‘Crazy-making’: Small cuts and the possibility of big changes fray Conde Nast morale

Condé Nast’s moves to modernize itself have started to wear on some of the staffers living through it.

Last week, Wired laid off five staffers. On Tuesday, a senior editor at Vogue was let go too. While both moves had negligible effects on the head counts of both titles, they continue a streak of bad news that stretches back to last summer, when CEO Bob Sauerberg laid out a five-year plan to turn around the legacy magazine publisher and changes ensued.

Since Sauerberg’s note, Glamour has discontinued its regular monthly print schedule; its Vogue, Wired and GQ Snapchat teams were laid off because the platform was unprofitable; Condé Nast Traveler’s foreign and American editions were merged; and a number of prominent executives, ranging from chief digital officer Fred Santarpia to CNX editorial head Dirk Standen, departed the company.

In late November, Steve and Jonathan Newhouse sent a memo to employees announcing that it would be merging Condé Nast and Condé Nast International into a single global company, and installing a new CEO to run it. Sauerberg would step down once that person had been hired.

Not all of these events are tied to the same story. GQ, for example, had its layoffs because of an editorial changing of the guard, with two staffers let go because of a bad fit with the new editor, according to current and former employees; at Wired, the cuts were related to budget; a reorganization at Condé Nast Entertainment, which involved former Tastemade exec Oren Katzeff being named president of the studio, was made to ramp up output for its brand editorial teams.

And while some veterans dismissed the cuts as par for the course — “I’ve been hearing about [layoffs], almost quarterly, for years,” one current Condé employee said — the effect for others has been “crazy-making,” according to one recently departed Condé Nast executive. This source said that the steady succession of exits, not atypical for a publisher of Condé’s size, has put staffers on edge. Though staffers at some titles have been energized by the arrival of new editors and a new direction, some current and former staffers said they are still bracing for changes that could affect their jobs.

Sources inside Condé Nast have said that most of the big changes, such as a recent reorganization of the sales teams, have come and gone, and Condé Nast International Chairman Jonathan Newhouse pledged that there will be no additional consolidation of the editorial side, and Sauerberg said in August he expects that Condé will add 250 through 2019 to support the strategic plan. But a new CEO could arrive empowered with a new plan.

“We thought that when we got through November, we were done,” one former executive said. “But print revenue is falling off that fiscal cliff fast — faster than projected. That means something else could still happen.”

Condé Nast’s plans to turn itself around are ambitious. The legacy magazine giant is still heavily reliant on print advertising, which delivered 70 percent of its revenue in 2017. But print advertising, as a category, is locked in a steep decline, so to turn the ship around, the publisher plans to focus more on audience data, delivering creative services, and especially digital video. Last year, Sauerberg said that he thinks short-form video will become the dominant content format for many Condé Nast titles.

Many of Condé’s titles will be doing more hiring to lean into this strategy, and the recent additions surpass the exits, according to a source familiar with the matter. The company has hired over 20 new data scientists alone in the past two months, and titles including Teen Vogue have new hires planned for later this month. Even on the editorial side, publishers are hiring to bolster growing operations such as GQ’s growing affiliate commerce business, two sources said.

But just as the steady stream of exits didn’t hit the radar screen of every staffer, the new hires in these growing divisions of the company didn’t necessarily convince employees that the publisher’s turnaround would succeed.

“It just seems like a long shot,” a third former staffer at one Condé Nast publication said.

Update: An earlier version of this story said Condé Nast lost $120 million last year. That loss came in 2017. We regret the error.


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