Benjamin Hart and Reeves Wiedeman chat about the future and past of a magazine giant.
Ben: In your feature on Condé Nast published yesterday, you paint a picture of a company that has declined in stature (and revenue) considerably over the last few years, from its heyday of high-flying expense accounts and automatic prestige. After all your reporting, what do you think the general prognosis for the place is? Will Condé as we know it exist in 5, 10, 15 years?
Reeves: A grim question to start! I think many of Condé’s biggest brands — to use that terrible word — will continue to exist, and some may even thrive if they can find ways to adapt. Smaller brands will have to pull their weight, revenue-wise. Bon Appétit is an example of a place that has managed to remake itself from a magazine into a YouTube juggernaut with a magazine on the side. As we report, it seems like the Newhouse family would love to keep as many of the brands alive and together as they can, but they’re also businesspeople, and it’s conceivable that they might sell off some of the titles that aren’t pulling their weight — as they did three times already this year, with W, Brides, and Golf Digest.
Ben: The whole place was slow to really understand the internet, which has upended the entire magazine business. Do you think it’s in a better place than it was a few years ago, when it was treating the online side of things as a kind of second-order concern?
Reeves: On the digital front, without question. There were some very severe growing pains over the past few years, especially as Condé struggled to get all the different magazines … err, brands, to allow a centralized Condé digital team try to build out a more robust platform for everyone, rather than each brand having its own team. But can you build a digital apparatus that meets the needs of The New Yorker and Teen Vogue and Wired? They’re certainly in a much better place than they were on that front a few years ago, but Condé also got a much later start than many other media companies, and have been making up for it ever since.
Ben: The turmoil has obviously not been a great state of affairs for the people who work there — as you noted, simply being at Condé was once the goal for a lot of people, whereas now there are more frequent departures to go help run other publications or concerns, like Glossier, Snapchat, etc. And for those of us who work in media, there’s definitely a sense of nostalgia that a once-great print empire is a shadow of its former self. But is the nostalgia perhaps also overstating what’s being lost here? What is the actual cultural cost of not having all these magazines thriving at the same time? Is the more dispersed media ecosystem of 2019 really a downgrade?
Reeves: As a Condé employee — from a different magazine, the demise of which this person would undoubtedly lament to the heavens — put it to me, “Was the world a worse place when Self went online-only?” Probably not. Many Condé magazines were simply the information delivery vessel of a particular time, and an elite one at that. But Condé was among the places that spoke from a certain place of authority that I think all of us are starting to miss to some degree. Sometimes that authority was woefully out of touch with where society is today, but we’re clearly only beginning to grapple with all the problems of a disaggregated media environment.
To take one relatively meaningless example, it was a lot easier to pick the cover subject for Vanity Fair when it was obvious who the A-List movie stars were. As Hollywood and the entertainment world has morphed — for the better in many, many ways — many Condé publications feel like they’re playing catch-up as often as they’re leading the conversation. That last point, of course, comes with the limitations of having your primary product only come out once a month!
Ben: Bring back the monoculture! I for one think people would probably be happier if there were no more than ten TV channels, a few good movies a year, a few magazines and books to read … not this endless stream of information that feels completely ungovernable. There’s probably some nostalgia for that too, right?
Reeves: Totally! I was thinking about a comment someone much smarter than me made about how, even though we’re in a Golden Age of TV, with a trillion shows to watch, that means that the best cinematographers and key grips and all the other jobs you need to make these things great are now spread across all those shows, and it’s tough to pull the best of the best onto one individual show. We have more pretty good shows, and maybe less great ones. I’m spitballing here, but, the same could be true of magazines: Vanity Fair was a good magazine in part because they just paid all the best writers a ton of money to work for them instead of anyone else. If you’ve got 30 great writers and 3 of them turn in a great story every month, you can do something great. It’s harder when you’re trying to find those three stories from a smaller group of people. The difference of course being that, uh, no one is calling this the Golden Age of Magazines.
Ben: True, though The New Yorker, which seems to be the exception that proves the rule in the Condé universe, is still certainly playing its A game.
Though, as we know, only New York Magazine can truly be thought of as “great.”
Reeves: Hear hear! The New Yorker’s still doing great and important work that breaks through all the chatter … almost as often as New York does.