Twenty-three years ago, Liz Vaccariello bought a plane ticket for New York City. At the time she was living in her native Cleveland, and was the young, twentysomething editor of Cleveland Magazine. She did not know anyone in New York publishing. So she went to her local library and looked up the names and addresses of 50 of the top magazine and newspaper editors in the city. She sent letters asking for meetings — to all 50 of them.
“If I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it right,” she says. “I wanted to pack in as many interviews as possible. And it worked. I came home at the end of the week with a job offer.”
The offer was from Fitness magazine, where she became articles editor. But one of the other editors who responded to Vaccariello’s letter was Carol Wallace, the second woman to run People since its founding in 1974. Wallace did not have a job for her, but the meeting gave Vaccariello her first glimpse of the “magic mix” that is People. A mélange of intimate newsmaker profiles (almost always done in the subject’s home) with inspirational — and sometimes devastating — stories about ordinary people, People has remained true to its original intent.
Today, Vaccariello, a married mother of 17-year-old twins, is People’s new editor in chief (and vice president), named to the post in February after Dotdash, the publishing arm of Barry Diller’s IAC, acquired People parent Meredith last fall for about $2.7 billion. She comes to People after leadership positions at several Meredith titles, most recently Real Simple. She’s also written several dieting and cookbooks.
People is still among the most widely read magazines in America with nearly 25 million readers and a total monthly brand audience (including print, digital, video and mobile) of more than 100 million. There are also multiple spin-off shows and podcasts and several TV franchises including “People Magazine Investigates” on Investigation Discovery (heading into its sixth season this spring). In April the brand will launch a show on HGTV with “Home Town” couple Erin and Ben Napier, called “Home Town Kickstart.”
In a wired world that has obliterated the profit margins of dozens of magazines and local newspapers, People is still among a handful of titles that sells — and occasionally sells out — at newsstands. You will still find it in your doctor’s office, at the nail salon and airport lounges. And it can survive just fine without a digital paywall. Says Vaccariello: “People is more relevant than ever.”
WWD: What is the most challenging thing about this moment for magazines?
Liz Vaccariello: Anyone who works at a magazine will tell you that they’re an employee of the brand. If we’re talking about magazines specifically, People very much still thrives as a print product. Subscriptions have remained steady for more than a decade. We still have a readership of 25 million, and that’s just print. We reach more adults than any of our competitors. And our readership is larger than the competitive set combined. Our readers still love getting this magazine in the mail, putting it on their coffee table, and using it as an escape while they’re at home. So we are still about entertaining them, piquing their interest, taking them on a thrilling journey with a true crime story, delighting them with the glamour of Hollywood.
WWD: How has People managed to survive when so many have not, or have discontinued print editions and become digital-only brands? What is the People secret sauce?
L.V.: The secret sauce really is built into People’s DNA, and first and foremost, it is about trust, truth, credibility. We are a personality-driven magazine. But the most important thing about the People brand is that you if you read it in People, you know it’s true. This is one of the reasons celebrities still choose People, to be on the cover, to break their big news. It’s a vast audience reach for these big moments in their lives, both happy and sad. Whether somebody is announcing their sexual identity, talking about a death or an engagement, we’re the publication that’s most trusted. We’re going to get it right.
WWD: What does a magazine cover mean these days?
L.V.: The power of a magazine cover cannot be underestimated. It is a moment. JoJo Siwa came out in the pages of the magazine. The death of Nick Cannon’s baby, he wanted to talk to People magazine about it. It was a safe space for him to have that conversation. I think that’s part of the magic. There’s still a power and a meaning behind being on the cover of a magazine.
WWD: That being said, celebrities are availing themselves of social media to break personal and professional news. Has this affected the ability to book exclusive reveals?
L.V.: That’s a great question. Weddings are a perfect example; we might go a layer deeper. We might shoot an exclusive video. We might tell the inside story behind the ring. We’ll have the first big photo shoot with a couple. So we still get that exclusive access. And we will have the exclusive moments. And then if there’s a story that’s complex, which most emotional stories are, we still get that because the newsmakers trust People to get the complexities right. And to not clickbait it. No, we’re not going to get every celebrity wedding photo first, but we still get a lot of them first. We get deeper layers and we get different access.
WWD: People’s bread and butter has been the emotional reveal. But a lot of celebrities are using Instagram to tell these stories. And so I wonder if that in particular has become harder in the digital age?
L.V.: It’s changed. I would say that sometimes a celebrity, an actor or an actress, isn’t comfortable or doesn’t feel like they’re articulate enough to put words to what they’ve been through. And they trust the storytelling that People magazine gives them. Lizzo is a perfect example. We did a cover on Lizzo [Vaccariello’s first cover as editor] and we didn’t even talk about her body until several paragraphs in. And she said, “I want to own it. I want to own fat shaming. I’m not embarrassed to talk about it. Let’s talk about it.” Because, and this is her quote, “If I don’t show people what I went through, the kids won’t have the keys.” So there’s something about sharing who you are and why you are the way you are through a brand like People. Because of the scale that we have, you are not just talking to your audience. You’re amplifying who you are and why you do what you do to a broader audience.
