Days after a staff-led uprising against racial injustice, Condé Nast faces 'overdue' reckoning
Condé Nast is one of many media organisations, including The New York Times, whose employees have questioned company leaders as people around the world have taken part in protests prompted by the killing of George Floyd.
This was supposed to be Condé Nast’s year.
The publisher of Vogue, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker was going to be profitable again after years of layoffs and losses.
Then advertising revenue suddenly dropped as the coronavirus pandemic cratered the economy. More recently, as protests against racism and police violence grew into a worldwide movement, company employees publicly complained about racism in the workplace and in some Condé Nast content.
In response, the two leaders of the nearly all-white executive team — the artistic director, Anna Wintour, and the chief executive, Roger Lynch — offered apologies to the staff.
At an all-hands online meeting Friday, employees asked if Wintour, the top editor of Vogue since 1988 and the company’s editorial leader since 2013, would be leaving. Lynch and the communications chief, Danielle Carrig, shot down the question, saying Wintour was not going anywhere, said three people who attended the meeting but were not authorised to discuss it publicly.
Tumult has hit Condé Nast, a company built partly on selling a glossy brand of elitism to the masses, at a time when its financial outlook is grim. Last year, the US division lost approximately $100 million on about $900 million in revenue, said several people with knowledge of the company, who were not authorized to speak publicly. The European arm also had losses.
Lynch said in an interview Friday that he was “not familiar” with the cited figures, adding that the company’s merger of its domestic and international operations, part of a recent restructuring, had been costly.
In April, the company instituted pay cuts for anyone making over $100,000. Then came layoffs — 100 jobs gone out of roughly 6,000.
Condé Nast is one of many media organisations, including The New York Times, whose employees have questioned company leaders as people around the world have taken part in protests prompted by the killing of George Floyd, a black man who died last month in Minneapolis after a white police officer pinned him to the ground.
The company has been led by the Newhouse family since 1959. Steven Newhouse heads the parent company, Advance, and his cousin Jonathan Newhouse is chairman of Condé Nast’s board. Advance also controls more than 40 newspapers and news sites across the country. Many of them, including The Plain Dealer of Cleveland and The Star-Ledger in Newark, have struggled. The Newhouse family has protected itself against losses with significant investments in cable giant Charter and the media conglomerate Discovery.
Before the internet took readers away from print, Condé Nast was known for thick magazines edited by cultural arbiters who travelled in the same circles as the people they covered. As digital media rose, Condé Nast was slow to adapt. Budgets tightened. Magazines including Gourmet, Mademoiselle and Details folded.
By the time Lynch, a former head of the music streaming service Pandora, succeeded Robert Sauerberg as the chief executive last year, Condé Nast was in triage mode. After his arrival, it unloaded three publications: Brides, Golf Digest and W.
On Monday, Condé Nast reckoned with how the company deals with issues related to race. Adam Rapoport, the longtime top editor of Bon Appétit, resigned after a photo surfaced on social media showing him in a costume that stereotypically depicted Puerto Rican dress.
He apologised to staff members in a video-conference. After Rapoport left the call, the staff voiced complaints about the Bon Appétit workplace. Some minority employees said they had been used as ethnic props in Bon Appétit’s videos, a growing segment of the Condé Nast business.
“It’s so hard to be a person of color at this company,” said Ryan Walker-Hartshorn, a black woman who worked as an assistant to Rapoport. “My blood is still boiling.”
She recalled a 2018 meeting of editors to discuss how to make the magazine’s Instagram account more diverse. In a room of about eight editors, three were people of color.
“And we’re all very junior, no power,” Walker-Hartshorn said in an interview. “I was like, ‘You’re asking us how to make our Instagram black without hiring more black people?’”
At a company forum Tuesday, Lynch said Bon Appétit employees should have raised their concerns earlier, a comment that rubbed many the wrong way. In a closed-door session later that day, he apologized to a group of staff members who had pushed for Rapoport’s ouster.
“I want you to know I take this personally, and I take personal responsibility for it,” he said, according to an audio recording of the meeting obtained by The New York Times.
A onetime banker at Morgan Stanley, Lynch spent much of his career at Dish, the satellite TV service. As a hobby he played lead guitar in a classic-rock cover band, the Merger. He moved from San Francisco to New York and updated his wardrobe to join Condé Nast.
Lynch, 57, has emphasised diversity efforts and environmental programmes in emails to the staff. He said in the interview Friday that he was developing an overall company strategy as he assembled his executive team. In December he hired Deirdre Findlay as the chief marketing officer, making her the company’s highest-ranking black executive.
His former executive assistant, Cassie Jones, who is black, quit shortly after he gave her a gift she considered insulting, three people with knowledge of the matter said.
In November, after she had spent four months working for him, Lynch called Jones into his office and handed her The Elements of Style, a guide to standard English usage by William Strunk Jr and EB White. Lynch said he thought she could benefit from it.
With its suggestion that her own language skills were lacking, the gift struck Jones as a microaggression, the people said. A few days later, she quit. Before leaving the headquarters at 1 World Trade in lower Manhattan, she placed the book on his desk.
