Dan Wakeford

It’s a gray and miserable day in downtown Manhattan with the wind whipping around Meredith Corp.’s office close to the water and one could say that People’s new British editor in chief has brought the typical weather from his home country to work with him.

Inside, on the eighth floor of the building where People is housed, it’s equally gray and eerily quiet with hardly anyone at their desks — not what you would expect in the middle of a Friday from the fast-paced weekly magazine, whose staff are normally filing a string of celebrity scoops and no doubt working around the clock.

There is one room with a bright light coming out of it, though. It’s Wakeford’s office — where he sits at his desk dutifully reviewing notes next to a wall of bright mock-up covers — the most important feature of the magazine, whose bread and butter is the royals, a clutch of A-listers, Beautiful People, Sexiest Man Alive and perhaps surprisingly Chip and Joanna Gaines. After all, the success of a cover can mean a difference of millions of dollars in revenue from week to week.

In his excitable British accent, which is still going strong despite 17 years in the U.S., Wakeford, dressed in all navy, stands up and immediately addresses the empty office, joking that he was worried “it would look like no one worked there.” The reason, he explains, is “that everyone has gone to the beauty sale” — one of the perks of magazine journalism. “I promise you people work here,” he quips.

This sense of humor seems to reflect Wakeford’s affable and down-to-earth nature. He certainly doesn’t appear to have the air of someone who’s constantly surrounded by celebrities at glitzy events such as the SAG Awards, where the magazine hosted a star-filled after party over the weekend or hanging at Sexiest Man Alive John Legend’s pool.

Perhaps that’s because he comes from a very different world, growing up in a small village in southern England and not setting out to be editor in chief or even a print journalist. In fact, he started his career as a TV researcher, but quickly felt that he was following the news rather than being at the cutting edge of it. So he went back to college to study print journalism and shortly after landed at Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun newspaper, before moving to become news editor of Heat Magazine.

Next came the trans-atlantic move when he was lured across the pond by In Touch Weekly, where he was made editor in chief, as well as of Life & Style. That was followed by a brief moonlighting gig as a media consultant until he was tapped as People’s deputy editor in 2015 and was in that job when Meredith bought Time Inc. and got its hands on the magazine — the reason many believe it made the acquisition in the first place as it has since sold off much of the former Time Inc.’s other assets.

Then, nine months ago, he succeeded Jess Cagle as editor in chief, a career rise the unassuming Wakeford puts down to a mixture of luck and hard work. “I always enjoyed the work I was doing and just wanted to do good work and be good at it,” he says. “I’ve never been someone who’s like, ‘I’m really striving to be the editor in chief of a magazine.’ It has just happened. I’ve been very lucky. I just like to concentrate on doing good work and I’ve progressed.”

Now in the top position, he has been gently putting his own mark on the magazine, since he believes it didn’t need any drastic changes. There’s been the kindness issue, more mental health coverage and an increase in in-depth features. He’s also been working on how to monetize People in ways other than print, something he’s been at the forefront of since he joined the magazine. While the title still does much better than most in print, with the second-highest audience in the U.S., according to the MPA Association for Magazine Media, it slipped 3.8 percent in the year to June (and by 0.9 percent across all platforms). Wakeford knows he can’t rest on his laurels.

Here, in an interview with WWD, he discusses some of those changes, how celebrity journalism has evolved and what reporting on the royal family is like.

WWD: So, Meghan and Harry — how shocking was it for you as an editor that has covered the royals for many years?

Dan Wakeford: We didn’t have the inside track that it was for sure going to happen, but we always knew that this was a possibility and that the positions Meghan and Harry were in could possibly change.

But in the grand scheme of things, it was a very shocking decision. There are very few times you have editors running around the newsroom excited about a story and this was one of them because historically, this is something that hasn’t happened in a long time or hasn’t happened before. So, it is exciting.

WWD: Do you have a lot of reporters in the U.K. working on this or are you covering it from the U.S.?

D.W.: We have a team of three dedicated royal reporters in London, who talk to all of the palaces all of the time. People is the number-one outlet for the royals in the world because we probably have more resources and more expertise than anyone else. We have a royal editor in America, we have reporters in America and then we have a team of three reporters in England. Our royal correspondent Simon Perry has covered the beat for 20 years. He knows everybody related to the royals and there’s a trust there within the infrastructure.

WWD: Do your readers care more about this than the Prince Andrew scandal?

D.W.: They definitely care about this more. They don’t know Prince Andrew quite as well as these principle characters with Harry and Meghan. Also, this scandal is more relatable than the Prince Andrew scandal, which is obviously much more unseemly. This is something that they have an opinion on, that they can relate to in terms of getting on or not getting on with family and so this story’s much bigger.

