Robbie Myers isn’t exactly a household name, even though her magazine, Elle, is regarded as one of the top fashion glossies in the U.S. Known in the industry as an “editor’s editor,” Myers prefers to stick behind-the-scene, while many of her counterparts are more than happy to soak up their allotted 15 minutes of fame — and then some. But the soft-spoken editor in chief has spent more than 15 minutes in the spotlight — in fact, she’s spent 15 years in Elle’s top job — which is likely a testament to her grit and knack for navigating the mercurial worlds of fashion and media.
Still, the magazine industry is under pressure, as fewer readers opt for print, causing newsstand sales and circulation to decline. It has also forced magazines to rethink their digital strategies — or in some cases, come up with one — in order to attract new readers and keep their brands relevant. Elle is no different. During the first half of 2015, the magazine’s total paid and verified circulation totaled 1.1 million, with single-copy sales hitting 110,725, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. That represented a 2.3 percent dip in circulation and a 32.4 percent plunge in newsstand sales from the year-ago period. In 2010, Elle had newsstand sales of 285,095, and last year, it logged 153,550 — a 46.1 percent decrease. Since January, elle.com has attracted an average of just under five million unique visitors monthly, according to Comscore — with a high of 6.3 million uniques in July and a low of 3.7 million in February.
From Elle’s offices at Hearst Tower in Midtown New York, a passionate Myers discussed why women’s magazines — especially American Elle, which turns 30 this year — still matter today, and how the industry is adapting to the way readers consume content. She also recalled her days working as a junior staffer at Rolling Stone, why that magazine’s University of Virgina rape story would never have happened at Elle — and how she nearly went on a date with Tom Cruise.
Where do you think women’s magazines are headed?
I actually have a lot of opinions about this. There are so many things that we do in Elle or even in Marie Claire or Vogue where a year later, you’ll see it in Time magazine, or you’ll see it in The New York Times. And you think: “The only reason you think this is news now is because you just decided to look at it.” But women’s magazines have been covering things like sexual health and reproductive rights and violence against women for a long time. It’s always interesting to me that there’s the “media” and “women’s media.” I’ve told this story before: I was invited to give a lecture at Columbia University, and I talked about the great stories that we did with amazing writers that we sent to these amazing places. At the end of it during the Q&A, some guy raises his hand and says: “Wow, I had no idea that you did 10,000 words on Senator Obama. How do you feel about the fact that nobody reads it?” And I’m like, “Well, we have 20 million women who read that — that’s in the United States. We’re the largest syndicator of content in the Elle network of 45 editions. We have hundreds of millions of women around the world. I’m sorry that you think we’re nobody.” I think there’s an assumption — it’s so easily dismissed. We’re all lumped into the same category, but my reading is not the same as Good Housekeeping’s millions and millions of readers. It’s a different woman. Women are not all the same — even in our little slice of fashion. I think they [women’s magazines] are here for a while. I think fashion magazines have been shown to have longevity.
Do you think about breaking news to differentiate your coverage from the competition? Elle had a great newsy interview with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg last year.
It’s been a long part of the Elle history. Hillary Clinton gave an early interview to Elle in the Nineties…[For Elle] the through line is women…we have a very strong point of view about where we think women should be in the world, and things that women do and don’t get to do. We have very good reporters who look carefully and deeply like any news outlet. Now, we’re a fashion magazine — a beautiful, glossy magazine. We got that interview with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in which she told Elle something that everybody wanted to ask her, which was: Are you going to retire? And she said, “No, I’m not.” And people are so shocked. How did Elle get that? We were careful, we found somebody who had a relationship with her. The fact that the media finds it exceptional because it’s in a magazine for women…
How do you view Elle versus other fashion titles, like Marie Claire, Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar, for instance?
I truly admire and respect those other magazines. We are all covering fashion; we are covering it season to season. Our fashion point of view is very much a younger, cooler girl, if you will. Elle was launched with a new idea of what beauty would look like. It was about the strong, modern woman. One thing that we focus on is that we care as much about the reporting and the writing, and the relevance, as we do about the fashion and the images. You should do everything well. We’re at the top, top, top of the publishing world right here. You’d better be good. Your writing should be good and timely.
Many women’s magazines took off in the Sixties as the women’s movement became more important. Today there isn’t equality but the issues have shifted a bit. Are women’s magazines as relevant today?
Are stories relevant? If stories are relevant and point of view is significant — we do stories with point of view — I mean, is GQ relevant? GQ and Esquire are known for good writing. I’m fascinated that ASME [The American Society of Magazine Editors] puts those magazines in the category of “General Interest” and women’s magazines in like “Fashion” and “Women’s Special Interest.” Really? Are we so fundamentally different? Mind-boggling. Clearly, those magazines are for men, and not general interest magazines, meaning people would be interested in them. In terms of the issues, women are barely 20 percent of representative government in Washington, D.C. We don’t get paid as much. There is certainly a battle over reproductive rights. Unfortunately, a lot of these are specific to women, but they should mean something to everybody. I think it’s a huge problem if the only people on a committee debating birth control and choice are older white men. It’s a problem. What are the issues? They are human issues.
What do you think about the role of an editor as a celebrity or a brand? You’re known more as a behind-the-scenes editor. Are you under pressure?
I want the work to speak for itself. But I’m happy to represent the brand and what I’m representing is the hard work of everybody here. I don’t feel pressured — it’s not my nature necessarily. I was in the movie “Caddyshack,” but I’m not an actor.
