NEW YORK, United States — Teen Vogue editor Elaine Welteroth isn’t afraid to get right to the point.
“Listen, I know people are asking, ‘Why would a teen want a magazine in 2016?’” she says, sitting at a conference table beside her colleagues, digital editorial director Phillip Picardi and creative director Marie Suter, in Condé Nast’s One World Trade Center offices.
This past May, in an unusual move, the threesome effectively replaced editor-in-chief Amy Astley, who was shifted to Architectural Digest. The change was just the latest chapter in Condé Nast’s post-Internet saga, in which the storied publishing house has been forced to fold magazines (Details, Lucky), streamline staffs (Self, Allure, Glamour) and rethink its digital strategies in order to adapt to the rapidly changing media habits of consumers.
While Astley’s reassignment may have seemed strange, Teen Vogue’s new set up feels current. Welteroth oversees the magazine and Picardi oversees digital, with Suter volleying between the two. The idea is to work in tandem and together across platforms, with Vogue editor-in-chief and Condé Nast artistic director Anna Wintour serving as their guidepost. “In a way, giving them all equal stature reflected how important we feel not only the print title is, but also how important our growth is in terms of digital. Especially for that market,” Wintour says. “It’s been incredibly successful, and also really reflects the way we see things moving.”
Which begs the question Welteroth knows is top of mind for sceptics who wonder, in the age of Snapchat, whether there are enough teenagers who want to read a traditional magazine, let alone one that’s printed on paper.
Listen, I know people are asking, ‘Why would a teen want a magazine in 2016?’
While, like other American magazines, Teen Vogue no longer discloses how many advertising pages it has sold, falling circulation numbers suggest an uphill battle. Monthly paid-and-verified circulation averaged a little over 1 million in the second half of 2015, down from about 1.3 million in the same period in 2005, according to a report by the Alliance for Audited Media. Meanwhile, though subscriptions have dipped only slightly over the past decade, single-copy sales are markedly lower. For instance, in 2005 the magazine sold 270,901 single copies of its August issue. For August 2015 — the best selling issue of the year — single copy sales of print and so-called "digital" edition combined were just 52,392.
To be sure, rumours of Teen Vogue going digital only were around long before Astley departed. “We had to answer that,” Welteroth says, glancing down at the binder of still-unbound September issue pages. “Honestly, this is why.”
“This” is perhaps Teen Vogue’s most ambitious issue to date, a representation of the evolution the book has been undergoing since February 2016, when it published a conversation between cover star Amandla Stenberg and Solange Knowles that dealt with everything from cultural appropriation to sexuality.
While Teen Vogue has long been viewed as a “cool girl’s guide to fashion,” as Welteroth puts it, the audience has grown savvier and more socially conscious. “We’re not speaking to her in the way we were speaking to her 13 years ago, [because] the world has changed a ton,” she continues. “Our whole goal is to evolve with her and make sure that what we’re covering... certainly, we’re a fashion magazine still, but we’re also so much more than that. I think you see that really reflected in this issue, cover to cover.”
The editors have run with the mentor-mentee tone of Stenberg and Knowles’ February interview by teaming young female role models with seasoned ones. For the September cover, actress and Rookie editor-in-chief Tavi Gevinson spoke with Grace Coddington, who also styled her for the shoot, which was photographed by Inez van Lamsweerde. (This is Coddington’s first work for the magazine.) Stenberg is back, this time chatting with Gloria Steinem about intersectional feminism, while “Black-ish” actress Yara Shahidi spoke with US attorney general Loretta Lynch. There is a personal essay by democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, illustrated by Tali Lennox, and, in more traditional Teen Vogue style, an interview with teen model Kaia Gerber and her mother, Cindy Crawford.
Fashion still plays a significant role in the magazine’s pages, although a genuine effort has been made to diversify the people being photographed in terms of race, gender-normative roles, sexuality and size. While Gevinson may in some ways fit the typical, newsstand-chasing cover model requisites — she is white, blond and an actress — she is in other ways unorthodox. For one, her fame is not mass. But perhaps more importantly, she is the editor of her own successful teen publication, which could be seen as a Teen Vogue competitor.
The choice speaks to the inclusive nature of the process preferred by Welteroth, Picardi and Suter, who work in that communal, collaborative fashion favoured by many Millennials in the workplace. “There’s a fearlessness to them that I feel is very much a part of their generation and the girls that they’re talking to,” Wintour says. “Sometimes, maybe others are slightly more restrained in how they talk to their audience. That fearlessness is why they’re having such a wonderful connection with their community.”
Suter calls out the magazine’s best-selling August 2015 issue — which featured up-and-coming black models Imaan Hammam, Aya Jones and Lineisy Montero on the cover — as an example of how the team is throwing out staid publishing rules in order to distinguish themselves. “Those three models were one of the top sellers [of the year],” Suter says. “They were unknown girls, models, and African American, which is everything that, during my 15 years in New York, I heard, ‘You can’t do it; it won’t sell.’ But we cannot fake it. Our audience is savvy, when you just put Selena Gomez [on the cover] because she has a tour, it doesn’t work.”
For the September issue, that idea of authenticity was pushed forward with its “For Girls, by Girls” theme. Every single image in the magazine was shot by a woman, many of whom were commissioned via #GirlGaze, an initiative started by photographer Amanda de Cadenet.
“For me, what was very important was to really do it, from a young girl in Canada shooting our still lifes in her bedroom to Inez,” Suter explains. “I didn’t want just five stories, five girls shooting. That’s easy. The voice of the photographer was important. It’s not just a shtick.”
