How Condé Nast Learned to Love Tangling With Trump
In the melee of coverage before and after the election, no glossy magazine publisher has been more publicly invested in swinging hard against Donald Trump than Condé Nast. And it’s not just within the usual highbrow political pages of the New Yorker.
Vogue, a fashion title that had never played presidential politics in its 124-year history, saw fit to endorse Hillary Clinton. Vanity Fair editor-in-chief Graydon Carter’s personal Trump feud, running since the 1980s, opened a new front with a devastating review of the restaurant sitting below Trump’s Manhattan penthouse. Architectural Digest featured a spread of the Obama White House’s quietly tasteful interiors in November, an implicit yet stark contrast to the gold curtains chosen by the next Oval Office denizen. Even Teen Vogue, a title with a reputation for middle-school fashion tips, is now daily publishing salvos on Trump.
New Yorker editor-in-chief David Remnick immediately deemed Trump’s victory “nothing less than a tragedy for the American republic” on Nov. 9, in a widely shared web piece. “We are also capable of being fair and rigorous—one doesn’t rule out the other,” Remnick says now that Trump is in office.
As journalists of all stripes struggle to figure out how to cover the early days of a new and unusual presidency—do you treat the tweets and vague policy pronouncements differently than executive orders?—the magazines of Condé Nast have staked out a notably aggressive stance for what is largely a luxury lifestyle publisher. Defining that post-election voice has won several of the titles owned by parent company Advanced Publications Inc. a larger share of audiences hungry for politics, reflected in web traffic and subscription statistics provided by company representatives.
It’s not the standard strategy in the glossy magazine world, although that landscape is changing. Hearst lifestyle publications Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire have also stood out with Trump coverage. People, published by Time Inc., played soft on Trump during the campaign before shifting, in October, with an account of its own writer’s alleged 2005 assault by the soon-to-be-president. (Trump denied the allegations.) After the election, People returned to form by giving the president-elect a triumphant cover treatment.
At Condé Nast, even magazines with little expectation for politics are adopting strident anti-Trump attitudes. Teen Vogue demonstrated its commitment in December with a single tweet: “Donald Trump is gas lighting America and deliberately undermining the very foundation of our freedom.” The declaration has since received more than 30,000 retweets and 52,000 likes—and the article is still chattered about two months later.
The gaslighting essay, and others that followed, might have shocked infrequent readers. But for Teen Vogue digital editorial director Phillip Picardi, the article was in line with consistently critical coverage of Trump dating back to the primaries. “We approach politics as allies to our readers, who are young, globally minded, culturally woke people,” Picardi says. “Everyone on staff has been mobilized.”
Taking that stand has been good for business. Despite Trump’s Twitter claims that the magazine’s numbers are “way down, big trouble, dead,” in fact—as opposed to alternative fact—Vanity Fair has clearly benefited from trolling one of the president’s namesake restaurants. The magazine has added 80,000 subscribers since publishing a classic takedown under the headline “Trump Grill Could Be the Worst Restaurant in America,” which managed to become its most-read story of 2016. GQ likewise took a stab at assessing Trump's hotels.
The president’s disdain has even become a kind of marketing tout. Vanity Fair added Trump’s negative tweet as a blurb to its February 2017 cover, a tongue-in-cheek testament to the magazine’s notoriety. A banner on the cover, to the left of its topless portrait of actor Chris Pratt, announces, “Trumpocalypse Now!” The magazine might count among its readers (and subjects) one-percenters who backed Trump, but Carter isn’t concerned. He offers a riff on Abraham Lincoln: “One always runs the risk of offending some of the people some of the time. The trick is not to offend all of the people all of the time.”
The New Yorker sold 78,500 subscriptions in November and 62,500 in December, a noticeable uptick. Election-year traffic to the magazine’s website rose 44 percent over 2015, with more than 30 million unique visitors in November. That month was also Teen Vogue’s biggest ever, with 9.4 million online visitors.
It's not just magazines—other major media companies are benefiting from a similar “Trump Bump” as Condé Nast. The New York Times added 276,000 digital subscribers in the final quarter of last year. Ad rates have as much as doubled for TV news shows that the president is known to watch, such as MSNBC’s Morning Joe and Fox News’s The O’Reilly Factor.
For Condé Nast, just like its publishing rivals, a little revitalization to start the Trump era won't easily overcome the long-running decline of print advertising revenue. The recent uptick, alongside some layoffs and a reshuffle in executive ranks, might even be a factor that helps burnish Condé Nast for the possibility of a future sale. The company also faces the risks that come with visibility: Breitbart, the news organization where Trump adviser Steve Bannon was formerly an executive, published a recent threat by Milo Yiannopolous to sue Condé Nast’s Glamour magazine for labeling him a white supremacist. That kind of legal danger brings up the specter of Gawker Media’s bankruptcy following a lawsuit funded by Peter Thiel, another Trump adviser.
Legal risks aside, Teen Vogue’s Picardi sees an opportunity to serve a magazine audience without worrying about alienating a theoretical mainstream. “Unlike major newspapers or television stations, we don't have to appeal to a large audience,” he says. “We just do what feels right and responsible to our readers.”
A focus on politics is nothing new for the New Yorker, which assembled an all-star cast of writers, including Toni Morrison and Hilary Mantel, to tackle the meaning of Trump for a post-election issue that often took an apocalyptic tone. For Remnick, who has been the editor since 1998, the quick-turnaround package provided a lasting bulwark for the months ahead. “Putting pressure on power is a requirement of the first order for journalism,” he says
The New Yorker under Remnick targeted George W. Bush’s presidency as well, but the editor-in-chief sees Trump as a different subject than Bush or Obama, whom Remnick often covered personally and made the subject of his 2011 book. “Trump is a colossally alarming, even unique, figure in American politics,” Remnick says. “He is the first nationalist demagogue to reach the Oval Office, and it seems not only legitimate, but a requirement, to write about this clearly.”
Although Condé Nast publications might seem to present a united front, the company says no meetings between editors have been held to coordinate Trump coverage. Senior staff emphasize that each brand decides for itself how to approach the new president.
Sharp criticism and incisive reporting might earn an audience, but journalism is also facing a crisis of objectivity driven by the administration’s own actions. If Trump and his cabinet present fictions as facts, publications that push back risk being labeled nonobjective or, worse, “fake news,” in the epithet favored by Trump.
Condé Nast editors are navigating this minefield, mingling critical essays with investigative reporting and even access to Trump himself. In early January, the president appeared at the company’s One World Trade Center headquarters for an off-the-record meeting with staff editors, including Carter, Remnick, and Vogue’s Anna Wintour. The meeting was said to be serious and without fireworks, covering such topics as Vladimir Putin, climate change, and abortion.
The Condé Nast editors agree above all that the plan for the months ahead is the plan of journalists everywhere: See what happens and respond to events. “Our coverage will be shaped entirely by his actions as president,” Carter says of Trump. “This administration will spool out on a daily basis. And so will our coverage.”