Discover more from Discourse Blog
The ‘Teen Vogue’ Mess Is What Happens When Bosses Don’t Listen
Condé Nast’s catastrophic mishandling of Alexi McCammond's hiring as the editor of 'Teen Vogue' is what happens when management doesn't respect its employees.
Alexi McCammond, a rising star and political reporter at Axios, will no longer become the next editor in chief of Teen Vogue. McCammond and the magazine's publisher, Condé Nast, announced Thursday that she would not be stepping into the role after a series of her past tweets invoking offensive stereotypes of Asian and gay people resurfaced.
According to a Teen Vogue statement, "an internal team of advisors will help guide the staff" while they search for a new editor in chief. Not among them: Samhita Mukhopadhyay, who announced Friday that she would be leaving the magazine and her role as executive editor, saying she had " been sitting on this announcement for a while."
We got here following a frustratingly predictable path that ended with both McCammond and the staff at Teen Vogue in the lurch and as the latest flashpoint in our interminable "cancel culture" war. There are a few interlocking narratives at play here, all of them unpleasant, including Teen Vogue staff past and present vocally opposing McCammond's hiring, difficult questions about McCammond's qualifications for the job, and racist and homophobic tweets from when she was a teenager.
The online frenzy is real, but it also misses the point. Ultimately, this is not a story about a too-woke staff, or even about bad tweets. It's about a fundamental failure on the part of Condé Nast leadership, including Anna Wintour, in understanding what kind of publication Teen Vogue is, and who might be the best person to lead it. That ignorance from media bosses is all too common, and the damage it has caused here has left everyone involved worse off than when they started.
Condé Nast—which publishes adult Vogue, The New Yorker, Wired, GQ, and many other glossies from the magazine era's heydey—announced McCammond's hire early this month. “Alexi has the powerful curiosity and confidence that embodies the best of our next generation of leaders,” Wintour, who runs Vogue in addition to being chief content officer of Condé Nast, said in a statement at the time.
McCammond's hiring was unexpected and came with some curious disclosures: While covering the Biden campaign for Axios, she started dating Biden press secretary T.J. Ducklo, who would later resign from his job at the White House after he tried to intimidate a Politico reporter out of revealing their relationship. Taking a page from the celebrity scandal playbook, the couple got ahead of the story and gave People magazine an exclusive on their romance, where it was also revealed that McCammond was moved off the Biden beat "to covering progressive lawmakers in Congress and progressives across the U.S. as well as Vice President Kamala Harris."
Whether being reassigned from covering the president to...the vice president and progressive lawmakers provides enough distance to avoid the inherent conflict of interest of reporting on a beat where your partner works is debatable. And on paper it seems like McCammond leaving Axios and its brand of political reporting behind entirely to run Teen Vogue would snuff out those questions. But that assumption vastly undermines the immense change that has taken place at Teen Vogue since Donald Trump's election. In addition to its fashion coverage, the outlet has made itself a home for aggressive, openly leftist political reporting and labor stories.
The type of political journalism happening at Axios—scoop and access driven, a fixture of the scuzzy national reporting firmament—feels very much at odds with the journalism (political or otherwise) happening at Teen Vogue, with its eye toward class, race, and myth-busting about our broken institutions. (It is still a Condé Nast publication, but I don't really think the staff tries to pretend otherwise.) Teen Vogue feels in opposition to what places like Axios are trying to uphold. So is an Axios reporter the right person to lead a site that publishes stories with headlines like, "Democrats Are Your Ruling Class, Not Your Friends" and "Why the Fight to Tax the Rich Is Feminist"? It doesn't seem like the easiest jump, but now we'll never know.
Wintour—who oversees all the other editors at the company—and Condé Nast leadership knew the Ducklo story would come out. And we now also know that they knew events from her past, including tweets, would likely come up as well, because as Slate's Allegra Frank astutely pointed out, she had already apologized for (some of) them in November 2019. According to the New York Times, Condé brass was not aware, however, of all the bad tweets, or of a photo of her in a Native American costume. From the Times:
Ms. Wintour discussed the tweets with leaders of color at Condé Nast before the job was offered, according to a company executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a personnel issue. Ms. McCammond struck Condé Nast leaders as an impressive candidate, the executive said, and they felt her 2019 apology showed that she had learned from her mistakes.
Although the company was aware of the racist tweets, it did not know about the homophobic tweets or a photo, also from 2011, that was recently published by a right-wing website showing her in Native American costume at a Halloween party, the executive said. The vetting process did not turn up the additional material because it had been deleted, the executive added.
These are harmful mistakes that McCammond has apologized for (multiple times at this point), but during a time of rising anti-Asian hate crimes and after the horrendous murder of six Asian women in Atlanta, they sit especially unwell. And even though she was a teenager when she posted the tweets, that explanation is further complicated by the fact that she was intended to run a publication centering...teenage voices. (Two Teen Vogue advertisers, Ulta Beauty and Burt's Bees, apparently agreed and suspended their campaigns in response.) White men have arguably gotten away (and continue to get away) with much worse, though their impunity is under increasing challenge—most pointedly at Condé Nast itself, where not even a year ago Bon Appétit's editor resigned after allegations of racism and a toxic work environment. And there's an argument to be made that even needing to have this conversation about a job candidate at all should be prohibitive. Either way, Condé Nast forged ahead and announced the hiring, and that's when we learn how flat-footed they went into this and how McCammond's tenure was seemingly doomed from the start.
When news broke that McCammond would be leading Teen Vogue, it became immediately apparent that the development was a surprise to the staff, which is never a good sign. A few days after the announcement, the Teen Vogue editorial team released a statement condemning McCammond's tweets and demanding an audience with Condé Nast management.
