For many journalists, their natural career progression will see them rise through the ranks to the roles of Editor or Editor in Chief. Editorial leadership comes with its own unique set of challenges. But for those that might want to take on more senior roles on the business side, they may question whether they have the right skills to make the leap.
After serving as Editor-in-Chief of Fast Company, Stephanie Mehta was appointed in January 2022 as CEO of Mansueto Ventures; publisher of both Fast Company and Inc. Magazine. She has had a longstanding editorial career, working on publications from Vanity Fair to the WSJ, Fortune Magazine and Bloomberg.
Mehta spoke to Media Voices about stepping up from an editorial to a business leadership role, and shared her advice for other editors looking to do the same.
An entrepreneurial mindset
In some ways, the new CEO role has been a natural change for Mehta. She pointed out that editors of all kinds of publications over the last decade have had to be a lot more entrepreneurial and business-minded than in the past; a key component of editorial success.
“I’ve really had to collaborate with ad sales, with integrated marketing, with direct-to-consumer,” she said of her roles at publications including Fortune, Vanity Fair and Bloomberg. “In that respect, being business-minded has been part of my job for many, many years.”
The shift in media business models from print to digital has in part been responsible for editors becoming more aware of the money-making side. Mehta has seen another impact of the digital focus; more competition for audiences and readers. The squeeze on publishing staff has been well-documented, with redundancies now normalised for many journalists. Now, there is a renewed focus on creating content that stands out and nurtures loyalty among readers.
“At media companies, it really is the editorial product that is the centre of most media brands,” Mehta emphasised. “So, the editors who create and shape and curate that content have just had to think a lot more proactively about their business as well as about the craft of editing great stories.”
However, there have been some big differences between the editorial roles Mehta has held in the past, and the CEO role. “The portfolio of things that are part of my purview has grown tremendously,” she explained. “The size of the staff that I’m responsible for is much bigger. So it’s taking the learnings that I’ve had as an editor for the last 25 years and applying some of that wisdom and common sense to a much bigger portfolio of responsibilities and opportunities.”
That’s not to say Mehta is totally hands-off the content; she is both CEO and Chief Content Officer (CCO) at Mansueto Ventures. Both Fast Company and Inc. have their own editorial leaders who are responsible for the day-to-day care of everything that goes out from the brand (although FastCo is currently hiring for an EiC to replace Mehta).
Mehta sees her role as CCO as a backstop to these editors. “If they need someone to talk to about stories, if they need someone to be a buffer between a source and the company, or an advertiser and their content, I can serve that role because I’ve been an editor and so I’ve walked a mile in their shoes,” she explained.
But there is another reason that the CEO holding a content title can be valuable for a media company. “It signals to the newsroom that I have permission to have an opinion about the content,” said Mehta. “I grew up in journalism at a time where the chief executive officers of the media companies weren’t even allowed in the newsrooms, it was verboten for the CEO to come and talk to journalists.”
“We’re a small organisation, we have a different worldview. So we just wanted to let the newsrooms know that I’m an ally. I’ll be wandering around – figuratively and literally – and I’ll be a part of the mix.”
Learnings for other editors looking to step up
Mehta had some advice for editors in other publishing companies who are looking to step into business leadership roles themselves in the future. The first is to really study the business side of things.
“I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve been a business journalist for 25 years,” she explained. “I’ve had an opportunity to see really great business development and great business leadership. And I’ve also seen where companies have made mistakes, and where hubris has resulted in business failures and leadership failures.”
This doesn’t necessarily mean having to have an MBA or formal qualification. Mehta maintains much can be learned from studying business leaders to understand how they got there and what they do. Reading, absorbing, and talking to people can also help develop an understanding of the nuances of leadership.
Her second piece of advice is to cultivate a respectful relationship with the business-side staff at the publication, especially when it comes to understanding their motivations and where they’re coming from.
“It’s valuable to seek out those people and develop really good relationships with them,” she said. “Because when there are frustrations, when there are times where the business side is pushing too hard on the editorial side, if you’re both coming from a place of mutual respect, it’s really easy to get to ‘Yes’, and to be solutions-oriented.”
Finally, Mehta says it’s crucial to ensure that the other partners in the business are good. “Do your due diligence,” she recommended. “I have a wonderful Chief Operating Officer, a really smart, knowledgeable Chief Financial Officer, I know these folks have my back.”
“I know what I don’t know. And I know that I have the privilege of getting to ask these really smart people to help guide me through the business.”
Stephanie Mehta spoke to the Media Voices Podcast about leadership, changes to the business from the pandemic, and the place of print in the revenue mix. Listen below, or search ‘Media Voices’ on your podcast app of choice. The interview with Stephanie starts at 15:30.