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Did Hearst’s Culture Kill Hearst’s Biggest Magazine Story?


One evening in August 2018, Maximillian Potter, then a writer for Esquire magazine, was sitting in a restaurant in California’s inland empire, trying to persuade a man in his 30s to share his memories of rape and abuse at the hands of powerful men in Hollywood in the late 1990s.

Mr. Potter ordered a glass of wine — and instantly regretted it. The other man at the table had given up alcohol but seemed so shaken that Mr. Potter worried he might trigger a relapse.

The dinner came toward the end of a year of reporting by Mr. Potter and a fellow investigative journalist, Alex French, on allegations against Bryan Singer, the director of “The Usual Suspects,” “X-Men” and “Superman Returns.” Mr. Potter assured his reluctant interview subject that he — and the powerful media company behind him, Hearst Communications — would have his back.

But Mr. Potter was not following the intricate corporate succession drama taking place inside the Hearst Tower, a 21st-century skyscraper in Midtown Manhattan built atop the Hearst Building, a 1928 structure commissioned by the press baron William Randolph Hearst.

There, Hearst’s chief executive officer, Steven R. Swartz, had been trying to get to the bottom of complaints about the workplace conduct of Troy Young, the company’s first head of digital media and a leading candidate to take over the magazine group.

Mr. Swartz, a former journalist, had enlisted Lincoln Millstein, a longtime Hearst executive who had recently retired from full-time employment, to help him get frank feedback from top editors. Mr. Millstein said last week that he told Mr. Swartz that Mr. Young had “overwhelming support” to carry out the company’s transformation into a digital operation.

On July 25, 2018, Mr. Young was named the president of Hearst Magazines, a job that put him in charge of Esquire, Cosmopolitan, Town & Country, Harper’s Bazaar and Good Housekeeping among its more than two dozen titles. Along with the promotion came a plan to give him “considerable mentoring and coaching,” a Hearst executive told me.

On Thursday, Mr. Young resigned under pressure.

His departure came shortly after my colleague Katie Robertson and I reported on the lewd and otherwise inappropriate remarks — and years of complaints about them — that had characterized his time running a company built largely on publications aimed at empowering women. In the Hearst cafeteria, for instance, he approached a heavily pregnant employee and said, “So, is the baby mine?”

Mr. Young, who did not reply to email inquiries for this article, previously told The Times that the accusations against him were “either untrue, greatly exaggerated or taken out of context.”

Under Mr. Young, Hearst Magazines did not only have a difficult workplace environment; it also may not have been the ideal company to back an ambitious investigative project like the one Mr. Potter and Mr. French had been working on for Esquire.

On Halloween, three months after Mr. Young had become the Hearst Magazines leader, the two reporters found themselves in a meeting led by the division’s head of content, Kate Lewis.

A former human resources executive at Condé Nast, Ms. Lewis had worked with Mr. Young at a start-up, Say Media, before signing on as his deputy in Hearst’s digital unit. Soon after his promotion to the top magazine job, Mr. Swartz and Mr. Young had named her the magazine group’s chief content officer, a job she still holds.

The Halloween meeting, which included Esquire editors, took place in Ms. Lewis’s brightly lit office at a time when the article on Mr. Singer was in the late stages of editing for the December/January issue. As the meeting progressed, Ms. Lewis expressed doubt that the sources would stand up to scrutiny, the two reporters said.

Ms. Lewis, who had little experience with investigative journalism, offered suggestions that struck the reporters as unhelpful. She told them the story could use a sympathetic victim, like Gwyneth Paltrow, the writers said. She also suggested serializing the story online, or publishing it as a kind of blind item, three people who attended the meeting told me. The next week, she informed Jay Fielden, then Esquire’s editor in chief, that the article would not run. (Ms. Lewis did not reply to requests for comment sent by email and through a company spokesman.)

In retrospect, Hearst seems timid, at best. Mr. Potter and Mr. French, who had been working as contract writers for Esquire, took their work to The Atlantic, which ran the article in January 2019. For Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic’s top editor, the decision to publish was not difficult.

“There’s not a lot of nuance here,” Mr. Goldberg told me last week. “They spiked a story that should have been published in the public interest for reasons unknown.”

The Hearst executives I spoke with said they couldn’t recall Mr. Young having expressed a view on the Singer article. And even while speaking on condition of anonymity, they refused to say who made the final decision to spike the Singer story. At the time, Ms. Lewis told the Esquire staff that it was an editorial decision, which the company repeated publicly.

Hearst’s chief legal officer, Eve Burton, said in a statement to the New York Post media reporter Keith Kelly shortly after the article appeared on The Atlantic’s website that the company’s decision not to publish it was “made based on our editorial standards.”

Pressed for detail on Sunday, Ms. Burton said in an email: “We simply believed, both my lawyers and our senior editorial team, that we did not have a story that was defensible and fair. One of the hardest things to do sometimes is to not publish. It was a close call. We stand by that decision.”

