Mag Editors on Truth Serum: ‘I Have So F*cked Up’

All hail the editors in chief! From left to right: CosmoGIRL!’s Susan Schulz, Redbook’s Stacy Morrison, founder and CEO Laurel Touby, Men’s Journal’s Tom Foster, Slate’s Jacob Weisberg, Jane’s Brandon Holley and Departures’ Richard Story.

Photo by David Vanderheyden

Slate’s Jacob Weisberg called Slate a “cult.” Jane’s Brandon Holley advised to “kill them with kindness.” Departures editor Richard Story admitted he was most famous at Vogue for hiring Lauren “Devil Wears Prada” Weisberger. CosmoGirl! editor Susan Schulz estimated that she spends 40 percent of her time editing.

At our “Editors on Truth Serum — The New Rules of Success Now” panel last night, top dogs at some of the leading glossy magazines (and Slate) got down and dirty, telling the crowd of 100 exactly where they’ve gone right — and wrong — as they carved their respective paths to that corner office.

Excerpts of some of the juicier moments:

Tom Foster, editor in chief, Men’s Journal: “The conventional wisdom in the magazine world is that you have to job-hop to get ahead — that’s not necessarily true. I got the job because I had been there and knew the magazine through its various forms.”

Brandon Holley, editor in chief, Jane: “I had ideas for what the magazine should be — ElleGirl [of which Holley was founding editor-in-chief] was made from a memo I wrote on my computer at GQ. But, I have so f*cked up — I’ve made some bad hires. So, I ask my staff for ‘idea memos.’ Anyone can do well in an interview, but do you have the ideas? I need smart people with ideas for the magazine.”

Susan Schulz, editor in chief, CosmoGIRL!: “I told myself that I never wanted to be an editor in chief. The job didn’t really look that fun. But when they started talking about bringing Atoosa [Rubenstein, formerly editor in chief of CosmoGIRL!] over to Seventeen, she started talking to me about the job, and told me I should talk to Cathie Black [president of Hearst Magazines] about it. I was scared to death — that’s when I knew that I wanted it. The editor-in-chief job is one where you have to have an ego, because you’re being put in a spotlight position. But, I think they liked that I wasn’t going to try and come in and put my stamp on it, or do something radically different. CosmoGIRL! was doing well under Atoosa, and I’ve helped it do even better.”

Richard Story, editor in chief, Departures: “I spent six years at Vogue as features editor, where I was most famous for hiring Lauren Weisberger, who wrote The Devil Wears Prada.”

Jacob Weisberg, editor in chief, Slate: “Slate, in the early years, was more like a cult, and I think I got the editor in chief job partly because I was in that cult. I’d been working on an online magazine for five years, before that form had been vindicated. There’s a world of difference between online and print magazines. Print magazines don’t yet understand all the ways writing online is different — in terms of tone, multimedia, links.”

Holley: “Online, the death knell is trying to be all things to all people. I hate to use marketing speak, but magazines are ‘lean-back’ while Web sites are ‘lean-forward.’ We’re returning to the Web site to make it be more narrow — one channel, instead of 25 different ones.”

Foster: “These days, it’s really the brand that’s important — that’s a huge sea change in how people are thinking about magazines. You have to think about what things are available on the Web that work for your audience? It’s not the same for every magazine.”

What’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever done as an editor in chief?

Weisberg: “I’ve done more dumb things as a writer.”

Schulz: “The dumbest thing I’ve ever done was to negotiate with a publicist. Never, ever, ever do that.”

Holley: “At ElleGIRL, I fought with people rather than kill them with kindness. Not with my staff — I always fight for my staff — but I fought with the circulation guys, ‘Where’s my marketing money?’ That sort of thing.”

Do you live in perpetual fear of getting axed?

Schulz: “Yes. But, the day that I walk in to the office and think, ‘I have that job nailed,’ is the day they might as well fire me.”

Morrison: “You live in that anxiety, yes. But, I’m happiest when I’m a little terrified.”

How much time do you actually spend editing your magazine, as opposed to being in meetings, making sales calls, TV appearances, all that stuff?

Holley: “If you’re not editing the magazine, that’s the jewel in the crown. But, when you’re an editor, you do have a lot of meetings.”

Schulz: “I spend about 40 percent of my time editing the magazine, but that can ramp up or down, depending on what other projects we’re working on.”

Morrison: “I like to plan the magazine a year in advance, but always leave room for that last-minute ’emergency story’ we’ve got to do because it’s amazing. But, I do focus on partnerships — partnerships are what’s going to revive Redbook.”