Kjerstin Johnson completed Portland State University’s master’s program in writing and publishing in 2011. The same year, she took over as Editor-in-Chief of Bitch Magazine. Kjerstin was gracious enough to sit down with me on a recent afternoon to talk shop—about Ooligan, the Portland State University MFA program, and Bitch.
Kjerstin Johnson: I graduated college in Minnesota and came to Portland to intern at Bitch. This was in the summer of 2008. I was a hostess at a restaurant, and then I worked at a movie theater and I was volunteering at the Independent Publishing Resource Center. I thought my internship was ending, and my mom—who worked at PSU—was pressuring me to go to grad school, but I didn’t want to go.
And you were an editorial intern here?
Yes. But then I became the first new media intern, and worked on what was then our podcast. So I was looking through Portland State’s book, and I think because of my work at Bitch and at the IPRC, I [saw] this program that was about independent publishing, and I didn’t have to take the GREs, I got a tuition discount, and I could stay in Portland—and that’s how I got into grad school.
And then I got hired on at Bitch to do web stuff. I was the web content manager. I was writing blog posts and learning how Drupal worked, doing mostly website work and not magazine stuff.
What was your undergraduate degree?
I was a sociology major. I just think it’s really interesting how so much is socially constructed… and I feel like that’s what we do at Bitch when we look at how messages shape our perceptions of the world. I still think about things in that way, all the time. When I came to the publishing program, everyone had an English degree, and I feel like I had a different perspective on things.
When you applied to the program, what were your goals and expectations?
I think at the beginning I was just trying to figure out, how does this work? How can this help my job at Bitch? So I took a class on new media, and I wrote a paper about how publications were using podcasts, because I thought that would be helpful. And I sort of fell into writing.
What kind of stuff did you work on at Ooligan?
In Intro to Editing, we were given the Blue Thread manuscript, and one of our big projects was to do a developmental edit on it. This was before it had been accepted. And I remember I was like, oh, whatever, here’s what I thought about this book… and then I looked at my work and thought, this is bad, and I just went overtime, reread it thoroughly, and made a bunch of notes. It was really intense, but I did a big edit on it that I thought was good. And that [experience] put me over the edge with editing; it took me to the next step, where I realized that you really have to dig into the work.
I had no desire to head up a department or be in charge of anything. I worked in the marketing department, which I enjoyed because I liked writing copy and doing research.
My biggest Ooligan project was with the editing team. I was doing editing stuff over the summer, and I did a pretty thorough developmental edit of Rethinking Paper and Ink. This was after I had [taken] editing and advanced editing. And then I think I did a copy edit of Brew to Bikes.
Okay so back to Bitch: how did you transition from new media to Editor-in-Chief?
Well, I definitely think that my work at Ooligan was a factor, because after taking the editing classes and working on Rethinking Paper and Ink, when it came time for production of the magazine… I always really enjoyed working on the magazine, so I would be doing web stuff but I would tell Andi [Zeisler, Bitch cofounder and then-editor] to let me know if she wanted me to proofread anything—and then I think it just coincided with Andi wanting to move on from doing day-to-day magazine stuff. Now she’s Editorial/Creative Director, and she does speaking engagements and book projects and stuff like that. I had been at Bitch for years, they’d seen me go through the program, and they asked me to be Editor-in-Chief.
Tell me what your job looks like on a given day.
Well, there’s a lot of email correspondence with writers—mostly with writers. It depends on where we are in the magazine cycle. We have content meetings every week, and this is not how other publications work, but the majority of our content is pitched to us from freelance writers. We don’t have staff writers; we don’t come up with ideas in-house. Sometimes we do, but for the most part it’s discussing the pitches that come into us. It’s a group thing, and I’m very grateful to the people I work with who help me make those decisions. Occasionally something will fall through, or we’ll have a hole, or we’ll have an idea for something we want covered, and we’ll think of a way to cover it.
One thing that was really useful from the editing program was [learning that] editing is half actual editing, and half crafting edits to give back to the writer. So at any given point I’m emailing with authors about whether their piece is coming in, I’m giving edits back, I’m making arrangements for the next issue, figuring out logistics as far as payment for the past issue, and also working with other people at Bitch about the magazine release or design issues…
Bitch is still widely read, and it’s still available in print. Can you talk about how the magazine has dealt with changes in the industry?
When I started at Bitch, we had a very different online presence. But all publications need to have a web presence, and we’ve had two really great web editors—Kelsey Wallace and Sarah Mirk—who have taken the reins on that.
Similarly, our financial folks have done a good job of emphasizing that subscriptions and sustainers are really important. That’s the bulk of our income. And we’ve tried to get a better grasp on how the magazine industry works. I think it’s even more messed up than the book industry, in terms of antiquated systems and delivery methods, but we pulled out from Borders just in time, and we’re being really selective about which stores to send the magazine to. We’ve sold out the past couple issues, and while I would like to think that’s because we did a bunch of great content, I also think it’s because we’ve been more savvy about eliminating waste and not printing magazines we don’t need to. “Rethinking Paper and Ink!”
Got any school/work/life advice for people in the program?
Figure out what you want to do and what you’re good at—for me that was writing and editing—and then take all the classes you can in that. Find a problem that needs a solution. Find a place you want to be and make yourself work for them. You should read a lot. You should read things about the industry, read different forms of media. It’s also important to read about things that don’t affect your industry; to know what’s going on in the world. And I think being in the program to begin with is a good step.