A New Owner at Women's Wear Daily
c.2014 New York Times News Service
The day after Condé Nast announced last month that it was selling Fairchild Fashion Media for a reported $100 million, the new owner, Jay Penske, held several meetings with staff members of its crown jewel publication, Women’s Wear Daily.
There, standing in a seventh-floor conference room in its Third Avenue offices in New York City, Penske clicked through a slideshow, explaining what he wanted to do once he owned WWD.
According to two people there, Penske, whose company owns Variety and HollywoodLife, said he would expand the trade paper’s global reach with licensing deals, beef up its online presence and videos, and hire more writers. As important, and comforting to the writers and editors there, some who had worked at WWD for decades, Penske said he would keep the 104-year-old newspaper’s management and culture intact.
Then Penske dropped a bomb, which may explain why Condé Nast sold the publication in the first place: Fairchild lost $50 million in the last five years.
WWD has remained one of the most authoritative fashion media outlets since its autocratic former editor, John Fairchild, picked fights with designers and skewered socialites with his withering critiques during the ‘60s and ‘70s. But in recent years, WWD’s dominance has slipped as more creative and digitally savvy online rivals like Style.com, New York magazine’s The Cut and The Business of Fashion challenge its pre-eminence.
For many fashion professionals gathering for New York Fashion Week, WWD remains the industry bible. But some suggest, too, its yeomanlike approach has tempered its voice, particularly in the digital era in which attitude is prized. “They are very polite” in their coverage, said Simon Collins, the dean of the School of Fashion at Parsons the New School of Design. “They are old school, and the world isn’t old school.”
Others point to its fashion reviews, which are often more descriptive than critical, and which some former WWD employees call “book reports.” Luca Solca, a luxury goods analyst at Exane BNP Paribas, said that WWD’s reviews, while balanced, “are not the most critical out there.”
Through a spokeswoman, Penske declined to be interviewed. But Gerry Byrne, the vice chairman of Penske Media Corp., confirmed Penske’s plans for WWD’s digital and overseas expansion. He declined to discuss, though, Penske’s comments about losses. “The realities were, or are, that the economic picture wasn’t very bright,” Byrne said. “And we like brightening economic pictures.”
All newspaper companies have suffered steep declines in advertising revenue in recent years. And a person familiar with Fairchild’s finances said some of the losses were due to overhead paid to Condé Nast and expenses related to offices once shared with former Fairchild properties.
Collins suggested unshackling WWD from Condé Nast, along with an upgrade of its website, may allow WWD to become more nimble and thwart new rivals. “Outside of Condé Nast they could have more freedom,” Collins said. “Penske has a point of view. And he’s not afraid to do it.”
In its heyday, WWD was the place New Yorkers got news about fashion and the wealthy Upper East Side ladies Fairchild made famous when he was named editor-in-chief in 1960. “In the mid-1970s, it was so powerful in fashion and society,” said Bob Colacello, a former editor at Interview magazine. “These women would all tremble when the In and Out column would come out.”
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Fairchild banned designers with whom he feuded, most notably Geoffrey Beene after the designer refused to leak dress images. WWD was a training ground for talent, including André Leon Talley and Bonnie Fuller, who restarted Hollywood Life with Penske Media.
“My grandmother read it religiously,” said Peter Brant II, 20, a son of model Stephanie Seymour and newsprint magnate Peter M. Brant, who is a fixture on the New York and Paris scene. But the younger Brant’s reading taste reflects a more modern era: WWD for fashion news, he said, Style.com for runway shows and photos.
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WWD shifted focus in the 1990s. “The industry wanted the paper to be about the industry,” said Patrick McCarthy, the former editorial director of WWD and its glossy offshoot, W magazine. Ed Nardoza, a well-respected reporter who started his career at Fairchild in 1978, was named editor-in-chief in 1991. He fostered authoritative writers like the executive editor Bridget Foley, whose opinions are scrutinized by fashion insiders. WWD focused on business scoops.
And coverage of socialites was replaced with photographs of celebrities wearing designer brands.
“Whoever owns Women’s Wear Daily needs to understand the importance of who reads it,” said McCarthy, who is retired.
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But as public curiosity about fashion began to peak a decade later, WWD stuck to its trade newspaper roots. “Fashion went from a cult obsession to a global entertainment phenomenon, like movies and music,” said Dirk Standen, the editor-in-chief of Style.com, a Fairchild property that is staying with Condé Nast. (Others brands in the sale to Penske Media include Footwear News, Beauty Inc and M magazine.)
Nardoza defended WWD’s approach. “There is a star system in journalism, and we are counter to that,” Nardoza said. “It’s not about elbowing our way onto television to be talking heads.”
In 2010, the longtime editor Peter Kaplan was named Fairchild’s editorial director, with an eye on creating buzz and making WWD’s website newsier, according to former WWD staff members. Bloggers and websites filled the void. The Business of Fashion, which was founded in London in 2007 by Imran Amed, a fashion commentator and journalist, has been the most aggressive, combining original reports with links to other sites. “You are interested in what they have to say,” said Collins of Parsons.
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And while designers still fear WWD’s power, its superiority has waned. “A lot of people are saying, ‘Why are we going to Women’s Wear?'” when debating which news outlet to give an exclusive to, said a fashion executive who represents designers but declined to be named over fear of reprisals. At the same time, designers don’t want to ignore WWD because articles are often picked up by blogs and the Twittersphere. “I can place a story there, and it goes big time,” the executive said. “It goes all over the place. It’s a great contradiction.”
Nardoza bristled at criticism that WWD is not newsy enough or its influence is slipping. “We think the paper is lively, feisty and spirited in the way it covers business,” he said, adding that WWD has about 60,000 print subscribers. He declined to provide a number for online subscribers. (Its paywall can be confusing to nonsubscribers, as some stories are free while others are not.)
He pointed to a recent exclusive article about LVMH being in talks with Proenza Schouler about acquiring a stake in the New York-based brand. “We can be generous with space and attention, but we have to do tough stories,” he said.
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Sometimes, though, being newsy has its downside in an industry filled with fragile egos. Nardoza recalled an incident years ago when someone working for WWD prematurely released the names of the winners of the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund. “It was an honest mistake by one of the tech people,” he said. “We had a story prepared.” Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of Vogue, was not happy, said Nardoza, who then apologized. “It was a little testy and tense,” he said. “But she understood.”
When asked if the person was fired because of the error, he said, “I’m not going to comment.”
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For a glimpse of what Penske may do with WWD, consider Variety. Penske Media acquired Variety for a reported $25 million in October 2012 when, according to news reports, circulation was declining and a paywall choked digital growth. It, too, faced aggressive upstarts, including Deadline, which the Hollywood blogger Nikki Finke founded and which Penske Media bought in 2009. (Finke, known for her caustic takedowns, later turned her ire on Penske when he bought Variety. She left last year to start a blog.)
After Variety took down its paywall, its website traffic increased to 7.4 million unique visitors in the United States for the month ending July 2014, up from 2.6 million the year before, according to comScore, which tracks website traffic. Variety also fostered business alliances, including a partnership with Univision to create a digital Spanish version of the publication, and with Reuters to syndicate its content worldwide.
“We are not going to clone Variety,” said Byrne, the Penske Media vice chairman. “But we will do a lot of similar things.”