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Editors and the 'Cult of the Brand'

Publishers at Hearst Corp., Time Inc., Condé Nast and Meredith Corp. have reconceived the definition of a magazine editor.

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David Carey

Photo By Patrick McMullan/Patrick McMullan.com

Rosemary Ellis

Photo By Billy Farrell/PatrickMcMullan.com

Just after 1 a.m. on Jan. 31, the editor in chief of Condé Nast’s Bon Appétit, Adam Rapoport, looked like he was on an infomercial. Rapoport, in a taped segment on HSN, was working hard at selling Bon Appétit’s newly debuted kitchenware.

“We have immersion blenders that will just power through anything and everything,” he said. “And at the same token they look beautiful, so they’re going to look great on your shelf in your kitchen.”

The blender — which costs just under $70 — was one of several Bon Ap-branded products up for sale: pressure cookers, countertop burners, skillets, pineapple cutters and stainless steel mixing bowls were all in the mix. For years, Condé Nast had stayed far away from licensing, let alone let an editor in chief shill products in the middle of the night.

But this was an ambitious moment for the publisher as it redefines itself in a new media age, and it paid off. Within a day, HSN sold more than 20,000 units of Bon Ap’s cookware and kitchen appliances, making it one of the network’s best culinary debuts ever.

“When Jim Nelson took over at GQ when I was there back in 2003, he had a magazine to edit, and that was pretty much it and he did so remarkably well,” said Rapoport in an interview with WWD. “Now it’s a magazine and a full-fledged Web site and an app. And we have an HSN cookware line, and we have a 600-page grilling book coming out next year and we’re working on TV shows to get developed, you know, which is in some ways exciting and in some ways totally daunting as well. I think the key, to kind of borrow a business term, is to stay on brand.”

Rapoport is the paradigm of a modern editor in chief, or what could easily be referred to as content brand officer. He is TV-polished — he’s been on the “Today” show twice in the last two weeks — and a reliable advocate for Bon Appétit television pilots, book projects and pots and pans. His company adores him.

Publishers at Hearst Corp., Time Inc., Condé Nast and Meredith Corp. have reconceived the definition of a magazine editor. The notion of editors consumed with getting those pages out the door seems old-fashioned. Editing and designing — the old Harold Ross and Harold Hayes and Clay Felker part of the business — is increasingly a smaller part of the job. In the past, the editor ruled and the publisher simply sold. Now, the new editor is the handmaiden of the publisher. To be an editor these days is to be — as one Condé Nast award called it — a good collaborator.

There doesn’t seem to be much of a choice.

“Yeah, 10 years ago, you could just say no,” said Rapoport, when discussing the HSN line. “Nowadays, it’s pretty much nonnegotiable. You’re going to do it.”

He is not alone. The new highest encomium for editors is not literary — it is entrepreneurial.

“If you’re yearning to sit in a small office and do nothing but edit a literary journal — not that I have anything against literary journals — I can see how it’s very stressful,” said Good Housekeeping editor Rosemary Ellis. “If you want to be more peripatetic and expand in more than one direction, it’s a great time to be an editor in chief.”

A big-time executive, Hearst Magazines president David Carey, said he couldn’t be happier with the sudden job description change for editors. Late last year, he had a meeting with one of Hearst’s “key businesses,” Ellis’ Good Housekeeping. Ellis detailed all the activities that she was personally involved in: the magazine, the Web site, tablet editions, e-books, a physical book born out of a section of the magazine — “Drop 5 Pounds” — and the TV show being produced around it.

“I think I ran out of fingers by time she was done talking about what she was involved in,” said Carey. “I said, ‘Thank goodness that the job of being an editor in chief today is so dramatically different than what it was just a few years ago.’ ”

Carey told WWD that editors are just as excited as he is by this development.

“Maybe there was a period of time when everyone begrudgingly had to carve out time from their day in these new areas,” he said and then spoke of the editor in chief of Cosmopolitan. “Now they do so with real enthusiasm. I’m very close to Kate White and, off and on, at 11:30 at night I’ll be exchanging e-mails with her about social media strategies around the Cosmo brand. And I’ll engage: ‘Well, what about this!’ ‘What about that!’ ‘And what if we did this?’ ”

“We’re not just running creative teams,” said Hearst’s men’s group editorial director and Popular Mechanics editor Jim Meigs. “We’re running new business incubators. We’re constantly thinking about where can we take our content and roll it into new platforms and in ways that are going to make money.”

Carey compared modern day editors to a designer like Tory Burch — who, he said, is not simply a designer. She’s also obsessing about retail, manufacturing, her Web site. Just like editors and their various projects.

“You’ve created these branded environments and you’re creating this whole world that Tory’s a part of,” he said. “What does the fragrance look like? And, in her case, there’s no doubt a social aspect. It all becomes a very additive process. So I think most of the editors would find it to be quite exhilarating. And maybe on some days, it’s just long! But I think that those who are really adapting best to it are doing really exciting things.”

And this is apparently true to many editors.

“There are occasional days when I’m clutching my hair in my hands thinking how ‘Oh, my God, how do we get these 17 things done before midnight?’ ” said Ellis, of Good Housekeeping. “But the truth is, it’s more interesting, it’s more exciting and I like a lot of diversity in my life. And boy, do I have it.”

