When Alyson Shontell ’08 was approached about becoming the new editor in chief of Fortune, she wasn’t looking for a new job.
She was less than a week away from her second child’s birth and loved her job as editor in chief of Insider. However, as she heard more about the role and new challenges she would face, Shontell got more enthusiastic about the opportunity.
It was exciting not only to lead a legacy print publication like Fortune into the digital era but also to become the first female editor in chief in the publication’s 92-year history.
“I was excited about my other job, but I’ve been doing it for five years, so it was just a new chance to take what I had learned and apply it in a great way to really help another organization,” Shontell says. “That was extremely compelling, and having the chance to join Fortune is an incredible opportunity, so who could ultimately say no to that?”
Shontell has made a career of searching out opportunities to develop and use her skills in new ways and saying yes to the more compelling and sometimes riskier career choice.
She came to Syracuse with a passion for the magazine world but chose a dual major in psychology and advertising. While at the time it was her dream job to work at Condé Nast, she thought if she could use an advertising degree to get an understanding of the business aspect of media, she could work anywhere in the media industry.
Amy Falkner, associate professor of advertising and senior associate dean of academic affairs, remembers teaching Shontell in achallenging class on media sales. While most of the students who took the class were seniors, Shontell was a junior. Falkner says Shontell stood out immediately for her leadership abilities, creativity and eagerness to learn. Those qualities and Shontell’s natural “nose for business” were a rare combination to see in a student, Falkner says.
“I could see this kid is doing something different. I don’t know what her path is, but it’s not going to be an agency in New York City on Madison Ave, it’s going to be something different,” Falkner says. “When you have the smarts and can earn the respect, that helps you lead. If you also have a leadership style that people gravitate to, then that’s the package, and that’s what she has.”
From the beginning of her time at Newhouse, Shontell was determined to develop a successful career. She applied for a very competitive internship at Condé Nast the summer before her senior year. She didn’t have any connections at the company, so she designed her résumé, portfolio and cover letter to mimic a Condé Nast magazines in order to stand out. She got the internship and thought she was going to stay at Condé Nast and work up to her dream job.
However when her mentor at Condé Nast, Julie Hanson, outlined the business problems print publications were facing and offered Shontell a position at a digital media startup, Shontell took a leap of faith and said yes. The risk paid off. Shontell was the sixth employee of what is now known as Insider.
“Being on the ground floor of a budding industry like that at a startup where I could really help figure out what this new media could look like became a far bigger opportunity than I could have ever imagined,” Shontell says. “As the company scaled, my career scaled with it… suddenly I was the foremost expert in digital because nobody had more experience in it than I did.”
Shontell spent her first two years at Insider working on the business side of the startup before shifting to reporting. She quickly developed a beat covering Silicon Valley and worked as a senior technology correspondent for almost four years before becoming an executive editor.
When the founder and first editor in chief of Insider left for a job at CNBC Digital, Shontell knew that other journalists with prestigious awards and longer careers would be applying to fill his position, but she didn’t let that dampen her ambition.
“I always knew I wanted to run a newsroom. So when I saw that seat open, I did an assessment of myself, looked around the room to see who else might be in the running and figured, why not throw my hat in the ring? I wasn’t the perfect candidate, but then, who would be? Sometimes you wait until you feel like you checked every box, but I figured, what do I have to lose?”
Shontell was chosen to be the editor in chief of Insider after only a year and a half as an executive editor, making her both the youngest and first female editor in chief of an international business publication. In her time in that role, the newsroom changed drastically and faced a lot of challenges, including introducing a subscription service, doubling the staff and expanding coverage. Now she is leading Fortune through one of its biggest changes from a print-first publication to a digital-first publication with a print component.
“I am compelled by the idea of revitalizing such a storied brand,” Shontell says. “They do incredible journalism at Fortune, they always have, and it’s why they have the reputation that they have, but I know that there are things that I bring to the table that could significantly help bring it into the digital era.”
Shontell knows the change will be a challenge, but she is excited for it. As for being the first female editor in chief at Fortune, Shontell says it just motivates her more to succeed.
“I am the first, but I am certainly not the last,” Shontell says. “There are many others that will come after me.”
Falkner has been following Shontell’s career closely since she left Newhouse and has always had confidence Shontell was on the path to something bigger.
“Some people say, ‘Why me?’ or, ‘Why did I get this?’ Others say, ‘Why not me? Of course I can do this.’ That’s a big difference, right? That’s Alyson: ‘Why not me? I can do this,’” Falkner says.
Elizabeth Kauma is a senior in the magazine program at the Newhouse School.