News

April 18, 2008

Managing Magazine Chaos

Following stints at Cosmopolitan, Giant, and Talk, Sara Culley ’96 leads staff at Elle

By Dan Edelen

Keen-eyed visitors to the offices of Elle magazine in New York City might catch sight of a blur zooming from desk to desk. That would be managing editor Sara Culley ’96. With titles like Cosmopolitan, Giant, and Talk on her resume, she’s gained a reputation for mastering the chaos that defines magazine publishing.

“I don’t write and I don’t edit. I don’t have time. Instead, I manage,” Culley says. Her job entails being “mother, babysitter, sheriff, negotiator, counselor, the ‘heavy’, and taskmaster.” Pulling all the pieces together to make deadline requires another skill: tenacity. If it means “doing the old soft-shoe for the art department just to get them laughing,” she’ll do it. Until the latest issue goes out the door, though, she’s focused. “When that last page is shipped you can take a breath and let people relax.”

Culley credits Lafayette with bolstering her directorial skills. “I was an English major, but my focus was theater,” she says. For her senior thesis she wrote and staged Playing in the Outfield, which put her in the director’s chair for the first time. As stage manager of Sunday in the Park with George, she oversaw sound, lighting, staging, casting, and rehearsals. Culley also may have foretold her future in managing craziness by playing the role of Nurse Ratched in Lafayette’s production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Culley jokes, “I was Lafayette-bound from the womb.” Her family graduated several Leopards: her father, Kent Culley ’62; uncles, David Culley ’58 and Greg Culley ’60; sister, Lara Culley Mullen ’89; and brother, Jim Culley ’92. With pride, she also notes her mother, Merle Rieben Culley, was voted Miss Lafayette in 1962.

Direction after Lafayette proved less sure. Culley returned to her hometown of Pittsburgh and again called on her theatrical skills, working with casting director Nancy Mosser. Culley helped cast the films Dogma and Desperate Measures and the mini-series The Temptations. She also worked for the local public television station, WQED, as a production assistant doing research for the documentary Facing Welfare Reform.

“You wear different hats and do whatever’s needed,” she says. “You also learn to be resourceful and manage your time well.”

But sensing she needed to make a move, Culley left for New York City in 1998, bunking with her sister. She made fruitless searches for work in advertising. “I learned to play Tetris and wondered why I ever moved to New York,” she recalls. Getting nowhere in the ad world, she began temping at media companies around town.

One of those positions would change her life: Talk magazine.

Talk, itself the talk of the publishing world as the brainchild of former New Yorker editor Tina Brown, called Culley to interview for an editorial assistant position. Despite a childhood fascination with the glossies and confessing to a friend after college, “I’d really love to work in magazines,” she balked. A month later, Culley found herself temping at Talk. The vibe at the magazine piqued her interest. Then, as she says, “[Renowned screenwriter and playwright] Tom Stoppard got off the elevator and I told them I’d stay.”

Talk, too, knew it had a winner. “A couple weeks later, I was pulled back into Tina Brown’s office,” she recalls. “They were going to launch that August and she needed all the help she could get.” Working at Talk was invigorating. “I felt like I had been swept up into the eye of a hurricane. It was a frenzy. Every day there was a long list of what needed to happen fast.”

After the launch, the managing editor left, and Culley assimilated the role’s responsibilities while the magazine hunted for a replacement. “When the executive editor calls you into his office to go over lineup changes, you go,” she says. “I was learning as I went along, a little bit of the school of hard knocks.” Her father claims she got her MBA at Talk, she notes.

In 2002, Culley took a deputy managing editor position (she jokes, “I had a badge”) at Cosmopolitan in the wake of Talk. Continuing to master her craft, she moved to Giant in 2005, assuming the role of managing editor.

Then came Elle.

Growing up, Culley recalls a special fondness for the magazine. “My sister started getting Elle and I remember poring over it as a kid and having the covers stick in my mind. It was this ‘wow’ feeling.” Culley got her opportunity to feel that exhilaration anew when she arrived at Elle in 2006.

Elle also gave her the chance to use one of her hobbies, photography. Culley and a writer from Elle accompanied President Clinton to Africa to do a story on the Clinton Foundation’s charitable work there. She also shot video that was featured on Elle’s web site.

Because of the hectic nature of the magazine business, Culley finds her respite in the slower pace of gardening. She also plays tennis and enjoys the media bowling league.

Still, she loves the work.

“Each magazine has taught me different skills that I have been able to apply to the next position. And being able to satisfy both sides of my brain has sustained me,” she says. “I get to be involved in the creative process as well as problem solving on a daily basis. The combination has been extremely fulfilling.”

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