Ellen Warren is a senior correspondent and shopping adviser for the Chicago Tribune and writes for the style and shopping column “Answer Angel”. Warren lives right outside of downtown Chicago. Warren and our reporter met at the Corner Bakery on Michigan Avenue in April.
Q: When did you first decide to become a journalist?
A: I first decided I wanted to be a journalist after I graduated from college. I went to Penn State and I had a degree in English Literature and I really didn’t have any marketable skills, but I knew I could write an English sentence. And so, I thought, OK, I’ll give journalism a try. I never wrote for my high school newspaper. I never wrote for my college newspaper, and the first news story I ever wrote was … at my first job … It was not my career goal, I just fell into it.
Q: What do you like most about your job?
A: I like … meeting people and learning new things … I like the freedom it gives me to not be in the office and not having some boss breathing down my neck … To me, that’s the best part: meeting new people.
Q: What do you like least?
A: Bosses, deadlines, assignments that I don’t like and are stupid … Writing is very hard for me. It does not come easily … Every time I sit down to write a story, I sort of semi-freak out. Even if it’s the simplest thing in the world, and bare in mind, I’ve been doing it for 44 years, so that is a lot of freaking out.
Q: Could you walk me through me typical day for you?
A: I can sort of make my own hours … so I get to work at 10. I have tremendous amount of email. I’d say 90 percent of it is junk, but there’s that other 10 percent, and because the column I write right now is a Question and Answer column, I’m trying to … find the questions amid a lot of other extremely unimportant information … OK, so somebody writes me a question and says,‘… I’m four foot eleven and I can’t find any clothes that make me look like an adult. Where can I go?’ So I’ll research that online … I might go online, research it, and/or call up an expert I know or that I find who knows a lot about the topic. Interview them, whether it’s … how to repair a moth hole in your clothes, or … how to get salt stains out of your boots. Then I start to put together the column with the questions and answers and so forth, and I start writing. When I get to the right length, I stop. But I also, in addition to doing the fashion style stuff, I write for the books section. It’s called Printers Row Journal … And because of my long experience in politics I usually write about the political books that come out. I love to do that because it keeps me in the game … Politics is really my love. Not shopping or style or fashion … But my workday is … it used to be a lot more unpredictable but now it’s pretty routine. Ultimately, I get a proof of the page I write in the Sunday section, and I review that before it goes in the paper …. Here it is! Just like it’s gonna go in the paper … One of the reasons I like my job, journalism, is because I have a very short attention span … You’re in and out. You write it and forget it … It’s short attention. Do it, done, move on … That’s part of my temperament, I guess.[pullquote]One of the reasons I like my job, journalism, is because I have a very short attention span … You’re in and out. You write it and forget it … It’s short attention. Do it, done, move on … That’s part of my temperament, I guess.[/pullquote]
Q: How did you become a columnist for Answer Angel?
A: Many Christmases ago … we were trying to dream up schemes and, (the discussion led to) ‘How about, Ellen, you become the Answer Angel?’…and answer readers’ questions for this one shot deal for the big Christmas shopping thing that I was involved with. And, it was kind of fun … I suggested at some point that we resurrect it and turn it into a regular feature. So, I did it once every 4 columns … and they follow it. ‘You’re the only reason I buy the Sunday paper.’ That was nice! I should send that to one of my bosses, right? So, it just happened and now I’m stuck with this stupid Answer Angel thing … I would never name it that! It just evolved. I have moved into the realm of Answer Angel Ellen, so at least it’s not just some faceless wing flapper out there. But, you know, it’s the brand. I’m stuck with it.
Q: When did you start becoming interested in fashion?
