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How Nylon's New Editor in Chief Plans to Change the Magazine

Michelle Lee became the editor in chief of Nylon and Nylon Guys this past June at an uncertain time in the brand's 15-year history. In May, news leaked that its parent company, in conjunction with style blogger network FashionIndie, had been acquired by an unnamed company helmed by former Wenner Media publisher Dana Fields and founder Joseph Mohen. Nylon's founder and former editor-in-chief, Marvin Scott Jarrett, and its publisher (Jarrett's wife), Jacclyn Jarrett, were allegedly locked out of their offices, not to return. The new company's CEO, Mohen, departed just two weeks later.

You might think the person who would take the top job at Nylon under those circumstances would be ruthless or crazy or both -- but Lee is neither. In hour-long conversation, she came across as almost startlingly nice, modest but direct -- and a mix of former and current employees confirmed my initial assessment when I asked around afterward. Besides her extensive background in publishing -- she is a former editor in chief of In Touch Weekly, and a founding editor of The Daily Front Row and Us Weekly -- her understanding of the Nylon brand runs long and deep: She wrote music and style stories as a freelancer for the publication more than a decade ago.

In her first interview since taking the helm, we spoke to Lee about how she got the job, how's she's handled a challenging transition period, and what she's planning to change -- and keep the same -- about the Nylon we know today.

How did you come to interview for the role?

Honestly, I wasn't looking. I've been in publishing for the past 15 years, and transitioned into owning my own agency, Magnified Media, doing digital and print projects for brands. Because I was out of the traditional publishing world, I hadn't been reading as much media news, so I didn't know that Nylon had come under new ownership and was looking for a new editor in chief until I got an email from the current publisher, Dana [Fields]. I couldn't believe the magazine had been sold. The next day, we had breakfast at Balthazar. I expected to be there for an hour, but we hit it off and had so many ideas -- you don't know how excited you are about something until you start talking about it -- and stayed for about two and a half hours. Things moved pretty quickly after that. I feel like the job was kind of made for me. A lot of my background has been in fashion, and back in the day I was a music editor. Nylon's whole brand is about fashion and beauty and music.

Nylon's acquisition was controversial to say the least -- were you concerned, under the circumstances, about taking a role there?

I came after all of that, and really haven't been involved in it. Our plan is to look forward.

Nylon's acquisition was described as a "merger" with blog network FashionIndie. How does that all work together?

That was a big question when whole merger happened. Content-wise, we're pretty separate. [FashionIndie] has been able to provide really amazing additions to the ad sales team. We can go out to client and offer digital campaigns, print ads and now this enormous network of influencers. Condé Nast has been [working with online influencer networks] too, so to have that within our own company is pretty amazing.

How have you handled staff departures?

Anytime there is a regime change, there is definitely some staff turnover. At the same time, it has been really exciting for me to hire new people. We just hired two new senior editors, one from Bullett, the other from Vanity Fair. We've also hired a new digital director from Refinery29 and are also about to make a big hire in the fashion department [Ed note: Preetma Singh from WSJ magazine has since been hired as fashion market director]. We want to bring back surprise and some of the edginess back to Nylon, and bringing people with different perspective and views has brought a cool vibe here.

What is Nylon? Can you talk me through your vision for the magazine?

The word everyone uses to describe Nylon is "cool." It means different things to different people. I still think cool is a good way to define brand, but the word I really like is "rebellious." I've worked at other women's magazines -- for Elle, Lucky -- and all those magazines have a great voice. At the same time, Nylon should stand alone, it should have this rebellious spirit, every single page in the mag should look different than every other women's mag.

Nylon is known for fashion and music. For me, I think about the competitive landscape and what young women are looking for. One thing that I definitely want to do is broaden our coverage out a little bit to include one extremely well-written culture piece per issue. To give an example for September, we did a Nylon girls' guide to Paris … We also did a story about people using cannabis  as a high-end cuisine ingredient. It's not about pot brownies and stuff, but actually a strong reported piece with all these chefs who use marijuana as a flavoring ingredients. I'd also like to introduce some more travel and beauty coverage. I'm looking at all the sections of magazine to see if they belong here, or to see if we can we come up with something cooler and more creative. For me, Nylon is such a strong brand, I'm not an editor coming in and saying I am going to rip up the entire thing, so you're not going to open up the magazine next month and see something totally different. It will be a transition over the next six months or so.

