Stuart Emmrich’s Plan to Make Vogue.com More Relevant

by Alexandra Ilyashov

Stuart Emmrich spent 16 years at The New York Times, then decamped to L.A. for a few months to reinvent the fraught local paper’s lifestyle section. Next stop? Editor of Vogue.com.

Welcome back! What brought you to Vogue?
I saw Anna [Wintour] over the summer at a play, and I mentioned that after being in L.A. for six months, I might move back to New York. The transplant didn’t quite take. I knew I wasn’t going to be out there for a long time, just a year or two. I kept my apartment in New York and commuted back and forth, which became a hassle. It wasn’t sustainable. In the fall, I told Anna I was moving back. We had breakfast, and I thought she’d offer me a job like contributing editor. Instead, she said, “We’re looking to reinvent vogue.com. Would you be interested?” I had a lot of meetings with people at Condé Nast. I realized how important the website is for the future of the company and the magazine, and how invested they were in improving it, and making it more compelling than it is now, to be honest. I thought it was an interesting challenge. At this point, why not?

Stuart Emmrich pictured in 2014 with then-colleagues Alexandra Jacobs and Vanessa Friedman (Getty Images)

How well did you know Anna before these chats?
At fashion shows, Anna is always there on time, and I was often in the front row near her. I was always on time, too, bored out of my mind waiting for the show to begin. So I started talking to Anna, and we found that we have three interests in common—politics, theater, and tennis. We’re both Roger Federer fanatics, and bonded over that. She once took me to Wimbledon. We sat in Roger’s family box; I was behind his father and I thought, “I have died and gone to heaven.”

What’s your vision for vogue.com as editor?
It’s still a work in progress. It’s been just a few weeks. I’m testing what to do, getting to know my staff better. There’s a strong Vogue voice, in the magazine especially. The website needs to find a parallel voice. Our core audience comes to us for fashion. We can’t forget that. Vogue Runway is an amazing success with incredibly loyal readers, while vogue.com, like the magazine, will expand to other areas. It’s an important year for politics, obviously, so I think that will be a key part of our coverage. We sent someone to cover the Iowa Caucus. I feel like that puts a marker in the sand about what we are going forward. You’ll see more coverage on climate change and social responsibility, too.

What sold you on this particular role?
That it was a digital job. I didn’t want to come back to a print magazine. At this point in my career I’d done it. At the L.A. Times, I found I was re-creating some of the things I had done before. Not recycling ideas, but adapting things I’d done for The New York Times. It’s sort of hard to find the L.A. Times in print in L.A. There aren’t a lot of newsstands. I found I was mostly reading the paper online, even my own work. After three months, I realized it was changing my experience of absorbing information and digesting content. I actually went totally print-free; I never read a print newspaper for three months. It was liberating. I was tied to things like the cover of the Style section and specific layouts. I had a small production staff, so I was actually building my own stories.

Had you used a CMS before?
No. It was great. Someone said to me, “It’s really hard. You’re gonna hate it, and after a week, you’re gonna love it and never want to go back.” It gives you incredible power over how things look. Once I understood that the digital reading experience was much different than the print one I’d grown up on, I realized if I came back to New York and worked full-time, I wanted it to be a digital job.

After 16 years at the Gray Lady, why did you go to the L.A. Times?
The editor-in-chief, Norman Pearlstine, and I worked together in the 1990s. He was my boss at SmartMoney. I saw Norman at a cocktail party over Thanksgiving in New York a year ago, when he’d just been named editor in chief of the L.A. Times, and had begun hiring some good people. I said, “Norman, this is great! It sounds exciting out there.” He said, “Come work for me! I never had as much fun in my entire career as when we started SmartMoney in a tiny office over a Duane Reade on Broadway. I want to re-create that excitement. Do you want to be a part of it?” I said I wasn’t going to move to L.A., leave my entire life, and my apartment, in New York. He told me it’d be like a start-up, because the paper had gone through five different editors and three owners. He said, “We’re starting from scratch in some ways. The L.A. Times has fallen so far, we’re reinventing a new newspaper.”

