FIRST ISSUE: “I had this wacky idea to bring in columnists,” said Kristina O’Neill.
She was at the NoMad Hotel on a recent Wednesday flipping through her maiden issue of WSJ. magazine, out Feb. 16, and recounting how she conceived some of her changes.
A veteran of magazines — first at New York, the last 12 years at Harper’s Bazaar — O’Neill had been thinking about what distinguishes her new employer, The Wall Street Journal. “Being at a newspaper and just thinking about the columns of a newspaper, a six-column grid, I had this idea to do columnists in columns,” she said.
Except, instead of Peggy Noonan and Karl Rove, she asked “luminaries in their field to talk about a topic that we sort of feel is pervasive in the ether,” a topic like discipline, for instance.
“Discipline sort of kept coming up. It was one of those words that I kept hearing at dinner parties. It gave me this idea to talk to different people in different fields,” she said.
She called Karl Lagerfeld and Marina Abramovic and Dwyane Wade, among others, and a feature was born. In each new issue, six rotating personalities will sound off on a topic of the magazine’s choice.
Lagerfeld the columnist is one of several innovations O’Neill has brought to the nearly five-year-old glossy, Rupert Murdoch’s entry in the luxury magazine race, where she’ll be its third editor in chief.
She said that unlike her former employer, Bazaar, WSJ. is a magazine in its infancy and she has time to shape its long-term image. “That’s the freedom of it. We’re not talking about a 145-year history,” she said.
Though the last time O’Neill worked at a newspaper was when she ran her high school paper, The Valkyrie, in her hometown, Woodbridge, a Virginia suburb, she embodies many of the attributes the Journal was looking for in a successor to Deborah Needleman.
She is the editor next door. Easy-going, with an all-American smile, she’s a 36-year-old wife and mother who lives in Brooklyn Heights. On weekends, you might spot her at Monty’s, a greasy pizzeria in her neighborhood, with her six-year-old daughter. Although she’s worked for some big personalities — as Candace Bushnell’s assistant at the New York Observer and then, at Bazaar, as a staffer under Kate Betts, and rising to executive editor under Glenda Bailey — she is much more low key.
Says Bushnell, “Even when she was working for me, she always said she wanted to get married and have kids. She wanted her wedding song to be ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’ by the Carpenters. I was writing ‘Sex and the City,’ and thinking, ‘Good luck!’ Sure enough, the kid gets married.”
Her understated persona is perhaps what made her an attractive candidate to take over a magazine that needed to coexist with, not upstage, the Journal’s panoply of luxury sections.
“It comes wrapped up in the paper but for our millions of readers it’s one of the courses in the multicourse meal we serve them,” said Mike Miller, the senior deputy managing editor who hired O’Neill.
She understands this, too. She said one of her missions has been to bridge the gap between the magazine and the daily broadsheet.
For instance, she redesigned WSJ.’s logo to resemble the Journal’s Escrow typeface. And she introduced a front-of-book section that doubles as a news digest.
With her fashion story — white is her big theme for spring — O’Neill wanted to serve the regular Journal reader.
“I don’t think she wants a lot of mixed messages. She wants a takeaway, which is what everyone wants when they open a fashion magazine,” she said.
In another departure from Needleman, O’Neill has forgone a fashion director, hiring instead Magnus Berger, who ran his own ad agency, as creative director, and brought in David Thielebeule from Allure to run the market department.
“It’ll give us flexibility to work under a freelance infrastructure,” she said. The first issue counts as contributors Mikael Jansson, lensman for Salvatore Ferragamo and Gant; Patrick Demarchelier, who shot Delphine Arnault, and Vanity Fair’s man for interiors, photographer Todd Eberle, who, in a coup, got an inside look at Domenico De Sole’s South Carolina estate. Berger will continue to have a stake in his firm, Berger & Wild.
That all sounds very pricy for a magazine within the frugal new News Corp. But that was also one of the perks of hiring an insider with deep ties to the industry who was accustomed to the equally frugal Hearst Corp.
“People don’t make these decisions just on money. They just want to be near talented editors,” Miller said, while also hastening to add, “We’re very disciplined about how we spend money and everything we do at the Journal.”
With O’Neill’s name and Bazaar cachet on the masthead, advertisers, including newcomers like LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton brands Celine and Marc Jacobs, have been piqued — though the Journal still doesn’t disclose its rates, the fashion issue has 65 ad pages, up 29 percent from the year before.
At a new Journal that is no longer buttressed by the more lucrative divisions of News Corp., austerity is newly in vogue. It’s also what explains an initially confounding aspect of O’Neill’s hire — reporting to Ruth Altchek, the editorial director of both the magazine and Off Duty, the weekend section.
Miller said that “like every magazine editor, Kristina has a boss, and her boss is Ruth.” But, he said, “It’s an administrative structure that works for our portfolio of properties. It’s one way we can be efficient economically.”
O’Neill’s hire was arranged in under a week, and she’s had a nonstop schedule since, tasked with putting together a major fashion issue, complete with tweaks and new features, in about six weeks. She hasn’t even had time to meet the Journal’s new managing editor, Gerard Baker. “He was in Davos, and I was in Paris [for couture],” she said. But that she was able to manage it is a testament to how quickly the magazine veteran has adapted to newspaper culture.
“I didn’t have time to overthink it. I just went with my instinct,” she said. Soon after she’d closed women’s fashion, she was rushing to finish the men’s issue.