Media folks love to reminisce about that storied period in publishing when top magazine editors commanded major cultural clout, hefty salaries and cushy job perks — all of which don't really exist anymore, and haven't for well over a decade. Over the years, the role has been exalted, even on screen, thanks to Meryl Streep's icy Miranda Priestly in "The Devil Wears Prada" and, later, Melora Hardin's very involved Jacqueline Carlyle on "The Bold Type."
The celebrification of editors arguably peaked through the early 2010s. Back then, the concept of an influencer was in its infancy, but running a major publication afforded that sort of clout and cultural relevancy. Alexandra Steigrad, a media reporter at the New York Post, remembers when she began covering media at WWD, around eight years ago; the people who ran glossies — Graydon Carter, Joanna Coles, Robbie Myers — were influential tastemakers and power brokers, beyond the New York media circles they ran in.
"An editor-in-chief used to be someone who could throw a party, and it would be a mix of top intellectuals, artists, advertisers, all in one room together," she says. "An editor-in-chief now isn't necessarily someone who has a strong editing background or is even finding the best writers out there... The expectations are a lot different. We don't know the traffic of a story that ran in the New Yorker in 1980, so we can't compare the metrics, but Grace Coddington wasn't looking at how many followers her fashion spreads had."
To Atoosa Rubenstein, Hearst's legendary wunderkind editor who launched CosmoGIRL! in the late '90s and then ran Seventeen until 2006, the diminished clout of EICs is "yet another manifestation of the democratization of content."
"The advent of digital media has been a many-tentacled behemoth that traditional media companies have just really not known how to battle," she says. "To me, the disempowerment of their editors has been the response, whether they've done that purposefully or not."
Lindsay Peoples Wagner, now the editor-in-chief of The Cut and previously the editor of Teen Vogue, thinks this idea of editor-as-celebrity "will always have a place in media" — however, it might not have the same impact outside of the industry.
"When I was growing up, a lot of the editors really sold this message of being aspirational and exclusive, making you feel bad and guilting you into, 'You can't afford this but you should aspire to,' or, 'You're not getting XYZ things done during your day, you should aspire to be this person, this woman, this mother, this sister.'" That untouchable sort of perfection or image of success, she argues, just doesn't resonate.
The mythification of the all-important EIC, with all the glamour and posh perks, no doubt helped foment a generation of aspiring editors coming up in the early aughts, weaned on magazine internship dreams laid out on "The Hills" and by the golden era of teen glossies (RIP, Elle Girl, Teen People, CosmoGIRL!). In recent years, though, those lavish lifestyle deal-sweeteners became but some of the comparatively small budgetary line items to get axed by publishing companies.
Chronic layoffs, titles folding both abruptly and after long, gradual emaciation of issue frequency and dwindling staff sizes are all-too-familiar realities for anyone who's worked in magazines for the past decade and a half. These big-picture industry changes, largely wrought by technology and social media, are profound and pretty permanent — a far cry from the late-aughts era of fawning over the biggest September issues, where nearly-1,000-page tomes weighing almost five pounds were an actual thing.
"A lot of revenue dollars have shifted to other places: Advertisers are looking at Facebook and different digital platforms," Steigrad says. "It's not even that they have to advertise with the top fashion magazines anymore... People aren't reading print as much and budgets are definitely lower. They're just not able to give these big salaries, and the environment splintered a lot."
"By the time I was at Allure, which was my third editor-in-chief job, I remember thinking, 'What's the next step for me? What do editor-in-chiefs do after that job?,'" she says. "In the past, the golden age of media, they had made so much money and just retired, lived a nice, lavish life. I needed to work, and I saw traditional media was changing. I thought, '10 years from now, would I still be an editor-in-chief?' I didn't know the answer, so I started to plot a path of what industry to go into."
So, Lee began thinking about her role at Allure "almost more like a business leader, a CEO," she says. That switch helped.
