attached PDF, and an image really helps too.

How important is it for writers to have an influential profile themselves? And what can you do to get your ideas heard if you don’t (e.g. networking events)?

When I receive pitches from any writers, or if I’ve enjoyed an article elsewhere and am looking up the writer, it always helps if they have a good website with links to their published work. I’ve also rediscovered Twitter recently, which I’ll use to see what kind of profile and engagement they have. ELLE has always been big on finding and championing new writers so I’m always open to giving a chance to less established names. I’d say it’s really important for writers to get time with editors – I end up commissioning most writers whom I’ve met and discussed ideas with.

new york magazine
"We’re all obsessed with New York Magazine"

What does the average ELLE editorial meeting look like? Are there are go-to websites or platforms you use to come up with story ideas?

We’re all obsessed with New York Magazine and we have a WhatsApp group which is constantly pinging with interesting articles or Instagram posts – it’s like a continual features meeting, which is great. Everyone is invited to the features meetings we have to discuss ideas, and I normally ask everyone to bring 2-3 well-formed ideas (with a working title and a rough sell). I also sometimes ask people to bring one bad idea, which is a trick I learnt from a previous editor, and I find by the end of the meeting we normally have turned the absurd, ‘bad’ idea into a really good feature!

“I think live events are key to the success, and future, of media brands.”

You oversaw and ran the ELLE Weekender which hosted live panel discussions on a range of subjects from poetry to team sports. What’s the role of IRL events for media companies today?

I think live events are key to the success, and future, of media brands. There are stats that show how much consumers invest in ‘experiences’ and when we do events at ELLE it’s always great to meet the readers – it helps you remember who you’re creating the magazine for! The ELLE Weekender was a huge success in its first year and the panel discussions were incredibly popular; they’re a chance for a feature to come alive and for readers to come and meet the influencers or designers or sportswomen they follow on social media and feel a part of something.

What other magazines do you think are covering women’s stories in interesting ways?

I love Riposte because it does the unexpected and yet also doesn’t take itself too seriously – I will always read it from front to back in one go. I also enjoy The Gentlewoman for its class and quality of journalism. I’m always in awe of zines like gal-dem and the football/fashion-focused Season by Felicia Pennant. One of my favourite supplement issues of 2018 was when Liv Little and her team took over The Guardian Weekend magazine.

magazines on desk
riposte no mans land magazines

What are the best books by women authors that you’ve read recently and why did you love them?

I am a huge fan of Olivia Laing and was completely blown away by Crudo, which I read while on holiday on my own in Italy (if you’ve read it you’ll understand this is probably one of the reasons I loved it so much). I loved how academic and layered it was, and I vividly remember lines like: “she hated him, she hated any kind of warmth or dependency, she wanted to take up residence as an ice cube in a long glass of aqua frizzante.” I’ve also recently finished Milkman by Anna Burns which I can’t stop thinking about. It was described as a ‘difficult’ book and I loved it for that reason. I also loved how none of the characters had names, it was all ‘maybe-boyfriend’ and ‘Somebody McSomebody’ which somehow really fired up my imagination. I’m currently reading Jessica Andrews’ Saltwater which I think is going to be a big hit when it comes out this Spring. She’s definitely one to watch.

"I’ve also recently finished Milkman by Anna Burns which I can’t stop thinking about"
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