Vanilla Ceiling: Magazines Still Shades Of White

In the spring of 2000, when Nedra Rhone was still a bright-eyed graduate student at Columbia’s School of Journalism, she

In the spring of 2000, when Nedra Rhone was still a bright-eyed graduate student at Columbia’s School of Journalism, she had the fortune of landing an interview with a recruiter for Gruner + Jahr’s glossy-covered Fitness magazine. The recruiter was white; Ms. Rhone was black. They chatted amiably for several minutes, small-talking their way through her fitness background and writing experience. And then the recruiter said something that rather surprised her.

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“He said, ‘Why don’t you want to work for Essence?’” Ms. Rhone recalled. Essence is not a sibling Gruner + Jahr publication, but was an independently owned production of Essence Communications Partners. It caters to a largely African-American audience and has nothing to do with fitness.

“I didn’t say anything, because I was so taken aback,” Ms. Rhone said. “But then he followed with ‘How about O magazine?’—which I thought was even more interesting, because that’s obviously not a black publication; it just so happens that Oprah is. So I was really kind of confused by the whole thing.”

A spokesperson at Fitness, which is now published by Meredith Corporation, declined to comment and referred calls to a spokesperson for Gruner + Jahr. That spokesperson also declined to comment.

After getting turned down by Fitness and a second magazine, Ms. Rhone eventually landed a job in the comparatively welcoming environment of a major New York–area newspaper. In 2005, after taking a second crack at the magazine industry, she decided to head south for a job at a large Southern newspaper. “It’s a very difficult environment to penetrate,” she said of the magazine scene.

At Condé Nast, the premier magazine empire, the fleet of 29 top editors includes just one person of color.

“The magazine industry is probably the least diverse of any of the media. They’ve taken a real pass,” said Pamela Newkirk, a professor at New York University’s Department of Journalism and author of Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media. “As I say that, I can just hear all the people trying to shake the trees to tell you they have all this diversity—and then start mentioning people in the mailroom. But no, I’ve been in too many of these places, and I know firsthand that they are just not diverse.”

IT IS DIFFICULT TO QUANTIFY JUST HOW NOT-DIVERSE the glossy world is. The Magazine Publishers Association doesn’t track its members’ racial or ethnic makeup, and magazine editors are reluctant to discuss the composition of their staffs.

But The Observer conducted a survey of some leading New York magazines, with the help of magazine staff members who agreed to review their mastheads and provide diversity breakdowns.

The results, magazine by magazine, looked like the far end of assorted paint-color chips: ivory, bone, mist.

The New York Observer is not a magazine, but for fairness’ sake: This newspaper is a very delicate shade of salmon. Out of 40 editors, writers and contributors, there are two people of color.

The magazine survey didn’t include the publishing side of mastheads, but focused exclusively on editorial departments. Masthead structures vary from magazine to magazine, which makes direct comparisons difficult. And mastheads offer only one kind of editorial snapshot—they exclude freelancers, for example.

Still, the results of the survey revealed a world that looks little like the streets of New York, where nearly 65 percent of the population identified itself as nonwhite in the 2000 census.

Of the 203 staffers and contributors listed on the Vanity Fair masthead, six—or less than 3 percent—are people of color.

At Condé Nast Traveler, the swank travel monthly, 11 of the 85 staffers and contributors listed on the masthead are people of color. Of those 11 staffers, three hold editing positions and two are contributing editors, while six hold lower-masthead positions as researchers and assistant editors.

The New Yorker doesn’t publish a masthead, but based on conversations with sources and available published information, the magazine has a pool of some 130 editors, critics, copy editors, fact checkers, editorial assistants and outside contributors—of whom 11 are people of color.

At Jann Wenner’s Rolling Stone, four members of the magazine’s 73-person editorial staff are people of color. Six members of New York magazine’s 90-person team of editors, writers, contributors and editorial assistants are not white. (Between 15 and 17 percent of the overall magazine staff are people of color, according to New York spokeswoman Serena Torrey. “We hope we will continue to grow,” she said.) At Forbes, an estimated seven people out of a pool of 116 editors, writers, reporters, editorial assistants, copy editors and bureau correspondents are people of color.