"For a long time in media, people used to always talk about the separation of church and state — and from a journalistic integrity standpoint, you absolutely need that, because you want to have your readers' trust," she says. "But at the same time, as an editor-in-chief, you can't divorce yourself from the fact that you are responsible for a business." Taking on that responsibility is "now a big part of the role," which requires "trying to figure out how to become more efficient, looking at different revenue streams like e-commerce and experiential" to keep your job.
In other words: Extraordinary resourcefulness — usually without anywhere near enough resources — is the M.O. of the modern-day EIC.
"I grew up watching people in media who were either a show pony or a workhorse," Peoples Wagner says. "You don't really see that many publications just having someone as a 'face' anymore, because they quite frankly can't afford it."
Instead, she argues, titles need someone "able to deal with all of the podcasts, newsletters, videos, events" — a litany of responsibilities far beyond simply being a representative of the brand. And that's not a bad thing.
"It's honestly really exciting to be able to think a bit more thoughtfully about all of those brand extensions, because fashion has often leaned too much on, 'Oh, we'll do some splashy fashion shoot, and that's it,' and you look through the magazine and the words don't even make sense," she says. "I really appreciate that we spend a lot of time on things like podcasts and newsletters, because those things are just as important."
Still, wearing so many hats can be a lot for some.
"I absolutely have been frustrated in the past, and I've seen lots of frustration among people on my team or just in the industry — a lot related to resources, as many media brands have shifted resources away from print and into digital, social, video," Lee says. "There was no blueprint for how to do that right and as an editor-in-chief, you just had to figure it out."
The broader job scope of the modern-day EIC, however, could help with future career prospects, according to Lee: "Back in the day, if you were a print editor, that was your thing; you spent most of your day working on words or stories, and that was more limited. The expansion of the role is exciting, and people shouldn't necessarily fight against it, because when it comes to what you're going to do next, having a diverse background, being able to say you worked on multiple revenue streams and in digital, social, video actually makes you so much better because you have all of these different things you can go into."
Today, when hiring someone for the top role at a magazine, media companies look for an established public persona and a good social media following, versus traditional text-editing experience, according to Steigrad: "A lot of editors put the right people who know how to do the job under them... They serve a purpose to what a brand or company might need at a given point."
"Now, it's more of a manager and less of a visionary," says Rubenstein, noting how there's also an increased weight placed on feeding an algorithm, rather than pushing for new ideas. "It seems happenstance, like 'What's huge on Tik Tok?'"
Today's EICs are often younger, cheaper and more experienced in digital and social content and strategy, with print or magazine-specific chops an increasingly distant, nice-to-have line in the job description. There have been stops and starts with that approach: "When Troy Young was running Hearst, they had separate digital and print staffs; slowly, that wall has been crumbling, and as print became less lucrative, they brought in digital editors to take over," Steigard says. "They cost less, and know how to turn on traffic, which is where advertising dollars are.”
These new-gen editors are also arriving to the top of the masthead after a decade (sometimes less) of hustling and climbing the ranks at a trying, uncertain time for the media industry, and print magazines, especially. "The younger ones who finally got their chance to shine have come into these positions when the industry is at its lowest point," Steigrad says.
Besides layoffs and titles shuttering driving potential EIC types out of the industry, Peoples Wagner has seen some peers peace out because of "the lack of any work-life balance" in the field.
"A lot of people I've known to leave media just wanted a sense of normalcy in their lives," she says. "It can feel very on, all the time; there's always something happening in the world, and always something to write or report on. I think that you have to set those boundaries really clearly in your own life to make it sustainable."
Peoples Wagner does "really weird things" to put boundaries up for herself. "I don't watch certain television shows or certain things in my free time or on weekends, because I know I'm going to start thinking, 'Oh, should we shoot this actress? Do we write about this show?,'" she says. "That can feel really draining, even if it's not intentional, because there's always something to write about… You have to make really, really clear decisions about how you spend your time."
No wonder it's so enticing for veteran editors to work somewhere that has — and wants to — spend meaningfully with money, time and head counts to make great editorial work. Like, say, Netflix.
