Inside the Teen Vogue shambles, which are really a Condé Nast shambles.
Alexi McCammond appeared an unlikely choice to become a top executive at the storied Vogue empire from the outset — at least on paper.
She was just 27 years old and had never directed a staff when she was named editor in chief of Teen Vogue early last month. She had spent the previous four years as a junior reporter at a Washington news start-up, competing for incremental scoops and gritty campaign-bus assignments alongside dozens of other ambitious D.C. journalism hopefuls.
McCammond, on the other hand, had amassed an uncommon form of Washington currency that translates to Manhattan’s power centers: buzz.
A surge of buzz — fueled by a high-profile celebrity dust-up and vivid and endearing national television appearances — helped bring McCammond to the attention of Anna Wintour, the iconic long-time editor of Vogue and top Condé Nast executive who hired her.
“Alexi represents the best of our next generation of leaders,” Wintour announced March 5.
As it all came crashing down within days — following a staff outcry about anti-Asian tweets McCammond made as a college freshman — some commentators saw a parable about elite media’s unforgiving “cancel culture.” Others snickered at the hypocrisy of Condé Nast simultaneously recruiting and firing a young Black woman in an effort to align itself with a renewed drive for diversity.
“Condé dropped the ball,” according to a source familiar with the company’s internal discussions, “and left the workers and Alexi to deal with the fallout.”
These narratives, however, obscure a more complicated dynamic at Condé Nast, a once-great publishing empire that is struggling to adapt to a changing market environment — and is hardly in a position to vouch for a new hire on race-related issues.
“A million young women would give their lives for this work.”
That was not said by Anna Wintour. However, it was written about the fictitious Miranda Priestly, the intimidating fashion magazine editor featured in a 2003 novel penned by a former Wintour assistant.
However, it encapsulated the ethos of Condé Nast at the turn of the twentieth century, a business that included not only Vogue but also velvet-rope publications such as Vanity Fair, GQ, the New Yorker, Architectural Digest, and Condé Nast Traveler.
It’s a different market today, as readers’ and marketers’ shifting tastes in the digital age have eroded the entire magazine industry. Condé has shrunk in both size and popularity, recently losing an estimated $100 million a year. The organization had halted the losses by closing several titles and laying off employees, and a new chief executive predicted a return to profitability in 2020. However, the pandemic struck.
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Bloomberg News announced in January that Condé Nast was contemplating the previously unthinkable: downsizing its sleek Lower Manhattan headquarters and relocating some operations to New Jersey.
Nonetheless, its prestige continues to loom large, despite the fact that wages have decreased and perks such as car services have dwindled. And it has Wintour, the avant-garde Vogue editor who can still make or break a fashion designer, the power broker who elevated the annual Met Gala to New York’s social event of the year. She was recently promoted to become Condé’s global content advisor and chief content officer, the latest in a series of promotions.
Another constant: Her editors have almost always possessed an air of glitz.
It was unsurprising that her next high-profile recruit would be a political reporter. Wintour has always been a fan of Washington and the political landscape, having featured profiles of Huma Abedin and Samantha Power in Vogue. She would have been appointed ambassador to the United Kingdom if 2016 had gone differently.
And McCammond was not the average Washington journalist. She worked for Axios, a buzz-generating outlet founded in 2017 by a group of Politico defectors who prioritize breezy, scoop-heavy newsletters and lucrative conferences over conventional news coverage. McCammond, poised and affable, progressed from covering the 2018 midterm elections to interviewing Joe Biden and Stacey Abrams for Axios’ HBO specials during the 2020 election cycle and securing a deal as a daily MSNBC contributor.
She had also shown a willingness to take on more powerful figures. In 2019, she tweeted about her attempt to ask retired NBA star Charles Barkley a contentious political question, to which he replied, “I don’t hit people, but if I did, I’d hit you.” Barkley later expressed remorse.
McCammond had also garnered considerable attention for dating TJ Ducklo, the Biden campaign’s press secretary. Following a puffy People article in February about how she moved away from the White House beat to pursue a friendship with him, Vanity Fair claimed that Ducklo tried to “destroy” a Politico reporter who attempted to break the story earlier that day. Ducklo was put on administrative leave and eventually resigned.
According to insiders at Condé Nast, the mini-scandal played little role in or detracted from the company’s interest: McCammond was already in the interview process when the news emerged.
Last summer, the ethnic demonstrations on American streets started to circulate within the country’s media institutions, and Condé Nast, a largely White corporation whose titles often celebrated the lives of the wealthy and famous, came under particular scrutiny from within. Workers at Bon Appétit protested about a star system that rewarded white employees in a successful cooking video series while marginalizing employees of color in token, unpaid appearances. Adam Rapoport, the magazine’s publisher, resigned after an old picture emerged of him dressed as a Puerto Rican stereotype for Halloween.
Wintour apologised to Vogue staff members for their “hurtful and intolerant conduct” and admitted that the magazine had “failed to find sufficient ways to elevate and offer room” to Black journalists and designers.
