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Inspiring Stories, Inspiring People

Maria Streshinsky, editor

Maria Streshinsky, editor

Maria Streshinsky is a magazine industry star. She made a name for herself as the managing editor of the Atlantic Monthly before returning to her home state of California to take the reigns as editor in chief of Pacific Standard, a magazine dedicated to research-driven stories on national and international issues. Check out the magazine or follow her on twitter @mstreshinsky.


PPF: When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?

MS: When I was 12, my parents took me to New York on one of their work trips. We went to tour the United Nations, and I turned to my dad and said I wanted to work for the UN. My parents were clear with me and my brothers: “Whatever you do, make sure it helps people.” Both my parents struggled as freelancers—one year things would be good, then another year would be tight. But we grew up in a house where you were your work. You were a writer or you were a photojournalist. You didn’t leave your work behind at five.

PPF: Tell me a little bit about your upbringing in Berkeley.

MS: My father was a photojournalist who was at the forefront of some of the big movements that began in California and gripped the nation. He was shooting for Look, Life, Time, Saturday Evening Post. When I was born, Tom Wolfe was staying at our house. Dad and Wolfe were covering the Merry Pranksters, and out of that story came Wolfe’s Electric Koolaid Acid Test. Dad was hanging out with Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, and Janis Joplin, and Joan Didion, and documenting the whole movement.

Mom was writing major pieces for national and local women’s magazines of the time—health and social sciences and crime pieces. She did one of the very early stories on teens and eating disorders, and one on child abuse, and murder stories. Her passion was serious issues affecting women.

These days, parents don’t want their kids to watch the news. My parents required us to watch the news every night and be socially conscious of what was happening. I can’t help but think that my childhood made me inclined to do what I do today. I’m covering the West Coast at a peak moment—when the nation is pivoting West, and California is in dire straits, and Asia is on the rise—trying to cover the kinds of issues my parents were passionate about.

PPF: So you obviously aren’t working for the UN. When did you become a journalist?

MS: I had this kid-like idea that my dad was famous. He had photos of Rock Hudson and Natalie Wood in our house. My mom had written four books by the time I got out of college. I knew that I wanted to head in the direction of book publishing or magazines. So in the early ‘90s, I was just out of college and the economy wasn’t exactly booming, but I got lucky. My mom knew Lynn Ferrin, the editor in chief of Motorland, which became VIA. Lynn gave me a three-month assignment to compile an events column. I did it in a week, so Lynn hired me full time. I learned about writing and magazine building and also transforming a magazine. We re-launched the magazine from Motorland to VIA. Every time I’d get restless, Lynn would move me up the masthead. She was such a great mentor. She always sent me on assignments to get me into nature—into the woods, the wilderness, on the river. Other than my parents, she had the biggest influence on my life.

PPF: Lynn passed away last year of cancer. How did her death affect you?

MS: We were such good friends. She never had any kids, and she left me her house—which is an amazing gift, and an amazing house. She gave me a place to come home to, a bird’s nest in San Francisco. We had a safe deposit box together. I went to close it the other day. I had to take everything out of that box, and hand over the key. It was heartbreaking.

PPF:  You left magazines for a stint in Washington, D.C. in 2005. What job took you there?

MS:  I ended up working in public information at the Department of the Interior as a liaison between Interior and the media. That was one of the best experiences in journalism – to understand how things worked from inside. I loved sitting in Senate hearings, and I loved being on Capitol Hill. I loved getting deep into the issues, but I missed magazine-making. And then one day, I saw my dream job on Editorial production manager at the Atlantic. I got the job. And pretty quickly they turned my position into managing editor.

PPF: Tell me what it was like to win your dream job.

MS: I didn’t grow up in the East Coast Ivy League world, so there were parts of it that were intimidating at first. I’d sit in these meetings where names were thrown around, and I was writing them down and googling them after the meetings. But I was so excited to be a part of a magazine that had been so pivotal in the history of this country. I was thrilled, giddy, I was having so much fun. It was some of the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life—well, until this job—but the people I worked with made me sharper every day. And we were putting out work that was being read in the West Wing. We did a big piece in the middle of the health care debate, and David Brooks suggested in his New York Times column that if the President reads one story on health care, it should be this one. I never made it to the UN, but here I was putting stuff into the hands of decision makers.

PPF: So what on earth would cause you to leave your dream job?

MS:  California is home. I felt a bit like a fish out of water in D.C. —not at my job, but in the city, on the East Coast. Problem is, there are so few magazines based in California. I was coming back and forth to take care of Lynn, who’d been diagnosed with brain cancer, and on one of those visits home I had lunch with a woman from Miller-McCune. I thought she just wanted to hear how things worked at The Atlantic, but at the end of the lunch, she asked me what I’d do if I were editor of Miller-McCune. Turns out it was a job interview. When I got the offer it was the most joyful and sad moment, because I couldn’t believe my good fortune in being handed a magazine on my coast that dealt with serious issues, and being asked to take it to the next level. But it meant that I had to leave The Atlantic and all the people I worked with there who’d become family. But there are a lot of people rooting for a big-thinking magazine from a big-thinking state.

PPF: What’s the bravest thing you’ve ever done?  