"I'm not a doom-and-gloom person when it comes to publishing, but yes, the realities of budgets have definitely changed," Lee says. "The media industry, for at least 10 years, has definitely been in a process of budget cutting and finding efficiencies. As someone leading a brand, it comes to a certain point where you have to wonder if you have the resources you need to succeed. That can be a real bummer for some people, especially when the industry is completely different from when you first started out."
Many titles, especially at Condé Nast, have nixed regionally unique content and even separate staffs for each title in recent years, in favor of globalized, centralized teams working across multiple markets or publications. This is a trickle-up of reorgs that have been happening lower on the masthead for quite some time, according to Steigrad.
"Condé started doing this years ago, decentralizing staffs by having multiple magazines share a photo editor or fashion editor who selected editorials for different markets," she says. "It's not exactly new, but I think it's surprising to some people when they see it happening at the top echelon of editors."
Lee sees pros and cons to this new norm of a global EIC, as the internet and social platforms have diminished the exclusivity and controlled narrative and rollout of stories. "In the old days of print, you had a magazine cover, first your subscribers were seeing it, then people were seeing it on the news. Today, you release a cover and the entire world sees it at the same time because of social media and the internet, and certain stars and topics are truly global," she says.
Still, even if hubbing makes sense philosophically, the reality of working at global titles — for EICs and other top roles, too — on a granular, day-to-day level is an entirely different, bleaker picture.
"The tricky part is, global hubbing was a reaction to efficiency and cost cutting, and there's the risk that whomever is running a brand doesn't have the resources they need to actually succeed on a global scale," Lee says.
Another side effect of this: the title of "editor-in-chief" going extinct. At Condé Nast, for instance, the people tapped to replace the legendary EICs that have left the company in the past year have been named "editorial director" or "head of editorial content," instead of editor-in-chief; many of the editors-in-chief who remained in their positions have also transitioned to "editorial director."
Titles and pay grades are notoriously inconsistent in media. But is there something deeper to the rebranding of the EIC — and is the term outdated, even?
"In some circles, the title of editor-in-chief could start to be viewed as of a different time, linked to the glory days of print and publishing. But I still think it holds a lot of weight," Lee says. "I don't think most people understand what editorial director, head of editorial content or even chief content officer means, but 'content' in a title might communicate that the job is not just print — it sounds more platform agnostic." Another thing that could be beneficial in the long run for career prospects, she adds.
What does this all mean for the career track of an editor? And what implications does the phasing out of the editor-in-chief title have on the industry?
"I've never felt like working in media was linear, anyway," says Peoples Wagner. "Yes, you can go from associate to senior editor, that kind of thing, but there are so many other ways to live and breathe as an editor or writer. A lot of super-junior writers came out with amazing books, and now, they're able to freelance or do a Substack. It doesn't feel like it's in these really restrictive boxes anymore, because there are other ways to get your writing or content out there that have opened up the doors for people to try new things."
Besides, employee retention and loyalty to a single company or even industry is nothing like it used to be, long before the pandemic-era great resignation, Peoples Wagner notes: "Our parents stayed in jobs for 40, 50 years. This generation is definitely not doing that."
Seeking better pay and job security are very real, hard-to-argue factors that entice editors away from the typical media career trajectory. Plus, exiting editorial for greener pastures no longer carries a stigma. A decade ago, if someone left Vogue for a brand, it was viewed as a puzzling, maybe sell-out move, possibly an indefinite departure from media — not so much anymore. Surviving, much less thriving, after being an EIC means being open-minded and optimistic (not to mention savvy) about personal branding.
"If you're a good storyteller, you're smart and you understand culture and the zeitgeist, you're valuable to a lot of people out there," Lee says. "Media are not the only companies doing content; every brand has content because everyone has social media, video and other things. For people who are brand new in the industry, just getting into it, it's good to have a mindset of, 'Actually this is a great time,' if you're really smart about the skills you have and how those things can translate in different ways."
