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How Digital Editors Are Bringing Their Print Magazines into the Modern Age

"Elle"'s Leah Chernikoff, "InStyle"'s Ruthie Friedlander, "W" Magazine's Sarah Leon and "Teen Vogue," "Allure" and "THEM"'s Phillip Picardi weigh in.
Fashionista Senior Editor Maura Brannigan with editors at FashionistaCon 2017. Photo: Ashley Jahncke/Fashionista

Fashionista Senior Editor Maura Brannigan with editors at FashionistaCon 2017. Photo: Ashley Jahncke/Fashionista

At Fashionista's annual "How to Make It in Fashion" conference in New York City on Friday, we gathered four digital editors who are working to bring age-old glossies into the modern-day, smartphone world. These men and women — Elle's Digital Director Leah Chernikoff, InStyle's Site Director Ruthie Friedlander, W Magazine's Digital Editorial Director Sarah Leon and Them's Chief Content Officer, as well as Teen Vogue and Allure's Digital Editorial Director Phillip Picardi — sat down to discuss how they're bringing us digestible bits of information around the clock, building forward-thinking writing staffs and finding visually compelling ways to tell stories, all while working closely with their print counterparts. 

Below, read on for the highlights from their conversation, as moderated by Maura Brannigan.  

Digital teams are expanding to accommodate the various ways we consume content. 

When Leon started at W four years ago, she had a staff that consisted of only two freelancers. Now she oversees roughly 20 people, including video producers, social media managers as well as various contributors. "Growing the volume of content that we're putting out on every channel has just required us to grow in terms of our staff," she said. Similarly, when Chernikoff was brought on at Elle, she too a ran very small staff. But now, the site boasts a team of 20, which includes a video team. "We would all say that video has become a bigger priority, and the growth of social has been huge," she said. "It's really learning how to tell the same good stories, but cater them to the platforms that our readers are consuming them on." 

Since Picardi was brought on to head up Teen Vogue's digital properties in April of 2015, he's seen the site experience immense digital growth. It's an interesting time for the brand as a whole, with Condé Nast announcing the shuttering of Teen Vogue's print edition last week. "Elaine [Welteroth] took a lot of what was happening in digital and made space for it in the magazine in a beautiful and refined way," explained Picardi. "I think that's why our print product feels so fresh and different on the newsstand. Which is why yesterday's news was bittersweet, and now our focus is on how we create a print product that's more of a special issue."

For Picardi, it's of paramount importance for print and digital to come together to accelerate the brand's point of view. "For us, the glue that we've found is the creative team," he noted. "I often feel like I can rely on my creative director or my photo director to help enhance certain things visually on the website or on social media that help us tell a consistent visual story and help convey our brand identity whichever way you're reaching us." 

Leon echoed Picardi's sentiments on working closely with print titles to keep a vision that's consistent across all platforms. "We start with a story first, and figure out the medium afterwards," she explained. "At W, we have regular meetings where every single person who works for the brand — whether you're a freelancer for the week or an editor-in-chief — pitches ideas, and sometimes those ideas really do come to fruition in a completely different platform than what one had initially thought; the social media manager will have ideas that end up in the print magazine." Over at InStyle, Friedlander said she holds many conversations with the print team on why something would work well for print and how to re-package it online. Friedlander emphasized that "the way a story looks when you're reading it on paper needs to look and sound and feel different than when you're looking at it online." 

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Digital editors are constantly on the look out for fresh, smart voices, and they find those voices anywhere and everywhere. 

Chernikoff looks for great voices wherever they may be — whether that's in the comments section, or on Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. "I DM the people that will become the staff that works for me for years," she said. "I'm always looking for a very original voice that feels fresh and engaging and hilarious. I really think you can find talent everywhere and the amazing thing about social media is that it's created so much visibility."  

All the editors were in agreement that having an impressive resume is only one part of the equation when looking to hire a new candidate. As Chernikoff mentioned, social media has enabled us to establish our own entities online and create our own personal brands for free. "I like seeing people who've shown great initiative," said Leon. "To me, it doesn't matter if you have experience working at one of our direct competitors, but if you have something that you can show — like a personal blog — that you've been really passionate about, that's what I really like to see."

It's possible to cultivate a life outside of the office — even when you work in the rapid-fire digital space — by making a conscious effort to un-plug.

Friedlander observes Shabbat, which means she shuts off her phone from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday; you can't even reach her if a Kardashian pops out a child and/or a new contouring kit. Her decision to un-plug and hit pause on the content-creating machine for just 24 hours has been extremely difficult, she said, but has also become critically important for her sanity. "I have to create very specific boundaries," she said. "For me, setting those boundaries and keeping them is very important, because it can be a very slippery slope between I work a lot and I work all the time." 

Picardi also spoke about how he sees burnout happening: "There is an expectation in the digital space that we always have to be available, that we always have to know what's happening, and that's an incredibly unrealistic life to live, and it's an unhealthy life to live, too." The solution, he offered, is to build infrastructure, such hiring as evening editors and a weekend team to give full-time staffers a break. In addition, Leon said she encourages people to take vacations where they shut off their phone. "A lot of people who get really burned out are the people who don't take vacations," she added. 

It is important to have people at the top of an organization who believe in you and will champion your ideas 

"I'm really lucky to have Anna Wintour as my boss," said Picardi, when speaking about the recent launch of Condé Nast's LGBTQ-focused media platform Them. Wintour took Picardi out for what he thought was a casual lunch during which he opened up about his future career goals. "For the past six yearsm I've been working in women's media, which I love, but I wanted to create a space for what I felt I was missing as a kid and what I think now this next generation of queer kids is missing, so I told her that I wanted to create something," he recalled. The next morning, Wintour called his cell phone with plans to work with Condé Nast's business and development teams to get this idea up and running.  

"Anna was there and stood right by the project the whole way through, and ultimately, was the one who pushed it through and really made it happen," explained Picardi. "When Anna hired us, she told me that you have to stand for something and that has to be your point of difference, and she really has stood by our point of view and, I think, our difference as a brand." 

These sites stem from traditional women's magazines with a heavy focus on fashion, but now, these digital spaces are expanding their coverage to include politics and social justice issues. 

InStyle has a long history of bringing us covetable red carpet looks and spring shopping guides, but with everything that's currently going on in politics (and with social consciousness, in general), fashion magazines have been pushed to take a stance. Readers don't only want to read about what Selena Gomez wore while biking with her on-again-off-again boyfriend Justin Bieber; they also want to know about what's going on in terms of the changing immigration policies. As such, now more than ever, politics and social justice issues have taken a prominent role in these women's media outlets. "We have a responsibility as humans to communicate what's going on in the world," said Friedlander. "We are talking to millions and millions of people every month, and if we're not using that as a way to communicate something important, then what's the point?" 

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