The Atlantic, which has been around since 1857, is hardly a run-and-gun tabloid operation, and its publication of the article was an important part of Hollywood’s #metoo reckoning. The piece won praise in part because it was a nuanced story about damaged young men, and it sent Mr. Singer’s career into a tailspin.

Mr. Singer denied the article’s allegations shortly after it was published. “It’s sad that The Atlantic would stoop to this low standard of journalistic integrity,” he said in a statement at the time, describing the article as a “homophobic smear piece.” A movie he was scheduled to direct, “Red Sonja,” was put on hold in February 2019, and he was later replaced on the project by the writer-director Jill Soloway.

Hearst’s call on the article was probably the highest-profile journalistic decision of Mr. Young’s two-year tenure as the magazine division’s president. It raised questions that still hang over the media industry, even three years after The New York Times and The New Yorker published their first investigative articles on the sexual misconduct of Harvey Weinstein.

How much do the values of the men who control much of the culture industry trickle down into the culture?

Is there a line to be drawn between a top media executive who asks a pregnant writer if the baby is his and what his company chooses to publish?

Mr. French, the reporter, said he still doesn’t know why Hearst decided against publication. Mr. Fielden, the former Esquire editor, has told friends he still doesn’t know the reason, but a person close to him told me that when Hearst “made the decision to kill the Singer piece without any explanation, and in violation of editorial standards, Jay knew it was time to go.”

This is not to say that media organizations wrestling with internal cultural issues — as virtually all are — cannot publish important work. Virtuous journalists do not always come up with worthy articles. No editor, reporter or newsroom is without sin — and yet we’re all in the business of throwing stones from our glass houses.

But for many reporters who have covered the media industry’s recent bouts of self-examination, the issue of who, exactly, decides which subjects merit journalistic investigation is at the heart of the matter.

“For generations, the abuses of power we loosely group under #metoo were considered a private matter, rarely newsworthy,” Irin Carmon, a senior correspondent for New York Magazine, said. “It’s not coincidental that those terms were set by powerful men who often had their own skeletons to hide and the incentive to protect each other.”

She added, “It’s damning that Hearst would promote someone with multiple documented complaints against them in the middle of a national reckoning about the same behavior — it really speaks to what, and who, actually matters at the top there.”

Hearst executives, speaking anonymously, hotly disputed the notion that Mr. Young’s workplace issues had spilled into the company’s journalism. He was, they said, focused on salvaging Hearst’s advertising business, which has battled the same headwinds as the rest of the media industry.

As Ms. Robertson and I reported, Hearst executives described Mr. Young’s behavior as part and parcel of sharp-elbowed digital disruption, while hinting that his detractors were tired print editors unable to get the hang of the internet.

Shrinking businesses make for bitter workplaces, and it’s true that Mr. Young shifted Hearst away from the freewheeling era of glossy print journalism toward the new reality of clicks and algorithms. But I’ve never seen crude talk as part of the digital transformation.

In recent months, Mr. Young tried and failed to keep alive a valuable print publication, O: The Oprah Magazine, which Hearst had published in conjunction with Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Entertainment Group since 2000. Ms. Winfrey has decided to discontinue it as a print magazine, Hearst acknowledged to the Business of Fashion’s Chantal Fernandez on Friday night.

A Hearst spokeswoman called the plan to end the print edition of O: The Oprah Magazine after its December 2020 issue “a natural next step for the brand.” But the scaling back of the relationship between the company and Ms. Winfrey is a major blow to the magazine group, and Hearst’s leaders had wrestled for weeks with how to make it public.

As media companies go, Hearst is discreet, without the frequent public dramas besetting its more glamorous rival, Condé Nast, and even this newspaper. Perhaps for that reason, its executive comings and goings have not attracted much scrutiny. The highest profile recent departure before Mr. Young’s was probably that of Mr. Fielden, the editor who lost the fight to publish the Singer story.

On the day he left the company in May 2019, he posed for a photograph that captured him striding out of the Hearst Tower while dressed impeccably and carrying four luxury-brand bags. The image, an immediate Instagram hit, subjected him to one of Twitter’s great roastings, and The Cut declared him a “fancy man.” The last thing the photo projected was an editor who had taken a professional risk for the cause of journalism.

But Mr. Fielden ignored pressure from above to prevent the story from appearing elsewhere, according to three people with knowledge of what happened, and had encouraged The Atlantic’s Mr. Goldberg to take it.

“I told Jay that if we publish a version of this story, it could be embarrassing for Esquire and it could get him in trouble,” Mr. Goldberg recalled.

In the end, Mr. Goldberg added, Mr. Fielden “stood up for his writers, and he stood up for a story that was true, and he doesn’t get the credit he deserves for doing that.”

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