Lynch said he hadn’t meant to insult Jones, who declined to comment for this article. “I really only had the intention — like every time I’ve given it before — for it to be a helpful resource, as it has been for me,” he said. “I still use it today. I’m really sorry if she interpreted it that way.”
Before Lynch’s arrival, David Remnick, the editor-in-chief of The New Yorker, objected to a plan that would have lowered the magazine’s subscription price and raised ad rates. He has brought aboard a diverse crew of journalists, including Jia Tolentino, Hua Hsu and Vinson Cunningham, while adding digital subscriptions.
Three people with knowledge of the company said The New Yorker was likely to surpass Vogue as Condé Nast’s biggest contributor to US profits by the end of 2020. The people added that about 80 percent of The New Yorker’s revenue came from readers, which helped the magazine weather the advertising downturn. The magazine did not cut staff during the recent layoffs.
On 4 June, Wintour sent an apologetic note to the Vogue staff. “I want to say this especially to the Black members of our team — I can only imagine what these days have been like,” Wintour wrote.She added, “I want to say plainly that I know Vogue has not found enough ways to elevate and give space to Black editors, writers, photographers, designers and other creators. We have made mistakes, too, publishing images or stories that have been hurtful or intolerant. I take full responsibility for those mistakes.”
The British-born Wintour has been credited internally for championing Radhika Jones, one of few top editors of color in the company’s history.
Jones, the former editorial director of the book department at The Times who took over Vanity Fair from Graydon Carter in 2017, changed the magazine’s identity. The first cover subject she chose, for the April 2018 issue, was actress and producer Lena Waithe, a black woman photographed by Annie Leibovitz in a plain T-shirt. Later covers featured Michael B Jordan, Janelle Monae and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Jones has put out 16 Vanity Fair covers featuring people of color.
When Jones arrived, she was pilloried by fashion insiders who questioned her style sense. Her choice of legwear — tights with illustrated foxes — drew stares, according to a report in Women’s Wear Daily. Wintour later showed her support for Jones at a welcome party by handing out gifts: tights with foxes on them.
At a quarterly meeting of company executives in April 2019, on Lynch’s second day at Condé Nast, Jones presented her plan for Vanity Fair’s fall issues, a prime landing spot for fashion and luxury advertisers. (From September to December last year, the Vanity Fair covers featured Kristen Stewart, Lupita Nyong’o, Joaquin Phoenix, and Chrissy Teigen, John Legend and their children.)
Two executives criticised Jones’ plan, according to three people who were at the meeting and were not authorised to discuss it publicly. In particular, Susan Plagemann, the chief business officer of Condé Nast’s style division, challenged Jones at length, saying the plan would be difficult to sell to advertisers. To defuse the tension, Wintour banged her fist on the table, saying, “We need to move on,” according to the three people who were at the meeting.
Plagemann, who is white, joined the company in 2010 as Vogue’s chief business officer and worked closely with Wintour; in 2018, she was elevated to her current job. Three people with knowledge of the matter said she was vocal about her negative view of Vanity Fair under its new editor.
She had criticised Jones’ choices of cover subjects, telling others at the company that the magazine should feature “more people who look like us,” two of the people said. A third person said he had heard her use words expressing a similar sentiment. All the people said they interpreted the phrase and similar remarks as referring to well-off white women who adopt an aesthetic common among the fashion set.
Through a Condé Nast spokesman, Plagemann denied making those statements and denied expressing a dim view of Jones’ Vanity Fair.
In the interview Friday, Lynch addressed Jones’ stewardship of the magazine more broadly. “The challenge with her taking that new direction would be alienating some of the traditional Vanity Fair audience,” he said. “I really applaud what she’s done.”
The uprising at Condé Nast was overdue, some staff members said. “We’ve been asking for change for months now,” Sohla El-Waylly, an assistant editor at Bon Appétit, said in an interview.
In the Tuesday meeting with Bon Appétit staff members, Lynch said he hoped to prove a commitment to diversity with the choice of Rapoport’s replacement. Later in the call, he suggested that some staff members wanted to hurt Bon Appétit financially to bring about change, a comment that irked some in the meeting.
“It felt infantilising, as if we were teenagers rebelling,” said Jesse Sparks, an editorial assistant.
Lynch said in the interview that he had meant to underscore the urgency of the matter. “I wanted to make sure they understood the brand they worked so hard to build was actually being harmed, and I think I even apologised to them in that meeting,” he said.
A Bon Appétit personality, Claire Saffitz, has generated over 200 million views with Gourmet Makes, a show in which she makes homemade versions of Twinkies and other junk food. She represents a new kind of Condé Nast, one built on a kind of rough-cut authenticity, but her popularity has drawn attention to the problem of representation.
El-Waylly, who was a regular guest on the show, said her addition to Gourmet Makes had been cynically motivated. “They just want me there to play the part to make it look like they have people of color on staff,” she said.
She said she was not paid for her appearances, as her white counterparts were. Condé Nast disputed that and said El-Waylly’s salary covered her video appearances.
On Wednesday, the company’s head of video, Matt Duckor, stepped down. Several employees had accused him of bias. Many people at the company are rooting for more change.
“What’s crazy is what it took for this stuff to happen,” Walker-Hartshorn said. “It took George Floyd.”
Edmund Lee c.2020 The New York Times Company
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