Stephanie Mehta was named editor in chief of business and innovation glossy Fast Company in late February and took the reins in early March. Physically, it was not a big move for Mehta, a deputy editor at Vanity Fair who also oversaw the title’s New Establishment Summit and Founders Fair conferences.
Fast Company, which is owned by Mansueto Ventures, is located in 7 World Trade Center — a stone’s throw from Condé Nast headquarters. Before going to Vanity Fair, Mehta mainly worked as an editor and writer for business publications such as Bloomberg Media, Fortune and The Wall Street Journal.
Since succeeding editor Robert Safian, who left after 11 years at the publication to focus full-time on his media advisory firm, The Flux Group, Mehta has slowly started to put her stamp on the title, while being sure to credit Fast Company’s legacy in conversation.
According to the Alliance for Audited Media, Fast Company’s audience numbers, which include print and digital editions, desktop and mobile web and video, were 8 million for the first quarter of 2018. The same measurement of the first quarter of 2017 was 7.2 million. Citing the Alliance for Audited Media, Fast Company put circulation in 2018 at 748,364 and circulation in 2017 at 741,428.
Recent changes include streamlining back office and certain editorial roles with sister business publication Inc, which had previously been run as an entirely separate operation. Meanwhile, last month, around 40 eligible employees on the editorial staff of 55 voted to join other media companies and unionize. Eric Schurenberg, the ceo of Mansueto Ventures, said the company plans to voluntarily recognize the union and is in the process of determining the makeup of the bargaining unit.
In person, Mehta is talkative and friendly without giving away too much. This is in keeping with the qualities that her former boss and editor in chief of Vanity Fair, Graydon Carter, attributed to Mehta.
“Stephanie’s quick on her feet, gets people on her side really quickly, and has a vision that she generally keeps close to her vest,” Carter said in an email. “I think that in these straitened times in the magazine business, Stephanie has the ability to make things seem better and bigger than they really are. Also, and this is important, she has a great affinity and affection for entrepreneurs.”
From her new office, which overlooks her old office, Mehta discussed her new role, what sets Fast Company apart, live events, and Reese Witherspoon.
WWD: Reese Witherspoon is on the summer cover. Is putting more celebrities on the cover part of a new direction for Fast Company?
Stephanie Mehta: Fast Company has always done crossover people. We want to have a balance. When there are leaders from the creative and celebrity and personality world that make sense, like Reese Witherspoon, we will do that. But also, we don’t want to turn our back on really interesting innovators in the world of business.
WWD: What other changes are you making to the magazine?
S.M.: Other things that will reflect my particular sensibility will be holding businesses a little more accountable. It probably sounds like I’m being convenient because the tech community is kind of going through a moment of reckoning, but I think Fast Company can celebrate businesses that are true innovators and truly changing the world and making a difference. But when those companies struggle and stumble and perhaps lose their sense of mission, I think we have a responsibility to write about that. I think you will see more stories that try to highlight the challenges that businesses face and not just celebrate the upside.
WWD: What do you see as Fast Company’s competition and how do you differentiate the magazine?
S.M.: I have tremendous respect for what Nick Thompson has done at Wired. Wired was, and is, based in San Francisco and Fast Company started in Boston so being not traditional New York media titles, there was a tendency to draw comparisons. And certainly that emphasis on innovation and tech is something that resides in both titles. Forbes has done a terrific job of writing about younger people in business. Their 30 under 30 list is a terrific way for them to plant a flag in that youth market. The beauty of Fast Company is that we really have a very expansive view of what constitutes business and leadership. So we’ll include costume designers, for example. A magazine like Fortune might not recognize the costume designer from “Handmaid’s Tale” as a business person, but if you talk to her about how she works, her sources of inspiration, how she thinks about spending her time, she’s every bit as much of a leader in her field as a Tim Cook is at Apple or a Jaime Dimon is at J.P. Morgan Chase.
WWD: How do you integrate digital and print? And what do you see as the value of print?
S.M.: The majority of our staff are digital, but they contribute to our print magazine and to our live events and to video. We really try to think of Fast Company as a multiplatform title. So certainly, for the digital writers, they are digital first. They primarily work on stories for the web and podcasts and video. But we couldn’t put out the magazine without them. They are our eyes and ears. We are really committed to print, in part because of the sort of long-form storytelling that you see in Fast Company and the kind of visuals that we bring to a story really come to life in print. You can do long-form and visual storytelling online, but our cover packages are conceived with a tactile print experience in mind.
WWD: How involved are you with other sources of revenue such as live events?
S.M.: More than I’d like. No, just joking. I’m very involved. I’ve been very fortunate throughout my career to have a lot of experience with live events. I give a lot of credit to Fortune, which early on identified conferences as a really great way to build a brand and to bring together important people and use that power to help fuel the journalism. Jessi Hempel over at Wired and I talk all the time about the amazing sources that we built just breaking bread and having a glass of wine with business executives in very lovely settings like The Aspen Ideas Institute. So putting aside the financial component, it’s just great for journalism. Because you really do build wonderful relationships, and those relationships lead to stories and they lead to tips and they lead to really vital journalism. So I’m a big fan of the live event as a sourcing and journalism opportunity. On the other side, it’s becoming clear that advertisers and underwriters want a live experience and access to the people that titles like Fast Company can convene — in addition to other things they can do with us.
WWD: What is it like being a woman leading a business publication?
S.M.: As a matter of course, we will just write about cool companies that happen to be run by women. That said, I think that the conversation has changed a bit. You have a number of women entrepreneurs who, two years ago, would have said they are entrepreneurs first and women second and gender is not part of this conversation. But I think in light of the bias and discrimination cases that we’ve seen in the news, the fact that so many more women feel they can step forward, the examples out there of the blatant discrimination against women because of gender, I think it’s emboldened a lot of female founders to say, “I’m not only happy to talk about gender, but I’m going to lead my conversation with gender.” For me, there’s no question that being a woman of color, I really do strive to be as inclusive as I can in the way I try to interface with the team. My goal is to make sure that Fast Company feels inclusive.
WWD: Does that mean hiring more women?
S.M.: We are not in a position to do a lot of hiring right now. Like a lot of media companies, we are trying to judicious about hiring. But I want to make sure that every candidate that we look at has a diverse slate.
WWD: What are some big differences between being here and being at Condé Nast?
S.M.: One big difference is that decision-making here is really flat. I can walk into our chief executive officer Eric Schurenberg’s office any time and get five minutes. He’s very accessible. Bob Sauerberg is also accessible, but it’s a matter of scale. When I was at Vanity Fair, he was not somebody whose office you could just wander into. When you are a big company, it’s not as possible for employees to just have access to top management. Here, we’re flat, we can move quickly, we can make decisions easily. The other thing for me is that compared to Vanity Fair, it’s a much younger, more diverse staff. I think this will probably change, but when I left Vanity Fair, digital was very much off on its own.