“You’re never done,” said Cyndi Stivers, managing editor of EW.com about career trajectories and the importance of staying current. “Get comfortable with that idea and keep learning. The stuff that comes easily to you may actually be a rare and marketable skill.” Next to her, Jess Cagle, managing editor of Entertainment Weekly (all Time Inc. top editors have this title instead of Editor-in-Chief), nodded in agreement. Both editors had agreed to sit down with NYU’s Master of Science in Publishing students to talk about careers, publishing, and the challenges of entertainment journalism.
Stivers certainly knows what she’s talking about: she began her career during the “hot type” (also known as mechanical typesetting) printing era, taught her bosses to use computers, and stood at the forefront of the transition to desktop publishing. After launching Time Out New York, she moved to Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia and helped found Martha’s 24-hour Sirius satellite radio channel. Now, as top web editor of one of the most popular entertainment reporting brands in the business, Stivers is enmeshed in publishing’s current shift to digital media. In other words, she’s seen the industry in transition and had an active role in those changes. “That’s why I’m not freaked out,” she said. Indeed, the current moment is an exciting one for Stivers, Cagle, and the brand they manage.
For Cagle, who has been a writer, editor, and reporter both in print and on television, “There’s nothing more gratifying than working on a magazine—that tactile thing that you hold. It was always my first love,” he says. His writing start came during his college stint as an intern and fact checker for People. His secret to success? Barging endlessly into the managing editor’s office and asking to write—until he was finally assigned a music review of a group called Run DMC. Cagle’s take on the emerging rap scene impressed his editors, and he eventually landed key writing, reporting, and editing gigs at People, Entertainment Weekly, and Time.
These days, along with Stivers, Cagle presides over a brand that has kept the pulse of the entertainment industry since the magazine’s launch in 1990, when Time Inc. spun off the popular review section of People into a full-fledged magazine of its own. With just over 12 million readers per month (total paid and verified circulation stands at 1,796,560; the pass along rate is more than six readers per copy; and 60% of readers are female), the magazine today boasts unparalleled access to celebrities. The staff of 80 people includes bureaus in both New York and Los Angeles. Entertainment Weekly does not maintain separate editorial staffs for online and print editions, though the debate over which content shall appear online is an ongoing one. Until recently, the website contained everything the print edition did “day and date,” but now the brand caters to its different audiences more precisely. (Indeed, according to Stivers, there is only an 11% overlap between print readers and those who read the site religiously.)
As savvy editors, Stivers and Cagle maximize every opportunity: with a conference room full of opinionated, eager publishing students, naturally the editors decided to turn the tables and conduct an informal mini focus group. “Tell us what covers you like best and worst,” they said, gesturing at the wall of Entertainment Weekly covers. Perceptive publishing students quickly came to a pretty clear majority: strong single images (David Letterman with his pants dangling around his knees and Robert Downey, Jr. in costume as Sherlock Holmes or Ironman) won out over cluttered preview covers. Excessive digitization (such as the cover of a manipulated-looking Megan Fox) turned students off; iconic, natural closeups like the Patrick Swayze cover intrigued them.
After Cagle and Stivers headed off to their afternoon meetings, editorial assistant Archana Ram gave students a tour of the offices. Books, albums and CDs of films and TV shows were everywhere, waiting to be reviewed. Archana showed students one staple of a magazine office that never seems to disappear: the mock-up wall. Editors gather each day for “wall meetings,” a tradition of analyzing and perfecting the order and placement of stories and ads. The wall—a space that existed for editors long before Entertainment Weekly‘s launch—was our reminder that tactile, print visuals are still a key element of the media world.
Stivers and Cagle have clearly done a great job of refining entertainment journalism and creating a promising synergy between the magazine and website. For all those who disparage the current fate of the magazine world, Stivers has this strong and clear message: “It is still a very vibrant and exciting space to work in.”
Laura De Silva