Was former Hearst Magazines executive Joanna Coles the last of a dying breed—namely the glossy-mag celebrity editor?
This past weekend’s announcement of her abrupt departure from the publishing enterprise where she has spent a dozen years—first as top editor of Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan, and finally as Hearst’s chief content officer—was in some ways a cliché of corporate intrigue in a business rife with delicious gossip.
It came at the same time as reports of Vogue doyenne and Condé Nast artistic director Anna Wintour’s persistently-rumored retirement (never mind Condé Nast CEO Bob Sauerberg’s breathless statement last week that she “has agreed to work with me indefinitely”).
Coles' departure, alongside the whispers around Wintour, are two more harbingers of the gradual demise of print-on-paper publications athwart the digital revolution—a pitiless new economic paradigm that can no longer support the slick extravagance of the pre-Internet past.
By most accounts, the 56-year-old Coles and 50-year-old Troy Young—the incoming president of Hearst Magazines, who was tapped three weeks ago to succeed longtime president and retiring chairman David Carey—cordially despised each other.
When Young and not Coles got the big job of running the publishing arm of the multimedia Hearst empire, her days were numbered and she had little choice but to resign with dignity, according to industry insiders. (On Wednesday, Coles' successor was named as Kate Lewis.)
“Power struggles among deputies are as old as the hills. Nothing new here,” a well-connected Hearst source texted The Daily Beast. “Joanna had lots of options in the world. And Troy will—and should—run the company in different ways. So everyone comes out ahead.”
However, a mag biz insider lamented Coles’s departure, saying: “Once again, mediocre white guys have been left in charge, and the brightest spot was Joanna.”
Legendary former Vanity Fair and New Yorker editor-in-chief Tina Brown, founding editor of The Daily Beast, cast Coles’s departure as evidence of an alarming trend: “Despite the noise of ‘MeToo,’ brilliant women at the top are dropping like flies in terms of leadership.”
Coles declined an interview request, choosing instead to rely upon an Instagram video in which she trudges on her office treadmill-desk (an appliance she delighted in showing off to visiting profile writers), while explaining that she plans to spend the rest of the summer playing tennis and attempting to communicate with her less than receptive teenage children before revealing what’s next career-wise.
“Have you any idea of the miles I have walked on this treadmill-desk through the peaks and the valleys of Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan and as Hearst’s first chief content officer?” she asks in the video. “But my route is being recalculated. It’s time for a new adventure.”
A person familiar with Coles’s thinking, meanwhile, said she wants to indulge her entrepreneurial spirit and has been musing for awhile about leaving the comfortable confines of Hearst for a new challenge—a feeling that gained urgency when David Carey announced his retirement plans in late June. (Carey, 57, has accepted a fellowship at the Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative starting in 2019.)
The end of the lavishly-compensated celebrity editor is “a lagging indicator of the twilight of magazines,” said cultural critic and novelist Kurt Andersen, who in the mid-1980s, co-founded Spy magazine with then-future Vanity Fair impresario Graydon Carter. This was an era when glossy monthlies like Condé Nast’s Glamour and Hearst’s Cosmo were minting money,
A year ago, when the larger-than-life, opulently-tressed Carter announced his VF leave-taking after a quarter-century as editor-in-chief—partly because he didn’t wish to participate in the bloody axe-wielding and draconian belt-tightening that brutal reality required—Andersen predicted: “I would say there won’t be a magazine like Vanity Fair under Graydon Carter—those will cease to exist as a grand and physical thing full of all this aspiration, celebration and glamour and news… It’s not going to be gone tomorrow or next year. It’s going to be around for awhile. But this is a last hurrah of the magazine, and it will be a slow death for magazines…”
As her exit video suggests, Coles has been exquisitely attuned to the diligent cultivation of her personal brand beyond her comparatively prosaic duties at Hearst—much like Carter and his Condé Nast rival, artistic director and Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour.
Whereas Carter annually hosted VF’s aggressively glitzy Oscar party, has co-owned three exclusive, celeb-friendly Manhattan restaurants, and had a cameo role as himself in 2010’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Wintour has been the subject of several documentary films, notably 2009’s The September Issue, presides over the Met Gala benefiting the museum’s Anna Wintour Costume Center and inspired Meryl Streep’s portrayal of the caustic Runway editrix in 2006’s The Devil Wears Prada.
Similarly, the British-born Coles, a freshly minted OBE, has regularly displayed her biting wit on television, especially on So Cosmo, the E! reality show she executive-produced (and which lasted only one season).
Coles boasts the same credit on the The Bold Type, a scripted Disney/ABC Freeform Channel series, recently renewed for a third season, romanticizing the mag biz, in which a Coles-inspired heroine is played by star Melora Hardin.
By contrast, few people outside the industry have heard of Michele Promaulayko, Coles’s successor at Cosmo. Meanwhile, Radhika Jones, Carter’s VF replacement, an academically-minded Time magazine and New York Times alum, has been so attention-averse that she has granted zero press interviews and even stopped tweeting altogether since she took over the magazine last December.
“I think the whole notion of the outsized editor is gone,” said a prominent member of that endangered species, who asked not to be named. “It seems indulgent, and in this publishing environment, you cannot ultimately make that pay off. Advertising is a shit show, and the other thing, with Joanna, there was that constant tension between digital and print, and with whatever she was getting paid, there was no way she could survive that.”
Indeed, a report this week by Women’s Wear Daily—based on an analysis of data by the Association of Magazine Media—documented fading ad revenues and audience share under the headline “Ad Spending Disappearing as Most Magazines Continue to Fumble.”
“Reported magazine ad spending by the 50 biggest advertisers last year fell to $6.1 billion from $6.5 billion in 2016, according to AMM’s annual report,” said WWD. “So magazines lost at least $417.5 million in revenue last year, a difference of 6.4 percent…”
The story added: “Overall, there are very few major magazine brands managing to pull strong through the digital shift. Of the 114 magazine brands tracked by AMM, 56 titles, or 50 percent, have a total audience in decline year-to-date. Print and digital editions are faring even worse, with 74 titles, or 64 percent of magazines, seeing audience on the decline. Little wonder advertisers are looking elsewhere.”
The eventual death of magazines might be worthy of collective grief, but Kurt Andersen, for one, isn’t mourning the twilight of the celebrity editor.
“To what degree did any magazine ever require a quote-unquote superstar editor to be successful?” he demanded. “You can argue that the degree to which that is plausible varies from title to title. So can Radhika Jones be a good editor of Vanity Fair, and make it a great magazine without being a superstar?”
Of course she can, he insisted.
“In the same way there were more superstar novelists in the 1970s than there are today, cultural forms have their time in the sun and they come and go….The magazine age that existed for most of our lives began nearly a century ago when the superstar editors were H.L. Mencken [of The American Mercury] and Harold Ross [of The New Yorker]. That began the modern magazine era, and less than a century later, it’s winding down.
“But there’s nothing intrinsic that says that the editor of a digital publication can’t be a quote-unquote superstar,” Anderson continued. “Maybe we’re still too early in the post-print age to see the first one.”