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So What Do You Do, Jermaine Hall, Editor-in-Chief of Vibe?

On music, celebrity Tweets, and resurrecting an iconic publication

By Andrea Williams - March 20, 2013
If you think print pubs have had it bad, just look at the R.I.P. list in the music category: Blender (March 2009), Giant (November 2009), Spin (December 2012). But, thankfully for urban music and entertainment fans, one iconic brand was able to rise from the ashes.

Within months after folding in 2009, Vibe -- founded by producer, composer and all-around musical genius Quincy Jones -- was re-launched by new owners looking to infuse it with fresh content for the digital age and new editorial blood, namely EIC Jermaine Hall.

"I've always been so close to the brand. I interned here in grad school and my first gig was here in the online department," Hall told us. "So, I knew what it had been when it started, where it was when it closed, and I just felt like I really knew where it needed to go. I felt like I had the master plan."

Name: Jermaine Hall
Position: Editor-in-chief of Vibe
Resume: Started as an editorial assistant at the trade magazine Civil Engineering. Moved to Vibe to run the digital department before becoming features editor at At The Source, ascended the ranks from associate music editor to music editor and, ultimately, features editor. Served as executive editor and editor-in-chief at King before rejoining Vibe in 2009.
Birthday: October 10
Hometown: Queens, New York
Education: B.A. (1995) and M.A. (1997) in journalism from Iona College
Marital status: Married, with a 5-year-old
Media idol: Mark Golin. "What he was able to do with Maxim is really incredible because, not only did it spawn a whole bunch of offshoots, but it changed the voice of a lot of magazines. They started to get a little lighter and more humorous."
Favorite TV shows: Revenge and Homeland
Guilty pleasure: reality show Love and Hip Hop
Last book read: The Way You Wear Your Hat: Frank Sinatra and the Lost Art of Livin' by Bill Zehme
Twitter handle: @JermaineHall

What were you doing when you got the call to take the helm at Vibe?
King had closed down, and I was actually working on Puff Daddy's interview for Playboy, which I was really psyched to do just because we've worked on so many stories together throughout my career. And then I got the call from Brett Wright, who I used to work with at, a hip-hop website. He was like, "Hey, we just bought Vibe, and I think you have the right sensibilities to make it happen." I came in and had a conversation, talked terms, the usual, and then everything matched up. Everything that I thought the brand needed to be at this state and point matched up with what they wanted to do.

"Being editor-in-chief is a lot of schmoozing; it's a lot of fixing relationships."

How does the new Vibe differ from the old one?
The first thing that we did when I got here was to really have people understand that really needed to be the hub of the business. That was first and foremost, and that was going to be the driving force of this brand in this digital age. Then, step two was just to hire the right people who really understood digital but also had a good amount of magazine experience, so that we could still keep the magazine at a high level and keep producing the content that the Vibe reader is used to consuming.

Speaking of hiring the right people, obviously with the magazine closing, there were editors who lost their jobs. Did you consider bringing any of them back on?
Yeah, some of them actually came back. Rob Kenner, who has been with the brand since the test issue, was one of the first people who came back. For one, his history with the brand is incredible. He might be one of the only people on this planet who has been with Vibe from day one, up until recently, when he finally left. So, he was the guy who kinda knew where all the bodies were buried, his contacts were insane, and his knowledge of the brand was pretty much invaluable really. Then I wanted to make sure I brought through a music editor who, one, really understood digital but, again, had some magazine experience and who was in between this new generation (generation "we share" as I like to call them) but also understood the music and the culture that's been associated with Vibe for the last 20 years. So, I think I've found that person: John Kennedy has done a great job thus far.

What advice can you give to other editors who are looking to position themselves to become an editor-in-chief during their careers?
I think it's just about, whatever position you're at, excelling at that and mastering that position. And then, once you have that down, I think it's just really starting to expand. A lot of things that come with being editor-in-chief aren't necessarily drilled down into the day-to-day tasks. It's a lot of schmoozing; it's a lot of fixing relationships; it's a lot of bartering; it's a lot of people skills, I would say. It's really going out there to be the ambassador of the brand on all levels. And that doesn't necessarily come from being the strongest writer, it just really comes from people skills and the contacts and the relationships there that you've been able to build over your career. So, I think it's knowing that it's more than just writing and more than just editing at this level.

NEXT >> So What Do You Do, Dylan Howard, Editor-in-Chief of Celebuzz?

In considering the Web, how do you keep the print magazine relevant now that it's bimonthly and there are so many music blogs and sites online?
We try to make every issue an event. I think that's what you have to do with a bimonthly. There's no way you can compete with the monthlies, and there's no way you can compete with the weeklies. So, each issue has to almost have a coffee table feel to it. We have to create these undeniable moments for the consumer so that when the impulse buyer walks by the newsstand, and they see the front page, they can't help but to get it. But to drill down into that question a little bit more, I just try to theme-out every single issue. I try to concentrate on one specific theme, and then whatever's going on in the space and in the culture, we try to pick out what fits best into that theme.

Speaking of covers, the October 2012 issue featured Ke$ha and sparked a ton of controversy as she was the first white woman on a Vibe cover. Why'd you do it?
Vibe is always going to be rooted in hip-hop and R&B, but I do think that the brand lends itself to cover pop and to cover more mainstream subjects. And I think that if we do it in a way that isn't too jarring, I think the readers will accept it and will go with it. I think that the core reason for this blending is because I think the Vibe reader that we speak to today -- the 18- to 34-year-old and specifically the people on the younger side of that spectrum -- listens to music a lot differently than how we listen to music. All the genre walls have come down. Now, you just have these kids who listen to music, period, whether that's hip hop, R&B, pop, rocků They have very broad tastes. It kinda reminds me of how the young generation coming up in the 80s listened to music. There was a time when people listened to Phil Collins, Madonna, Public Enemy, LL Cool J; it was just a hodge-podge of artists, and it seems like it's going back to that.

"We try to make every issue an event."

What is one of the most challenging aspects of working with musicians who are often notoriously fickle and temperamental?
I would say access. Because of social media and because these artists now have their own voice, it's like "I'm an artist and I want to get a message out. I don't need to wait for a magazine to interview me, I don't need to wait to go on radio, I don't need to wait to go on a television program -- I can just say it right now. I can say it on my Twitter account; if there's a picture that I want to put out there, I'll go to Instagram and do it right away." So, I'd say one of the challenges that we face is getting the amount of time that we need to really craft a good story or put together a fantastic package.

Vibe's 20th anniversary is this year. In your opinion, what has been the most pivotal moment in the magazine's history?
Speaking to my experience being a fan of the brand and also working at the brand, I think it was pretty pivotal when Alan Light was editor-in-chief... He was covering the right people; he was covering moments that were so important to the culture. It was like '95, '96, and there was so much going on in the culture at that time, and he was able to pretty much document everything. We weren't in the age of digital, where we could just go online and read something, and I think Alan's documentation of the culture during his run was a really intricate part of Vibe's history.

NEXT >> So What Do You Do, Dylan Howard, Editor-in-Chief of Celebuzz?

Andrea Williams is a freelance writer based in Nashville. Follow her at @AndreaWillWrite.

© WebMediaBrands Inc. 2013. 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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