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Emma Banks

POSITION
Editorial Director
COMPANY
LOCATION
New York
INSTAGRAM

MEET THE TEAM! This Generation’s Editor, Emma Banks moved to New York a little more than four years ago in pursuit of a career in media and soon after moving, she got her start at Milk.xyz. From Editorial Assistant all the way to Editorial Director, Emma has played a key role in developing and shaping Milk’s editorial content; through collaborating both internally and externally, she ensures that each piece of content fits the bill of both representing and serving the Milk community. Read on to hear more about the downsides of studying journalism in college, how to measure success when page views are not a factor, and the necessity of growing thick(ish) skin.

This interview took place over the phone between Emma in New York and Tate in Los Angeles
Editor: Lily Sperry; Photography Adair Smith

TVPS: How did you get to where you are today?

EB: I graduated early, in December of 2014, and then I bought a one-way ticket to New York in March of 2015, without a job or a place to live. I did a bunch of random internships and side gigs; I worked at a start-up for a little bit. Then this job for an editorial assistant popped up at Milk.xyz so I emailed a friend at Milk Makeup and she put me in touch. I started working there in November of 2016 and then a year later I became an editor. In December 2018, my boss, the previous Editorial Director, moved to Sweden, so I became the Director.

Nice. And then rewind a bit. Where'd you go to school?

I went to the University of Texas at Austin and studied Journalism.

Did you always know that you wanted to go into journalism?

I think I had always wanted to be a writer, you know, like a “writer.” But I wasn't sure how that would happen in my life, or in what way I would accomplish that. For a while, I thought I wanted to be a war correspondent, or do something in politics, but then I was always led back to fashion, and became really interested in fashion journalism.

So I kind of went through all the phases of what it meant to be a writer. I mean, of course, there are other versions of that job, too. But I think Milk interested me because it was about a wide breadth of culture and many iterations of what it meant to be creative, or build community, or foster growth in some way. For somebody who, like me, is really indecisive and doesn’t want to pigeon hole themselves, it was a great place to start.

Do you think what you learned in the classroom is applicable to what you do today?

Yeah, this is something I think about a lot. In high school, I was editor of the newspaper and had this incredible advisor who taught me so much. When I went to college, I felt like I was really complacent because I had that foundation already — she was such a great mentor to me. So, to be perfectly honest, majoring in journalism was one of my biggest regrets. I think I would have been better off majoring in something like Art History or Political Science, something that informed my background knowledge so that, when I went to write a story, some of that research would have already been done and cemented by a degree. Majoring in journalism is kind of like majoring in a skill set instead of a knowledge-based degree, to put it one way.

“I think Milk interested me because it was about a wide breadth of culture and many iterations of what it meant to be creative, or build community, or foster growth in some way. For somebody who, like me, is really indecisive and doesn’t want to pigeon hole themselves, it was a great place to start.”

Yeah, that's interesting. You've been at Milk for how many years again?

Two and a half.

As a young writer, I feel like that's a pretty substantial amount of time. How have you been able to separate your own voice as a writer from the Milk platform?

Yeah, that's a great question. I mean, in a lot of ways I kind of grew up at Milk. When I came here, I was 22, very young and green. So when I was adapting to the Milk voice, I think a lot of that became embedded in my own voice as a writer, so separating those is tough sometimes.

But I think it's really important to emphasize that your job isn't your identity — if you're a great writer, then you should be able to take on many different brand voices. And then true journalism, obviously, should have little to no bias. The longer I'm here, the more entangled those two are. If I ever left, I imagine it would be like going through that discovery process again of understanding how I present myself and speak outside of Milk. I haven't had to think about that in a while, but it's something that I try and keep at the forefront of my mind so that I don't forget.

Fair enough. Why did you move to New York? Were a lot of your friends moving there?

Not really, actually. I think Austin is kind of like this magical place, because at the time it wasn't that expensive to live there and you could graduate school and not work yourself to death and wake up and all of a sudden, five years have passed and you were still happily bopping along. I just didn't want that future for myself. Also, all of the media that I was interested in was in New York and I felt like if I didn't commit then I would never have the guts to do it. So I just left.

