A Toxic Culture at Hearst Magazines Gets Its Boss Fired: “He was taking Hearst to what seemed to be its inevitable future—cheap, viral content.”

From a New York magazine story by Benjamin Wallace headlined “The Fall of Troy: Hearst hired a belligerent leader to disrupt its magazine business. Then fired him mid-disruption.”

On the evening of July 22, a New York Times story began pinging around among employees of Hearst Magazines, one of the few surviving titans of the magazine era. It was titled “Hearst Employees Say Magazine Boss Led Toxic Culture.” The Times piece had been brewing for a while and was widely anticipated within the company, but its revelations had been expected for much longer. . . .

Many of Young’s cruder comments reported in the Times piece had occurred in and around a magazine at which frank talk about sex toys and blow jobs is part of the job description. (“Troy didn’t have sufficient maturity,” the Hearst executive says, “but Cosmo is not a normal place.”) The remarks had occurred years before. There had been no “hotline” complaints to Hearst’s legal department and, according to this executive, no settlements involving Young — an area the Times had inquired about. And Young had been receiving coaching to become a more polished executive. . . .

Whatever Young’s personal and interpersonal shortcomings, he had enjoyed the protection of Hearst’s leaders for the past seven years for a simple reason: He was taking Hearst to what seemed to be its inevitable future, one where the company’s growth was reliant on cheap, viral content, not lavish, expensive-to-produce print stories or digital features. But his departure came at yet another moment of reckoning for the already diminished magazine industry, which, after being hammered for years by declining print ad sales, saw the bottom fall out on digital advertising during the first few months of the pandemic. A few prestige brands (including The New Yorker  and The Atlantic) have weathered declining ad sales by creating subscription products — but that model depends on making content that readers want to pay for. Hearst now finds itself in a vulnerable moment. Having traded its valuable but cash-draining legacy brands for a nimble and future-focused vision, the man with the vision has left the building, and even those who aren’t romantic about print wonder whether the transition can really be effected by bureaucrats. . . .

Hearst Magazines has always existed in the shadow of rival glossy publisher Condé Nast. Elle could never be Vogue. Hearst wasn’t synonymous with lavishly salaried and perked one-name celebrity editors à la Graydon and Anna. While Si Newhouse, Condé’s longtime owner until his death in 2017, loved magazines and was willing to take losses on them, Hearst was the cheap, quietly money-minting company that, with the exception of a handful of titles such as Esquire, made things for people in flyover country and didn’t aspire to chattering-class prestige. “The family cares about nothing except money,” says the author Michael Wolff. “For four generations, if the family got its dividend, it was happy. The entire company was structured to protect that dividend.”. . .

Hearst, for all its history, is not a place you go if you’re ambitious in the tech industry. Everything Troy was talking about was extremely basic. You’re taking best practices from other industries” — aggregating disparate properties on a single platform to draw traffic and advertising — “and applying them to a place that used to operate on martini lunches. It’s really kind of amazing that he parlayed this fairly mediocre career, as far as people in tech are concerned, to this thing that’s really big to people in the media world.”

Hearst editors were at first excited when Young arrived, one says, thinking he would help them digitize their brands. But he quickly alienated many editors. “He was arrogant,” one recalls. “He had no interest in learning about the media.” Young spoke in a grating Silicon Valley argot about “the sprint toward excellence” and how he was going to “pressure-cook” an idea. He would arrive late to meetings, slightly disheveled, talk about getting stoned over the weekend or going to Burning Man, slouch on the sofa with a toothpick in his mouth, and lace his conversations with discomfiting sexual observations.

More consequentially, Carey had given Young a free hand to evolve Hearst’s digital business. One of his first moves was to wrest control of the websites from the magazine editors and install his own people to run them. It was inevitable that this would cause umbrage. Young also seemed to go out of his way to antagonize.

Young’s un-Hearstian bravado seemed to instill confidence in Hearst executives while it struck others as a posture, an analog person’s idea of a digital person. “When we’d complain about it, they’d say, ‘You can’t handle a disruptor,’” a former Hearst editor says. “That’s what made everyone so angry. Everyone was more digital than David and Steve. They were weirdly antediluvian in not understanding that.” Why, the editors wondered, was a leading media company putting its future in the hands of someone who had run a middling start-up in Silicon Valley? “It was like watching a dystopian Music Man. He spun them this digital bill of goods.”. . .

By all accounts, Young did what he had been hired to do. He slashed costs by simplifying Hearst’s digital businesses, bringing the brands’ far-flung websites onto a single platform and unifying their design. And he pursued traffic. With the help of a deputy named Kate Lewis, who had also come from Say Media, Young proved adept at optimizing clickbait, pushing digital editors to run posts that would rank high on Google because they included popular search terms. Young wasn’t doing anything particularly radical — “His strategies were very BuzzFeed-y,” an ex-editor says — but he was doing it within a vaunted magazine company. . . .

Leaving aside whether the current incarnations of such venerable brands as Cosmo, Elle, and Esquire quite rise to the heights of fashion, it’s an apt, if depressing, vision, and a print editor, contemplating that outlook, sounds a doleful note: “I think they’ve always made themselves feel better about playing second or third fiddle to Condé and others by saying, ‘We’re the ones who make money, we’re tough businessmen, we don’t let our ego and aesthetic pride get in the way. That’s why Condé is going to get sold and we’re not.’. . .

In his final email to Hearst staff, Young said he was “deeply reflective on what I can learn from this moment”. . .

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