The importance of proactively diversifying your skills and job scope to have a successful career in – and beyond – media can't be underestimated, either. Lee's big on being an "intrapreneur," aka "seeking more responsibility when you have a full-time job and you're in the safety of the company, you've got your benefits… If there's something else that you want to learn within your own company, raise your hand." It's something she did when running Nylon close to a decade ago that was "actually the beginning of me pivoting my career."
"Our CEO at the time asked me, 'What can I do to help you grow here, what else do you want to do?' I said I wanted to get more involved on the business side, and he really took me under his wing," Lee says. "I got such different insights into the whole business side, and truly dove into marketing, which meant I had a bunch of new skills and big projects under my belt."
Recently, Netflix has hired a lot of media alumni, including fellow former Nylon Editor-in-Chief Gabrielle Korn, ex-Them Editor Whembley Sewell, Refinery29's most recent Executive Editor Connie Wang and many more writers at major publications. "People look at my move to Netflix like, 'Wow, how did you do that?' It took years of me planting the seeds and wanting to learn different things," Lee says. "Frankly, we don't know what direction the media industry is going to go in, so at least if you have skills in other platforms and other areas, it allows you to kind of future-proof your career."
Whatever the motivations or circumstances for bidding farewell to traditional magazines (at least for now), Lee says it's all about how you frame the narrative of a next adventure after — or instead of — being a magazine EIC.
"People in editorial need to realize our jobs, our skills and strengths, like being creative and good storytellers, are actually incredibly flexible," she says. Plus, years of experience in a certain beat or category makes editors seasoned specialists for all sorts of companies. "Sometimes, we undervalue the subject matter expertise people have when they work in editorial; it's a big deal! Every company out there wants somebody who has their finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist and understands culture, which are super valuable skills."
The question remains: Will ex-EICs ever want to return to publishing eventually?
"Never say never," Lee says. "At this point, I don't see myself returning to traditional media because I'm having so much fun doing what I'm doing, but who knows where the future will go? We don't know what new platforms will pop up or what new startup is going to completely change the world. Years ago, nobody knew TikTok was coming. The most we can all do is just stay informed on a lot of different things and be nimble enough to pivot ourselves however it makes sense."
Departures from traditional publishing by top editors like Lee could ultimately be less of a total talent exodus and more of a savvy research mission before returning to magazines, per Rubenstein: "Talent going into all these directions and places is a good thing, because I think it's going to take learning from all these different corners of the media landscape to then come together, instead of waiting for someone else to fix the industry."
And what do the millennial editorial superstars now running the show, like Peoples Wagner did at Teen Vogue and is doing at The Cut, envision for the EIC of the future?
"Honestly, I don't know — I didn't think I was ever going to be an editor-in-chief, let alone twice, so I'm very much taking it day-by-day, but also thinking six months ahead, at least editorially," she says. She does, however, have some very clear and crucial ideas about further evolution that needs to happen, not just for the future of what an EIC does and represents, but, just as importantly, for the broader media landscape.
"I want to see a lot more inclusivity in the industry, at every single level, because it still really hasn't happened as much as people think it has," Peoples Wagner says. "People are very easily persuaded that there's been a lot more diversity because they'll see a couple people of color writers, but in reality, they're often freelance contributors, not on staff at publications or if they are, they're siloed to only writing about certain things."
"I really want to see publications make inclusivity part of the standard of what it means to be a good editor, and what it means to really run a publication well, in the next few years. I hope it doesn't take longer, but honestly, it probably will," she continues. "When I'm hiring somebody, it isn't just, 'Do I like your personality? Do I think you would be interested in the job? Do I think you're a good writer? Do I like your memo and edit test?' Also very high on that list is, 'Do I think you have an inclusive point of view and argument to help push this publication to be more inclusive of different life experiences?' I don't think that's been on the list for a lot of editors, and if it has, it's really low on the list. It's something that's sat too much with HR departments for too long, and it really needs to be ingrained in editorial, if people are actually going to see change."