What Do Vice and Hugh Hefner Have in Common? More Than You Think.

One by one, they disappear. High-profile lives and their many followers… suddenly gone.

It could be the pilot for the latest mystery-infused TV series (in the all-screen, any platform or distribution sense). Perhaps it’s the plot of a star-studded summer movie blockbuster, or even a bestselling novel. Any guesses?

And no, for a change, the White House doesn’t count.

I’m referring to the editors and publishers of iconic magazines, who have chosen the recent past to retire from their posts. These editors are retreating, it would seem, from a battle they think they are losing or have lost – that is, what they seem to view as the Digital Content War.

Let’s start with Graydon Carter the legendary editor of Vanity Fair who was, in his own right, as much a celebrity as some of his subjects. The New York Times reported:

“Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, plans to step down from the magazine in December after a 25-year tenure, leaving the role that established him as a ringmaster of the Hollywood, Washington and Manhattan power elite.

Mr. Carter’s influence stretched from the magazine and entertainment worlds into finance, literature and politics, where President Trump, a target of Mr. Carter’s poison pen for decades, still bristles at the mention of his name.

One of the few remaining celebrity editors in an industry whose fortunes have faded, Mr. Carter — famous for double-breasted suits, white flowing hair and a seven-figure salary — is a party host, literary patron, film producer and restaurateur whose cheeky-yet-rigorous brand of reporting influenced a generation of journalists.”

And as quoted, Mr. Carter said:

“I want to leave while the magazine is on top.”

Another high profile leaver, ironically first reported by Vanity Fair, is Nancy Gibbs, the deeply respected Editor of Time Magazine. The New York Times commented again on a “problem” industry. The irony continued:

“Change doesn’t scare me,” she said. “I know that our industry faces all kinds of uncertainty — I recognize that. But this is the golden age of storytelling, so if you’re not changing, you’re missing the opportunity.”

The Cut reported that Robbie Myers, who successfully took on Vogue with Elle, is also leaving:

“After 17 years at the helm of one of the smartest magazines in fashion, the Cut has learned, editor-in-chief Robbie Myers is leaving Elle. Under Myers, Elle was known as the only true mainstream competition to Vogue for its crisp journalism and cutting-edge fashion photography”

Then there is the sale of Rolling Stone, a sort of roll up of this story: Iconic Editor and Publication Exit Together. So I quote The New York Times yet again (keep that in the back of your mind):

“Rolling Stone, Once a Counterculture Bible, Will Be Put Up for Sale”

“I love my job, I enjoy it, I’ve enjoyed it for a long time,” said Mr. Wenner, 71. But letting go, he added, was “just the smart thing to do…I think it’s time for young people to run it,” he said.

His [ostensibly younger] son added:

“There’s a level of ambition that we can’t achieve alone,” Gus Wenner said last week in an interview at the magazine’s headquarters in Midtown Manhattan. “So we are being proactive and want to get ahead of the curve”

Then there is the ‘money’ quote; the candid thought:

“He gestured confidently to a tome of Bob Dylan lyrics on his desk. “If you’re not busy being born,” Mr. Wenner said, “then you’re busy dying.”

What’s going on here?

Is Digital killing the magazine business? Is it fear of change? Rebirth?

Is it cultish celebrity editors who are at fault?

Is it…horrors…the dreaded Millennials?

Or is it something else?

The Knee-Jerk answer is that magazines are dead or dying. They are old. No one reads print anymore and who has the patience for long form anyway.

The problem is that this theory shows a lack of evidence. Much like the canard that TV is dead, burying all magazines, this takes a much too narrow view of what a magazine is – or isn’t.

In fact, some magazines are thriving by doing what they do best: great journalism with a clear point of view, targeted towards people who care and crave it.  Frankly, as Digital is Everything today, these writers and editors make that leap beautifully. As Not Everything is Digital, they also manage to bridge the divide and provide value added across all platforms.

Vice is an amazing case in point.

Conventional wisdom tells you that Vice’s audience is all online, mostly male Millennial partying slackers, with short attention spans and big drinking bills. But if you follow that path, you’ve missed the point and their power. AdWeek reported:

“At a time when many legacy media organizations are struggling to stay afloat, Vice has found that magical point of convergence where good journalism, positive cash flow and (most elusive of all) the millennial attention span meet……The way [Shane] Smith sees it, there’s little about the Vice formula that’s magic. “We look at it very simply. We want to do three things. We want to make good content, we want to have as many eyeballs as possible see that content, and we want to make money so that we can keep paying to do that content.”

I love Vice. I am blessed to know Shane and the founding team, and I love them because they get it. As co-founder Suroosh Alvi told Inc.:

“Had we not diversified, Vice would still be, like, eight people in a south Williamsburg loft.”

Knee-Jerkers cringe here, but diversification meant that Vice didn’t allow Digibabble to keep them from making TV deals. By TV, I mean the narrow definition…yes, old-fashioned TV, alongside all of the other cross-platform big definition TV they own.

