FishbowlDC Interview: Stylin’ & Profilin’ with DC‘s Karen Sommer Shalett

KSS.jpg Trading Spaces alum Mario De Armos called her “the most stylish journalist in Washington” and he just might be right. She’s the Editor-in-Chief of DC magazine. She’s stylin and we’re profilin’ Karen Sommer Shalett…

What staple outfit should every reporter own? I once got great advice while interviewing an energy expert at Jim Baker’s think tank in Houston. Her parents had founded the famed department store Louis Boston and she had been a journalist prior to becoming a wonk. She told me to always dress for the individual you are interviewing. Match their level of formality no matter how high or low to gain confidence and trust. I’ve covered fashion, alongside every other aspect of lifestyle reporting, for a decade this January. It is amazing the pschyographics you can learn by looking at how a source presents him or herself and you can be sure that source is trying to size you up in the same way. Though I would beg news anchors to begin dressing for this millennium. I don’t know that making the mainstream audience identify with you is as important as making them believe you are sophisticated and smart. We found that with our President. People decided they actually did want someone smarter than them making the decisions and explaining them. Although, I guess that doesn’t explain Glenn Beck.

What one product could you not live without? Not to get mawkish, but my husband Scott and I lost our house and everything in it during Hurricane Katrina. I was covering New Orleans for the Times-Picayune. It is a really trippy place to be – reporting on stuff and losing all of yours, and then covering an entire population who lost theirs, too. I learned immediately that other than my family, there is nothing I can’t live without. Now, what would I prefer to have not lost? Oh, those Chanel cap-toed heels with the Mylar silver ribbons laced up the legs. It’s been four years and clearly I still pine for them.

What has been your biggest career challenge? We moved back to my hometown DC after Katrina. I was pregnant and we already had a two year old. I landed at the Washington Post as a shopping columnist. DC magazine quickly called and scooped me up, five months pregnant. That was the second time in my career that I had been hired full-time while pregnant – which to me, says a lot about our industry. However, as I was giving birth (I mean literally, as I was pushing), my features editor quit and I wound up bringing my newborn to the desk with me 10 days after he was born. In truth, I restructured the magazine after that and I think we are who we are today because of the staff that was hired in the aftermath. However, it was only after the baby was nearly two that I felt our family had truly moved beyond the trauma of the Hurricane, the move and the changes in career.

What working journalist do you most admire? Robin Givhan. I mean, she won the Pulitzer for explaining why I left politics to cover fashion, design and culture. Of all the journalists covering the way we live, Robin brings a sharp-shooting target to every issue and hits it dead on each time. When I was living in Houston and attending Fashion Week, my mom (who lives in Silver Spring) would call me and read aloud what Robin wrote in the Post every day of the shows. I was geek enough to tell Robin about it. She was lovely enough not to call me a stalker.

Find out what store Karen would choose if she could only shop at one for the rest of her life, the proudest moment in her career and what’s happening at DC magazine and more after the jump.

Anything new happening with DC? The magazine rather than the city, right? Well, after many iterations of our digital presence with a really great iPhone app, two different versions of a digital delivery to your email box and a slew of social media tools, we are finally releasing our overhauled, localized, redesigned website in November. And they say print canÂ’t catch up…

If you could only shop at one store for the rest of your life. What would it be? [I picked Target for example]Why? Oh, our advertisers are going to kill me, but honestly I’d agree with you on Target. It isn’t the fashion (though I admit I mix my Go! Collection blouses with my Barneys finds); it is actually the generic food packaging. I think it is the sexiest branding out there and I’m a true sucker for packaging. I guess that’s hardly surprising.

What was the proudest moment in your career? I had been working on a shopping magazine to create new revenue sources for the Times-Pic when Katrina struck. Surely this flimsy thing modeled after Lucky (at Donald Newhouse’s request actually) was dead in the water (yes, I did write that). We all worked remotely to publish the paper in the first months after the storm, so when the staff was called back to the newspaper’s New Orleans HQ in October 2005 I wasn’t sure what would happen to WISH. By November 1, I was tasked with launching this magazine for a “new” New Orleans for publication on December 1. The publication allowed businesses a forum to remind people they were open, created revenue to keep my colleagues on staff and won us a Louisiana Press Association award for our coverage of the way people were living in post-Katrina New Orleans. WISH is still being produced four years later.

The glossy mag space in this city is pretty competitive. What’s best/most unique thing that DC brings to the table? We saw that the city’s cultural community was growing robustly, and this was two years before Obama. We began reporting about innovators that were outside the government space, but nonetheless defining the city (chefs, artists, rock bands fronted by lobbyists). As the Obama administration came to town, we were already uncovering the places, people and happenings that would drive Washington’s new ascent as the country’s hippest city. We continue to unmask those great stories.

Taking a cue from Derek Wallbank, if you were a cartoon superhero, who would you be and why?
Great question. I see you’ve been following Tim Gunn for Marvel. I’ve always loved Wonder Woman’s cuffs and boots, and she’s pretty much the only female superhero who is neither sidekick nor plaything. But I can’t deny my girl crush on Eartha Kitt’s Cat Woman.

What single character trait do you most appreciate in an employee? It’s a toss-up between initiative and creativity…oh and that reporter’s gut. I’ve been told I expect a lot.
Boss? Decisiveness.

Interested in taking a Karen’s mediabistro course, click here.