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Esquire Magazine @ 1,000: Creation And Curation At Its Best – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With David Granger, Editor-In-Chief, Esquire

October 14, 2015

“The advantage that print has is really two-fold. One is that as digital media moves to the phone, it’s pretty easy to see what the difference is between digital media and print media. Print is just so much bigger and the display is huge, the colors are vibrant and you get to use design and it’s just a completely different experience. Fifteen years ago everybody was just trying to put what magazines did or what newspapers did onto a computer screen. And this is kind of the same thing. Now, what gets created for a phone is very different from what gets created for a magazine. In general, though there are some exceptions to this these days, what’s being created for a magazine is more ambitious and more sprawling and more built-to-last.” David Granger

“I’ve been discouraged and disappointed when people expressed this idea that inevitably print was going to go away. And it’s not just because I believe that it’s the greatest medium ever created. I think that there is some appeal to it that is being demonstrated all over again. You see sales in books, in paper, are climbing while the digital experience in books is beginning to decline.” David Granger

Esquire 100-4 Esquire has been the original men’s magazine on style and fashion for the last 82 years. And with a legacy of quintessential content such as that, finding an innovative and creative way to present it to the masses and bring that premier information to life once again in new ways was the driving force behind Esquire Classic. Well, that and its prolific team led by their insightful Editor-In-Chief, David Granger.

David has been at the helm of Esquire for 18 years and knows a thing or two about what the magazine’s readers want when it comes to their essential dose of Esquire. He has immersed himself in the brand and believes the key to being a successful editor in 2015 is to be constantly open to new ideas and possibilities, whether his own or ones from his superb staff.

Recently the 1000th issue of Esquire was lovingly dressed (in Esquire-finest, of course) and sent on its way, with scores of references to people, events and articles of the last 82 years. And as an added feature to its readers, and through a partnership with Shazam’s new visual recognition technology, readers are able to use their mobile devices to connect directly from the print magazine to Esquire’s coverage of those moments within the new digital archive.

And also to celebrate the 1000th issue, Esquire joined forces with PRX, an award-winning public media company, to launch a podcast deconstructing classic non-fiction stories from the vault of the 82-year-old magazine that continues to push the envelope when it comes to narrative journalism. These podcasts will be published every two weeks. Talk about creative innovation.

I spoke with David recently about his time at Esquire and the many innovations and creative ways he and his team are constantly reinventing and reinvigorating the brand. It was a delightful conversation that took me back to the magazine’s past and invariably full-circle into its future. And truly it’s a given, no one knows Esquire like the man in charge.

So, I hope you enjoy the Mr. Magazine™ interview with the charismatic David Granger, editor-in-chief, Esquire, as you read how a legacy magazine can take a cue from its past and continue to flourish.

But first, the sound-bites:

ESQ040113_024 On the last 18 years he’s spent at Esquire and what conclusions his own life has lead him to draw about the magazine: That’s such a good question. The only thing that seems to be consistent about Esquire is that for it to thrive we have to constantly think about how to reinvent and reinvigorate it and continue to enable it to address the desires and needs of our readers as the world changes. I can’t say that there’s something that we can do or have done consistently for 18 years, except to try and come up with new ways to use the magazine mediums. We try to find interesting new ways to use paper and ink and design and words.

On how busy he is as an editor in the 21st century and when he has time to sleep: I have really good people working with me and that enables me to entrust them with many responsibilities. I don‘t do this all by myself is what I’m saying. I think the key to being an editor now in 2015 is being constantly open to new things. I don’t have every idea but I have to be open to the possibilities when the people on my staff or people from outside my staff present me with new opportunities like the whole thing we’re doing now with the archive and with trying to make a business essentially out of our past. That wasn’t my idea, but I was open enough that I wanted to advocate for it with David Carey and the other people in the Hearst executive pool to make it happen.

On whether his editor’s role today makes him more of a curator than a creator, especially with the launch of Esquire Classic: It’s both. Yes, have the idea, but once Tyler had the revelation, I thought, wow, we have like hundreds and hundreds of audio interviews; what can we do with those? And then I think it might have been Cal (Fussman), who’s done the bulk of our “What I’ve Learned”s, who introduced us to an animator who’d actually animated an interview that Cal had done with Larry King just for his own purposes. And after that I knew that we could do this with a lot of people, so it’s not just being a curator, but it’s having the idea to do something different. Curating is very important, especially with the archive.

On whether he thinks there are more editors out there like him that believe in both print and other forms of expression: I think there are a lot of really excellent editors who believe in print, but also believe in expanding their creative impulses across other forms of expression too. I don’t think that I’m unique; I think there are more people who see the unique value of print, but also see the power of dissemination that’s offered by the web or other forms of digital media.

