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.
“I think editors are very important because obviously I couldn’t write the magazine without my editors,” said Seth Semilof, the publisher of Haute Living, a bimonthly luxury magazine for the jet set, on the phone. “Editors are great.”
Mr. Binn had high praise for Cristina Greeven Cuomo, the editor of Gotham and Hamptons. “Cristina lives the life she celebrates,” he said. “She is our reader. She’s very socially active, she’s very respected in her community, she knows many of the people who are leaders who are in the city and are very experienced.”
“They’re all ambassadors to your brand,” he remarked, of editors in general. “They know the consumers. They know the influencers of their market. They’re very involved in the community.”
The businesspeople scoffed at the idea that, as Mr. Essex put it, “there’s going to be an inevitable erosion of church and state as magazines become the marketing expense for their Web sites.”
“We have such a divided line between editor and advertising that we sign a code of conduct,” said Ms. Asmodeo-Giglio, the publisher of WSJ. “We take that very seriously here. If my advertisers get to dictate the topic, they might as well create their own magazine, and that’s the last thing we want to do.”
“As you grow you really need to get that line clearly defined,” said Stephen Kong, the publisher of Modern Luxury magazines. “And frankly, I can tell you it is really a relief when you can tell your clients when they want to pitch a story, ‘Listen, you know what, that’s not really what I do, but I’d be happy to set up a phone call with [Manhattan editor] Richard [Martin] so your PR person or your representative can pitch the story to Richard.”
It’s just that, you see, luxury publishers sometimes like to have a nice little chat with their editors.
“I’ll have a client and they’ll say, ‘Hey, by the way, do you know that there’s a new watch we’re launching in January of ’09 in Geneva,’” said Mr. Kong. “And I’ll say, ‘Oh, really? What’s the watch?’ That information I can bring back to Rich and say, ‘Hey, by the way, I heard about this really hot thing, you may want to check it out.’ But it’s really for the best when you do not have the pressure of being so tied to the editorial.”
But what if they commission a story about, say, a regular advertiser that turns out to be not so flattering?
“I would frankly rather write on what people could go get that’s really great rather than spend time on what not to get, because nobody really has the time,” said Mr. Kong. “Like, for example, if we’re gonna write on one restaurant per issue, that’s only six restaurants per year. I’d rather tell them where to go than where not to go, because I feel like where not to go has limited reader service. Because then there’s people going, ‘Well where do I go?’”
Mr. Semilof took it a step further. “I believe in training my editors,” he said. “I believe in getting them and adhering to them, and now we’re in a position where I train someone like Stephanie [Wilson, the editorial director], and she’s been with the company for a long time, and now she’s become very good at the job, and so forth, and she’s learned on the job, but like I believe editors are very, very important and they’re very great.”
In the early days of his publication, Mr. Semilof hired editors with “great résumés,” but they sometimes could be a pain, so he found a new method for recruiting. “Basically, we have a couple that come in as interns and they start working and then we see their writing, and then Stephanie works with them and then I review them, and then they start moving forward. We just brought a young lady on that was an intern, and now she’s working, and one worked at Teen Vogue, and another one worked for her school newspaper.”
He’s able to score some of the top interviews himself because of his own nocturnal adventures—running into Russell Simmons at Rose Bar, for example, and later inviting him to be on the cover. “At the end of the day, this is a results-oriented business,” Mr. Semilof said. Everyone’s saying, ‘We’re luxury, we’re luxury,’ but the reality is, if you don’t offer results for your advertisers, then pretty much the game’s gonna be over. For example, Rolls Royce is an advertiser of ours, and through our magazine and through events we’ve sold more Rolls Royces than any other publication in the world. … We’d rather talk about the success part of the business. Our job is not to be like The New York Times and talk about the doom part of the business.”
One way The New York Times is fighting doom is by selling every page of advertising in its glossy Aug. 3 sports supplement, Play, to the Nielsen Media Research company, which recalls the slightly queasy feeling one got in 2005 when The New Yorker teamed up with Target. But Mr. Essex, at least, is sanguine about such innovations. “If you accept the proposition that it’s luxurious to page through a magazine, something luxurious and slow about it, then magazines can lend themselves to that luxurious experience,” he said. “People who are smart enough to get that will invest in that and defend that. That’s what I’m trying to get at. Editors will defend magazines as the luxurious experience.”