As others were emptily pontificating about “bite-sized, snackable” video, Vice didn’t kowtow. An article in The Guardian explained:

‘The content that outstripped everything else by a huge margin was our most serious hard-hitting documentaries like Vice goes to Liberia. Everyone told us to make bitesized funny clips but we were putting 20-50-minute serious documentaries and they were by far the most popular thing we put up. There was a very well-connected global young hungry audience which wanted to experience big complex global stories in a way that was accessible and no one else was doing it.’

By the way, this corroborates a recent piece by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism’s Columbia Journalism Review:

“Hundreds of journalists have lost their jobs while shiny-object-chasing publishers are no closer to creating cohesive video strategies to replace the traffic those writers were producing. Publishers who pivoted to video have forfeited the majority of their hard-won native audiences in only a year of churning out undifferentiated, bland chunks of largely aggregated “snackable” video. That’s no one’s idea of success.”

That last paragraph describes Vice perfectly. Failing publications take note:

“Publishers must acknowledge the pivot to video has failed, find out why, and set about to fix the reckless pivots so that publishers focus on good video. It should be original, clever, entertaining, and part of a balanced multimedia approach to digital journalism that includes well-written, well-reported stories, strong data and graphics, and good art.”

Yet lest you think that Vice is alone, there are those of the “old” world, as Vice itself once was, who are showing signs of success. Take Hearst’s David Carey, for example, who spoke candidly in Mr. Magazine:

“The print is dead movement was, I think, largely led by newspaper journalists who were maybe feeling in their own newsrooms what was going on and they were extending it to any traditional form. I think what’s happened is every sector of media, literally every sector, is in a period of enormous disruption and I think that has put the magazine industry in context, and I guess that we look at disruption as opportunity. People will succeed and make money from disruption and people will find themselves challenged and we want to obviously be in the former.”

Carey continued:

“If you don’t like change; you’ll like relevance even less. The industry continues to need to evolve what it does and how it accomplishes its goals…In just a four or five month period, we’ve partnered with Condé Nast and Verizon and Snapchat and Lena Dunham. We’ve been thinking about these pop-up magazine concepts for some time. And many people come to us because they’ve seen the great success of Oprah or Food Network and some of them have good brand recognition, but maybe not in terms of promotional resources, a real big company behind them. So, we’ve been thinking about what to do.”

And then there are new entries who primarily rely on print…like Monocle, my all-time favorite. A June 2017 piece in The New Republic still focused on Monocle’s fascinating success:

“Can Monocle’s globalist chic survive in an age of populism?”

“As older titles like GQ, Vanity Fair, and The Economist lose their grip on millennials, the Monocle Man—spot him by his sharp suit that ends at bare ankles, glasses with prominent frames, and wide, unbuttoned collar, just like Brûlé himself—is alive and well. In 2014, Nikkei, the Japanese media conglomerate, bought a minority share in Monocle at a purported valuation of $115 million…it has only grown since then, launching new publications and opening several retail spaces. The editors celebrated their 101st issue this March with an understated redesign. You can’t overhaul a classic, so not much has changed: The header logo is a little bigger and the layouts less cluttered. It’s more of a victory lap than a pivot.”

So what do the successes have in common?

It seems to me that they all follow the same formula:

  • They have not fallen prey to anyone else’s vison, or version, of Digital, and what so-called digital audiences want.
  • They stay true to journalistic values, delivering compelling and interesting content in many ways.
  • They diversify in line with their business and audience needs. Yes, that even means making TV deals.
  • They plow ahead with a damn the torpedoes attitude.

The Digital graveyard is overflowing with the bright and shiny flash-in-the-pans who had been touted as the Big Disruptors, joining the old and tarnished who were too creaky and cranky to understand that they might have made it.

I’m a Vice addict, despite my advanced age, as I imagine many other unconventional consumers are…it’s Vice’s dirty little secret. And I love Monocle in print.

I’m neither a luddite or a Digital Native, but I do notice my grandchildren switch effortlessly and with no self-consciousness between media forms in ways that would cause many Digibbable analysts agita… and worse.

To cap it all off, Hugh Hefner, a true Disruptor (whatever your opinion of his business), passed away last week. As dated as his empire might seem to some, in its day it was as fresh as Vice, and maybe even more powerful. My bet is that if he were to have been born 40 years later he would have been equally successful as he championed some of the key social issues of the time. Most interestingly, BBC reported:

“The feminist Camille Paglia called him “one of the principal architects of the social revolution.”

In summary, I think the key insight was best put forth by a founder of another disruptive movement:

“I would rather live in a country with newspapers and without government than in a country with a government and without newspapers”
— Thomas Jefferson

I would rather live in a world with great and true journalism, delivered any which way works for me.

Damn bite-sized! Full steam ahead!

What do you think?

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