Thus, when New York Magazine poached Teen Vogue’s top editor — Lindsay Peoples Wagner, a 30-year-old who is one of the few Black women to ever lead a Condé Nast title — Wintour and Condé CEO Roger Lynch may have desired to send a reassuring signal in choosing a replacement. They discovered not only a journalist winning recognition for her work, but also a young Black woman with the trendy good looks desired by many Condé editors in McCammond.
However, Wintour seemed to betray a hazy interpretation of Teen Vogue in doing so.
“The Anna Wintours of the world have a superficial understanding of what authentic representation is,” said Jezz Chung, a diversity advisor at Anomaly, a New York-based advertising agency. “They saw a woman of color but did not do the due diligence required to ensure she was a good match for this organization.”
Teen Vogue debuted in 2003 as a kind of younger sister to Vogue, packed with beauty advice and fashion. However, it took a hard left turn toward politics in 2016, with pieces such as “Donald Trump is Gaslighting America,” around a year before Condé shuttered its failing print edition and made it available exclusively online.
Condé Nast’s young, liberal audience has proven unprofitable for the company, with its executives largely ignoring it. Teen Vogue could have been closed entirely if not for the fact that its budget and workforce of around 20 rendered it almost unprofitable.
Condé Nast wanted to introduce McCammond to the Teen Vogue staff prior to her hiring becoming public — but when news of her hiring started to leak, they rushed out an announcement on Friday, March 5, and arranged for her to engage in a brief Zoom teleconference with the staff. Following the meeting, Wintour messaged McCammond to congratulate her on a job well done.
However, on the same day, at least two Teen Vogue workers sent anonymous emails alerting them to McCammond’s previous tweets.
These were not fresh allegations; they had been resurfaced previously by right-wing trolls after the Barkley incident in 2019. When the staff members contacted Condé Nast’s human resources department, they were given the company line: McCammond had already removed the images and apologised for them.
Regardless, by Sunday, McCammond’s old tweets had resurfaced.
“Let’s talk about Condé Nast HR and this dubious hire for Teen Vogue’s EIC,” Diana Tsui, the Infatuation’s editorial director, wrote in a message reposted by Diet Prada, an Instagram account that has developed a following as an industry watchdog. Yeah, McCammond apologised in 2019 for her “deeply offensive” tweets, but “only after they were discovered,” Tsui wrote. “We are not callous; they are racists.”
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The post included screenshots of previous posts, including one in which McCammond complained about a “stupid Asian T.A.,” referring to a teaching assistant, and another in which she admitted to “googling how to avoid waking up with swollen, asian eyes.”
Teen Vogue workers — who, unlike the majority of Condé Nast employees, create work that exists and dies solely on the Internet — felt the backlash acutely.
“We were all being torn apart in comments and on Instagram, and it felt unjust to have all of our work mocked as a result of Alexi’s tweets,” one explained.
They were further taken aback when Wintour convened a meeting for them to express their concerns. Before McCammond was put on tape, staff were unaware she had been invited.
Many of them later shared personal sympathy for their would-be publisher, who expressed a willingness to help Teen Vogue recover its readers’ interest, something no other Condé Nast executive had expressed.
Yet Peoples Wagner had also contacted her former staff to inform them that she had not included McCammond on her list of potential successors — and had, in fact, warned Condé Nast that the old tweets might resurface as a source of contention.
Following the meeting, several Teen Vogue staff members issued a joint statement on social media distancing themselves from McCammond: “We’ve worked hard to establish our outlet’s credibility as a forum for justice and change — we take enormous pride in our work and in fostering an inclusive environment,” they wrote.
McCammond apologised by email and arranged one-on-one meetings to explain herself.
Condé Nast executives claim they addressed McCammond’s tweets regularly throughout the interview process and found her contrition during those discussions, as well as her 2019 apology, to be adequate for forgiveness. However, for Teen Vogue employees, it was infuriating to hear that their superiors were aware of McCammond’s tweets but recruited her anyway, without planning them for what seemed to be an imminent scandal.
“What they missed is that there is a distinction between an apology and making amends,” said Bonnie Morrison, a diversity consultant and former Men’s Vogue employee. “For years, the entire fashion industry has revolved around Anna Wintour, and she is not in a position to decide which apologies are adequate. Neither is she used to relinquishing power in a situation.”
The blows continued to come. On March 10, Ulta Beauty — a big advertiser facing its own backlash over allegations of racially targeting customers — halted a seven-figure advertisement with Teen Vogue that was to star Peoples Wagner. And on March 15, after days of outrage from the left, the right-wing website National Pulse uncovered additional old college tweets from McCammond dressed in traditional Native American apparel for Halloween.
It was a lesson in the limits of Condé Nast’s dominance in a digital-only environment that operates by rules markedly different from the ones the organization had learned during its ascension to power.
On March 18, two days after a mass shooter killed eight people in the Atlanta area, including six Asian women, Condé Nast and McCammond revealed that she would no longer be joining the paper. Wintour’s name was omitted entirely from this publication. And McCammond was no longer employed in a role she had not yet begun.
Meanwhile, Teen Vogue’s Twitter account has been silent since the day after McCammond was fired — just before the company’s social media manager, who had been vocal about McCammond’s hiring, was called out for using the n-word in old tweets.
A hunt for the next editor in chief is currently underway.