When Adam Moss announced his plan to resign as editor-in-chief of New York Magazine at the end of March, he cited his belief that editors should have term-limits. "I have never subscribed to the myth of the all-powerful editor — I get way more credit than I deserve for the work that you do," he wrote in a memo to staff. His words are apt for a time of sea change in the media industry, as once-indomitable brands reckon with how to remain relevant and profitable, in part by shaking up company cultures and traditional masthead dynamics.
The last few years has seen the exit of many editorial titans in addition to Moss, including Jim Nelson of GQ, Joanna Coles of Cosmopolitan, Robbie Myers of Elle, Cindi Leive of Glamour, Graydon Carter of Vanity Fair and David Granger of Esquire. Tasked with captivating audiences in an oversaturated landscape at an ever-accelerating pace, this replacement generation of media leaders faces a new crop of challenges to how they create content and mentor those coming up under them.
One such fresh talent is Jessica Pels, who last October was named editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan, a 133-year old brand that has been helmed by powerhouses including Coles and Helen Gurley Brown. "I think it's pretty badass that the leaders of this industry are looking to talent that's coming from a wider range of perspectives than ever before," Pels tells Fashionista. "It means there are fresh eyes and fresh points of view in the mix to continue to evolve the industry forward. Disruption for disruption's sake is a fallacy —arbitrary change is never a good thing, but change that benefits the product and the audience consuming it is always a good thing."
The 32-year-old alumna of Marie Claire, Teen Vogue and Glamour is already implementing new strategies at Cosmo, like planning print photo shoots with an eye toward Instagram and teaming up with Google to build new tools that will change how magazines are made. "The value younger editors bring is that they're almost starting from scratch in terms of how they interact with an audience and what they want to do with their brand," says Aileen Gallagher, associate professor of journalism at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and former senior editor at NYmag.com. "The generation coming up is more tech- and business-savvy; they're passionate about telling stories across platforms and making the world better through social justice." But for all their strengths, this class of content creators also faces plenty of new obstacles, chief among them diminishing staff budgets.
Having fewer employees doesn't just affect content quantity and quality. It often means fewer resources and people available to properly train and mentor junior staff. "I didn't have a boss I really related to, someone who was also a person of color, until my third job in media at Fast Company," says GQ site editor Chris Gayomali. "I think that gets at the crux of what's hurting media right now: Editors are stretched too thin, and there isn't a whole lot of space to sit with someone young to mentor and equip them with the skills they need to succeed, which creates this awful feedback loop, since you can't get hired unless you possess those skills." If the current trajectory continues, that cycle could get worse before it gets better.
The path to a successful media career has never been easy — not simply competitive, but also problematically elitist, often favoring the privileged few who could afford to take a low-paying assistant job. As long as staff budgets dwindle, full-time assistantships will become an even more endangered species. Chandra Turner, founder of the media networking and mentoring organization Ed2010, was one of six editorial assistants during her first job at Good Housekeeping in the '90s — a situation that's virtually unheard of now. "You watched what the person above you on the ladder was doing, knowing that when they got promoted, you could move into that role," says Turner, who left a two-decade career in magazines to become executive director of Scholastic National Partnerships in 2017. "Staffs are much smaller now, which makes it hard to learn in incremental steps. There's less time to train or even the understanding of how to train."
It might be easier to prioritize supporting junior staffers at a brand like Cosmo, which is historically Hearst's most profitable magazine and (so far) less vulnerable to layoffs than the parent company's other titles or newer media brands such as Vice, Buzzfeed and Huffpost. But regardless of the situation, leaders who find a way to do so are likely to reap the rewards.
"I'm a huge believer in the power of a democratic team, because I've seen the benefits of giving everyone ownership at every level," says Pels, whose open, transparent leadership style was informed by her own mentors, including Kate Lewis, Hearst's chief content officer, and Leive, who Pels assisted at the start of her career. "Cosmo is all about young women, so when I stepped into this role, I felt it was critical to empower the young women on my staff," says Pels. Her assistant, Sam Feher, certainly feels that support, telling Fashionista that their working relationship is "the most valuable education and asset" she could ask for.
While hierarchy in media still matters, the gap among those on the masthead's highest and lowest rungs seems to be shrinking in some ways, with top brass becoming more approachable and accessible. "When I started at Vanity Fair [in 2002], you were just as likely to end up with a great boss who saw you as someone to mentor, as with one who saw you as someone to pick up their dry cleaning," says Jacqui Gifford, editor-in-chief of Travel + Leisure. "I made it clear when I got this job that I want people to feel like they can come to me. My team isn't going to grow and understand this brand, or magazine-making, if I don't make myself available to them. In the digital space people have less time, but what can't fall by the wayside are relationships that instruct a younger generation on the fundamentals of journalism."
It's understandable that investing in the next generation may feel like a luxury in a business where jobs are increasingly scarce and audience and ad sales figures constantly threaten the bottom line. But even if it's counterintuitive, the need for mentorship has never been more acute than now, at a time of industry turmoil, when those who don't have someone to help guide the way have every reason to turn away from a media career. "In New York, it's hard for people to slow down because everyone is so busy, especially in this creative industry," says Akili King, beauty editorial assistant at Vogue. "There's this urgency everyone has, and perhaps there's a fear that you might be burdening someone [when you ask for help]." But when you do ask (or answer) it can make all the difference, whether you're a newbie or a seasoned pro at the height of your career.
Lauren Iannotti, editor-in-chief of Rachael Ray Every Day, sees mentorship as just important to her now as it was when she started as an assistant at Esquire 22 years ago. "For some of us who have been in media for awhile, there might be a hesitation to mentor because of this idea that the best advice is to find another industry," says Iannotti. "But even if we don't have the same huge staffs, we're pivoting and remain vibrant. The masthead is less zeroed-in-on now, and we're all rolling up our sleeves together. It's more of a hustle, but if content is where your passion is, this is still a pretty good racket."
Gallagher agrees, in spite of the uncertainties of the current mediascape. "As gutted as the industry is, it's still really glamorous and fun to work in. Mentorship is critical to the learning experience, to figuring out your path," she says. "We may find that people leave the industry to seek that mentorship, or look to people who used to work in the business and don't anymore. It's all speculative until we see what it means in the next few years. The wave is still crashing."
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