WWD: How important is photography in booking these covers? And how much of a priority is it at People?
L.V.: Photography is essential to the personality journalism that People is known for. We put a great deal of thought and resources behind it. When people magazine started almost 50 years ago, we wouldn’t do an interview unless we could do it in someone’s home or on a walk with them. We wanted to show that human side of the newsmaker. Today [newsmakers] are either showing everybody everything, or they don’t want to show anybody anything. But the power of photography and the access that we have to the best-known photographers in the world, as well as up-and-coming photographers, is part of the special sauce. In the current issue, we have a four-page profile on Tinx [Los Angeles-based lifestyle content creator Christina Najjar] who is sort of like the Oprah of TikTok. She was shot by Art Streiber. This is somebody who has done everything in her career on her phone. So celebrating this personality and showing Tinx in such a beautiful and impactful way is part of the razzle dazzle that you get when you open People magazine.
WWD: Are your writers finding that the rise of Zoom during the pandemic has made celebrities less inclined to do in-person interviews?
L.V.: I think two years in everybody now understands the power of in-person interaction. And I will say that People still is getting that access. Our reporters are still on [film and TV] sets. [Writer] Jason Sheeler went to Lizzo’s house. This is because of the kind of story that we’re doing, it’s not the talking points. It’s the whole package, the whole environment. That’s what’s going to show people your personality. And that’s what we’re about.
WWD: How much emphasis do you put on breaking celebrity news, which is a very competitive area?
L.V.: Part of our DNA is the original reporting that we do every single day on People.com. I get a report every week on our cover stories and newsmaker interviews and People is the source that all these other aggregators are using. When former “Bachelor” Colton Underwood got engaged, we were the ones who talked to him. But also, we’re going to knock on the door of the criminal who just got indicted. So it is that access and that original reporting that sets us apart. We are the trusted source, that’s part of why we’re able to break news. But also yes, we want the exclusives. Going first does matter. But I’m of the opinion — maybe because I come from Cleveland and not from the coasts even though I’ve been in New York for 20-plus years — our readers aren’t reading the Hollywood trades. So to me, it’s not the end of the world if Lizzo talks about her new television show in Variety a few days before we did our cover story.
WWD: Many magazines have been forced to shut down or downsize because print revenue dried up and digital revenue was unsustainable. With 25 million print readers, I imagine People is somewhat insulated from the digital downfall.
L.V.: We’re doing the balancing act that every magazine brand has; print revenue is going down and digital revenue is going up. There are strategic plans around all of that. We’re big enough and our consumer revenue is high enough because of our millions of subscribers and people who will pay $6 an issue at the newsstand. The revenue pie for People is much bigger than any one platform. We’re still getting millions in advertising. So we are a very powerful force in the media ecosystem.
WWD: So you don’t envision People going behind any kind of paywall?
L.V.: People’s content is for everyone and we do not have plans for paywalls. We are always looking at ways we can enhance our premium experience for our audiences.
WWD: As the new editor in chief, what is your mandate? Are there coverage areas you’re looking to expand or break into?
L.V.: The magic mix is not going to change. We’re about the headliners. We’re about the stars and the up-and-comers, human interest, crime is very important to the mix. I’d say if there’s one thing that I personally want to bring to the table it’s really new voices. I care a little bit more about sports, for example, like the personalities in the NFL. I care a lot about beauty. You’ll see more beauty in our pages. We already have a huge presence on television.
WWD: Who do you want to see on the cover?
L.V.: This is not fancy, but I would love to get Jason Bateman on the cover. I’m a huge “Ozark” fan. He’s got a wonderful story to tell. I’m not interested in his marriage or his family, but just as a media personality and the choices that he’s made. I find him fascinating. I also love Will Smith. I can’t get enough Will Smith and I can’t get enough of his wife Jada and that whole family.
WWD: You are clearly at a career high right now. What was your career low?
L.V.: As I say to my mom, they love me until they don’t. There have been some changes in leadership at various companies. And I’ve been sort of tapped on the shoulder and told, you know, maybe we want to make a change. Sometimes it’s because I just didn’t have the same vision as the new person coming in. Sometimes it’s because I made too much money. Losing your job in magazines is never a detriment, it’s just part of the résumé. But there were low points where I thought, did I do something wrong? Could I have done something better to win that new CEO over? The truth is all you can be is yourself. I’ve tried to learn and become a better manager and leader and employee, but I am who I am. I try to be buttoned-up, but I have a happy personality. I’m optimistic. I’m not going to ever work well at a magazine or a media brand that is sort of cynical. Or gossipy. So staying true to that has served me well. I want to continue to tell stories. I love video. I love TV, but written stories, magazine stories, that’s where my heart is.