On whether there was ever a time in his career that he believes that print was a dying breed: No, I’ve never felt that. I’ve been discouraged and disappointed when people expressed this idea that inevitably print was going to go away. And it’s not just because I believe that it’s the greatest medium ever created. I think that there is some appeal to it that is being demonstrated all over again. You see sales in books, in paper, are climbing while the digital experience in books is beginning to decline.

On a major stumbling block he’s faced and how he overcame it: The biggest challenge for anybody is overcoming the conventional wisdom, because from 2008 and for at least five years after, the conventional wisdom was that print was a less exciting medium, which is kind of why I did all of those gimmicks because I wanted to prove that print was the most exciting medium ever. It makes your job even harder when you have to do your job, plus convince people as well as you can, that what your life’s work is will continue to be the most exciting medium that’s ever been invented.

On whether he thinks consumers today are gravitating more toward the tried and true brands that they’ve always known rather than the new ones that have come and gone: If that’s true I think it’s because in this generation that advertisers and marketers call millennials, there’s a hunger for the most overused term in marketing, which is authenticity. I believe a younger generation that’s looking for guidance looks to tried and true sources.

On what he might be doing in the evenings if someone came unannounced to his home: (Laughs) It depends on the season. When it’s warm, I’m usually sitting on my back deck with a glass of tequila and reading either a magazine or a book. But I could also be watching television, but yes, I think you would find me most likely having a drink and reading something, or enjoying dinner with my wife.

On anything else he’d like to add: I’m in the midst of a series of planning meetings for issues in 2016, so I’m intensely looking forward to what we’re doing and where we’re going. But I’m also finding that exploration of our past to be really fascinating. It’s just so cool that in addition to the archive, we’ve also launched this podcast series called Esquire Classic that dovetails with that. So, the archive is promoting the fact that we are using elements from our archive, whether it’s an F. Scott Fitzgerald story or a Nora Ephron story, to create new forms of entertainment in this podcast that we’re doing with PRX that we recently launched.

On what keeps him up at night: I’ve been sleeping pretty well lately. It’s been an extremely good year and I guess that’s my answer; I’ve been sleeping pretty well lately.

And now for the complete, lightly edited Mr. Magazine™ conversation with David Granger, editor-in-chief, Esquire magazine.

Samir Husni: David, you’ve published at least one-fifth of all the issues Esquire has done in its entire history, and if my math is correct, that would be about 200 issues under your belt.

David Granger: Yes, it’s more than 200, but I don’t know exactly how many.

Samir Husni: But it’s around one-fifth of the total number of issues.

David Granger: Right.

Samir Husni: You took the job in 1997 and Esquire was a completely different magazine then than it is today. Through those 18 years, what conclusions has your own life lead you to draw about the life of Esquire over the last 18 years?

David Granger: That’s such a good question. The only thing that seems to be consistent about Esquire is that for it to thrive we have to constantly think about how to reinvent and reinvigorate it and continue to enable it to address the desires and needs of our readers as the world changes.

I can’t say that there’s something that we can do or have done consistently for 18 years, except to try and come up with new ways to use the magazine mediums. We try to find interesting new ways to use paper and ink and design and words.

The only thing that I can think of that we’ve done the entire time is this column called “What I’ve Learned,” which seems to have some enduring appeal because we do exactly what you’re asking me to do right now; try and draw conclusions and wisdom from them. And that has proved to be sort of eternally entertaining or gratifying to our readers. But other than that I think we’ve changed just about everything.

Samir Husni: With the column “What I’ve Learned” and in just taking a look at the older issues of Esquire; you’ve left almost no one out when it comes to learning something from them, from God to just about every mortal. (Laughs)

David Granger: (Laughs too). Are you saying we should be running out of subjects?

Samir Husni: (Laughs again) You have all the angels left, you can expand on them.

David Granger: (Continues to laugh).

Samir Husni: When you started 18 years ago, you knew exactly what the job of editor entailed. Today, if I follow what you do in just one week, the question that comes to my mind is when does David have time to sleep?

David Granger: I have really good people working with me and that enables me to entrust them with many responsibilities. I don‘t do this all by myself is what I’m saying.

I think the key to being an editor now in 2015 is being constantly open to new things. I don’t have every idea but I have to be open to the possibilities when the people on my staff or people from outside my staff present me with new opportunities like the whole thing we’re doing now with the archive and with trying to make a business essentially out of our past. That wasn’t my idea, but I was open enough that I wanted to advocate for it with David Carey and the other people in the Hearst executive pool to make it happen. That started more than two years ago when I was able to convince Hearst to allow Tyler Cabot to accept a Nieman fellowship. And nobody in the Hearst magazine division had ever been offered or accepted a Nieman before, so they had to make an exception. Their policy is to allow that to happen and they did.

