Dirt: Imperial magazine editors

Magazines aren't consolidating because they suddenly had a crisis of conscience, you rubes.

Dirt is a daily email about entertainment.

Daisy Alioto on Franca Sozzani and cynical solutions to the problem of the glossy magazine “imperial editor.”

Last week, The New York Times published a feature called “The Imperial Editor Goes the Way of the Dodo”, about the extinction of the star magazine editor-in-chief. The piece quotes from an April 2021 letter by Condé Nast editors: “We used to work in silos, tending to our individual titles and often competing with each other — ultimately it’s self defeating.”

And although the NYT correctly identifies and calls out so many of the problems associated with magazine bosses as difficult geniuses (racism, classism, poor management, emotional abuse) it slips far too easily into the framing set up by magazine conglomerates themselves. It’s the sneakiest of false dichotomies to suggest that publications can have either a strong identity or a healthy culture. The media corporations Hearst, Meredith, and Condé Nast have been consolidating desks and publications since the mid-2010s in order to save money — syndicating from themselves and selling ads by category rather than publication. I experienced this first hand when I worked at the short-lived US edition of Wallpaper* (then part of Time Inc.) 

The US edition of Wallpaper*, which was a bid for American advertisers to begin with, suffered from a diffusion of responsibility among representatives who had already consolidated their sales pitches to be category-driven (auto, hospitality) rather than brand-based. Soon after arriving at Wallpaper* I found myself responsible for buying digital traffic through AOL, which meant our content was served in a sidebar widget between life hacks and disturbing medical calamities. The people who clicked on these articles were exactly who you would expect, being AOL users and all. The ad team watched nervously as the median age of our digital reader climbed, jeopardizing their ability to sell the hip, young Wallpaper* demographic to advertisers like Louis Vuitton and Veuve Clicquot. Before I could fully address this paradox, my position was eliminated. 

Wallpaper* was an afterthought, an asterisk to the downfall of a once-great magazine company. So was I. According to the NYT, the consolidation of Condé Nast International created redundancies and layoffs are expected this summer. 

Titles like Vogue Paris, Vogue Spain and Vogue Germany will likely fall under the control of Edward Enninful, who became Vogue’s European editorial director in December. Some top spots, like the editorship of Vogue India, are unfilled.

It’s incredibly cynical to try and tie these cost-saving measures to the diversification and democratization of magazine titles. A point of view is what makes a magazine great. If the dude editors and girl bosses are no longer at the helm, it’s not because they were too mean; it’s because they were no longer profitable. If only we could find some nice people with great taste and the ability to hang up their own coat to throw money at and then leave the hell alone. But there is no money for that.

I recently watched the 2016 documentary Franca: Chaos and Creation (Netflix) about the late Italian Vogue EIC, Franca Sozzani. Sozzani had her own share of controversy (the oil spill fashion shoot) and moments of editorial incandescence (the “all Black” issue). And I’ll be damned if “Makeover Madness” didn’t predict Brazilian Butt Lift (BBL) TikTok and adjacent memes.

“Dreaming is free. You can’t be stingy with dreams,” says Sozzani. In On Magazines, Alicia Kennedy writes: “Magazines were how I traveled before I traveled. They taught me how to write, what to listen to, what to go see.” I still have a physical response to the weight of glossy paper combined with a whiff of Ralph Lauren’s Blue. Like finding an old picture of a childhood crush. 

The epigraph to Chaos and Creation is a quote from Helmut Newton’s Autobiography, “Luckily there still are some interesting editors-in-chief, Anna Wintour in New York and Franca Sozzani in Milan.” But ~25 minutes into the film Jonathan Newhouse, heir to Conde Nast, appears to give away the whole game. “A magazine itself is not a work of art. A magazine is a business product,” Newhouse says. 

I know I am not telling you anything new. And this dynamic is not unique to publishing. Brands that market extreme individuality (like Gucci) can only function as arms of a conglomerate like Kering. 

If there is anything I can add to the discourse about monoculture and the flattening of taste (globalization whatever point oh) it’s the cognitive dissonance I have felt managing social media for magazines. As Iva Dixit articulates in this excellent episode of the podcast Diversity Hire, social media management was the only way into media for many post-recession grads (especially women). When titles consolidate, we are the people pulling the levers to juice the traffic that will allow the magazines we grew up idolizing to limp along another half decade. The better I was at my Wallpaper* job the baser I revealed myself to be. 

Reading between the lines of the Imperial Editor analysis we see that the individualized magazine title has been set at odds with the “greater good.” And that greater good is greater profit. — By Daisy Alioto

The Dirt: Magazine publishers want to know why we don’t kiss them on the forehead and give them a gold star for doing what they were going to do anyway.