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So What Do You Do, Deborah Needleman, Editor-in-Chief of WSJ.?

This mag maven talks diving back into the print pool after helming a shuttered title

By Amanda Ernst - April 27, 2011
Lucking into a position as a magazine editor through friends and connections seems like a classic old media story. And that is exactly how Deborah Needleman says she came into her position as editor-in-chief of the now-defunct Conde Nast home lifestyle magazine Domino.

But Needleman's story took a decidedly modern turn in 2009, when Conde shuttered Domino, putting her out of a job. And with very few magazine editor positions remaining in the industry, it was over a year before she ended up in her current position, launching The Wall Street Journal's Saturday style section "Off Duty" and working to revamp the financial paper's luxury lifestyle magazine, WSJ. She's already been through the failed magazine thing once, but she thinks this time will be different.

"I think there's still a place for magazines as one of the ways we consume media," Needleman said optimistically. "And I think as long as there's newspapers there will be newspaper magazines."

Name: Deborah Needleman
Title: Editor-in-chief of WSJ. and editor of The Wall Street Journal's "Off Duty," a Saturday style section launched in September.
Birthdate: November 23
Hometown: Cherry Hill, NJ
Education: George Washington University
Resume: Worked as a photographer's assistant and "pretty bad freelance photographer" before becoming a photo editor at The Washington Post's Sunday magazine. Then she wrote about gardens and design for The New York Times, Slate and House & Garden, where she was editor-at-large. In 2005, she helped found Domino, which folded in fall 2009.
Marital status: "Very much so." (She's married to Slate Group editor-in-chief Jacob Weisberg)
Media idol: "I have two: Arianna Huffington and Susan Lyne, chairman of Gilt Groupe and former CEO of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. They both manage to do a lot, do it creatively, do it in their own way and are still incredibly warm, fun people. I think they do work well."
Favorite TV show: Friday Night Lights and 30 Rock
Last book read: Just Kids by Patti Smith
Guilty pleasure: "It changes all the time, but right now it's solitaire on the iPad. It was Angry Birds and now solitaire is on it's way out, but it's still there."
Twitter: @debbieneedles

You say that your path to becoming a magazine editor was non-traditional, so how did you get the job as founding editor of Domino?
I was really fortunate that someone took a chance on me and gave me a job that my resume didn't exactly warrant. It wasn't like I was on a clear or a very ambitious trajectory to become a magazine editor, I wasn't. But then I really was lucky and I conceived this magazine solely in my head and amazingly was given the opportunity to realize it.

It was based on a lot of the premises of Lucky. I came to James Truman, who was then the editorial director of Conde Nast. It was amazing. I was so lucky that he saw it in me even though it wasn't apparent.

So you had this idea and you pitched it to James Truman? It was really that easy? That sounds incredible.
I had the support of Kim France, who was the editor-in-chief of Lucky at the time, and she was a friend of mine. And she made the introduction. It was an amazing, lucky confluence of events and timing.

How did you learn that Domino was closing?
It was very similar to when my parents got divorced. My parents always got along really well, and then one day my mother called me aside and I just knew what she was going to say. And this was the same thing. I had heard rumors about Domino, but it really was successful. Its newsstands sales were up when everyone else's were down or flat; it was growing and had all this consumer engagement. So I didn't really believe the rumors. And then Tom Wallace, who was the editorial director, called me up -– and he would call me up all the time –- but for some reason that day when he called me up it was the same thing, just a pit in my stomach. Like, 'This isn't going to be good.'

"I had heard rumors about Domino, but it really was successful. Its newsstands sales were up when everyone else's were down or flat."

You certainly weren't alone at being suddenly out of work. What did you do next?
As sad as I was, it was a huge and great break. I had worked so hard for five years and put so much of myself into that magazine that it was actually kind of a relief. Not that I wanted it to happen, but it was great to have a big change. I was so absorbed in the magazine, and it was nice to just walk around the city in the middle of the day. If the unemployment had gone on longer I wouldn't have been very happy. But I was really, really happy for the break, because we all work so hard mostly from the time we can work, and we rarely get a big break. And it's kind of great.

Were there ever talks about Domino coming back in another form, like Gourmet's iPad app?
I was actually in talks with Conde Nast about licensing the name Domino for a Web business that I was going to do. There were all these rumors about them doing all these Domino-related things.

How did you end up at The Wall Street Journal?
It wasn't like anyone was beating down my door, and then this thing just landed. Someone recommended me to Mike Miller, who is the deputy editor [of the Journal], for this section that they wanted to start. They genuinely liked and appreciated Domino and it was that sensibility, although it's very different from the Journal, that they wanted to bring in a sense of liveliness and style. And so it actually wasn't a crazy leap. It's not like I'm heading up the political coverage.

Has The Wall Street Journal ever tried luxury and lifestyle sections or magazines before?
The Journal started the magazine two and a half years ago. The Journal had been a business publication and it's been expanding consistently, especially since Rupert Murdoch bought it. So they started with the New York section; then they started covering more general news. They've been expanding and the lifestyle coverage is the latest part of their expansion.

Do you think the fact that WSJ. is owned by The Wall Street Journal will help it to survive better than if it was a stand-alone luxury magazine?
It has the power of The Wall Street Journal behind it, but it's its own separate business within the Journal. It's not being bankrolled by the Journal, but there is the support of the greater paper. The editorial support and the resources I can pull are incredibly helpful, and the sales team is selling not just the magazine but the entire Journal franchise. So, it's a much stronger sell than just going out and selling the magazine individually.

"I can't imagine someone would go to college these days and think, 'I want to work at a magazine.'"

The Wall Street Journal typically has a mostly male audience, but the audience of luxury magazines is usually female. How are you trying to bridge the gap between those two audiences?
Part of what I'm trying to do is broaden the reach of the newspaper's readership. It used to be much more male dominated and now I think it's 60-40. And so the gap is being bridged. A lot of what I hear about people reading "Off Duty" and the magazine is, 'Oh my God, I didn't know The Journal did this. I got it from my boyfriend or my husband.' So I think it's a shift that's still happening. But the idea is that the kind of news and information that the newspaper and these lifestyle sections offers is not like a boy's playground –- it's for everyone.

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to become an editor of a luxury magazine?
I can't imagine someone would go to college these days and think, "I want to work at a magazine." It's about creating a product -- an interesting, enlightening, amusing editorial product -- and that can be done in so many ways now, magazines just being one of them…I do think luck is important and putting yourself in situations where you might be the beneficiary of luck, if that makes any sense. It's going to sound corny, but people just need to put their happiness first...It's not worth slogging through something just to get somewhere else…I think it's just about reading a lot, and being open to things and being open to chance.

Would you advise your kids to become a magazine editor?
No way! But then again, who knows? If you really love magazines, I bet there will always be a way to do something great.

NEXT >> AvantGuildSo What Do You Do, Brandon Holley, Editor-in-Chief of Lucky Magazine?

Amanda Ernst is a freelance writer living in New York. She also manages business development and social media marketing for B5 media, the publisher of three women's lifestyle sites.

© WebMediaBrands Inc. 2011. All Rights Reserved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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