Amy Odell and the Great Media Race

Debra Scherer speaks to Amy Odell, editor of Cosmopolitan.com, about what she learned working at The Cut and BuzzFeed, her goals for Cosmo’s online presence, and the state of fashion media in the Internet Age.

Amy Odell | Photo: Debra Scherer

NEW YORK, United States — As the great media race picks up steam, former blogs have become well-known media brands and established print publications have begun to find their way on the Internet. Meanwhile, a new generation of digitally-savvy journalists has thrown its collective hat into the ring.

I spoke with Cosmopolitan.com’s editor Amy Odell, who has brought her unique digital experience to one of fashion’s best recognised legacy media brands, where she has grown readership from 12 million to 23 million monthly unique visitors in the span of one year, all the while staying true to the site’s audience of 21st century “Cosmo Girls.”

DS: How did your career as a fashion journalist start?

AO: I was doing freelance work for New York magazine as a party reporter. So I would go to red carpet events and interview celebrities, file reports, and I happened to be really good at that. You see people do it all the time on TV, but it’s actually really hard to go out there and especially to do it for New York magazine because they aren’t looking for the stuff that a lot of publications are looking for, like, ‘What’s in your purse?’ They wanted news and  jokes and I was terrified every time I went, but I was determined not to fail.

So I developed a relationship with the magazine. At the time, they were starting a fashion blog and said, ‘Why don’t you try out being a blogger on it?’ So I did a test and a couple of days later I was sitting in [editor] Adam Moss’ office and he made me an offer.

I was there for four years; I was the first blogger. I had thought I knew about fashion, but actually, I knew nothing about fashion. What I really had an understanding of was clothing and shopping, which is very different from fashion and the fashion industry.

Learning how to be a news blogger is challenging, you never stop. It’s just a grind all day everyday while still having to sound smart and funny and not make mistakes. So while I learned a lot about fashion, at the same time, that’s also where I really learned how news on the Internet worked.

DS: So how did New York magazine approach digital media?

AO: I think Adam Moss is a very smart and amazing editor and he was all about digital from the very beginning. I think when some magazines were saying, ‘Should we have a blog?’ at New York magazine they were saying, ‘What’s the next blog?’ and now no one even calls them blogs anymore. I think he built that into the culture; to be forward-thinking about technology and the Internet and to try to be ahead of the curve.

You always had the sense that they were looking for the next opportunity. They expanded Vulture, the entertainment section, which now is its own site, and, when I was there, they were working on expanding The Cut. They knew that the Internet was where everything was going and we know now, that is where you have to be. They stayed focused on it. Of course, being one magazine rather than being part for a large corporation… it’s easier in small companies to make things happen like that. I think that works in their favour, being an independent brand.

DS: Your voice caught the attention of BuzzFeed, which at the time was trying to evolve into more than just cat videos and quizzes. Why did you decide to move to BuzzFeed?

AO: I was at The Cut for four years and I felt ready to do something different. BuzzFeed came to me and said they wanted to launch a women’s interest section. I was excited to work on something that wasn’t just fashion, but [included] all kinds of issues and interests for women, which was what I was always interested in doing, because, growing up, I always felt that media for women just wasn’t great. I was happy to do fashion stuff, because that’s always going to be for women and you can talk about issues like body image and Photoshop. But I wanted to expand the scope of what I was talking about and BuzzFeed was a really exciting opportunity. They had just brought in Ben Smith from Politico to be editor-in-chief. I knew they were well-funded. Everyone was talking about them. And it was a presidential election year and they were getting a lot of press for their coverage. It seemed like a really good move.

It’s interesting how many times I have heard Jonah Peretti have to defend BuzzFeed. He even recently published an internal staff memo on Medium to make the case that most revered legacy media brands, like The New York Times, for instance, also started as aggregators and cheat sheets, but eventually evolved into the serious, trusted properties they are today.

It’s funny to me that critics throw the word “listicle” at BuzzFeed like a derogatory pie in the face. BuzzFeed might excel at this form of storytelling, with items like “30 ways to wear orange when you are feeling blue,” but they certainly didn’t invent it. It reminds me of two infamous Fortune magazine staffers, one who took a series of images while the other wrote the accompanying explanations. Though it was never published by Fortune, James Agee and Walker Evans’ “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” went on to be the listicle of all listicles. It’s time to stop beating up on the format and just work on making the most compelling images and writing the most compelling captions. Then, you can worry about context.

DS: BuzzFeed was born as a lab for viral Internet content; what did you learn there?

AO: When I started there, everything I thought I knew about the Internet I had to learn again. Things like viral content and the importance of social media and how to engage an audience, how to write a better headline. It’s a very, very ‘Internet-y’ place. When I was there, it felt more like a tech company than a media company. Most people who worked there were pretty young. They were joking around and having fun all day, moving really quickly and, most importantly, they were not overthinking anything. I think legacy media has a habit of thinking really hard about everything. At BuzzFeed they are all having so much fun and I think that really shows in the content. It was very different.