Front Row originals (L-R) Eric Wilson, Cathy Horyn, Stuart Emmrich, Suzy Menkes, Tim Blanks==Thom Browne in September 2013 (Patrick McMullan)

How did it go?
I reinvented the Saturday section, which was a combination of food, gardening, lifestyle, wellness, exercise. I made food a separate section, and made the rest about living in Southern California. We found the most popular plant Instagram influencers, and did a story about the rise of vegan furniture.

Did you build out a roster of new writers?
I wanted local writers, and I wasn’t finding a lot initially, so I did something incredibly stupid in retrospect—I went on Twitter. I said, “I’m a new editor of lifestyle at the L.A. Times. If you have a story, DM me.” I got hundreds of e-mails. I went through them all; 90 percent were not good, but I assigned stories to 20 people, and 10 of those people were really good and became building blocks for the section going forward.

Any other hurdles you worked through at the L.A. Times?
How to make money was a challenge. The paper had lost all its print advertising. Circulation had dropped a lot, so it had to build this new audience of digital readers. Habitual readers had dropped it, and were buying The New York Times instead. It’s much harder to bring back readers than to find new ones. I realized it’d be a much longer turnaround than they or I anticipated. I would’ve had to commit to two to five years, and once I realized that, it wasn’t fair [to stay].

Newspapers are often notoriously anti-swag, but now you can receive gifts, right?
When I arrived, four different arrangements of flowers were waiting for me on my desk. I thought, “Oh, I’m back in fashion!”

So what’s Anna like as a boss?
She’s incredibly direct, tells you exactly what she wants and doesn’t want, and is very communicative. If you send her an e-mail, you’ll hear back within five minutes; within half an hour, at most. She’s decisive, and I like that. If I’m doing a great job, tell me, and if I’ve screwed up, tell me. In fact, my first day at the job, I kind of screwed up.

How so?
I began on a Sunday, for the Golden Globes. I texted back and forth with Anna about various people on the carpet, what she liked and didn’t like. I kept e-mailing the editor in charge of our red carpet coverage saying, “Anna isn’t wild about this dress; let’s make sure we include this person, but not this person.” I didn’t realize I delayed the process of getting the slideshow up, because [the team] kept changing the looks. Our slideshow went up two hours late, and our traffic dropped. Anna said to me the next morning, “Why did our traffic drop? Was it because we were talking back and forth?” I said, “Oh, I don’t think so. I’m sure it wasn’t a problem!” Then I found out that was the reason. I understand the process more now. Otherwise, I hear more about things we didn’t do than things we did do: “I saw this story elsewhere. Shouldn’t we be weighing in on it?” The thing about Anna is, she reads everything, so you’re not quite sure what she’s just read and where she’s read it.

Cathy Horyn and Stuart Emmrich at New York Fashion Week in September 2011 (Patrick McMullan)

Does the cadence of digital give you anxiety?
When I first heard we have to post 30 to 40 stories a day, I thought that was insane. But then I realized it’s a well-oiled machine. In a weird way, the L.A. Times was the perfect bridge between The New York Times and Vogue, because it was a digital experience. Some of the best editors there came from digital backgrounds. I absorbed from them how to think not just digital first, but digital only. The L.A. Times trained me to do this role in a way I hadn’t expected. Believe me, I wasn’t thinking about this job six months ago.

If you hadn’t joined Vogue, what might you be doing?
I thought about going back to writing. I had a book idea, so I thought I’d return to New York and try to work out a contract with a magazine while pursuing this book.

Media was gloomy in 2019. What keeps you optimistic?
People pay for content if it’s good, based on The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The New Yorker. The Boston Globe’s owner, John Henry, also owns the Red Sox; the Red Sox have the highest ticket price of any baseball franchise. The Boston Globe itself is expensive. John Henry believes if it’s good enough, people will pay for it, and you should make them pay for it. I feel like Condé Nast may look at all its magazines and wonder whether they’re charging people enough. You can still get [print] Vogue for $10 a year, which is amazing.

Now that you and Anna are colleagues, not just front row early birds, when’s the next Broadway outing?
Anna has not invited me to a single show! Now that I’m working for her, those theater dates are over.

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