During the same September 2017 week, four editors-in-chief of major publications announced their imminent departures. Graydon Carter would be leaving Vanity Fair after 25 years. Robbie Myers would be out at Elle after 17 years. Nancy Gibbs, who, in addition to spending the entirety of her 32-year entire career at Time, was also its first female managing editor, was stepping down. Cindi Leive would be departing Glamour after 16 years. Ladies and gentlemen, the editor-in-chief graduating class of 2017.
I laughed when I saw this tweet:
what do all of the EICs know https://t.co/OM3rFVf9ml
— John Jannuzzi (@johnjannuzzi) September 13, 2017
What do they all know? That the glory days of old-school editors-in-chief are coming to an end? That the enchantment of helming a glossy magazine is no longer so enchanting in the face of looming financial realities? That when faced with the fork-in-the-road prospect of “leave voluntarily now” or “be asked to leave involuntarily in a year,” the former is the superlative option by far?
In the days since, each editor has given a slightly different reason:
“I want to leave while the magazine is on top,” Carter told the New York Times. He also said he considered leaving earlier this year, but Trump’s election convinced him to stay a little longer.
“I want to spend the next seasons as available to my children as I can be,” Myers wrote in a letter to the Elle staff. One day after the announcement, Elle revealed that Marie Claire Creative Director Nina Garcia would take Myers’ place.
“I’ve been thinking, are there places I could go and things I could do to address the challenges that are facing us as a country?” Gibbs posed in an interview with Vanity Fair writer Joe Pompeo. She said she was stepping down of her own accord, and that she informed Time Inc. management toward the end of the summer that it was time to figure out a transition plan.
“Not to get too emo, but my mom died when she was 49 and last year I turned 49,” Leive told the New York Times. “I felt like I have been given this gift of so much more life and I wanted to do something with it.” She clarified that she had no plans to accept a job at another media company, nor was this departure about her children. “I adore my kids, but I’m not leaving to spend more time with my kids,” she said.
Individually, none of these explanations answer my questions about the grander WHY, but together, they hint at the palpable fog of change and uncertainty that looms over the industry, dulling the sheen of glossy covers that (once upon a time) drew in millions of dollars in revenue.
I posed my questions about the significance behind this flurry of departures to Kim France, former editor-in-chief of Lucky and founder of the website Girls of a Certain Age. She felt that she’d been away from magazines for too long to be of much help, but did tell me this: “The glory days of the old EIC are absolutely gone forever, and have been for a while. Editors used to be gatekeepers of information, but the internet has changed all that. Magazines have lost their relevance.”
When I reached out to France’s successor at Lucky, Brandon Holley, who went on to found tech startup Everywear, she had a similar take: “The old school EIC days have been over for a long time, probably since fashion bloggers started sitting in the front rows. That moment was a significant shift in the power dynamic as well as the economics of fashion magazines.”
Their message was clear: Editors’ power eroded when unfiltered access (to information, to fashion) was provided by the internet. There were no longer “gatekeepers,” because there were no longer gates.
“The salad days were when magazine editors owned — dominated — the conversations of culture, in fashion especially,” Holley told me. “When new media started creating new stars, it had a democratizing effect that brought a new reality to who directed the conversation. Then advertisers followed the new media stars, budgets were cut, and thus, so were things like clothing allowances and car services. But mostly gone was the power to be the axis point of fashion.”
While the glory days of old-school fashion magazine EICs may be over, I wondered how this “new reality” was reshaping the role of editor-in-chief. If not the axis point of fashion, what are they, and what purpose do they serve? What is the locus of their power, and how are they wielding it?
I asked Holley if a large social media following was the key to being a successful “new age” editor-in-chief. Perhaps, I reasoned, if the era of editor-as-gatekeeper was over, the era of editor-as-celebrity would replace it.
“It’s more important than ever that the new wave of EICs are like the best old school EICs, like Graydon Carter,” she told me. “Having a strong social media presence is important but really isn’t what makes a great EIC. Celebrities can be made on social media, but EICs need to stand to the side a bit and let the brand be bigger than they are. Carter was amazing at that balance.”
Her answer surprised me at first, but I suppose she’s right: The most successful editors-in-chief have been the ones who’ve understood their brands so acutely, that they’ve ushered them through a lot of change while still protecting the DNA (i.e. Anna Wintour). Maybe the rise of social media doesn’t demand EICs participate themselves so much as see it as an opportunity for their brands.
Of course, navigating the future without forgetting the past is a tricky balance to strike. “The romance of the magazine business will continue,” Carter told the New York Times, “but it will be harder to maintain.”
Laura Brown, Editor-in-Chief of InStyle, is in many ways a shining example of what a new class of EICs might accomplish. In addition to bringing on contributors like Roxane Gay and Lindy West, whose high-profile online presence translates to a built-in social media marketing strategy, she also oversees InStyle’s video strategy down to the magazine’s Instagram Stories (fueling a 730 percent increase in video views year-over-year, according to Business of Fashion).
She is the first to admit that striking the balance is tricky, though: “I can absolutely understand why women who have been in the job for 15 to 20, even 30 years might want to take a (very deep) breath,” she told me. “Yes, things are changing and with that, your expectations — often daily. What struck me is the EIC role has become more performative than ever, so you really have to have the metabolism for it. The EIC controls the tone of the brand, and I would guess that brands will become even more about personality in the future. Definitely voice, because without a voice, you’re nothing.”
The glory days of the old school editor-in-chief may be over, but the legacy of their collective voice will surely mold what is shouted into the uncharted tunnel of the new regime.
“Don’t think I haven’t hit up Cindi, Robbie and Nancy to write,” Brown said. “I salute them all.”
Feature photo by Melodie Jeng/Getty Images.