13.11.2019

Radhika Jones is exactly the crisis leader that Vanity Fair needs

Vanity Fair’s successor to the legendary editor-of-editors, Graydon Carter, is 44-year-old Radhika Jones, the magazine announced yesterday.

Jones, currently the editorial director of the books department at the New York Times and previously a deputy managing editor at Time magazine, is overqualified for many positions—even, arguably, this plum job, as the sixth editor in chief of the venerable magazine. Carter announced in September that he would step down after a quarter century in which he became a celebrity in his own right. Jones will join Vanity Fair on Dec. 11.

In Jones, the magazine’s parent company, Condé Nast, found a person with immense cultural and literary knowledge and talent, the pragmatic view of a managing editor, and the connections necessary to keep Vanity Fair at the top of the publishing food chain. (Jones has not responded to a request for comment.) She holds a PhD in English and comparative literature from Columbia University. She has lived and worked as a journalist in Taipei and Moscow. She was managing editor of the Paris Review, the go-to publication for anointing literary voices, which means she not only nurtured writers and editors but also made sure the accounts were balanced and the paychecks were deposited. As a deputy managing editor at Time magazine, she is credited with transforming the Time 100 franchise—including its gala—into a cultural icon. (That experience may come in handy when it comes to hosting Vanity Fair’s iconic annual Oscar party.)

Jones comes at a time when Vanity Fair, and Condé Nast more broadly, are in dire need of a turnaround. Condé Nast has been downsizing and laying off employees across publications in recent years—GQ and Allure most recently last week. The company expects $100 million less in revenue this year than in 2016, according to the New York Times.

In an interview with Vanity Fair’s media writer, Joe Pompeo, Jones sounded focused on addressing the financial problems. “I think it has opportunity on every platform, but I think of significant interest to me, coming out of the gate, are the Web site and the events,” she said. “They’re both areas where Vanity Fair is already strong and it would be incredible to build on that.”

Though she may well be exactly the editor Vanity Fair needs to weather these difficult times and shepherd an expansion of the brand into digital, Jones also faces pitfalls as a crisis leader. When women take the top job at companies, such as Marissa Mayer at Yahoo, Virginia Rommetty at IBM, and Mary Barra at General Motors, they sometimes face the “glass cliff” phenomenon, in which highly-qualified women are brought into positions of power to clean up messes, and risk getting blamed whether or not the problems were their fault. When Mayer was CEO at Yahoo, she was criticized for hosting lavish holiday parties for her employees in San Francisco—at the same time that now-defunct startups, led by men drunk from the rush of venture funding, poured money into nap pods and, yes, sexist parties.

Jones, whose mother is Indian, is the latest of several woman of color appointed to helm—and fix—a Condé Nast publication. Of course each situation is complicated, but these have been difficult times to take on ailing print behemoths. Before Jones, there was Eva Chen at Lucky (shuttered), Joyce Chang at Self (print edition shuttered), Keija Minor at Brides, Michelle Lee at Allure, and Elaine Welteroth at Teen Vogue (print edition to be shuttered). Of course, except for the Vanity Fair position, these positions have always been held by women—but not women of color.

Teen Vogue is the obvious example at Condé Nast that Jones might look to as she strategizes for Vanity Fair. Despite the news that its print edition will shutter, the publication has had several wins in the last year, with zeitgeist-grabbing coverage and, most recently, a Hillary Clinton guest editorship. At the Sydney Writers Festival in Australia in June, Welteroth, who was promoted to editor in chief in April, spoke onstage about how Teen Vogue has learned to be scrappy with its content—asking readers to share their videos for free and editing them together for a story, for example. It is a thrifty, digital-forward way of thinking that’s at odds with the Vanity Fair of Graydon Carter and his also-iconic predecessor, Tina Brown.

David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, reportedly championed Jones, and others followed his lead. “We didn’t need a name for the sake of a name or a celebrity,” Steven O. Newhouse, a top executive (and nephew of S.I. Newhouse, the late chairman) told the New York Times. “We really wanted someone who could do the job and be a worthy successor to Graydon, and I think we found someone.”

A 1997 article in Slate details the heyday of Condé Nast only two decades ago, when editors like Carter and Brown had seemingly bottomless expense accounts, no-interest home loans on beautiful apartments, and even lunch budgets for assistants to eat at their desk. The article even claims that Vanity Fair donated $100,000 to a British art museum so that Carter, a well-documented anglophile, could have the pleasure of sitting next to Princess Diana.

It’s impossible and laughable to imagine Welteroth or Lee—or Jones—asking for the same thing.

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