Conde Nast Lures Fashion Editor to 'W'. Can the Magazine Survive?



magazine undoubtedly got its lease on life renewed Tuesday when its parent company, Condé Nast, hired Stefano Tonchi (pictured) from The New York Times to be the high-end fashion title's new editor-in-chief. But is it a long-term lease, or is it more of the month-to-month variety?

There are reasons to suspect the latter. One is simple location: As part of the changeover, W is relocating from its offices on Third Avenue in Manhattan -- not to Condé Nast's headquarters at 4 Times Square, where Vogue, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker dwell, but to the company's building at 1166 Avenue of the Americas, four blocks away.

Within the paranoid, status-savvy culture of Condé Nast, that kind of thing is bound to be -- and already is being -- viewed as a sign that the publication in question is in disfavor. (Note: I've done two tours of duty at Condé Nast, first at WWD, which at the time shared offices and staff with W but are in the process of being separated.)

Identity Crisis Coming?

Then there's the question of what, exactly, is the company's plan to get W back on track. In an interview, Tonchi said he intends to make it "more of a general-interest style magazine, and less of a fashion-obsessed publication" -- which would be like the editor of Sports Illustrated saying SI needs to be "less of a sports-obsessed publication."

W's entire raison d'être is to cover fashion (and beauty, art and society) for an élite crowd of insiders. That's why, despite its relatively small circulation -- 450,000, versus 1.2 million for Vogue -- it attracts substantial luxury advertising. Advertisers also pay a premium because of W's oversize format -- which Tonchi is rumored to be considering doing away with, in favor of cheaper standard format. (Update: A Condé Nast spokeswoman says reducing the page size isn't being considered.)

This isn't the first time Condé Nast has tried to fix an ailing title by broadening its appeal. That was also the strategy when it hired Brandon Holley as editor-in-chief of Jane, replacing its founding editor and namesake, Jane Pratt. Less than two years elapsed before the company gave up on that effort and shut Jane down.

Could the same thing happen to W? In fact, it's depressingly likely. To succeed as the kind of mass-audience, general-interest style magazine Tonchi describes would require W to increase its circulation by several hundred thousand copies -- at a time when most magazines are rapidly losing readers. It would also have to skirt the sensitivities of Vogue editor Anna Wintour, who's not afraid to throw her considerable weight around within the company and who's unlikely to adore the idea of a W that's less a complement than a direct competitor.

No, if W can't survive as a niche title, chances are it can't survive at all.