Q&A with Kristen Bellstrom ‘98, Features Editor, Fortune Magazine
In this interview with the alumni network DukeJournos, alumna Kristen Bellstrom shares how she has navigated her career path in print media since her graduation from Duke in 1998. “Journalism has changed a lot since I got my first reporter job and I’m doing my best to change with it,” she says.
You spent 10 years working at SmartMoney Magazine and then Money Magazine writing and editing stories about travel, retail, cars, real estate, and consumer products. Then you moved over to Fortune Magazine where you started focusing more specifically on women in business. Was that always the direction you wanted to go in, or did gender/women’s issues become more important to you over the course of your career?
I’ve always been interested in journalism for and about women. I’m one of the bajillion women of my generation who were obsessed with Sassy growing up (I actually wrote a paper about it for my Duke senior seminar), and I got into magazine journalism dreaming of working at one of the more feminist-leaning women’s magazines, like Jane or Cindi Leive-era Glamour. But when I got out of journalism school, the reality of the industry was that if you wanted a staff writer job at a print mag, which I very much did, there were a lot more opportunities in business and financial journalism. I was lucky to land at SmartMoney (RIP!), where I learned how much fun it can be to cover the business world — especially when you land the travel beat. When the job at Fortune came along, it felt like a perfect opportunity to blend some of what I’d spent the last decade covering with the topic that brought me to journalism in the first place.
At Fortune, some of your responsibilities include editing The Broadsheet (Fortune’s daily newsletter about the world’s most powerful women) and co-chairing the Most Powerful Women Summit. Were these initiatives your brain-children or did they exist before you took on the job and you’ve been able to add your own twist on them? What key characteristics do you try to imbue within them?
Fortune’s Most Powerful Women franchise — which now includes a pair of lists, a magazine special issue, digital coverage, a number of live events, and The Broadsheet newsletter — has existed in one form or another for more than 20 years. That said, it’s expanded tremendously during my tenure at Fortune, and it’s been a big part of my job to make sure it not only continues to grow, but also evolves. No franchise can last that long if it doesn’t remain relevant and, hopefully, play a role in leading the conversation, so that’s what I aim to do with everything I work on.
When I took over The Broadsheet, it was a little less than a year old. It had already started building a devoted following of readers who loved its smart and concise news curation. I didn’t want to mess with that aspect of it, but I did crave more freedom to share opinions and ideas with readers, so I switched up the format a bit to lead with a short daily column. Another change we made — this one much more recent — was adding to the criteria we use to create our annual Most Powerful Women in Business list. That’s a project where we’ve historically focused really closely on things like how large, profitable, and economically important an executive’s business is. We still very much care about those metrics, but last year we decided to also factor in a more qualitative measure — how the executive is using her power.
So, now we ask: Is she wielding her influence to improve the lives of the company’s workers? The population it serves? The world at large? It’s a high bar, but if you subscribe to the belief that the business world has responsibilities beyond enriching its leaders and shareholders, it’s one you have to consider. Fortune has been around since 1929, so it’s a publication that comes with a deep history and a real sense of tradition. Thinking about when to honor that tradition and when to shake things up to better serve readers and reflect the world we live in is so essential.
You’ve had a number of different roles at Fortune. How has your job changed as you’ve moved up the masthead?
For better or worse, at most small media organizations, it’s not as if a promotion means you just stop doing all the aspects of the job you had before. So, I would say my track at Fortune has been more about expanding the types of projects I work on and having a larger role working with our staff and setting our editorial strategy. One of the best parts of my job is how it’s allowed me to branch out and learn new skills outside of the bread and butter of what I do, which is reporting, writing, and editing. At Fortune I’ve gotten to learn how to program a live journalism event, moderate an entertaining and newsy conversation on-stage, and make a direct and personal connection with readers through a newsletter. Journalism has changed a lot since I got my first reporter job and I’m doing my best to change with it.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years? 20?
Who knows! After working in media for this long, I can tell you that anyone who thinks they can predict where it’s going and what path their career will take is fooling themselves. I try to stay open to the possibilities and embrace the twists and turns.