Do you think you've grown a lot since moving there?

Yeah, I think in a lot of ways I wouldn't even recognize myself four years ago. I was so young and naive — the stereotype of when people move here from smaller towns and have that deer-in-the-headlights look. Now I'm — I wouldn’t say jaded — but I definitely have thicker skin, and don't say "y'all" anymore. I don't take it too personally if somebody is rude, because everyone in New York is just on their way to something.

“Austin is kind of like this magical place, because at the time it wasn't that expensive to live there and you could graduate school and not work yourself to death and wake up and all of a sudden, five years have passed and you were still happily bopping along. I just didn't want that future for myself.”

How did your responsibilities evolve when you became Editorial Director? I always think it's interesting when people grow at companies, especially in this industry.

As an assistant, I was either taking assignments or pitching stories. So there was a lot of execution and less concepting. I was writing three to five stories a day, compiling the newsletter, and doing a lot of interviews. I was also transcribing all my stories, and writing everything in our content management system — so really just what you would expect a typical staff writer to be doing.

And then when I became editor, I was a lot more involved in answering, “How do we approach the content thematically?” and “How can I delegate some of these stories so that, interns or freelancers are able to add their POV?” and “How are we looking at Milk merch or Milk events, or other things we're doing outside of the editorial department?” and “How can we get connected and collaborate with them so that we play a part in what's going on with the rest of Milk?”

When I became Director, it was that same sort of thing, but instead of assisting someone else to do it, I was just doing it myself. And we never hired an editor to replace my old job.

Oh wow.

So it kind of became a combined role.

Now, with everybody on mobile, content is becoming a lot more snackable and micro. We're looking at, “How do we approach the whole content ecosystem of the Milk Instagram, the tumblr, the Twitter, the website, or the newsletter and make sure that the content's digestible across the board, while still being unique in some way to each platform?” So that can look like, for example, translating an interview to Instagram stories, or taking a video that we shot at a party and cutting it into GIFs for Twitter.

So what does your team look like?

We manage four interns and I have a community manager who works alongside me. Her title is community manager, but if I had to describe her job, I would say she does social media strategy and a lot of production. Like really any shoot that we organized, she's usually the producer behind it. So it's a lot of collaborating with people that are in the building and then outside of the building, like our contributors.

Oh cool.

So yeah, her job is really hybrid too. Since there's only two of us, it's kind of like all hands on deck and we just have to take ownership of what's going on. Otherwise, something might fall through the cracks or just not come to fruition.

Photographed by Corbin Chase for Milk's Unfortunately Ready to Wear exhibition curated by Emma Banks

When you were coming into the Editorial Director position, was there a certain impact that you wanted to have on the site, or a certain direction that you wanted to take it in?

Yeah, I did. We’ve been around for almost 25 years, and Milk has helped shape a lot of downtown New York nightlife and art culture — we have a gallery, for example. I wanted to see that reflected more explicitly on the website. So for me, that meant being selective about content, and collaborating with people for a reason, not just making something to make it.

Then obviously, social media has just become more and more of our focus. So, if people's attention spans are shortening, how do we make sure that we can cut through the noise and deliver something that's interesting or something that might inspire them or connect them with someone new? How can we facilitate connection outside of the digital realm through events, whether they're at Milk or not at Milk? That's what I'm really interested in.

I'm assuming that a ton of people pitch to you on a daily basis. What makes a pitch stand out?

That's a good question, too. I think there are a couple of things. Is it inherently interesting or eye-catching to me personally? Because I think that, although Milk.xyz is not a reflection of my tastes, it certainly involves my tastes. So, am I interested off the bat? And then if I am, I need to think about the Milk readers, are they going to be interested in this? What about this is different or new, or maybe weird in some way? We always want Milk to be a place that is really not standard and that you wouldn't find this type of content somewhere else.

And then the other thing is, are there any Milk family connected to this project that we believe in and want to support? If I get a pitch about a musician who's been working with Milk Makeup since day one, of course, I want to talk to her and see what she's been doing. Or somebody who was maybe featured in Milk Gallery five years ago and now they have another show on Bowery. Awesome. We make sure that we support the family always.