You can think of news as what’s in The New York Times today or what’s in The Wall Street Journal. What are today’s stories? It’s a one-dimensional way to think about it. Or you can start with that and then ask, what are people saying about this over here? And what kind of photos are people sharing on Tumblr about it? What’s the conversation on Twitter? What are people sharing on Facebook? If you look at the news in that way, it’s just a different way of thinking. That’s what I learned at BuzzFeed: how to think about news in the context of the Internet as opposed to just news.

DS: So why did you decide to move to Cosmopolitan, a legacy media brand?

AO: It has such brand recognition. When I say I work at Cosmo everyone knows exactly what that is. That is real power. That’s awesome. And that’s what legacy brands have that places like BuzzFeed have to work really hard for.

Troy Young is the president of digital here at Hearst and he came to me while I was at BuzzFeed and said, “Would you run Cosmopolitan.com?” and I said that would be awesome and he said, “Why? Why does that sound awesome?” I said, “Well, because this is an established media brand and I think it’s really important that a women’s media brand creates empowering, engaging, smart, funny content for women because women have a lot to worry about. Our rights are under assault everyday in the US and there wasn’t a media brand out there that really spoke to me as a woman and I felt like someone had to do it and Cosmo seemed like a great way to do it.”

DS: Once at Cosmopolitian, what was your mission?

AO: They had a very small team of editors and they were doing what they could. They had a big Facebook following, but a lot of their traffic came in through search: people searching sex. Cosmo happens to write great pieces on sex, which is a great place for a website to be. But traffic wasn’t growing at the rate they wanted it to grow.

The first thing I wanted to change was the voice. I wanted the voice to be stronger. I wanted people to go to the site because they wanted to read what we were saying and not just get there by accident. I said from the beginning it needs to be funny. It’s the Internet and people read things on the Internet that are funny. It’s the easiest way to build a following. When I said, the Cosmo site has to be funny, I thought, “They are going to hate this,” but I have to be honest about what I want to do.

Our audience is a 24-year-old college-educated woman and wants to be spoken to like a college-educated woman. It was really important for me to establish a conversational voice, so when you read the site you feel as though you are talking to your funniest, smartest, most insightful friend which is what I think we have achieved.

DS: How have you leveraged social dynamics of the Internet?

AO: I try to get everyone to think about sharable content. When I worked at BuzzFeed, I saw the power that social networks have and the mobilising power the audience has, so we started just doing some simple things that can help make your post more sharable, like saying to yourself as you’re writing it, “Would I post this on my Facebook page?” That’s not to say that we are only click bait. I think there is a trend right now of sites gaming the viral system and I don’t want to be that. I want to be much more than that, but it does help to package your content in such a way that people will share it.

DS: One thing unique to the web is this idea of reciprocity and collaboration amongst media outlets. Tell me about that.

AO: On the Internet, everyone is friends with everyone. It sounds strange, but we all kind of have to work together. I have a friend who works at Us Weekly and we send each other links and say, “Hey, can you use this?” I’m always getting together with people at other sites and saying, “What kinds of content are you doing? This is what I’m doing. Maybe we can send each other stuff.” All of the successful web editors are very friendly and there isn’t the same competitiveness that print editors have. Can you imagine the editor-in-chief of Vogue and the editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar getting together to swap ideas? If there was someone who was enemies with every other blogger, I guarantee you their site would fail. You need to have people who are supportive of you who are also competing with you, because when I send my stuff to an editor at Refinery29, I want them to open it and consider whether or not they can link back to us and they would want me to give them the same consideration. We all share traffic so you have to have a friendly relationship. It’s a completely different mentality.

In the world of print, this mentality would be like having to take into consideration what all of the other covers on the newsstand looked like when deciding on yours — not so that your cover could stand out, but rather, so that they all worked together to make a more perfect, harmonious and efficient newsstand.

It’s certainly a new world in that sense, but this new world allows for many types of media brands to succeed at engaging, growing, informing and entertaining audiences. As technology evolves, new forms of media keep emerging. But luckily, it seems like our capacity to consume is also evolving, so that perhaps it doesn’t have to be a simple battle between new media and old media, print versus web.

New media brands promise new formats and the power of context, while legacy brands have the history, the faithful audiences and the power of expertise.

Let the great media race continue!

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2 comments

  1. She is so smart. I love the way she compared and dissected print vs new media in such an easy yet substantial way. Thanks BOF for posting this – very informative

    Kristian Cruz from Brooklyn, NY, United States
  2. Great interview with Amy. What a success story. Love her clear candid tips for success. Love how she has brought humor to Cosmo.

    Alice Ko from Vancouver, BC, Canada