When he got back and he had a billion different ideas of new ways to both tell stories and sell stories, I had to advocate for his ideas with David and get him to approve a modest budget so that we could move forward.

It’s been amazing, but as the editor I don’t always have all the ideas, I just have to be open to the best ones or the ones that seem like they can lead us to someplace that enhances the potential of the magazine. And this idea of trying to use elements of the magazine’s past to create something that’s completely new is thrilling to me right now. We’ve been working on this for 2½ years, this notion and how to bring it to life. And I think it’s really something that’s pretty unique and it’s exciting. It’s going to do good things for us.

In my editor’s letter about this issue, I talk about this idea of “the eternal now,” how more than ever everything is present and my metaphor was when the iTunes store launched I would see my daughters browsing it and occasionally buying music from it, and they weren’t buying music because it was new, they didn’t know if they were listening to the Beatles and a song that came from 1967, they were just experiencing it as something new. And I think that’s what’s happening with the archive that we’ve created and launched. And with several other projects as well.

What we’re doing is we’re taking things that were created decades ago in many cases and we’re making them completely new to people who were never aware of their existence, which is just fascinating.

We did that with the “What I’ve Learned” mini-site that we created on the medium platform where we used the old interviews from “What I’ve Learned.” We actually had the audio and we turned them into animations. So, we had a three minute animation of George Clooney’s “What I’ve Learned” and a three minute animation of Tom Cruise’s “What I’ve Learned” and we did eight or ten others. And then we did a lot of original ones and some classic ones and created a whole new experience for people who were probably never aware that Esquire did this. And we got Microsoft to sponsor it and actually made some money.

It’s like this whole idea of taking things that we created a long time ago and giving them new life; I think it has a ton of potential and it’s really exciting right now.

Samir Husni: Does that put more responsibility on the editor to be more of a curator, rather than just a creator?

David Granger: It’s both. Yes, have the idea, but once Tyler had the revelation, I thought, wow, we have like hundreds and hundreds of audio interviews; what can we do with those? And then I think it might have been Cal (Fussman), who’s done the bulk of our “What I’ve Learned”s, who introduced us to an animator who’d actually animated an interview that Cal had done with Larry King just for his own purposes.

And after that I knew that we could do this with a lot of people, so it’s not just being a curator, but it’s having the idea to do something different. Curating is very important, especially with the archive.

And that’s what’s radically different about Esquire’s archive from any magazine archive that’s come before. Most magazine archives, or all of them that I know of, they’re just sort of presented for you. Here it is. It’s from The New Yorker and it’s organized by issue date and cover and there is a search function, but they don’t actively tell you what you might be interested in reading. So, we created a homepage that is distinct from the archive platform, but it dovetails with it, on which we take news events and say, OK, this happened today, people could be interested in reading this. Recently when the MacArthur grants were announced, we went back into the archive and found all the MacArthur geniuses who had written for Esquire in the past. And we surfaced their stories.

Or when Elon Musk recently launched a new model X, we resurfaced Tom Junod’s epic profile of Elon and promoted it on the homepage of the archive. So, we’re giving people the sense that the past is urgent. In order to understand the present, you can come to us and we can help you put things that are happening right now into context.

Samir Husni: You’ve always been a defender of print and talked about the necessity of print, but you’re always looking to all the other platforms or media and everything that’s out there. In fact, on the web you identify yourself as the editor of Esquire magazine, not just Esquire. Why do you think we don’t have more David Granger’s out there?

David Granger: I think there are a lot of really excellent editors who believe in print, but also believe in expanding their creative impulses across other forms of expression too. I don’t think that I’m unique; I think there are more people who see the unique value of print, but also see the power of dissemination that’s offered by the web or other forms of digital media.

It’s a cliché, but look at Adam Moss who creates a great magazine and whose web offshoots are as exciting as anything on the Internet. The guys at Fast Company in ink work really hard across all sorts of media without ever thinking that print is the ugly cousin. I think there are a number of people who are thinking in all of these different ways, while continuing to try and improve what they do in print. And they seem even more vital and special.

The advantage that print has is really two-fold. One is that as digital media moves to the phone, it’s pretty easy to see what the difference is between digital media and print media. Print is just so much bigger and the display is huge, the colors are vibrant and you get to use design and it’s just a completely different experience.