As the physical Teen Vogue product has evolved, its digital presence has also shifted its tone — and grown in size. Since Picardi, a former Teen Vogue intern and assistant, returned to the publication in April 2015 as its digital head, the once-stagnant online strategy has leapt forward.
Video, as with most consumer-facing publications, is a major component, with a series developed by Welteroth called “Letter to My 18-Year-Old Self,” featuring women like “Orange is the New Black” star Uzo Aduba and Garance Doré. But Picardi has also moved the focus away from shopping and fashion features into more topical content, re-launching the “My Life” vertical to encompass politics and current events. (The title has gone deep on serious issues, covering the #BlackLivesMatter movement, but also breaking-news stories like DeRay Mckesson’s arrest, the shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando and the terror attack in Nice.) The team now produces 10 to 20 stories a day for the channel, which had an audience of 1.5 million unique visitors in June 2016, a 431 percent increase from January 2015. The site’s Wellness vertical, which launched in March 2016, received 1.2 million unique visitors in June 2016.
To be sure, the publication has seen significant increases across digital platforms, with 7.1 million unique visitors on Teenvogue.com in June 2016, a 57 percent jump from the year previous. Traffic coming in from social channels has doubled in the past year.
Across social platforms, the brand boasts 11 million followers. Facebook fans are up 12 percent year over year — with Facebook video views up 243 percent during that same period — and Instagram followers are up 48 percent. The magazine says that it averages six actions per follower on Facebook, the highest in its competitive set.
While internal numbers are larger than generally accepted Comscore data, those figures also show growth. Teenvogue.com unique visitors, according to Comscore, reached 3.8 million unique users in June 2016, up 124 percent from 1.7 million in June 2015. While Hearst’s teen platform, Seventeen, has a slight edge over Teen Vogue in viewership — with about 5 million unique users in June 2016 — its growth has been slower, up just 39 percent from 3.6 million in June 2015. It’s important to remember, however, that most digital publications over 2 million unique users a month also employ some sort of paid acquisition, which means organic growth is difficult to ascertain.
But consumers — particularly Generation Z and Millennials — are undeniably fleeing traditional URLs for other platforms. “Scale will always be a goal, but our priority isn’t [always] linking to Teen Vogue.com,” Picardi says. “It’s providing information and resources that [sometimes] have nothing to do with what’s appearing on the site.” For instance, instead of publishing some of the 250- to 500-word print stories from the August issue on Teenvogue.com, they were released through Instagram only. “Long form on Instagram has been really successful,” he continues. “We’ll get more impressions on our Snapchat from the Republican National Convention than we will on any articles we write about politics in the next four days because that’s where she is getting a lot of her news from.”
Unlike many publications, which silo their print and digital teams, those reporting to Welteroth, Picardi and Suter are encouraged to be as collaborative as they are. “Almost every role under us is an integrated role,” Welteroth says. “Everyone is expected to contribute across platforms.”
“[Taking on digital] means that my job is super interesting, to be honest with you,” adds Suter, a veteran of Vogue Paris, Jane, Elle Girl and InStyle. “I think it’s the only reason I’m still here. I’ve had some calls for other jobs, but this is so much more rewarding.”
But even with a dynamic, multi-platform strategy in place, the question remains whether there is truly an audience for a Teen Vogue print product. “[I’m] a very firm believer that print is important to this title,” Wintour says. “It’s wonderful to trend on Twitter for a few hours a day, but I think the longevity of a print publication, and the stamp of authority that it gives the title is very important. We see it across all titles. No matter how wonderful that digital treatment may be, print has a different weight.”
But as print revenues continue to decline, is it really feasible for Teen Vogue’s print edition to serve simply as a brand builder given the title’s current cost structure? Astley’s exit presumably helped cut expenses, allowing the title to operate even more frugally than it did in the past. But print magazines cost a lot of money to physically produce and Teen Vogue will need to continue to attract advertisers. (In November 2015, Vogue publisher and chief revenue officer Susan Plagemann began overseeing Teen Vogue as well, following the departure of publisher Jason Wagenheim.)
The team argues that print underscores the significance of the hot-button topics the publication covers so frequently on the web. “Online can be a progressive space and it’s easier to get away with certain content, but print shows that we give it credence and weight and we’re actively pursuing this mission in a real 360-degree way,” Picardi says, using his own experience reading Vogue as an example. “For me, when I was a teenager who hadn’t come out of the closet yet, I opened an issue of Vogue and Anna’s editor’s letter was talking about the importance of marriage equality,” he recalls. “As a kid from a provincial town in Massachusetts with Catholic and Republican parents, to know that I had Vogue as an ally meant the world to me. It pushed me out of the closet and made me want to pursue an internship here.”
There is, of course, the matter of turning print into a keepsake, something many magazines are striving for today. Suter, for one, calls the magazine “haute couture” while labeling digital “ready-to-wear.” Is this a credible strategy? There is some evidence that the next generation still find value in print. A 2014 report from Nielsen suggests that 54 percent of teenagers aged 13-17 prefer print over e-books, while 28 percent have no preference and 18 percent prefer e-books. But whether they will chose print over the plethora of more successful new media formats and platforms vying for their attention, from Snapchat to Facebook Messenger, is far from certain.
Welteroth cites a spread in the September issue featuring Coddington, posing with her army of assistants from over the years, as an example of an image that is simply more meaningful on paper. While each assistant will post a video tribute to the legendary stylist online, Welteroth insists that the image is meant for print. “You’re going to want to rip this out and save it. You can’t fully appreciate this on Instagram,” she says. “First of all, it’s a horizontal shot. So there’s that.”