 

WWD: Is this the busiest you’ve been since taking on the editor in chief role?

D.W.: This is definitely the biggest story that has broken since I’ve taken on the role. I’m super excited. I’ve been in charge since April and not really much has happened. Miley Cyrus got divorced and I think that was only the really shocking and exciting celebrity news and that really wasn’t quite right for our cover for us. This is something that everywhere I go people are asking me so many questions because we are the authority on the royals and this is history-making.

What I thrive upon is interesting stories that the reader can relate to and that humans can relate to and if you told me that your cousin had fallen out with the family and wanted to move 3,000 or 6,000 miles away, I would be interested and on the edge of my seat listening to you tell me that story. So, add in the whole excitement of it being the royal family and a world-famous actress and the Queen of England — the most famous person in the world — this is such a super-compelling story.

WWD: What are the biggest changes you’ve made at People since you became editor in chief?

D.W.: The beauty of inheriting a brand like People is that it’s one of America’s favorite brands, so you don’t have to rip it up and start again and create something new. The reason why it’s one of the most popular brands in America is because it works. But, when you inherit anything — a piece of furniture, a piece of art — you like to dust it off and make a few tweaks here and there and I’ve spent a lot of time and a lot of hard work in the past nine months doing that. We’ve elevated the design of the magazine and the photography. I wanted to make it a lot more sophisticated. I really want to provide what you can’t get on the Internet: luscious photography and really not stepping on the photography with text. Providing a deeper story — I made the stories longer than they have been in a long time to make sure that we’re providing an escape that you can’t get anywhere else.

A big part of what I’ve driven has been positivity. I created a section in the magazine called “stories that make you smile,” which has been super successful. And just realizing that life is hard and particularly in this current political climate you just want to come to the magazine to escape and have a positive uplift. So, everything I’ve done is thinking about positivity, whether it’s the imagery we use, headlines we do, story arcs and even with a crime story honoring the victims and trying to find some positivity and some kindness there. I created a kindness issue, which has got so much reader feedback and so many letters.

WWD: You brought Wendy Naugle in as deputy editor from Glamour, which is quite different from People. What skills has she brought with her?

D.W.: Wendy is super smart and amazing at magazine craft. She has done such great work at Glamour and already she’s bringing little bits of added depth and a new perspective and new energy. She wasn’t used to the weekly pace and I’m sure she was a bit shell-shocked to begin with, but I think she thrives on it now.

WWD: People is doing well and a lot of the glossy monthly magazines are not. Have you had a lot of people from that industry knocking on your door?

D.W.: We do, yes. I speak to and meet a lot of people from monthly magazines and working at People is really attractive. Unfortunately, not many people leave People because it’s a really great place to work and we do really good work.

WWD: The world of celebrity magazines has changed a lot. There are lots of celebrity gossip web sites and social media, yet People is still so popular. Why do you think that is?

D.W.: Basically we are the authority and our readers trust us. They don’t know if something’s true until it’s in People. We’re The New York Times of entertainment. That reputation and that trust between our readers has been established over 46 years. They know that they believe things that are written in People. Add on to that the subjects trust us, whether it’s a celebrity or a victim of a crime.

We’re also providing things you can’t get on the Internet. Our print edition is still so super successful because we’re providing deep stories you can’t get anywhere else and visuals you can’t get anywhere else. We are still committed to magazine craft and we’re the best in the world for that.

WWD: Is print bigger than digital for you?

D.W.: For me, print is still the anchor of the brand. We make so much money from print and it’s super successful. I probably spend 70 percent of my time in print, 20 percent on digital and 10 percent on television and video and different platforms. Print does take up a lot of my time.

WWD: Could you define who your typical reader is and is there a difference between your print reader and digital reader?

D.W.: We have different readers for all of our platforms and we have different readers within the various areas so the print reader is actually slightly different to the subscriber reader in print. The newsstand reader is probably in their mid-40s and the subscriber reader is a little bit older. The digital reader on average is 40, but that ranges from 13 to 75. And then on Snapchat it’s obviously a very different reader.

WWD: Who chooses Sexiest Man Alive?

D.W.: Ultimately, I do, yes. It’s a lot of responsibility to take on. I spend probably far too much time thinking about it. We’re always pitched by celebrities to be the Sexiest Man Alive. The prestige of being on the cover of People means you’re still the most talked about person in America.

WWD: Why did you decide on John Legend?