And the non-glossy Nation lists eight people of color among its 99 writers, editors, editorial-board members and Nation Institute fellows.

The Nation’s publisher and editor, Katrina vanden Heuvel, acknowledged that the veteran weekly “need[s] to do a better job in this area.” But, she said, masthead statistics were only part of the magazine’s diversity story.

“We are always out looking for more diversity in terms of our writers, in terms of our editors,” she said, citing efforts to recruit more minority freelance journalists as well as a recently created Nation Institute fellowship for writers of color and a new conversation series between mystery writer Walter Mosely and other minority writers and activists.

Editors for the other magazines declined to comment on staff diversity.

“WHEN WE GO TO SOMETHING LIKE THE ASME [American Society of Magazine Editors] awards at the Waldorf, we’re like, ‘Oh my goodness, this table is the only multicultural table in the whole place!’ said Vibe editor in chief Mimi Valdés. “We totally stand out. Everyone’s like, ‘That’s the Vibe table.’”

But like porn or infidelity or gays in the military, the whiteness of the magazine world is the kind of thing that everyone knows but no one talks about—at least not out loud, not at full volume, unless they happen to be soused or silly at their annual holiday party.

Several industry professionals traced this silence to the fact that magazines are, in the end, just magazines: waxy-paged collections of ads and articles that may provide everything from political analysis to eyebrow-waxing advice, but are hardly essential guardians of the public interest. Rightly or wrongly, they are generally not considered to be as “important” as newspapers.

Yet they make up an industry that generates some $18 billion in ad sales and reaches tens of millions of readers each year. As one African-American entertainment writer said, the people who brush off magazines “don’t really understand the importance of how they help shape public opinion. They don’t understand that for a number of [people] across the country, they’re looking to magazines for cues about everything from beauty to sexuality.”

And other people are looking to magazines for a place to hang a byline and get paid in the process.

Within the notoriously thrifty world of publishing, magazines offer some of the few opportunities for writers to earn a decent wage. While newspapers pay writers in pennies or dimes a word, magazines measure their rates in dollars. For writers of color who have trouble breaking into this world, there is essentially a cap on their earning power, a kind of “glossy ceiling” that doesn’t shatter easily.

Back in the 1990’s, XXL editor in chief Elliott Wilson was looking for a way to break into this world. He “couldn’t get in the door with the ‘white magazines,’” he said. His options were either to give up or start his own small zine; he did the latter and got lucky. “To me, it’s affected my whole path,” he said.

The actress Regina Hall, who has won something of a cult following for her role in the Scary Movie franchise, also contemplated a career in the scribbling trades back in the 1990’s. She attended New York University’s journalism school, but after finishing the 18-month program she came to the stark, if surreal, conclusion that her chances of making it as a black woman in journalism were slim enough that she might as well just shoot the moon—and try making it as a Hollywood actress instead.

“It’s not like journalism felt safe to me,” said the actress during a phone interview from the Vancouver set of Scary Movie IV in November. “It’s really hard for a black actress to make it—but then when I found out what it really entailed to make it in journalism as a black woman, it didn’t feel like one was safe and the other one was a big risk. It was a reality I took into consideration.”

There has been some growth, some small but significant shifts, in the eight or so years since Ms. Hall gave up on journalism. There is now a solid core of writers and editors of color who have managed to shatter the glossy ceiling, many to happy effect—though some also report hitting trouble on the inside. “It’s very ghettoized for black writers,” said Touré, the mono-monikered Rolling Stone contributing editor, who holds the distinction of being the only nonwhite staffer with that title at the magazine. “Everyone knows you can do hip-hop or R&B, but when you want to write about rock ‘n’ roll, people ask, ‘Can you really do that?’”

At the same time, some magazines and media empires have taken the radical step of not only encouraging diversity in theory but also, occasionally, in practice. Time Inc., for instance, has made a formal “business imperative” of diversifying its ranks in recent years, said corporate editor Isolde Motley. “We have a goal, which is to try to have the magazine staff reflect the make-up of the reader population. If you look at demographic curves, it’s the sensible thing to do,” she added, explaining that the company’s diversity initiative includes, among other strategies, hinging the editors’ bonuses on meeting hiring goals.

