I’ve never met Anna Wintour, Condé Nast’s artistic director and longtime editor of Vogue, but the title of a book based on the fashionista, “The Devil Wears Prada,” captures how she’s uniformly portrayed. Wintour’s management style might charitably be described as “demanding,” but it also underscores a double standard in today’s political climate. An abusive 60-something male executive known for hiring only attractive young female assistants, routinely making judgments about their clothing, and asking them about their personal lives in job interviews would be severely reprimanded, if not fired.
Wintour displayed her legendary insensitivity last week in announcing that she’s named Samantha Barry, CNN Worldwide’s executive producer for social and emerging media, as editor-in-chief of Glamour. Barry, 36, has no background in magazine publishing, but Wintour diminished the skill-set of Condé Nast’s legacy editors. “Sam is Glamour’s first digital-native editor, which is to say she arrives from the future rather than the past,” Wintour said in a statement. Hopefully, Condé Nast’s print editors can read the writing on the wall as well as on glossy paper.
Condé Nast isn’t the first publishing company to hail a supposed digital expert as a surefire savior for the declining magazine industry. Time Warner seven years ago announced with great fanfare that it had hired Laura Lang, CEO of the ad firm Digitas, to oversee its magazine publishing division. “(Lang) is the right person to lead the company as it aggressively evolves its businesses during a time of great change and opportunity in publishing,” Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes declared.
How did that turn out? Lang was gone after two years on the job, and Time Warner had to pay her nearly $16 million to make her go away. According to my back-of-the-envelope calculations, that severance could cover the salaries of dozens of the nation’s best and most experienced reporters for several years. Under Lang’s watch, Time Warner’s magazines went into a tailspin from which they never recovered. The business was recently sold to The Meredith Corp.
Perhaps Barry is indeed a digital wunderkind, but you wouldn’t know it reading her New York Times profile. The Ireland native communicates in digitalspeak and sounds more like a Bain & Company media consultant than a journalist. Social media is supposedly all about storytelling, and Barry said her heritage makes her uniquely qualified. “Irish people are such storytellers,” she said. Her lack of journalism experience isn’t an issue. “At the end of the day, I bring to the table being an expert in content.”
Another valued skill is her “ability to pivot.” And, of course, she appreciates that Glamour is much more than a print publication. “Glamour is a brand — it’s not just a magazine.” You get the picture.
For what it’s worth, I don’t associate CNN with deft brand management. Millions of Americans, including President Trump, associate the network with “fake news” and “obnoxious anchors.”
Ironically, Barry’s appointment came a few days after veteran publishing executive David Carey expressed skepticism that digital is the future of the magazine industry. “We reject this notion of ‘digital first’ because we think that denigrates the core business, Carey, the president of Hearst Magazines, told Recode. “We think there is a lot to be made in the print business.”
Perhaps Carey is a publishing dinosaur like most of Wintour’s editorial subordinates. But the jury is still out on digital publications. It’s far from certain that engaging masses of people with compelling journalism such as an exploding watermelon is the pathway to profitability. Indeed, Carey predicted that digital media companies are headed for a crash, so Condé Nast likely won’t have any problem attracting other great storytellers to work alongside Barry.
As for Wintour, she’d best hope that the accelerating trend to eradicate abusive executives from corporate America never becomes an equal opportunity movement.
Eric Starkman founded STARKMAN PR firm in 1999. It has offices in New York and San Francisco.