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What Makes a Great Magazine Editor?

Ex-British Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman outlines what’s changed and what must stay the same about the business of editing a magazine in today’s digital age.
Illustration by Victoria Berezhna for The Business of Fashion
  • Alexandra Shulman

PARIS, France — When the news broke last Sunday during Paris Fashion Week that Si Newhouse Jr — chairman emeritus of Condé Nast and grand master of the glory days of magazine publishing — had died, it was both extremely sad and somewhat fitting. The Instagram feeds of the many company employees in town lit up with the image of a man who, in his time, understood the business of magazines better than possibly anyone else in the world. Not only was he able to scan acres of profit and loss statements, but he deeply cared about and valued the very stuff of magazines: the type on the covers, the headlines on the pages, the calibre of the contributors.

Under his leadership, Condé Nast's magazines became some of the most recognisable brand names in the world. He supported the revival of titles such as Vanity Fair, Tatler and The New Yorker. With his younger cousin Jonathan Newhouse, he also oversaw the expansion of bold-faced names like Vogue, Glamour and GQ into territories such as India, China and Russia. And during his tenure, several generations of creatives — photographers, art directors, editors and writers — prospered and flourished, buoyed by the belief that their contribution was worth something. That what they did mattered. It was his investment and faith in the business of magazine journalism that raised the whole industry into the high profile and successful entity it became.

In the past month, Condé Nast's American arm has seen the resignation of two long-serving editors: Graydon Carter of Vanity Fair and Cindi Leive of Glamour. In the same week, Robbie Myers, the longtime editor of Hearst's American Elle, too, stepped down. Back at Condé Nast Britain, where I edited British Vogue until June, that magazine has rolled out a voluntary redundancy programme aimed at shedding around 20 percent of its editorial staff, while publishing teams across many titles have been merged. At the same time, a massive investment is being made in a digital hub to service titles internationally with an element of one-size-fits-all content. Amidst all the turbulence, the word on the street — and certainly during the febrile month of fashion shows — is that the new guard of editors, who will take the reins going forward, will be less magazine journalists and more celebrities or fashion personalities with substantial social media followings.

But what really makes a great magazine editor in today’s world? Is the panic (and I use this word deliberately) being shown by all media owners resulting in good decisions being made? And what makes a good decision anyway? Everywhere you go, you hear of resources being cut back, of staff being let go and the word Millennials being invoked by faintly wild-eyed fifty somethings as if they were chanting their personal mantra.

Magazines are a business. They have made a great deal of money for publishing companies such as Hearst, Condé Nast, IPC, Time Inc and many others across the globe. They have been the bounty in a crystal swag bag with successful titles able to leverage substantial advertising revenue from clients who want their messaging to be part of a book aimed at a specific and receptive demographic. So, a good decision is one that keeps the cash coming.

Print magazines are not only information and entertainment but also image-defining accessories, endowing the buyer with membership of a certain tribe when carried or even placed on a coffee table or kitchen counter. In recent decades, the market has expanded so much that there is now a huge choice, clearly unsustainable (at least with today’s business model), in the number of publications you can buy. The enormous number of titles on offer means that there is less loyalty than there once was, but the majority of buyers still gravitate to a title that endorses their idea of themselves. You chose to be seen with Vogue instead of Cosmopolitan, with World of Interiors instead of House Beautiful, with Grazia rather than Hello. Or vice versa. They also add an incalculable kudos to all kinds of businesses. It’s fascinating that Airbnb, one of the most successful digital brands, has launched a print magazine with Hearst.

Magazines, due to their carefully edited content, are specific and generally speak to the converted. They create worlds that appeal to their readers and their advertisers and over time, they have gained a trust and authority. How many 14- and 15-year-old girls have told me that they love to tear out the pages of Vogue and stick them on their bedroom walls? How many walls have been plastered with New Yorker covers, still a celebrated marker of the times? In all the research we did during my recent years at Vogue and in my personal connection with readers at talks and other events, the remaining appeal of the physical object was startling. Every time I questioned a group of students whether they still felt the print form of the magazine was valid, the answer was a resounding yes. Certainly Vogue, due to its position as a treat and a luxury, is in a different position from some other titles. But I remain convinced that the appeal of the tangible experience of a thick glossy magazine remains strong.

The digital curveball thrown at print is powerful, but that doesn't mean that magazine brands don't require editors who actually edit.

For sure, we all have the choice now to spend our time engaging with other methods of information and entertainment. The time spent reading physical magazines has shrunk as the smartphone rises. Everybody’s print circulation has dipped and some, where the editorial is easily duplicated and can be accessed for free online, have gone into freefall. The digital curveball thrown at print is powerful, but that doesn’t mean that magazine brands don’t require editors who actually edit. Who sweat the small stuff. There is no point in their magazines becoming imitators of experiences that can be found elsewhere, chasing clickbait that is mirrored in a zillion websites and cravenly following a small pool of short-term celebrity names. They need originality and a real sense of identity to thrive. And in the main, they are still creating the strongest images and articles around (please let’s not bundle them as “content”).

Every great editor I know spends a great deal of their time on the minutiae of their baby’s existence: checking that even the smallest picture helps tell the story, working on cover lines, encouraging contributors who will allay themselves exclusively to their brand. And most important of all, generating unexpected, original and thought-provoking ideas and pictures. At Vogue, whenever I got stuck for a strong idea to anchor an issue we would run a hardy perennial like the top 100 Coolest Names in Britain, or a best-dressed roundup (lists are easy to pull together and get an instant PR hit). But so did everybody else and those were not the stories that gained the magazine a reputation for inspiring photography or intelligent and original feature ideas and a reputation and legacy that is part of its power — and appeal to advertisers.

All editors now also have to extend that attention and clarity of thought to the raft of brand extensions that are part of the current world of magazines, from hosting parties to creating speaking forums, launching ranges of cafes and bars or producing video in the name of the brand. More than ever, they need to employ and retain people who are really committed to the job. It has been interesting and educative to see over the years which of the more dilettante or famous contributors really put some effort into their contributions and which liked the idea of an association to the magazine without the tedious business of actually doing any work.

The new editors also have to have a vision of how the many parts combine to make a robust whole. How the digital offering is a genuine extension of the values that made the print successful in the first place. How, as in retail where e-commerce and bricks and mortar work most effectively when they complement each other, online and print reflect off each other similarly. How live events make the audience feel that they are getting access to the world of the title they admire, rather than something more generic. It’s certainly not a job for someone who doesn’t wish to put in the hours and thinks that the main part of their job is being photographed in a series of designer clothes with a roster of famous friends.

You can't leverage brand extensions off a withered core.

The new guard who will be stepping into the shoes of those that are leaving will undoubtedly have different skills, but I would suggest that the most successful will still need a passion for the core magazine that feeds the spin-offs. You can’t leverage brand extensions off a withered core.

Currently in many titles, there is a vast discrepancy between the revenue generated via print and that of the various extensions, the former bringing in a substantially larger chunk of the cash. This will no doubt change as time goes on but the skill is in managing this migration and not chucking out the proverbial baby with not only the bath water, but the whole bathroom. Many advertisers, particularly in the fashion arena, are still supportive of print and still unsure how best to spend on digital. But the expectation that reading online journalism should be free has still to be tackled.

This means that for the immediate future the parent companies need to financially invest in the print content and the experienced teams that are paying the salaries and the rent. The future may well be digital, but without nourishing the values that made and still make magazines great, the brands will only have a past.

Alexandra Shulman is an author and the former editor of British Vogue.

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