Considering XYZ isn’t monetized and instead is used as a means of supporting Milk’s identity, brand, and culture — is there a way that you measure success?

Yeah, that's exactly right. We don't have any ads. Every so often we do brand collaborations, but it's super rare just because Milk is really picky when it comes to brand association. Measuring success is tough because, as you said, we're made by and for the Milk community. We're carrying the torch of like, “This is our culture and how we want to connect with people and represent ourselves to New York and the rest of the world.”

So for instance, there’s not a huge emphasis on page views. It's more about people and what we’re making with them — inside and outside of this building.

I feel like that’s one of the best models for editorial in 2019, because you have the ability to create content that is exciting and feels authentic, as opposed to having to create content with the aim of it generating a set amount of page views.

Yeah, but I think there are constraints with both models. If we were running ads and everything, we would have more money to produce more high-profile shoots, but we would also be obligated to perform for those ads. There are pros and cons to both, but I think our approach now is just what Milk believes in — we don't want to be an ad for someone else.

It's like a big ad for Milk, but in a good way!

Yeah, in some ways, definitely!

How do you select your contributors?

We've had quite a few throughout the years, and most of them still have a spot on our contributors page. But right now, we only work with a handful, and it's more divvied out by series. Certain people just take the reins of a series and send me their story in every week.

We also want to have the West Coast as a part of our POV, so we're always open to stories from people at Milk LA. Other contributors, I either met through Milk people, or they were grandfathered in from old directors. It's a smaller list than it has been in the past just because I prefer to go deeper with fewer people and have them really invested rather than trying to juggle a dozen — that just sounds really stressful to me.

“What I really love is when someone emails me and they have a nice outline of what they want to write about, a sample headline, and then also a way to make it happen without them needing my help.”

If someone is reading this interview and they're interested in becoming a contributor, is there a way that they could apply that would stick out to you?

What I really love is when someone emails me and they have a nice outline of what they want to write about, a sample headline, and then also a way to make it happen without them needing my help. I think a lot of times, people email me wanting to feature someone, but really what they want is to use a studio or use our equipment. That's tough for me. We really only make that happen when it's an internal project that's our own creative concept.

So if you email me and you're like, "Hey, I want to interview this amazing queer designer, here's where we would shoot, here's the framework of the interview, and here's when I can have it to you by." Awesome. I'm much more likely to say yes if it’s an organized pitch, rather than somebody saying, "Hey, I want to do something." Well, “What do you want to do? What's your vision?”

Then aside from Milk, you’re an editor for This Generation! How would you describe your role with us?

I pitch people that I think have something important to say, and then interview them about whatever that important thing is. I get some very practical advice for people who might be reading and want to know more about how to reach a similar goal. I also contribute to the resource section — I think it's a really great way for people to go from aspiring to put whatever they want to be in action.

What has been one of your biggest learning experiences in your career so far?

Coming to Milk, I hadn’t had much traditional work experience. So I learned a lot about the importance of being open and approachable, so you can meet everyone. Everyone has some sort of role to play and the more closely you can work together, the better the outcome and the better the project is. I was really shy and nervous when I first started working here and that was to my detriment. The sooner I opened up and was able to just pick up the phone and talk to someone instead of emailing them, the better off I was. Don't be scared of other people. They're there to collaborate with you, too.

“Moving to New York was a big risk for me, and it was the best decision I ever made.”

Is there anywhere that you'd like to go in the future in particular?

Milk is a really special brand and I think I would enjoy continuing to work for brands. But outside of that, I'd love to write more short stories, either for literary magazines or to get them published in some other format. I love interviewing people, but I want to tap into the other types of writing that I'm interested in as well. So keeping that balance.

What advice would you give to someone who looks up to you?

I think humility is really important, but you also have to be your biggest fan sometimes. Believing in yourself is such a cliche, but I really believe you can do anything that you want to do. If you are intimidated at the prospect of trying to make it happen, just look at those small incremental steps and commit to doing those. And don't be scared to take risk. Moving to New York was a big risk for me, and it was the best decision I ever made.