Journalist Teryn Payne speaks to challenges Black women face in the industry

By Grace Asiegbu
Medill Reports

Teryn Payne, director of strategic communications and logistics for Chance the Rapper and former deputy editor and project manager of the Chicagoist, walked into Dollop Coffee Company in relaxed, casual joggers and a sweatshirt under her black puffer coat. Payne, 25, sits somewhere between communications newbie and magazine veteran. While the Chicagoist website says it “will be launching later” and tells readers to enjoy the archives, she confirmed there is no set date yet. She discussed how to look for jobs and follow your dreams.

How did you get to where you’re at right now?

My first job was at Ebony. It’s crazy the way I got it. Kathy Chaney [now at the Sun-Times], was the NABJ (National Association of Black Journalists) president at the time, and she worked at Ebony. When I was on my job search, she had just gotten hired as a managing editor. I knew her a little bit because she visited my undergraduate NABJ chapter. I wanted to move to New York, and they had an office in New York. She put me in contact with the digital managing editor in New York. I had informational interviews. An informational interview is when you email an editor or hiring manager or HR person, and you tell them like, “Hey, I’m interested in applying. Can we just talk?” So, in that case, a job may not necessarily be open, but you can still establish that relationship with that person. In the magazine world, the turnover is so high. Somebody can say there’s nothing open this week and next week, the position will be open. The managing editor in the New York office wanted me to meet his boss, the editor-in-chief at the Chicago office. Of course, I took it seriously and met with her. I was so nervous because … she’s the editor-in-chief! She turned out to be one of the nicest — she’s like my mentor to this day. We just gelled in that moment.

Ebony had some well-publicized issues regarding staffing and payment, especially with freelancers. Did this affect you at all?

I was laid off — everyone was, including my boss. It was a company-wide layoff. I went into work, and it was like, “Yeah, you don’t have a job anymore.” I was devastated. That was my first industry job! I was like, “OK, I’m going to just move to New York now.”  I spent the whole summer interviewing and doing the same thing that I did the first time, but I had more connections so that helped me. I finally got the associate digital editor position at Teen Vogue.

And what was that like?

I had to move to New York in two weeks after I got that position. I did the typical New York move — I stayed on a friend’s couch for two months while I looked for an apartment and worked a high-stress job. The culture was like that of “Devil Wears Prada,” seriously. It was really cutthroat. It wasn’t like that at Ebony. I was the youngest person on the team. I was like the little sister. But when I got to Teen Vogue, everyone’s around my age. Everyone is looking at each other like competition.

Is everyone cut out for this life?

No! There are barriers — gender barriers, racial barriers, even communication barriers. The magazine world is so competitive. You have to really want it, because if not, you’ll be miserable.

What obstacles, if any, have you had to deal with because you’re a black woman?

I will say that magazine is like digital and is getting more diverse. I loved being at Ebony because I was around black people at the time. I talked about issues that we cared about. We were all on the same page as far as like, politics, culture and stuff. Then I get to Teen Vogue and I felt like I had to flag myself to make myself more visible in that space. Even my hair…how I was going to do my hair became a big deal. On staff, having to deal with ignorant remarks and not being cast as “angry.” I think I was most surprised that the cutthroat culture of Teen Vogue extended even to other black employees. All skinfolk ain’t kinfolk.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Photo at top: Payne is a two-time alumna of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, receiving both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism. (Courtesy of Teryn Payne)