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Editors Are Flocking to Tech in Magazine Brain Drain

Today, editors increasingly see their spots at the top of mastheads as just another stepping stone. The most coveted next step is heading to a tech platform.
Them’s editor-in-chief Whembley Sewell, former Marie Claire editor Aya Kanai, former Vogue editor Sally Singer, former Teen Vogue and Allure fashion director Rajni Jacques, former Allure editor-in-chief Michelle Lee, former Elle Canada editor Vanessa Craft, former Lucky editor-in-chief Eva Chen, former Self editor Carolyn Kylstra. Getty Images.
Them’s editor-in-chief Whembley Sewell, former Marie Claire editor Aya Kanai, former Vogue editor Sally Singer, former Teen Vogue and Allure fashion director Rajni Jacques, former Allure editor-in-chief Michelle Lee, former Elle Canada editor Vanessa Craft, former Lucky editor-in-chief Eva Chen, former Self editor Carolyn Kylstra. Getty Images.

Once upon a time, editors-in-chief of glossy magazines would only vacate their posts if they were fired, died or retired.

But today, editors often see their spot at the top of the masthead as just another stepping stone.

Just in the last month, two of Condé Nast’s editors in chief, Allure’s Michelle Lee and Them’s Whembley Sewell, separately announced they were exiting the publisher and moving to Los Angeles to work for Netflix’s editing and publishing team. They add to recent high-profile exits, including that of Marie Claire editor Aya Kanai, now at Pinterest; Vogue’s Sally Singer, now at Amazon; Teen Vogue and Allure fashion director Rajni Jacques, now at Snapchat, and Self editor Carolyn Kylstra, now at Google.

Top talent exiting magazines for greener pastures is not a new trend. Earlier waves of editors left the publishing world to build content operations at fashion brands or launch new digital media tiles. And in recent months, a wave of consolidation in publishing has also pushed many editors-in-chief from their plum roles.

Tech platforms with lots of resources and fashion ambitions are stealing a lot of the remaining top talent. Publishers are losing senior editors at a rate even faster than past waves of attrition to brands and new media startups.

Ever since former Lucky editor-in-chief Eva Chen joined Instagram as head of fashion and beauty partnerships in 2015 and boosted its fashion industry ties, tech platforms have routinely raided mastheads.

Media’s brain drain speaks to publishing’s challenges adapting its business model in a digital world, which is certainly a factor as publishers cut staff and push their teams to make more content across more platforms with smaller budgets. But there’s more behind the shifts than print advertising’s woes.

“The last two to three years, everybody wants a tech platform,” said Karen Danziger, Managing Partner at Koller Search Partners, an executive search firm that works in media. “Is it running away from or running toward? I think it’s a little bit of both, but it’s really driven by, ‘Oh my god, there’s so much opportunity in that world.’”

The career pivots also reflect the growing understanding that magazines are no longer where trends originate or where celebrities are anointed.

“Any editor, you are always supposed to be looking for the new: what is driving culture?” said Vanessa Craft, the former editor of Elle Canada who joined TikTok in October as director of content partnerships. “Those of us coming from legacy media see something bigger … Legacy media, they can be slow to move. It’s like turning the Titanic.”

Those of us coming from legacy media see something bigger.

Making the Jump

When she was appointed Marie Claire’s editor-in-chief in 2019, Aya Kanai settled in for what she assumed would be her job for many years. After nearly a decade at Hearst as fashion director overseeing seven different media brands, and after nearly two decades styling for magazines, celebrities and retailers, she was drawn by the challenge and opportunity to focus on one of the biggest women’s magazine brands in the industry.

But when Pinterest reached out about a role overseeing its relationships with creators publishing on the virtual mood board platform that counts 478 million monthly users, Kanai said she saw an opportunity to work on the future of the internet.

“The idea of going from being a content maker to a content ecosystem maker — that’s what was really exciting,” she said. “That felt like a career growth, that would be like a huge step up.”

The search for new challenges also motivated Yasmin Kayser, former fashion market editor and head of fashion news at Vogue Paris, to rethink her career and jump on an opportunity to join fashion search engine Tagwalk in May.

“I think I had maxed out,” said Kayser, adding that “the repercussions of Covid in the industry” were another factor. Before the pandemic, she travelled nearly every week and never missed fashion month — one of her favourite perks of the job that she knew was unlikely to fully return. (As part of Condé Nast’s new globalisation strategy, the Vogue Paris team also now reports to British Vogue editor Edward Enninful, with several editors expected to exit as a result.)

“I wasn’t unhappy where I was,” Kayser said. “But to be part of something that’s still growing, it’s super exciting and super challenging ... I didn’t even think about it twice.”

Craft also made the decision to join TikTok quickly, even though she acknowledged it was difficult to leave behind the editor-in-chief role at Elle Canada.

There’s a reason why they’re dream jobs.

“There’s a reason why they’re the dream jobs,” she said. But Craft was also overworked, she realized afterwards. “It’s a big ask, you’re working with fewer resources, as anyone in legacy media is, but the pressure to do better, and especially if you’re trying to bring diversity work in there — that has got to be the best work you’ve ever done.” (Shortly after Craft left Elle Canada, publisher KO Média closed its office in Toronto and absorbed some of the team’s roles into its Montreal office.)

For Rajni Jacques, former fashion director of Condé Nast’s Allure and Teen Vogue, her new position as global head of fashion and beauty partnerships at Snap represented not a career shift, but a removal of barriers.

“Being in magazines, there’s always a ceiling, in a way — a ceiling when it comes to budgets, there’s a ceiling when it comes to moving around, especially because the jobs were shrinking,” she said. The opportunity at Snapchat appealed to her because “I felt like it was so open [and] I would be able to be more creative in that way.”

A Hot Job Market

Editors looking for new challenges outside of print are in a prime position right now, said Danziger.

“If you’re a high-level content person — it may be in very different places, and it may be for less money, but there’s a lot of opportunity,” she said. Danziger said tech companies are focused on creating content right now to keep eyeballs on their platform and support the rest of their business goals. “Who better [to do that] than somebody really, really experienced at a magazine where there’s a tone and there’s a voice and there’s brand equity?” she asked. The scale and influence of tech platforms on media and communications today also indicates these types of exits will be more than a passing fad.

Fashion editors heading to tech aren’t just in demand for their content skills, but also their connections to the industry. They act as liaisons to help, for example, brands understand how Snapchat wants to use augmented reality to encourage shopping.

“I do have a knowledge of wealth when it comes to brands and what they’re looking for,” said Jacques, adding that producing branded content projects was already part of her work at Condé Nast.

At Netflix, Allure’s Lee will continue “creating conversation and telling stories in authentic ways,” she said in an e-mail, as well as continue to be a “steward” of a brand. But she still sees a future for young journalists in media, despite the volatility and the lack of a defined path that she saw at the start of her career.

“The format and titles may change, but the opportunities are there,” she said. “They just look different. And the path to get there is different.”

Related Articles:

How to Leave Your Old-Media Job

For High-Level Editors on the Job Hunt, Brands Beckon

What’s Behind Vogue’s Editor-in-Chief Exodus?

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