But perhaps the most significant development has been the rise of “niche” publications like XXL and Vibe, which offer some of the few reliable opportunities for talented writers of color—and which, some say, complicate the picture of an exclusive, bleachy-white industry. “I think, yes, if you view [diversity] just as a numbers game, magazines may be behind some other industries,” said Mark Whitaker, editor of Newsweek, president of the American Society of Magazine Editors, and the first African-American to head a major newsweekly. “But, on the other hand, there is a diversity of magazines …. So it’s just a different kind of diversity exists already.”

BUT WHAT ABOUT EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITIES that aren’t separated by ethnicity? Despite some heavy pestering, many of the people in a position to provide real answers—white editors who do the recruiting and hiring— declined to talk, including: Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner, Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter, The New Yorker’s David Remnick, GQ’s Jim Nelson, Maxim’s Ed Needham, Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham, Details’ Dan Peres, the corporate chieftains at Condé Nast and others.

Oh, that story, sniffed a publicist for one high-profile glossy when asked whether the editor in chief would comment on the magazine’s diversity policies. Hasn’t that story already been done, like, a ton of times?

“There is definitely no sense of shame about not having a diverse staff the way there was 10 years ago,” said an Asian-American editor at a popular glossy magazine.

One of the few white editors who agreed to speak on the record was Kurt Andersen, who created Spy magazine in the 1980’s and headed up New York in the mid-1990’s. When asked how he thought his magazines had done at diversity, he sighed and acknowledged, “We failed. We hired very few black people or Hispanic people during the two and a half years I was editor of New York magazine.”

Mr. Andersen’s tone was perplexed, and genuinely disappointed, as he said this, as if he still couldn’t figure out what had gone wrong. He called the industry’s persistent lack of diversity “appalling” and added: “We tried to do our best to recruit affirmatively and stuff. And it’s just for all the reasons I’m sure everybody will tell you who is in a position of hiring [people of color] as editors: It’s not easy to remedy, even when there’s the will.”

Mr. Andersen was echoing a common refrain among some editors. “The applicants of color who walk through our doors are not as numerous as we wish they were, and there are lots of magazines fighting to hire these qualified candidates,” said a spokesperson for one top editor.

But many writers of color balk at this explanation. Perhaps, they said, a number of would-be minority journalists do opt out of magazines, either because they don’t see many models of advancement or because they could earn a far more respectable—or simply livable—salary beginning in any other professional field. (The class/race coupling can’t be ignored, and the entry-level salaries of journalism have a way of whittling out everyone but the elite.) But qualified applicants can  be found by those who look.

“I just don’t believe there’s a concerted effort being made,” said one African-American entertainment writer. “I could come up with 10 people right now off the top of my head who would give their right arm to write for GQ, Esquire, Vogue or New York magazine. But they can’t get in—they don’t know how to get in—so they just end up writing for these urban magazines.”

This was the essential issue for many of the people of color interviewed for this article, the stubborn root of the problem: The industry is deeply, almost primally exclusive, defined by a cozy clubbiness that is woefully hard to penetrate.

The New York publishing scene is an insular place, run, in many cases, on old tribal principles of friendship, family and college connections. It is hardly unique in this respect, but magazines’ tight margins, small staff and overall insidery competitiveness may make these tendencies more intense. People hire who they know—and perhaps people that mimic their advertisers’ preferred demographics.

“I think, in people’s minds, it’s not like, ‘Let’s not hire any black people.’ It’s just like, ‘I don’t really know any black people to hire, and I don’t really want to do the work to find out who they are,’” said Scott Poulson-Bryant, a founding editor of Vibe and author of the racy new book Hung: A Meditation on the Measure of Black Men in America. “People aren’t really that active about finding new blood, so to speak.”

Betty Cortina, who spent years working at Time and Hearst publications before becoming the editorial director of Latina, simmered it down to a matter of editorial will.

“These are some of the most strategic and innovative companies in the world, and we can figure out how to do just about anything: how to create another magazine in a market that’s already completely fragmented, how to get magazines to newsstands across the globe, how to bring innovative, creative packages to advertisers who have already seen it all,” she said. “But we can’t figure this out? Come on.”

? ? ? ? ? 