“We have a number of television products that are in their infancy stages,” said Cosmopolitan’s White on Wednesday evening, right off a flight from L.A. where she was working on developing TV projects. “I go out to meet with publicists and studio people and the trips are now combined with meeting with film people and network people and that sort of thing.”

She then spent the next several minutes discussing Cosmo’s “brand extensions”— Cosmo Radio, Cosmo for Guys iPad app, books, e-books among them — and said, proudly, “My guess is we have the most number of the brand extensions in the company.”

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Jim Nelson

Photo By Marc Dimov/PatrickMcMullan.com

David Remnick

Photo By Paul Morigi

“Anybody who is an editor in chief today and thinks they’re not a businessperson is sadly.…” said Ellis, before bursting into laughter. “Of course you’re a businessperson! You’re not the publisher and you’re not out there selling ads, but you’re creating a product that people buy and that’s always been true.”

GQ editor in chief Jim Nelson said, “Only a fool would think magazine editors could go back to their planning rooms and exhale.” He said he’s particularly proud of the magazine’s iPad app, its Web site and its e-commerce deal with Park & Bond. Also, he continued in an e-mail: “television possibilities, book deals, licensing opportunities — all of it exciting, all potentially very good for GQ, and all worth pursuing.”

But then he wondered if it was time to restack the deck for editors. Does there need to be some course correcting? Are journalism and editing taking a backseat to TV deals and e-commerce?

Nelson said that he’s worried “that, as an industry, we’re at risk now of sliding into religious thinking, a too-fervent belief in the cult of the brand. And the risk is that in all the wise and necessary moves into new terrain and all the enthusiasm for ‘brand’ and brand extensions, we neglect the thing at the center.

“Journalism, photography, design, creative thinking, editing and packaging, they’re what drive it all; they require a great deal of care, thought and attention, and I don’t hear a lot about them these days,” he continued. “What I hear is ‘That’s great for the brand.’ No, that is the brand!”

For every David Carey or Rosemary Ellis, there’s another side.

“Everyone at Condé Nast is supportive of the most important thing — editorial freedom and independence — and, at the same time, I know that financial health is essential and so is getting our work to new readers through new technologies,” said The New Yorker’s editor David Remnick. “Still, I don’t much love the talk of ‘brand’ and ‘brand managers’ — I prefer ‘the magazine’ and ‘editors.’ Harold Ross used to talk about The New Yorker as a cause and that’s what it is for me and for all of my colleagues.”

“If you spend too much time on the peripheries of the magazine, rather than the magazine itself, it could be a problem at some point in the future,” said Vanity Fair editor in chief Graydon Carter. “Magazines that are robust editorially have the best chances of thriving in the digital world.”

And Nelson argued that precisely that — the editorial work — suffers with every meeting that distracts from it.

“Meantime, magazine making?” he said. “It’s become an assumption that that’s the easy part of your day; you’ve got that covered. But it has never been easy, and the day you take your focus off it is the day the magazine becomes less interesting. So yeah, I worry about ADD, about being spread too thin, absolutely. And sometimes I think we’re pushed to do too much with too little. And I’m concerned about stress levels, for quality-of-life and quality-of-job reasons but also because, crucially, you need mental space for creativity and excellence.”

When your day is filled with social media or Internet merchandising meetings, where is the time to sweat over edits? Not all editors live in an editorial monastery — few would want to and most want the business side to see them as reasonable professionals who are playing for the big team — but how far does the editorial world extend?

“In terms of crossing types of media, why not — you put out a magazine — go put out a book, why not be able to do a TV show?” said Rapoport. “That’s nothing that Gourmet didn’t do five years ago when they were putting out a magazine, and their TV show and the cookbook — so long as you can keep it sort of on-brand, and maintain the quality, then why not? It’s challenging, and some things you’ll obviously do better than others, but it’s not unheard of, and it’s certainly not unheard of in terms of other sort of industries. You’ve got Armani Hotels now; you’ve got a Nobu tower going up at Caesars. This sort of cross-pollination is not unusual in a lot of ways.”

Then there’s that Church-State quandary. The old magazine business–editorial wall is being reconstructed with a lot of unfamiliar building material. If you are thinking like an editor, should you be thinking like a publisher? And if you are thinking like a publisher, can you — or should you — think like an editor? And, once the wall is down, is there no more split between the business interests of the magazine and the editorial but one big Media-ocracy where every editorial choice is puréed by business considerations?

“It is a real problem,” said Glamour editor in chief Cindi Leive, of her schedule. “It’s a problem that I confront every single morning, looking at my schedule. I think back to my job eight years ago when I would have issue planning meetings for hours on end, and hang out in the art department and work on iterations of a layout. It is a problem and you’re making hourly decisions on what you’re going to focus on but, all in all, it’s a good problem to have.”

Leive takes a practical tack. She said that if the editors don’t take on the task of — forgive the term — chief brand manager, then someone else is just going to come in and do it. And then what are you left with?

“Whether you call it a brand or not, what’s really key is there does need to be creativity, the editor’s vision and a real passion for serving the reader has to be at the heart of it,” said Meigs of Popular Mechanics.

“Even though it can be annoying to hear magazines talked about as brands — because magazines themselves are fantastic creatures and brands sounds a little more homogenized — they are brands,” said Leive. “I’m just a big believer in a good editor to understand his or her reader and their needs better than anyone. I like the future of a magazine industry that puts editors in charge of directing their brands in partnership with publishers. Would any of us really want a world that those decisions are being completely made by people who are not relating to our readers?”

 

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