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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Jim Nelson

Photo By Marc Dimov/

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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