Did you ever consider a career in acting?
Like, for 30 seconds.
What dissuaded you?
I wanted to finish college. I wasn’t an actress. It was a funny fluke. There was a woman on set who said she would “represent me” if I chose to do that. There were some people who would have dropped out of college. But that’s not me.
Is the celebrity on the cover still relevant, as the struggling newsstand holds less importance for the magazine business?
It matters in terms of selling. The role of the newsstand is significantly less important than it used to be in terms of who we reach and how we reach them. We could put someone on the inside [of the magazine] and get as much press coverage as we do for the person on the cover. You see a cover on social media for a week before it’s on newsstands.
Are you looking at a cover subject’s social reach or are you still timing covers to their upcoming film and TV projects?
We get excited about people who have projects and there are certain people who we just love, like Rihanna and Beyoncé. We really like female artists, performers and singers, they do really well for us. I’m sure it really does seem like we’re all fighting over the same people, and I think we’ve tried to rethink that a little bit this year. We’re looking for women who have something interesting going on in their life, who are at some sort of inflection point and have something to say. I know what you’re saying, meaning is it an old model doing magazine covers for a newsstand as opposed to other reasons, and I think we’re all moving toward other reasons. What does she represent versus can she get tons of attention because she’s super famous.
Let’s talk about the role of native advertising in journalism. On a recent panel of your peers, you said: “Native is here and we are figuring out how to make it more palatable.”
You should talk to [Hearst Magazines president] David [Carey] about it.
I have, at length.
So, I work for David, I work for Hearst. He’s like, “we are not embarrassed to have television ‘sponsored by.’ We are not embarrassed to have ‘brought to you by’ on the radio. There are ads on the covers of major newspapers right now. What’s going on in the media world, and how do we not be so precious when consumers of other media are very capable of understanding what is advertising and what is editorial.” So he challenged us in a smart way: “Is there another way of looking at it?” It was probably a bad choice of words [on the panel]. One thing is for sure about fashion magazines: We’ve been covering our advertisers for a long time. When it comes to native ideas — what they are calling native — they are ads. They are integrated differently than traditional advertising, but they do have a fence around them. To me, we’ve labeled it so that it’s clear to the consumer that we’re talking about something that’s advertiser-sponsored or delivered, or done in tandem.
Elle recently partnered with Oculus. Talk about the role of technology here.
I think that Elle should be in any medium that it can be, so long as it is an active expression of the brand. What is the best expression of what Elle stands for and does in each medium? Elle was the first fashion magazine to have its own Web site. That’s technology. We were the first on the Web, we were the first to be on the iPad, we were the first to be on television with “Project Runway” [when it began]. That’s old technology but that’s how I feel about it. It’s: What do you got? It’s fun for an editor because editors have more ideas than places to put them.
How do you use technology and social media?
I’m a great consumer of it, but I’m not a huge participant in it. It depends where we are in the closing cycle of the magazine. If it’s late at night, I’m not tweeting, I’m kissing my kids good night.
Hearst separates its print staff from its digital staff, meaning you don’t oversee elle. com. Do you think there will be a convergence where the same editor works on print and digital?
Maybe. I don’t know. They are responding to the news. We don’t respond to the news in a monthly magazine, we interpret it. I know Elle UK is completely integrated. There is no such thing as a print editor and a digital editor. They work on all the mediums. I think it’s really challenging, but I know they are having success with that. I don’t think that model is really in the big American magazine structures yet.
Early in your career, you worked at Interview and Rolling Stone. How did those experiences influence you?
I spent my first couple of years at Rolling Stone. When you start out, I think you absorb the ethos of that place. The magazine had just come to New York City from San Francisco. We had all these guys in the art department who still had the cloud of pot around them and the buds in their hair, and all of a sudden they were in the Emerald City. They imported that culture here, but they’d just arrived, so their values were still anti-establishment and speaking truth to power. It was rock ’n’ roll. It was Bruce Springsteen and U2. I was almost set up on a date with Tom Cruise. Then I went to Interview. I was a junior-level employee at Rolling Stone, but I was filled with that fire — “journalism is going to save the world.” At Interview, I did some amazing things. I assisted Robert Mapplethorpe on a shoot and it was incredible. It [Interview] was like the center of downtown New York nightlife and I was a young woman by myself. It was amazing. I had fun, but also I got to see so much in the very begin- ning of my career. I learned a lot — that there’s a tension often between the words and the images. And that’s healthy. You need them both to be great.
How did you view the fallout of Rolling Stone’s UVA campus rape story? Given the magazine’s journalistic culture, how could they fail to report the facts?
I don’t want to second-guess anybody. I wasn’t there, but that wouldn’t have happened here. We talk about it a lot. There are a lot of male editors who are afraid of female problems and female issues. They didn’t fact-check it as they would fact- check anything, because they were told she was too sensitive and they couldn’t put her through the same rigorous fact-checking that they would anybody else accusing. Having not been there and worked on the story in any way, I can’t really say what happened or why that happened but having done a lot of stories here around violence against women, and victims of violence, we know that you don’t want to re-traumatize them. I think that was one of the things that came out — they didn’t want to re-traumatize her — but the reporting still has to hold up.
Where do you see Elle in five years?
I see the movie. I see the television station and the television show.
Who’s playing you?
Who’s playing me?
You? You can revive your acting career.
Rachel McAdams. How about that?
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