A: Well, I’m a good shopper … I like to shop. I really like to shop. Seven or eight years ago, the Chicago Tribune was talking about starting a new section and they wanted to do a prototype to show around the advertisers, ‘We did this section. Would you advertise in it?’ It was never going to appear anywhere … and then, they decided to do the section and actually produce it. It was called “At Play”, which I thought, then and now, was a stupid name. And so, all of a sudden I was a weekly shopping columnist. But I was doing a bunch of other stuff … Writing political profiles, all kinds of stuff. But to do it right, took a lot of time, and so the other stuff went by the wayside … The politics was taking on a “been there, done that” kind of feel … I have written politics for close to 40 years, and, you know, it was fine but I was ready to do some other things and this just turned out to be the other thing … I’m not this person who had this enormous passion to write a shopping column or a fashion column or a style column. It just sort of happened … To your point. ‘Why me?’ Bargain shopper, to know what’s going on … I can tell people … you don’t have to be 21 to shop at Forever 21 and you don’t have to be a size 2 … A lot of our readers are not your age … and don’t know a lot of stuff. I’m just out there, I’m around … I shop and I can’t stop! Just observing, you know, I look at people on the street …
Q: What’s the most exciting or favorite piece you’ve written in your career?
A: Oh my goodness. I would rather tell you what the most exciting things I’ve done are … The most exciting thing I did was cover a war and I was shot at and I did not get hit. I was very young and totally unqualified, in terms of experience, to just leave the United States, go over to the Middle East and cover a civil war in a country where they spoke Arabic and I didn’t, and where the communications were terrible. I was just thrown into this thing and it probably made me grow up … mature as a journalist, very quickly. I have a larger self-confidence as a result of that. But the most fun thing I’ve ever did was go to London and cover the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, and I had a seat in the church … it was very, very cool … I’ve covered the Super Bowl when the Bears were in it, I’ve covered every kind of story you can cover: natural disasters, drove through a hurricane … natural fires, murders, plane crashes … and the White House and the Supreme Court and Congress … I’ve written stories about Mayor Emanuel … Governor Blagojevich … Seven presidential candidates. I started the Tribune’s first political blog.[pullquote]The most exciting thing I did was cover a war and I was shot at and I did not get hit. I was very young and totally unqualified, in terms of experience, to just leave the United States, go over to the Middle East and cover a civil war in a country where they spoke Arabic and I didn’t, and where the communications were terrible. I was just thrown into this thing and it probably made me grow up … mature as a journalist, very quickly. I have a larger self-confidence as a result of that.[/pullquote]
Q: How does writing for Answer Angel compare to what you’ve covered as a foreign and war correspondent?
A: It’s a lot easier. It involves vastly more interaction with readers, whom I take very seriously … I respond to a lot of them that don’t appear in the column, if I know the answer … It’s very … personal. Certainly not as challenging. I get to be me, which is not common in journalism, though I’ve written a wide array of different columns. For a time I wrote a metropolitan city Chicago news column then I wrote a gossip column, which I didn’t want to do, but I had no choice.
Q: What’s the most rewarding aspect of your job?
A: Let me tell you what I wish I had accomplished more of in my journalism career and that is … doing good for others. I have done good for others through my stories. But … journalism can really change people’s lives. Especially investigative reporters can … alter the course of history … and I haven’t done it much … There are a variety of ways to be rewarded … at one point there was nothing more exciting than going down the driveway and picking up the paper and seeing my name on page one or securing an interview that was really, really, really hard to get and being the first or the only or just taking a routine story and making it so good and so interesting that it winds up on page one … One of the non-rewards is payday because I do believe that, in my career, I’ve probably been paid approximately 20% less than my male counterparts and over 44 years, that’s a lot of money. I think women still only earn, like, 78 cents for every dollar a man earns, which I find appalling in 2014.
Q: Do you have anything else you’d like to add that I missed?
A: Journalism is obviously changing dramatically … I counsel people who are studying journalism to do it if they have a real passion for it, but if you don’t — because it doesn’t pay very well, and it doesn’t have the potential of paying very well — you have to think about it and know that it’s what you want to do. There are many ways to perform journalism, especially in the fashion area … I always tell aspiring professionals … it’s not just what you can do, it’s who you know … You just need to have somebody in your corner in the field that you want to enter and you need to be creative about your connections. You really need to spread the word about what you’re looking for … getting out there, meeting people and just putting yourself in front of them.