How do you make it feel cool and rebellious?

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Sometimes it's in the people who we cover, in the photography, in the way we package stories. For example on the beauty pages, which we're doubling, we're thinking right now about how many girls are coloring their hair some funky color, pink and green and everything. That's inherently such a Nylon thing that we really need to own that. Not to knock anything done in past few years, but I've occasionally seen the same beauty stories in Nylon as in other women's mags. If we are going to stand out and be different, we need to own it.

How will that play out in your cover choices?

In our September issue for example, we used Aubrey Plaza, who is totally not your traditional cover star. We're making lists of our ideal cover stars, people who are the Nylon girl, I don't think some of the women's mag stars are that girl. There are certain Hollywood stars who look gorgeous on the cover, but by the time you see them on 20 covers, is the story really going to be that interesting? Also, musicians are really the highest selling covers for us across the board. We had Haim on the cover, and it totally took off, they were untested stars; it's not like we said Marie Claire put Haim on the cover and it sold well and so we did it. The bar for me is set at someone who is a really cool Nylon girl, who looks great on the cover, embodies our style and at the same time has a story to tell. [Ed. note: Nylon's October cover is Tavi Gevinson.] We're also taking a strong look at the way our cover lines are written, avoiding the cliches of women's magazine's cover lines. To stand out on the newsstand and to really appeal to our actual core audience, our cover lines need to be totally different in a valid, authentic way.

How would you describe the reader?

She's 25 years old on average. We used to think our reader was coastal, mostly NYC and LA, but if you actually look at demographics, she's spread completely throughout country. The reader is really interested in what's cool, what's different and maybe she's been a little turned off by traditional women's mags. We don't necessarily do a lot of ra-ra empowerment and dating stories like the more traditional women's magazines, thats not really our thing, and our reader isn't necessarily looking for that. Nylon really helps to satisfy that reader who is looking for what is that thing that is cool right now, who's hot next, all the stars she loves and ones she doesn't even know about yet but will love.

Do you think that young reader still wants to engage with a print product -- and will for much longer? Or do you see Nylon's future purely as an online entity?

That question always comes up: Is print dead? Is it dying? I honesty think that there will be a shakeout, there is a shakeout now, there will be some absolutely that will die. But if you give something people really love, they absolutely will come. You have to make it something they care about, something that doesn't feel like a throwaway.

How does fit in the picture?

A lot of print magazines, once they started a website years ago, didn't know what to do with it. They'd use it as a way to promote content in magazines online. To me, it shouldn't be that way at all -- print and digital are pretty separate, and there absolutely will be crossover and we'll promote print stories online, but digital is such an interesting, flexible beast, and can be so of the moment -- things happen during fashion week or anything else -- and that's what we need to focus on there. Video is also an interesting growth area for us.

You have a background in content marketing. How will that experience come to play at Nylon?

Being a business owner gives you a different perspective on things -- you start to look at everything, from budgets to revenue, and you start to look at how you can grow a brand in a lot different ways beyond content. I don't know many editor in chiefs who can say that. I've worked in digital, and I've worked in print. I do like to have my hands on things with the Nylon brand on it, even if it's not strictly editorial, is important to have in mind with message we want to put out [and that includes native ads].

The new editor in chief of Travel + Leisure also has a background in content marketing. Do you think we're going to see more of that skill set among future editors in chief of magazines?

I think it's a coincidence, to be honest with you. I think we're seeing more of that because more editors have found that track. For awhile, a lot of fashion editors were going to brands to do content marketing -- [Glamour's] Susan Cernek went to Madewell, and J.Crew hired some magazine editors. And then many editors will return to publishing, their first love. Had the right opp not come up, I would have stayed in [marketing].

You mentioned expanding your travel coverage -- that could open you up to a whole new set of advertisers.

Yes, but for me, even though I have worked in that space, I want to get us to a place of reader first and foremost. Of course every editor in chief thinks about numbers and advertising, but along the way people have lost sight of the reader. If I manage to accomplish that, everything else comes in later.