S ometimes, in the great dance of Condé Nast office space, moving up means moving down. This coming spring, boy-shopper Cargo is scheduled to leave its 15th-floor perch in the 4 Times Square mothership to take over a more spacious eighth-floor location vacated by its older sister, Lucky.

And Lucky has already moved to still-more-roomy digs on the sixth floor, to accommodate its own continued growth.

Both moves are part of a multi-stage real-estate shuffle following last year’s full absorption by Condé of its sibling Fairchild division. The change expanded Condé Nast’s official roster of titles far beyond what could fit in the status-symbol headquarters at 4 Times Square—and it made Fairchild’s building, at 750 Third Avenue, fully available as a Condé Nast annex.

So it was that in October the company announced that House & Garden and Golf Digest would be moving out of the main building and over to Third Avenue.

There are no current plans, said company spokeswoman Maurie Perl, for any former Fairchild magazines to make the reverse trip.

But with new space opened by the exile of those two titles, 2006 is shaping up as a nomadic year inside the Condé Nast building.

“It’s a moving chessboard,” Ms. Perl said. “This is a continuing work in progress and a fluid process.”

Cargo currently occupies the south side of the 15th floor, a floor it shares with the business staffs of Bon Appétit and Architectural Digest. According to a Cargo source, the staff has outgrown those quarters, and racks of clothes now clutter the hallways.

Only select Cargo staffers have private offices, with the rest in cubicles. Editor in chief Ariel Foxman has an office with a private bathroom, according to a source familiar with the magazine, but executive editor Lisa Arbetter and articles director Tim Moss have tiny offices, and Mr. Moss’ has no windows.

“It’s been tight for a long time,” Ms. Perl said of Cargo’s 15th-floor home. “ … Our intention is to give them the space that’s needed for everyone to do their best work.” Cargo’s business staff is expected to remain on 15.

In other directory revisions, the newborn Men’s Vogue, which is currently spread across several floors, is slated to move to a seventh-floor space once Golf Digest moves out of it. The upcoming, still-unnamed business magazine headed by Joanne Lipman is working out of the 18th floor, with its permanent space yet to be finalized.

And the company’s Internet wing, CondéNet, is preparing to move out of the 17th floor and into newly leased space at 1166 Sixth Avenue. There, plans call for it to occupy the 14th and 15th floors, as well as half of the 16th.

TPG Architecture, a New York–based architecture firm, is outfitting the new space for CondéNet. Previous TPG projects have included the Today show’s set, MSNBC’s studios and flagship stores for Hugo Boss and Donna Karan.

Because the move-in deadline is tight, according to a spokesperson for TPG, Condé Nast has agreed to retain the existing furniture at the site. But TPG  is installing a new concrete-and-glass staircase to connect the floors, and new lighting and furniture will be installed in the reception area.

However, while Condé Nast employees have the Frank Gehry–designed cafeteria, staffers at CondéNet will have to make due with only a kitchen.

—Gabriel Sherman

O n his desk, in a city that collects talismans of access, New York Times Washington reporter David E. Rosenbaum kept only one signed photograph: a framed picture of investigative-reporting legend I.F. Stone.

Rosenbaum, who died on Jan. 8 at age 63 from injuries suffered in an apparent mugging two days before, was remembered by colleagues as a reporter’s reporter, eschewing insidery chumminess in favor of the craft of sharing information with Times readers.

“He hated events like the White House Correspondents Dinner, or other things where the press hung out with politicians,” said former Times Washington editor Adam Clymer.

“He never tired of finding out stuff,” said Times reporter Robin Toner, whom Rosenbaum mentored and recently collaborated with covering President Bush’s efforts to overhaul Social Security. “He had a strong sense of the role of a newspaper reporter in a democracy.”

Rosenbaum had taken a buyout and officially retired in December, after 37 years with The Times. But he remained on contract with the paper. The day he was attacked, he had come into the bureau to do research to update the paper’s advance obituary of Gerald Ford.

Rosenbaum spent nearly his entire Times career as a reporter, save for a brief stint in New York as special-projects editor under Abe Rosenthal during the early 1980’s.

“He didn’t want to climb the ladder of being an editor,” said Times diplomatic correspondent Steven Weisman, who arrived at the paper in 1968 alongside Rosenbaum.