D.W.: It was really quite easy to choose John. He was on my mind [in 2018] when I didn’t get the ultimate decision. I like to think of who fits the spirit of the age and I think he really did. He’s a good guy. What is sexy now? What do you want from the sexiest man? I think he really fits that. Personally, I think he’s very attractive, but he’s also intelligent, he’s a nice guy, he’s fun and also just took the title and ran with it and I kind of had the instinct that he would have a lot of fun with it.

WWD: A lot of glossies, especially for their January issues, have been trying to be more diverse with their covers. Cosmopolitan U.K. put Jonathan Van Ness on their cover in a Christian Siriano gown, for example. Is this something you want to do more of?

D.W.: We’re open to exploring that. Obviously, there has to be a mass appeal to the magazine, but I do want to present the world I want to live in so that’s been something I’ve been very conscious of. I’ve probably done more diverse covers than any editor of People before in the nine months that I’ve been here. I’ve had the most diverse faces of color on my magazine, which has been a very conscious decision.

Because of the disparate nature of media, now it’s really hard to find celebrities who everybody knows. In England, it’s a small country. Probably everyone knows who the guy from “Queer Eye” is. They don’t in America so sometimes you have to put the story before the star and work out what is the story here and presume that the audience doesn’t know the celebrity and is this an interesting story.

WWD: Who are your most popular cover stars? I’m guessing Meghan Markle is one of them.

D.W.: I think the royals are certainly one of them. I mean for the most part it’s stories beyond stars because there aren’t so many stars now that are easy to put on the cover and just be like that’s an easy sell. It’s harder work that that. It’s thinking about what relates to the reader, what emotion, what stories, what are they going through. That’s interesting. But there are some celebrities who always sell more. Meghan is one of them and certainly Kate Middleton as well. And then also Chip and Joanna Gaines. What they all have in common is an aspiration — a glossy puritanical perfection that is really intriguing to the American audience.

Dan Wakeford

WWD: Are you expecting the Meghan and Harry story to be among your biggest-selling covers of the year?

D.W.: Our royal covers do very well and this is a story I do anticipate to do well, but I don’t want to predict that. It’s also a story that everybody is covering. However, People really has got the authority on this story.

WWD: Influencers are on a lot of magazine covers, but I read that many don’t resonate with your readers as much as other publications.

D.W.: I don’t know how they resonate for other publications. I would never write off the idea of doing an influencer per se. If they come to us with a really compelling story that’s great, but our audience doesn’t really know who they are. There isn’t a recognizability. One of our touchstones as I said earlier is ordinary people doing extraordinary things, extraordinary people doing ordinary things and I don’t think our audience sees them as extraordinary so them just having something on their ordinary life doesn’t really raise the level of compelling content. If they’ve got an amazing story to tell then I’d be totally open to that.

WWD: Is it harder to get celebrity exclusives in the social media age?

D.W.: Our biggest competition and our only competition really is social media in the sense of the attention span of the readers being on social media instead of being on all our platforms. And then the sense of telling your own story on social media. There was a time when I think celebrities did find that they wanted to tell their stories on their own social media and some still do because there was an authenticity to it, but I think they realized there’s an authority to doing it with People. They’re reaching the biggest audience in the world if they’re on the cover of People. If they’re on social media they’re telling the story to their fans. They’re telling their story to the already converted. When you’re on the cover of People, it is then followed up on so many other platforms and it’s a poster to the Internet and goes around the world. Social media is our friend and our biggest competitor in many ways.

WWD: What new things are you doing outside of print?

D.W.: A lot of my time is spent working out what other services we should be on and other opportunities that we’ve had to leverage the brand, which I think has been underleveraged for many years for different reasons and it is a brand that could go so much further. I’ve spent a lot of time in the past developing royal documentaries for ABC, shows for ID [a Discovery network] and these have been some of the most successful shows on their network. And [in December] we had another TV show being commissioned that I can’t talk about yet. This fall we’re developing a syndicated television show, which will be an entertainment show.

We’re still launching new print magazines. We launched People Health, which is distributed in doctors’ [surgical offices]. It makes a hell of a lot of money and we get feedback that readers love it. We’re looking at other mags. We have so many different video franchises. We’re constantly developing new video shows.

WWD: I don’t know how much you can say about the syndicated show that you’re working on, but is it anything like The New York Times’ “The Weekly” where it makes a mini-documentary on a certain story?

D.W.: No. We’re developing audio opportunities in that area to be a 20-minute dive on one story of the day. It will be a daily sexy version of the “Today” show a night.

WWD: Will you be the star of it?

D.W.: No. I wouldn’t be the star of it. I wouldn’t have the time to be a star of it. I think there are a lot more telegenic people who’d be better at the position. Maybe I’ll be involved. It certainly wouldn’t be a priority of mine.

For More, See:

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