MS: Quitting my Atlantic job. I worked so well with the editor and editor in chief. But both of them knew I had to do this. It was a convergence of everything I’d wanted. I can do this here better than I could do it anywhere else.

PPF: So you’re the Editor in Chief of Pacific Standard, formerly Miller-McCune.

MS: The staff and I had spent a good six months talking about what the next iteration of this magazine could be. The new name came from my staff. We’re trying to do with a small amount of people what every other magazine of our size does with double or triple the people. We’re just getting our footing. The edges are getting smoother. It’s nonstop. It’s intense. It’s my life.

PPF: You went to UC Santa Cruz. What did you study in college? 

MS: English American Comparative Literature.

PPF: Was that helpful?

MS:  I never thought so until I got to The Atlantic.

PPF: What do you believe makes a good journalist?

MS: I think there are three things that make top journalists. And it’s a rare combination. First: being a really good reporter, knowing what questions to ask next and knowing when to listen. Then combine that with knowing how to take a reader from A to Z, structuring a story, knowing which facts to pick to bring a reader to a conclusion with you. And the third—and often most lacking—is a mastery of language, knowing when you’re using too many words, or not enough, or not the right word. It’s finding the perfect voice.

PPF: Who are a few of the good ones, off the top of your head?

MS: Hanna Rosin, Jeffrey Goldberg, Chris Jones, and Josh Green are a few who come to mind.

PPF: What has been the lowest point in your career?

MS: I went to New York six months after 9/11 because I felt that was where I should be. I interviewed at all the top magazine houses. But I just didn’t know how to interview. People got me great access, and I’d walk in and say, “I’ll do anything.” Which isn’t what a human resources person wants to hear. I got work at Hearst publications for awhile. I look back on how much I did wrong, especially in the Condé Nast offices.

PPF: What has been the highest point so far?

MS:  To be honest, when I’ve been able to introduce myself as the editor of this magazine. I hired Marc Cooper to interview Jerry Brown, and Brown gave us his first one-on-one interview in many months.

PPF: What is essential to help you do your best work?

MS: My staff. I can’t do it without them. The greatest job I have is building a staff that can pull this off.

PPF: Describe your version of the perfect day.

MS: Right now, waking up in the High Sierras. I can think better up there. Or maybe I don’t, but I could use the big open space.

PPF: Who most inspires you and why?

MS: I feel like I’m the luckiest person in the world because of the people I know, and who my parents were, my friendships, colleagues and personal friends. I feel like I know the smartest, most thoughtful people who I can call and they pull me out of my own head and inspire me. I have two friends in their 40s who both had recent hysterectomies because of cancer. One just a few months after her second mastectomy—and she has three kids. She inspires me.

PPF: What job could you never, ever, do, no matter how broke you were?

MS: Selling reverse mortgages to the elderly.

PPF: Scariest thing you’ve ever done?

MS: Running the Yampa River in Dinosaur National Monument. There’s one big rapid called Warm Springs. Our guide hit a wave wrong at the top of the rapid and we started sliding toward the hole they call a “washing machine.” If you go into that hole, it’s pretty dangerous. We had a lot of water in the boat. I was in the front of with a guy who was really scared. As we came closer to the edge of that hole, the guide was screaming for us to hang on—screaming! We skimmed the edge of the hole, and were beyond it.  We were all high with adrenaline, excitement, and fear. The guy next to me was white as a ghost. Later he told me that he knew we’d be OK because, he said, as we were coming close to the hole, apparently I turned to him and calmly said, “Don’t worry, we’re all going to be okay.” I have no memory of saying that, though. Maybe sometimes being brave is about being calm.

PPF: What is the best advice you ever got?

MS: The only constant is change.

PPF: What do you want your last meal on earth to be?

MS: Breakfast would be cilantro scrambled eggs from Teaism in D.C. And I don’t even like cilantro. Can I have a last dinner too? Pizza from the Cheese Board in Berkeley.

PPF: What’s on your bedside table right now?

MS: The New Yorker, the Atlantic, Kevin Starr’s California: A History, and a ratty copy of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and Losing Mum and Pup, Christopher Buckley’s book. Too much!

PPF: What’s the trip you keep talking about taking “one day?”

MS: Going back down the Yampa River. It’s the only river in the Colorado river system that doesn’t have a dam on it, so the water flows freely.

PPF: First concert you ever went to?

MS: The Pretenders  at the Greek Theater, and I was 12. Then when I was 13 I snuck out and went to see Y&T and The Scorpions at the Cow Palace—I got grounded for that.

PPF: Best concert you ever went to?

MS: That time you got us back stage passes at the KFOG Kaboom concert on the pier in San Francisco—my mom watched on TV, looking for us in the crowd, and I got to tell her, “We weren’t in the crowd. We were on stage.” That was amazing.

PPF: What song would be the title track to the soundtrack of your life?

MS: California Stars, by Wilco

PPF:  I love that song. What are you really good at that would surprise a lot of people?

MS: I’m really durable. Does that work? I was with friends backpacking in Maui. And they were all more technically athletic than I am, but I was the most hearty. I just have a lot of tolerance, and endurance, sometimes.

PPF: If you could interview someone and ask him/her these questions, who would it be?

MS: Robert Downey Jr.



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