Liz Vaccariello purchased a ticket to New York City for twenty-three years. In her 20s, she was living in Cleveland. She didn’t know any New York publishers. She went to the local library to look up 50 top newspaper and magazine editors. She sent letters asking for meetings — to all 50 of them.
“If I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it right,”She says. “I wanted to pack in as many interviews as possible. And it worked. I came home at the end of the week with a job offer.”
She was offered the position as articles editor at Fitness magazine. But one of the other editors who responded to Vaccariello’s letter was Carol Wallace, the second woman to run People since its founding in 1974. Wallace didn’t have any job, but Vaccariello got her first glimpse at the possibilities. “magic mix”That is People. A mélange of intimate newsmaker profiles (almost always done in the subject’s home) with inspirational — and sometimes devastating — stories about ordinary people, People has remained true to its original intent.
Today, Vaccariello, a married mother of 17-year-old twins, is People’s new editor in chief (and vice president), named to the post in February after DotDash, the publishing arm of Barry Diller’s IAC, acquired People parent Meredith last fall for about $2.7 billion. After holding leadership roles at Meredith titles including Real Simple, she comes to People. She’s also written several dieting and cookbooks.
People remains one of the most popular magazines in America, with over 25 million readers and an audience totaling more than 100,000,000 (including digital and print) Numerous spin-off shows, podcasts, as well as several television franchises exist. “People Magazine Investigates”Investigation Discovery is entering its sixth season. The brand will debut a new show on HGTV in April. “Home Town”Couple Erin and Ben Napier are called “Home Town Kickstart.”
In a wired world that has obliterated the profit margins of dozens of magazines and local newspapers, People is still among a handful of titles that sells — and occasionally sell out — at newsstands. You will still find it in your doctor’s office, at the nail salon and at airport lounges. You can leave it alone, and without the need for a digital paywall. Vaccariello says: “People is more relevant than ever.”
Q: For magazines, what is the most daunting thing at this point?
Liz Vaccariello: Anyone who works at a magazine will tell you that they’re an employee of the brand. If we’re talking about magazines specifically, People very much still thrives as a print product. The number of subscribers has remained stable for over a decade. We still have a readership of 25 million, and that’s just print. No other competitor can reach as many adults as we do. We have a larger readership than any of the competitors. Our readers still love getting this magazine in the mail, putting it on their coffee table, and using it as an escape while they’re at home. Our goal is to keep them entertained, pique their interest and take them on an exciting journey with a true story. We also delight them with the glamorous Hollywood.
WWD: Why is it that People has survived when many others have failed or abandoned print editions in favor of digital-only formats? What’s the People secret?
L.V.: The secret sauce really is built into People’s DNA, and first and foremost, it is about trust, truth, credibility. People magazine is personality driven. But the most important thing about the People brand is that if you read it in People, you know it’s true. People is still the preferred publication for celebrities to publish their biggest news. It’s a vast audience reach for these big moments in their lives, both happy and sad. Whether somebody is announcing their sexual identity, talking about death or an engagement, we’re the publication that’s most trusted. We’re going to get it right.
WWD: What is a magazine’s cover these days?
L.V.:It is impossible to underestimate the power of magazine covers. This is an unforgettable moment. Jojo Siwa was featured in the pages. The death of Nick Cannon’s baby, he wanted to talk to People magazine about it. This was an opportunity for him to talk about his feelings. I think that’s part of the magic. There’s still power and a meaning behind being on the cover of a magazine.
WWD: Celebrities are using social media to share personal and professional information. Is this affecting the availability of exclusive reveals to be booked?
L.V.: That’s a great question. We might take it a step further with weddings. A video may be created. The inside scoop on the ring might be shared. We’ll have the first big photoshoot with a couple. This means that we will still be able to have exclusive access. Exclusive moments will be available. And then if there’s a story that’s complex, which most emotional stories are, we still get that because the newsmakers trust People to get the complexities right. It’s important to keep it real. No, we’re not going to get every celebrity wedding photo first, but we still get a lot of them first. We get deeper layers and we get different access.
WWD: People’s bread and butter have been the emotional reveal. Many celebrities use Instagram to share these stories. This makes me wonder if it has become more challenging in this digital age.
L.V.: It’s changed. I would say that sometimes a celebrity, an actor or an actress, isn’t comfortable or doesn’t feel like they’re articulate enough to put words to what they’ve been through. They trust People magazine’s storytelling. Lizzo is an excellent example. We did a cover on Lizzo [Vaccariello’s first cover as editor] and we didn’t even talk about her body until several paragraphs in. Und sie sagte, “I want to own it. I want to own fat shaming. I’m not embarrassed to talk about it. Let’s talk about it.”We are, because, this is her quote “If I don’t show people what I went through, the kids won’t have the keys.” So there’s something about sharing who you are and why you are the way you are through a brand like People. With the reach we offer, it’s not enough to just talk about your audience. You’re amplifying who you are and why you do what you do to a broader audience.
