There’s a piece of advice Danyel Smith received her first day on the job as editor-in-chief of Vibe that’s resonated with the writer-slash-editor-slash-author ever since: You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. It came from her mother, delivered in that simplified, stripped down, yeah-it-really-is-that-easy manner that momfolk have. Creatively and professionally, it freed Smith in what has culminated into an enviable, 20-year career at major titles — among them, Time and Billboard — which has solidified her spot on the list of editorial doyennes.
A 2013-2014 John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University brought that initial nugget of mama wisdom full circle. “I have higher expectations of myself to not do stuff because I should. That’s easy to forget,” she confessed. “Someone there said, ‘Just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean you have to do exactly that. You can do other things.’ That’s why Stanford was so amazing.” Feeling reborn is part of it. Now wholly submerged in the anticipated publication of HRDCVR, a culture magazine she co-founded with husband and fellow journo Elliott Wilson, she’s exemplifying it. “It’s a good feeling to be working for something that you really, really believe in,” Smith beamed.
Here, she talks professional reinvention, new platforms and more.
Name: Danyel Smith
Position: Editor, journalist, author, speaker and entrepreneur
Resume: Started career as freelance writer and columnist at the San Francisco Bay Guardian and the East Bay Express. Became music editor of San Francisco Weekly. Freelanced for Spin as a reporter and columnist. Moved to New York in 1993 to become R&B editor at Billboard; returned in 2011 to become the first African-American editor at the mag. Helped build the Vibe brand, first as music editor, then as editor-in-chief in 1997 — the first African-American and woman to hold the position. Returned to the publication in 2006 to head both digital and print platforms. Became editor-at-large at Time Inc. for Entertainment Weekly, InStyle and Time. Penned two novels, More Like Wrestling and Bliss. Served as writer-in-residence at Skidmore College. Taught at New School University, Saint Mary’s College and, most recently, a gender, race and media class at Syracuse University. Plans to launch HRDCVR in February 2015.
Birthday: June 23
Hometown: East Oakland, Calif.
Education: University of California, Berkeley; New School University
Marital status: Married
Media mentor: Writer and music critic Ann Powers
Last book read: The Buenos Aires Quintet, by Manuel Vazquez Montalban
Guilty pleasure: “Sometimes, I just have to have a chili cheese dog with extra onions and mustard. You know that little wax paper it comes on? I can eat it as well.”
Twitter handle: @danamo
When you look back over your career, what new skill or a-ha moment did you glean from each position that contributed to who you are now?
I’ve had too many jobs and made too many decisions to even begin to answer that question in its entirety. It was just time for me to get out of New York because I felt like I had lost some of my California spirit. I’m from Oakland. I know that D.C. girls have a certain thing and sometimes Philly girls try to act like they’re kind of special. There’s no shade or disrespect to those lovely ladies, but Oakland girls are the truth and it’s common knowledge. So I decided I needed to re-up on that strength, confidence and optimism — that I-can-change-the-world attitude. I was very happy I got into the Stanford program. It was a very difficult process. Even though my husband and I were going to be living on separate coasts for 10 months, and I was leaving my friends and my community in New York, which I love and respect, it’s the best decision I’ve made in the last five years, without question.
HRDCVR is pegged as “the magazine for the new everybody.” How do you create a concept that appeals to everyone and no one in particular at the same time?
Well, it’s a challenge. There’s never been a magazine that has even tried to appeal to everyone, new everyone or old everyone. There have been many amazing magazines that have said in their mission statements that they’re serving everyone. I personally believe that certain journalists of the past, their idea of what the mainstream was or is just is factually incorrect. There are huge segments of the population that have been what I like to think of as criminally underserved. And I do mean criminally underserved.
That’s why we have amazing affinity publications that speak to African-Americans, Asian-Americans, the gay and lesbian community, the disabled community. Great work has been done with those kinds of publications. I’ve worked for both the ‘mainstream’ publications and the affinity publications, but it’s an old model. We don’t know if HRDCVR will work. Elliott and I are very clear about that. It’s a one-time publication that we hope to be a proof of concept. We want to see what it even looks like. We want it to exist.
What happens if it doesn’t work?
If it can’t work, we can all cry tears and go home. But when do you see a culture publication where there’s an Asian person’s byline next to a black person’s byline next to a white person’s byline next to a gay person’s byline next to a Catholic person’s byline next to a Jewish person’s byline next to an Islamic person’s byline — and that’s also reflected in the illustrations and the illustrators and the photography and photographers and the creative directors and the editors?
There’s all this talk about change, change, change and what’s going on in journalism. What people are mostly talking about are tools and platforms. That’s why we want to take it back to the basics. We’re going to the oldest platform. If we could chisel it in stone and pass it out, we would. We want it to be beautifully designed and it will be. When we get discouraged, we just say to ourselves what do we imagine again? We start talking about that and we get hyped up again. We want to over-serve the underserved.
What creative wells do you pull from in order to switch from novelist to generalist to editor, and is there a commonality that helps you transition between the three?
Foolishness clearly is the main thing. I don’t even know what to say about it. Whenever anyone says all those things to describe me, I always feel like I should put it on a T-shirt. I’m just a person who likes to write and build things. I’m blessed to be able to do both. I don’t know if there’s too much shift. I always feel like I should be more organized, that’s probably the common theme. I love editing because it’s like teaching. I love teaching because it’s like editing. It’s all of the above to me.
Does funding through Kickstarter give people vested interest in a project?
That’s why we did it that way. For one, we wanted to see if people even cared. We started doing this newsletter called the HRDlist we would send out to rally support and try to get more funds and included mini profiles of our backers. That was a huge turning point because I was like, ‘OK, these are real people with jobs who are putting their credit card down for $5, $10, $50, $100, $1,000.’ Elliott and I love a rallying motto and he said, ‘The people will be our publisher.’ We started really believing that and then we started getting notes from people with their contributions about what it would mean to them if this even existed. That was empowering for us.
When you work with someone who’s close to you — in your case, your husband — are you ever not at work? How do you separate the relationships?
I can’t speak for anybody else, but I have a pretty good work/life balance. I think if you’re working together and you’re in a personal relationship, it’s very important to do fun things that don’t have to do with what you’re doing. We maintain very separate professional lives. We’ve competed against each other in our married life, which will be 10 years next year. But in terms of working together, it’s very different for us. Elliott and I love sports, so whenever we go someplace, we try to go to a baseball, sometimes basketball game. Sometimes when we’re there, we say somebody should do a piece on that guy or that girl. To me, being a creative person is all about how you take things in and what you do with them.
What does HRDCVR teach us about entrepreneurial journalism?
I always thought journalism was entrepreneurial because most times, it’s a business. The New York Times is a business. The Atlantic is a business. Ebony is a business. So this idea that entrepreneurial journalism is new is weird. I guess if you’re by yourself and trying to start something that’s just your brand, that’s new. But to be honest, I find these labels to be a big yawn. I just want to see the work. I want to see the work and I want to do the work. I like when people come up with a name for something, have a mission statement and try to meet that. If that’s entrepreneurial journalism, put me in that box. That’s what’s fresh to me.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.