In the late 1990s and early part of this decade, a young journalist named Andrew Essex was on the rise in Manhattan. He was a Talk of the Town editor at The New Yorker under Tina Brown; then a senior writer at Entertainment Weekly; then executive editor at Fairchild’s revamped Details. There were also stints at Us Weekly and Salon.
In 2005 things took a turn for Mr. Essex. He was hired to be editor in chief of a magazine called Absolute—one of those shiny luxury publications that straddle the line between advertisements and editorial and leave the reader (flipping through it idly in a shiny luxury condo lobby, perhaps) feeling glazed and hollow, not sure exactly why. The gig was short-lived. And a year later he decided to leave the field altogether. Mr. Essex, 43, is now CEO of Droga5, a boutique ad agency.
In a way, given today’s media climate, this career trajectory makes perfect sense. Mr. Essex is still working with ideas and concepts, after all. “What is an editor’s role?” he said rhetorically the other day. “Is it to fix some semicolons? Or go out and sell some fucking ads?”
It’s ugly out there in the magazine world: titles shuttering, meager profits, no one talking excitedly about starting the next Spy. And yet … in September, a fat stack of very pretty publications will launch, with heavy paper stock, big perfectly bound spines, and shiny pictures of spinnakers and gourmet chocolate. The Wall Street Journal will launch its new business magazine, WSJ.; The Washington Post will introduce its own glossy about fashion, FW; the Los Angeles Times will reintroduce its magazine under the aegis of the publishing side. Also: A company called Modern Luxury will begin a bimonthly magazine, Manhattan. Yea, though we walk through the valley of the shadow of a downturn.
“Anyone who has a pulse knows that the long-term prognosis for print is troubled,” said Mr. Essex. “Luxury books are the one thing immune to this.”
“If you look at the industries that are doing well, certainly luxury is the top-top end of the business market, and the top-top consumer continues to spend,” said Ellen Asmodeo-Giglio, the publisher of WSJ. “Our economy has grown so much through the luxury space that it just makes sense that there is more of a highlight on that sector in [publishing] as well.”
The New York Times was at the forefront of the trend in 2004 when it first published T: The New York Times Style Magazine, which has become the embattled company’s cash cow. While profits at the paper continue to shrink, ad pages at T, which Mr. Essex praised as “the best-done luxury book,” grew 12 percent last year, and revenues increased 9 percent to $45.7 million in 2007, from $41.8 million in 2005. Earlier this year, chairman and publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. awarded T with The Times’ prized internal honor, the Punch Sulzberger Award, because, as he put in a memo, “It has become a “compelling advertising proposition for traditional and new customers, as well as an engaging read for astute audiences around the world.”
These compelling advertising propositions are where the jobs are. Scores of editors and assistants are fleeing 4 Times Square and the Hearst Tower, draining talent from somewhat less overtly ad-baiting places like Men’s Vogue, Maxim, Lucky, Domino, InStyle, House & Garden.
“Fifteen years ago, the experience of employees I had to hire was very limited,” said Jason Binn, the CEO of Niche Media, which publishes the established luxury magazines Gotham and Hamptons. “Now if you look at people from Condé Nast, or Hachette, or The New York Times, a lot of them have moved into this category of employment. Now we’re constantly having these bigger companies trying to hire our staff. And vice versa.”
And the traditional, cozily amorphous job of the editor—rumpled visionary, bold procurer, acid social critic, lover of words!—is starting to look very different. Sort of…crisper.
“You’re looking at the inevitable loss of print ad revenue,” Mr. Essex said. “The editor’s role is to figure out where the ad revenue is to keep a book alive. That is the primary function of the editor. It is not to massage semicolons. Now some people at ASME or Mr. Ross or Mr. Shawn may vomit at that statement, but it’s better than not having any book at all. I’m talking about shrewd recognition of what world we live in.”
‘EDITORS ARE GREAT’
As envisioned by businesspeople, the New Editor seems a kind of bland, affable and well-connected creature … much like, well, a businessperson.