No one knows a publication as well as its staff. They're the ones publishing it! Getting approval from the staff for a senior hire like this is far from standard, but had Condé Nast—knowing their preferred hire's past, conceivably knowing how it might be received publicly and internally, knowing how severely they fucked up at Bon Appétit—taken a little extra care and introduced McCammond to the staff earlier, giving both parties the opportunity to suss each other out, then maybe we wouldn't be in the situation we're in now. (The staff's statement notably does not call for McCammond to resign.)
This colossal mismatch between how Condé Nast seemed to think McCammond's hiring would be received by the staff, and how it actually was, creates the reasonable assumption that management there, including Wintour, haven't been paying close enough attention to how Teen Vogue has evolved. Leadership at media companies having no real idea what their publications do or how they work—especially the ones led by people of color—is insultingly common (I know this—well—from experience). And that's partly how you get situations like this, with management putting forth an EIC that only the staff would know might be a bad fit.
One of the more challenging conversations to have in this whole drama, about McCammond's qualifications for the job, is really starting to take shape now that she has officially stepped down.
McCammond would have been the third Black woman to lead Teen Vogue following Lindsay Peoples Wagner and Elaine Welteroth, an immense and historic rarity at both Condé Nast and in journalism more broadly. She worked at Bustle and freelanced at Cosmopolitan before jumping to Axios and appearing regularly on NBC News and MSNBC. The National Association of Black Journalists named her the emerging journalist of the year in 2019. She has all the makings of a future star, and at 27, ahead of the game. But one narrative around McCammond's hiring that has mostly been danced around until now is her level of management and editing experience.
This is not an unfounded concern, any wise beyond your years ability notwithstanding. According to her website, McCammond was a lower-level editor at Bustle and a deputy news editor at Axios before jumping to the reporter role, but she doesn’t appear to have broader managerial experience. It’s an all-too-common trap in journalism to move people from reporting into editing and managing roles to create a sense of career growth, justify raises, or to keep them from leaving. Writing and editing in a newsroom are different skills—just because you’re a good writer and reporter doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be good at editing or managing people. Frequently, it’s the opposite, but future editors have to start somewhere, and just as often a great editor will have been a reporter first. That said, you don’t often see this big of a jump—from a lower-level editor and beat reporter to the top of the masthead—so quickly.
An editor in chief job, in particular, can be even trickier. To me, it's one of the fuzzier titles you can have in journalism, especially now, when budgets are tight, teams are lean, and you’re effectively juggling the workload of three or four people all at once. I think in the larger imagination, an editor in chief looks like it does in the movies, marking up drafts in red pen and reviewing contact sheets with a magnifier. But in reality, and this is highly dependent on the publication and company, an editor in chief might be doing varying levels of editing and managing.
Generally, EICs are primarily concerned with the bigger picture and larger vision—what are all the assignments, when are they publishing, what are they saying. They set the tone and voice. (The editing.) There's usually a level of senior editors working beneath an editor in chief who can do most of the actual hard edits and working one on one with writers. And then there's the meetings—when you're the top decision maker, you're in a lot of meetings with a lot of different people all the time to make those decisions. It's constantly directing people to execute or adjust their work to fit your vision. (The managing.)
But different editors have different styles. I know of editors-in-chief who prefer to be really hands-on, doing line edits on stories and doing some reporting themselves, and who loathe the bureaucratic duties that come with the job (aka managing). I know other editors who focus more heavily on the managerial and operational side, handing down marching orders to their lieutenants and not touching much copy (aka editing). And then there are the editors who really lean into being "the face" of the brand, making the rounds on cable news and on industry panels and hobnobbing about town. Plenty do some combination of all three. As former BuzzFeed News EIC Ben Smith pointed out, many prolific tops editors—all white, mind you—got into their jobs, himself included, with no major editing experience.
And as someone who became an editor in chief at 26, I have some stake in saying that age and relative inexperience isn't necessarily disqualifying either (though I had multiple senior editor jobs before becoming an EIC). I have seen people in their twenties absolutely thrive as an editor and I have seen people who have decades more experience be absolutely useless and terrible in the same job. A conversation we need to be having in the fight to diversify newsroom leadership is making room for, and hiring capable people into, senior roles earlier in their careers and setting them up to succeed. Condé Nast in some part seems to know this: When Lindsay Peoples Wagner became editor in chief in 2018, she was the youngest top editor at Condé Nast and was only 30 when she took reign of The Cut earlier this year. And given that Teen Vogue is a publication ostensibly geared toward the pre-twentysomething audience, having a younger editor would make some kind of sense.
So what qualifies someone to be an editor in chief is less cut and dry to me. We don't know what kind of editor McCammond wanted to be, what approach she might have ended up taking, or how Condé Nast leadership told her she could sit in the role. We won't get to know. But what qualifies someone to be an editor in chief generally and what qualifies someone to be an editor in chief of Teen Vogue specifically is a different, additional set of qualifications, ones Condé Nast apparently didn't consider enough. The Teen Vogue staff, the people who could have given management the gut check they needed, clearly had reservations, ones Welteroth also expressed on The Talk and Peoples Wagner reportedly also shared with Wintour.
There's a version of this story where McCammond gets to make her case to a skeptical staff and win them over; there's also a version where she never gets hired in the first place. But those options are only available to you when you have leadership who understands and values the work their teams do. When they don't, you end up where we are now, with McCammond and Teen Vogue both targets and talking points, and with all sides deserving more than they got from the people at the top.
CORRECTION, 3:43 P.M. EST: This has post has been updated to correct McCammond's job history as an editor. As The Intercept's Ryan Grim pointed out on Twitter, McCammond was an editor at Bustle and was hired as one at Axios before moving in her reporting role.