WWD: What importance does photography have in booking covers for these magazines? What is the priority of photography for People?
L.V.: People has a reputation for personality journalism and photography is essential. It took a lot of time and thought. When people’s magazines started almost 50 years ago, we wouldn’t do an interview unless we could do it in someone’s home or on a walk with them. The human side of the newsmaker was what we wanted. Today [newsmakers] are either showing everybody everything, or they don’t want to show anybody anything. It is all part of what makes photography so special. We have access to top-of-the-line photographers around the globe, and we also have the ability to connect with up-and-coming artists. The current issue features a profile of Tinx, which spans four pages. [Los Angeles-based lifestyle content creator Christina Najjar]She is sort of the Oprah from TikTok. Art Streiber shot her. She is a woman who can do everything on her smartphone. You can celebrate this persona and show Tinx so beautifully and powerfully when you open People magazine.
WWD: Have your editors noticed that Zoom’s rise during the pandemic made it less attractive for celebrities to conduct interviews in-person?
L.V.:In-person interaction is a powerful tool that I feel everyone now realizes after two years. That access is still available to people, I’m sure. We have reporters still available [film and TV] sets. [Writer] Jason Sheeler went to Lizzo’s house. This is because of the kind of story that we’re doing, it’s not the talking points. It’s the whole package, the whole environment. That’s what’s going to show people your personality. And that’s what we’re about.
WWD: Do you place a lot of emphasis on celebrity news? This is an extremely competitive industry.
L.V.:People.com is a part of our DNA. We do original reporting every day. Each week, I get an update on the newsmaker interviews and cover stories. People is also the source for all of these other aggregators. If you are a former “Bachelor”Colton Underwood was engaged to us, and we talked to him. But also, we’re going to knock on the door of the criminal who just got indicted. It is this access and original reporting that makes us stand out. We are the trusted source, that’s part of why we’re able to break news. However, exclusives are what we seek. Going first does matter. But I’m of the opinion — maybe because I come from Cleveland and not from the coasts even though I’ve been in New York for 20-plus years — our readers aren’t reading the Hollywood trades. So to me, it’s not the end of the world if Lizzo talks about her new television show in Variety a few days before we did our cover story.
WWD: Due to declining print revenue and unsustainable digital revenues, many magazines were forced to shutter or reduce their operations. People, with 25 million subscribers to its print magazine, is perhaps somewhat protected from digital decline.
L.V.: We’re doing the balancing act that every magazine brand has; print revenue is going down and digital revenue is going up. All of this is supported by strategic plans. We’re big enough and our consumer revenue is high enough because of our millions of subscribers and people who will pay $6 an issue at the newsstand. People’s revenue is greater than that of any platform. We’re still getting millions in advertising. Our influence is very strong in the media industry.
WWD: So you don’t envision People going behind any kind of paywall?
L.V.: People’s content is for everyone and we do not have plans for paywalls. We’re always exploring ways to improve our premium experience for audiences.
WWD: Your new role as editor in chief? Are there coverage areas you’re looking to expand or break into?
L.V.It is certain that the magic mixture will not change. We’re about the headliners. We’re about the stars and the up-and-comers, human interest, crime is very important to the mix. I’d say if there’s one thing that I personally want to bring to the table it’s really new voices. For example, I am more interested in sports like the NFL personalities. Beauty is something that I really care about. You’ll see more beauty in our pages. Our television presence is already strong.
WWD: Which person would you like to be on the cover of your magazine?
L.V.:While this isn’t very fancy, it would be great to have Jason Bateman cover the issue. I’m a huge “Ozarks” fan. He’s got a wonderful story to tell. I’m not interested in his marriage or his family, but just as a media personality and the choices that he’s made. He is fascinating to me. Will Smith is also a favorite of mine. I can’t get enough Will Smith and I can’t get enough of his wife Jada and that whole family.
WWD: It is clear that you are at an all-time high in your career. Which was your lowest career point?
L.V.: As I say to my mom, they love me until they don’t. There were some leadership changes at different companies. And I’ve been sort of tapped on the shoulder and told, you know, maybe we want to make a change. Sometimes it’s because I just didn’t have the same vision as the new person coming in. Sometimes it’s because I made too much money. Losing your job in magazines is never a detriment, it’s just part of the résumé. However, there were moments when I was unsure if my actions were correct. Was there something I could have done better? You are all that you have the ability to become. I’ve tried to learn and become a better manager and leader and employee, but I am who I am. Although I like to keep things neat and tidy, I am a very happy person. I’m optimistic. I’m not going to ever work well at a magazine or a media brand that is sort of cynical. Or gossipy. It has been a blessing to stay true to my values. Telling stories is what I love to do. I am a big fan of video. I love TV, but written stories, magazine stories, that’s where my heart is.