Fifteen years ago everybody was just trying to put what magazines did or what newspapers did onto a computer screen. And this is kind of the same thing. Now, what gets created for a phone is very different from what gets created for a magazine. In general, though there are some exceptions to this these days, what’s being created for a magazine is more ambitious and more sprawling and more built-to-last. I think more than ever, and I see this when I go out and talk to advertisers around the country, that they’re beginning to see that we’re not even in the same game. Digital media has created one thing and print is creating another and they’re probably appealing to different kinds of people in large part. So, you have to create advertising and marketing that’s unique to those forms. I think you kind of have to keep your feet in both camps while you’re trying to do amazing things in each.

Samir Husni: You’re one of the few editors that I’ve met who never lost faith in print. Am I dreaming that fact about you or did you believe at one stage in your career that print was dying?

David Granger: No, I’ve never felt that. I’ve been discouraged and disappointed when people expressed this idea that inevitably print was going to go away. And it’s not just because I believe that it’s the greatest medium ever created. I think that there is some appeal to it that is being demonstrated all over again. You see sales in books, in paper, are climbing while the digital experience in books is beginning to decline.

There’s just an inherent appeal to it that, even if you don’t do anything extraordinary, is going to survive. But then when you take the advantage of the print, the things that get me excited that we’ve done to try and expand what print can do then I think it will have a long and colorful and wonderful life. I’ve always believed that and I’ve been open to the possibility that I was completely wrong, but as it turns out my and my staff’s faith in our medium has been rewarded for quite some time.

Samir Husni: For you personally, what has been the major stumbling block that you’ve faced and how did you overcome it?

David Granger: I would say that each year every editor in the business is faced with trying to do the things that we value and the things that make a magazine successful with slightly fewer resources. So, you have to be endlessly creative on how you get the most out of the dollars you spend.

But that’s been true for every year of the 18 years that I’ve been at Esquire. We’ve produced cost for at least 17 of those 18 years. There might have been one year where we stayed about level with the previous year. And that’s always a little bit of a challenge, but we’ve sort of gotten used to that.

The biggest challenge for anybody is overcoming the conventional wisdom, because from 2008 and for at least five years after, the conventional wisdom was that print was a less exciting medium, which is kind of why I did all of those gimmicks because I wanted to prove that print was the most exciting medium ever. It makes your job even harder when you have to do your job, plus convince people as well as you can, that what your life’s work is will continue to be the most exciting medium that’s ever been invented.

Those are like little stumbling blocks, but mostly the hardest thing is having good ideas. (Laughs)

Samir Husni: (Laughs too).

David Granger: But that’s the joy of the job too.

Samir Husni: As we look ahead to the next five years; I feel, at least as an outsider looking in, there’s some sort of resurgence of men’s magazines, such as Esquire and GQ, they seem to be getting fatter and bigger. Do you think that our audience, our consumers, our customers out there are gravitating more toward the tried and true brands that they’ve always known, rather than the new brands that have come and gone, and if so, why?

David Granger: If that’s true I think it’s because in this generation that advertisers and marketers call millennials, there’s a hunger for the most overused term in marketing, which is authenticity. I believe a younger generation that’s looking for guidance looks to tried and true sources. I just think that we can be trusted in a way that some newer brands can’t. Newer brands have the advantage of being exciting and groundbreaking and all of those things, but I do think there is a valued heritage and that may be part of why some of these well-established brands are having a pretty good run right now.

Samir Husni: If I was ever to visit you unannounced at your home, what would I catch David doing in the evening? Are you reading a magazine or a book on your iPad or none of the above?

David Granger: (Laughs) It depends on the season. When it’s warm, I’m usually sitting on my back deck with a glass of tequila and reading either a magazine or a book. But I could also be watching television, but yes, I think you would find me most likely having a drink and reading something, or enjoying dinner with my wife. When I’m home, I’m pretty low-key. I dabble in watching sports and television series, but when I’m home it’s mostly time for some kind of relaxation or meeting with friends.

Samir Husni: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

David Granger: I’m in the midst of a series of planning meetings for issues in 2016, so I’m intensely looking forward to what we’re doing and where we’re going. But I’m also finding that exploration of our past to be really fascinating. It’s just so cool that in addition to the archive, we’ve also launched this podcast series called Esquire Classic that dovetails with that. So, the archive is promoting the fact that we are using elements from our archive, whether it’s an F. Scott Fitzgerald story or a Nora Ephron story, to create new forms of entertainment in this podcast that we’re doing with PRX that we recently launched.

I love doing original journalism, but I’m also really getting excited about doing completely novel things with archival material. It’s like to make the past present and it’s really exciting. It’s like a new way forward and I think there are many entities that have done that, whether it’s movie studios using their catalogue of old film, but it’s very rare in the magazine business that people have found a way to make the old both new and profitable. And I think it’s really exciting.

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

David Granger: I’ve been sleeping pretty well lately. It’s been an extremely good year and I guess that’s my answer; I’ve been sleeping pretty well lately.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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