Hearst’s Joanna Coles says magazines are here to stay

Oct 11, 2017

Today’s installment of Corner Office isn't a CEO, but she's plenty powerful and influential all the same. Joanna Coles is the chief content officer for Hearst Magazines: Esquire, Harper's Bazaar, Good Housekeeping are some of the titles you'll know. Coles is fresh off a run as the editor in chief of Cosmopolitan. Kai Ryssdal went to see her in her office when he was in New York a couple of weeks ago. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation. 

Joanna Coles: This is the office of the chief content officer of Hearst. It's a rather thrilling office, isn't it? I've got my treadmill desk, which I love, which I walk on a lot because sitting is the new smoking. We have a view of Central Park, and we also have this magnificent picture of Kim Kardashian at a news stand painted from the back looking at different covers of herself.

Kai Ryssdal: It took me a minute. I wasn't going to say anything, but since you brought it up, that's a very Kardashian-esque pose in that portrait.

Coles: It is. By which, I think, you mean she has an enormous ass in her jeans.

Ryssdal: Well, I was going to say that, but, sure. Is it yours or is it company's?

Coles: It's actually mine. But I do, if you want to point out, I have a wonderful picture of Bob Dylan walking through Central Park or actually down Central Park West by Richard Avedon, which is the company's.

Ryssdal: Ah ha. So you have to give that one back.

Coles: Sadly, I have to give them back when they fire me, and I will know that when the head of security refuses to let me through the turnstile where I have to come every day.

Ryssdal: This is probably a good moment then, talking about you getting fired, to point out that you've only been in this job a year or a so.

Coles: I have. So I'm hoping for a little bit more runway, but you never say never say never.

Ryssdal: Can we back up for a minute before we get to you in magazines and media in New York? You used to be a daily news journalist. I mean doing daily coverage.

Coles: I did.

Ryssdal: Tell us the story.

Coles: Well, I started at The Daily Telegraph as a daily news reporter. I moved then to the Guardian, and then I moved to New York as the correspondent for The Guardian, moved to the Times of London. And really it was the best job you could imagine. You could cover any story you wanted in America. So I had a wonderful time traveling all over America. And actually, it turned out to be fantastically good training for navigating today's media landscape, which changes every day. And anybody who tells you where it's going to be in a year is lying because nobody knows.

Ryssdal: You get a job at Marie Claire, you then get the job running Cosmo, you take those two magazines and you, with no offense to anybody who came before you, you put them back on the landscape.

Coles: Well, thank you.

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Ryssdal: Is there a secret? Is there a trick? Because you've done it twice now, and here you're running magazines for Hearst. What's your secret sauce?

Coles: There is no secret sauce, apart from deep passion for women's journalism, which is always underestimated and often overlooked. And I was lucky enough, I think, to coincide with this new feminism and this new awareness that women weren't getting on as fast as they should have been. I mean, there were more women going to college and yet fewer women in leadership positions, and that didn't make sense. And young women were becoming animated by that and millennial women were becoming annoyed by that. And I was able to reflect on that in both magazines.

Ryssdal: Do you have a responsibility as a woman in a very senior leadership position, in a very high-profile company, in a culture-changing industry, do you have a responsibility to other women to mentor them and bring them along?

Coles: Well, one of the things that I have been involved in is executive producing a show called "The Bold Type," which is on Freeform. And one of the reasons I wanted to do it was to show that women in the workplace frequently support each other. I have never had an unsupportive female boss. I've had several female bosses. They've all been super supportive. I don't like the tropes, particularly in my industry, that the senior women are mean to the junior staff.

Ryssdal: Yeah, that does seem to be a stereotype.

Coles: It's a total stereotype that came out of the Miranda Priestly character in "Devil Wears Prada." And of course, conflict makes for great drama. But it turned out that "The Bold Type" was able to break that trope.

Ryssdal: Is this a good time or a difficult time to be running magazines?

Coles: It's a challenging time, but it's incredibly exciting. I mean, we recently launched a magazine called Pioneer Woman with Ree Drummond, which has just sold out. We launched a magazine with Airbnb — which I'm thrilled to see you brought in under your arm — which we couldn't be more excited about. There is a whole new generation of traveler that Airbnb discovered that we can produce a magazine for.

Ryssdal: OK. But do those travelers need an Airbnb magazine, or can they just go on their phones and figure out what they need to know?

Coles: Well, they're not zero sum. I mean, everybody likes everything, I think. I mean, you're not only getting content from a phone. People get content from television, from magazines, from newsstands, from their friends. And so I think you can be in all places most of the time.

Ryssdal: Why did you take this job? Or why did Hearst put you in this job, I guess might be a better question?

Coles: Well, I think Hearst put me in the job because they were hoping that I would be able to come up with some new ideas and take some of the ideas that we have from a lot of people in the building and actually make them happen. And one of the disciplines of being a daily journalist was to always get the story, to actually have a goal in mind, manage to what we called in journalism then — it's a very Daily Mail term — but "get the mother," which is where you want to get the mother of the victim or the mother of a criminal. But it's like, can you get to the mother. And I'm reasonably good at getting to the mother.

Ryssdal: What's the measure of success then, right? Because it can't just be newsstand sales or, like, ad revenue, right? What's your measurement?

Coles: Well, newsstand sales and ad revenue, why can't that be a measure of success? That seems to me an excellent measure of success. We're in a consumer-led business. If the consumer doesn't want it, if the market's not going to support it, it's not working.

Ryssdal: What is it about magazines for you?

Coles: When I was growing up as a child, a magazine to me was like a finger beckoning me to the future. A magazine editor's job is to imagine what in three months, six months, a year from now we're going to be thinking about, what we're going to be talking about, what that vision or that voyage of discovery will be. And I would throw myself on my bed, I would rip open the magazines and inhale them and look forward to a more glamorous, sophisticated life, which was what the aspiration of the magazine was.

Ryssdal: Have you then created that life for yourself that you saw in the magazines? As we sit here overlooking Central Park with your treadmill desk?

Coles: Nice observation, Kai. I might have done, I might have created part of it for myself.

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