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So What Do You Do, Danyel Smith?

Vibe's new editor on managing morale after a popular editor is ousted

By Dylan Stableford - October 27, 2006

dsmith_vibe.jpgFollowing a summer of rumors, an ownership change and a subsequent housecleaning that included the exodus of popular editor Mimi Valdes that has kept the fire of speculation fueled, Valdes' replacement, Danyel Smith, who was Vibe's editor in the late 1990s — inherited a lot of blingy baggage. We spoke with Smith recently about managing morale, the relative soul of American Idol and why “you want me backstage at Diddy.”

You've a history with Vibe. How did you wind up back here?

It seems like I've always been with Vibe. It feels like I never left. In 1993 I moved to New York from Oakland to be the R&B editor at Bilboard — just as I was offered the job of West Coast editor of Vibe. I was a stringer for Spin, the New York Times, and then was appointed editor in 1997. I became Vibe's editor-in-chief for 21 issues. Then I got a job as Time Inc.'s editor-at-large — it was a sexy offer. I dropped out of the magazine game for awhile to write and get my MFA, but then [the new ownership] got me back, so here I am.

How do you manage morale after a housecleaning?

It's been a whirlwind. Anytime you have to let anyone go, it's like a family. I didn't hide the fact that it is a tense time. It's not easy. I've been through that experience. A few years ago I would've run crying, but we're deep here, we have forward-thinking editors. It makes us stronger. You lead by example, but I don't pretend to act other than the way I feel.

What was the first thing you said to your staff?

‘It's a very tumultuous time, but we're going to get through it.' That, and ‘I'm back, folks.'

How would you describe your sensibility as an editor?

I'm tough. I have really high expectations. I love Vibe. I breathe it. I had some great teachers like Joe Levy and Robert Christgau along the way — they were very principled, tough, editor — just because [the subject matter] is music and culture doesn't mean it's any less important to be that way.

Is Vibe as influential as it was, say, three years ago?

I hate to sound corny, but it's been the same, best music magazine in the entire world. We have relentless, thorough, excellent writing. I think there are some music stories that have been criminally undocumented — some really beautiful music, and it's of service to our audience to find it. I view that as my job.

vibe_diddy_1106.jpgHow do you balance covering hip-hop culture while being a part of it? Is there a downside?

We're all a part of what we write about, not just hip-hop. If you cover business for the New York Times, you're part of it in some way. We live the culture. In some ways it makes us biased, in some ways it doesn't. I love pop culture. I live it. If you're a reader, you want me backstage at Mariah. You want me backstage at Diddy, so I can tell you what's really happening. I'm the girl for the gig.

What is your typical media day like?

I'm in the office at 9:00-9:30. I'm everywhere. I'm reading everything all the time — the Times, the Washington Post arts section, all the alt weeklies, the San Francisco Bay Guardian — all of them online except for Billboard. Then we have an internal blog that interns post to. When I came in here, we were still making interns get us clips, and they were spread out with scissors — I was like, no, ‘This is Little House On The Prairie.'

Is Vibe changing direction?

If anything we're expanding what we do to have a broader spectrum. We're doing 300-400 words on TV on the Radio. We just did a big piece on American Idol winner Taylor Hicks. People might be like, “What's this guy doing in Vibe?” But he's really soulful. He's into the blues.

What's encouraging in terms of magazines you compete against? What's discouraging?

I think we compete against everybody — Rolling Stone, Spin, the Times. It's hard to speak for them, but what's discouraging [in general] is the idea of what's “urban” and “mainstream” and that line in between. When we put people of color on our covers, we're always dealing with that issue. Once you think it's over, we're past it — it seems to be coming back to mattering again. People want to use it against you. 'If a there's a star who's white on our cover, does it mean less or is it worth less?' That's why you get forward-thinking editors to guide you through all of that.

[Dylan Stableford is's managing editor for news. He can be reached at dylan AT mediabistro DOT com.]

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