“He just didn’t like it,” reporter Linda Greenhouse recalled of Mr. Rosenbaum’s brief turn as an editor at West 43rd Street.

A memorial service is scheduled for Jan. 13 at 10:30 a.m., at the Dirksen Senate Office Building, according to bureau chief Phil Taubman.

Rosenbaum first arrived at The Times on the Washington bureau night desk in 1968, after stints at the St. Petersburg Times and Congressional Quarterly. His career was marked by a talent for sifting through and explicating arcane matters of economics; in 1990, he shared a Polk Award for his coverage of the first President Bush’s tax increase.

“He brought to every complex story a substance and depth and an understanding of policy,” Mr. Weisman said. “That was his great skill.”

“When I came to work at The Times, David welcomed me warmly,” Mr. Taubman said. “I remember that right from the get-go, he was exceedingly generous with source names and numbers. That was David’s manner: He was one of the friendliest and most welcoming people at the newspaper.”

In 2002, Rosenbaum was one of the first Washington journalists to write about the growing influence of now-disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Most recently, Rosenbaum expressed dismay over the Plamegate scandal.

“He thought promises of confidentiality were given much too casually,” Mr. Clymer said. “He said you needed to protect the City Hall janitor who exposes corruption, but not political gossips.”


W hen The New York Times reported on Jan. 9 that there is no such person as author JT Leroy, and that the writer’s public appearances have been made by a woman named Savannah Knoop, Stephen Beachy was delighted.

“I e-mailed [reporter] Warren [St. John] on Sunday night thanking him for doing the article and telling him I thought it was great,” said Mr. Beachy, who wrote about the mystery of JT Leroy’s identity for New York magazine back in October.

The next day, however, another e-mail began circulating: New York spokeswoman Serena Torrey mass-mailed media reporters a message with the heading “JT Leroy is a Fake, NY Mag reported in October and NY Times Agrees Today.”

“Today,” Ms. Torrey wrote, “three months after New York’s investigation made news, the New York Times, which had recently profiled and hired ‘Leroy’ as a legitimate writer, ‘reported’ that Leroy, who’d recently written for the Times, was indeed Laura Albert.”

Had The Times ripped off New York’s scoop? When Mr. Beachy saw the scare-quote-laced salvo, “I was surprised,” he said. “Whatever the press release said, those are not my issues. I thought I was given a perfect amount of credit. [ The Times] even linked to my story on the Web site. I don’t have any issues with the Times piece.”

In his October piece, Mr. Beachy laid out a strong circumstantial case that Leroy didn’t exist and that his literary output was the work of a woman named Laura Albert. But the piece stopped short of delivering a conclusive kill shot, and Mr. Beachy was stumped by the question of who portrayed Leroy in his public appearances.

“I’m thrilled the Times piece came out and they found the last piece of the puzzle,” Mr. Beachy said. “It’s been weighing on my mind all these months—who the actor is.”

Mr. Beachy said that he and Mr. St. John—who had written a profile taking JT Leroy at face value in 2004—had assisted each other in their respective quests.

Ms. Torrey, via e-mail, said that Mr. Beachy’s revelation “was the significant breakthrough in the unmasking–JT Leroy story, and the Times account wouldn’t have been possible without it …. [W]e were just protecting our reporter’s scoop.”

At The Times, meanwhile, Mr. St. John’s investigation spared the paper the trouble of writing an editor’s note about the paper’s original Leroy profile—and a travel article that had run in the paper’s T magazine under Leroy’s byline.

“We think the story Monday stands as a major correction,” Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis wrote in an e-mail. “We have arranged to have notes attached in our electronic archives to Warren St. John’s profile of the fictional person, published a year ago, and to the ‘T’ piece bylined by the fictional person. Both will refer readers to the piece published Monday.”


C orrection: Last week’s Off the Record incorrectly described The New York Times as having announced 690 layoffs at the newspaper in 2005. The New York Times Company had announced roughly 700 layoffs companywide, including staff cuts at The Boston Globe, regional newspapers and broadcast properties, and among the corporate staff, as well as at The Times. Off the Record regrets the error.

Vanilla Ceiling: Magazines Still Shades Of White