Media People: Emma Rosenblum of Bustle Digital Group

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Kathryn Hopkins
·14 min read
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When Bustle Digital Group’s Emma Rosenblum first encountered Joanna Coles as an intern at New York Magazine 18 years ago, she had no idea just how significant that relationship would become.

“She’s my total mentor. She is a genius at introducing people to other people and has done so and propelled me up, which I’m eternally grateful for,” Rosenblum said over Zoom from her Upper East Side apartment that she has been working out of since March.

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“Joanna hired me at New York Magazine. I was her intern. She was an editor for the front of the book at that time. She was so smart and sharp and funny and had such a good eye for stories and headlines and I remember being an intern thinking this lady is amazing. And she hired me and then she immediately left New York Magazine to go run More Magazine,” she continued. “I since stayed in touch with her. She introduced me to Nina Garcia, which ended up with me being the executive editor of Elle because Joanna was there at the time and she also introduced me to Bryan Goldberg, who she knew from the industry and knew they were looking for someone to oversee the lifestyle brands.”

But while Coles helped with those particular introductions, Rosenblum’s work clearly speaks for itself as Goldberg, founder and chief executive officer of BDG, just promoted her to chief content officer of its lifestyle arm, encompassing Bustle, Romper, Elite Daily, The Zoe Report and Nylon. Since joining the company in 2019 from Elle magazine where she was executive editor, she has been editor in chief, but that title will now go to the individual heads of all the sites that she oversees. At the same time, Karen Hibbert has been appointed senior vice president of creative.

In her new role, Rosenblum joins the likes of Anna Wintour, who was recently promoted yet again to chief content officer of Condé Nast, while Meredith Corp. just announced that Tastemade’s head of content Amanda Dameron will join in the newly created role of chief digital content officer in January. Hearst has had its chief content officer Kate Lewis for some time and before Lewis, Coles was in that position.

Explaining the growing chief content officer trend at media companies, Rosenblum said: “I think the consolidation of brands has led to roles that oversee a number of brands. In my role overseeing five different brands, and possibly more this year, it doesn’t make sense to be called an editor in chief in that I’m not so hands on with the day to day editorial of each site, whereas I think in the old days the leaders of brands were very much working on one brand. Most companies now because of the climate, because of consolidation, have people working across brands so it makes more sense for them to call them chief content officers because they’re having the editor in chiefs report up into them.”

Part of the remit of her new title will be searching for potential acquisitions in the health and wellness or food spaces with Goldberg, who recently completed a celebrity-backed deal to take over the operations of W Magazine.

BDG is exploring options to go public via a potential merger with a blank check company, but it’s understood that does not mean slowing down on the acquisition front in the meantime.

“Our health and wellness traffic across the portfolio has increased exponentially this year. As you can imagine with the ongoing health crisis in the country, it’s really a topic that women are searching for and are reading across our brands, and I feel that if we had our own health brand it would be beneficial to the portfolio,” she added. “If a great food site comes up for sale I would love a food site, too.”

Here, Rosenblum, who has also held positions at Bloomberg and Glamour, discusses how she got into journalism, her new role, potential acquisitions, a Nylon print return and how she’s navigating the pandemic. BDG implemented layoffs and temporary pay cuts at the beginning of the crisis and also received a $7.5 million federal Paycheck Protection Program loan.

WWD: Did you always want to be a journalist?

Emma Rosenblum: Journalist — no. I always wanted to be a writer from a young age. The thing I was best at at school was being able to clearly articulate my thoughts in writing so I thought I would just do this for my life. Why not? Then I was an english major at college and then in college I had a number of internships at magazines and fell in love with magazine journalism. I had an internship at New York Magazine the summer before my senior year and then ended up parlaying that into an editorial assistant job. I ended up being there for seven years learning how to write, how to edit, how to put together magazine product that looked beautiful and really learning from the best people in the industry at that time.

WWD: You were at New York Magazine in the early Aughts. What was that experience like?

E.R.: It was the most exciting time. Adam Moss was the editor in chief and if you look at the staff then so many people are now leading other brands. David Haskell is the editor of New York Media; Jared Hohlt is the editor at Slate. I worked with Hugo Lindgren and Jon Gluck and John Homans, who recently passed away which was terrible. It was just a roster of talent. As a young journalist I was just looking at everybody and thinking they’re so good and so smart and can I absorb everything.

WWD: Do you think journalists have more pressures now and would you say journalism is more difficult or just different than that time?

E.R.: It’s very different from that time. There wasn’t the constant churn of news. There weren’t goals to be met for traffic. You didn’t know how many people read an article that you’d worked on. The best you could do at that time was to sit on a subway and look over and see someone reading the story you’d worked on at New York Magazine. That was the top prize. It was quite freeing compared to nowadays, when everything is optimized for eyeballs.

WWD: Can you speak a bit about your time at women’s glossies?

E.R.: Again it was the high time of Glamour — very fun, very frothy, we were making a lot of money. [Editor in chief] Cindi [Leive] was a genius at that, and also everything, so to see her as truly a brand leader who represented everything from top to bottom about a specific brand and to be so talented was inspiring. I learned so much from watching her embody glamour woman. It was really fun to be at Condé Nast back then.

WWD: Do you think magazines will survive the next 20 years?

E.R.: In a different form possibly. Not in the form that they’re in, just knowing the continued downward spiral of revenue for print. I think they’ll become more specialized. I think they’ll become less frequent as we’re seeing happen. Of course people are always going to want to hold a beautiful product that has stories with pictures, but do I think newsstand sales are going to be a thing in 20 years? No. So it’s a question of how do you get people to subscribe, how much are you charging people to subscribe and how is that money coming in from advertising actually going to support something that costs a lot of money to create. I hope that they survive. I love magazines.

WWD: What does your new chief content officer role entail?

E.R.: I’ll continue to oversee all the content across the lifestyle portfolio and I’ll be working closely with each brand to bring new categories in that resonate with our audience. In addition to entertainment, beauty, fashion, lifestyle, we’re really going to be building up our health and wellness content across brands, as well as tapping a bit more into food and the culinary world. Our goal is to add more lifestyle brands to the portfolio this year, so I’ll be working with Bryan to identify the ones that we want to acquire and then as they come in to oversee their transformation and growth. In addition to my new title, we have changed the titles of the women who lead each site. They had varied titles such as managing editor or editorial director. We’re changing all of them to editor in chief. Since joining, it was my goal to get to the point…so we can be in line with the industry in terms of titles so people understand what everybody’s role actually is. Then I also plan to bring in two high-level hires in the first quarter — one is an executive beauty director to oversee beauty across the lifestyle portfolio. And one is also an executive health director.

WWD: So you’re looking for just a digital operation?

E.R.: [Yes] but you never know what comes up for sale. I do think that we’re very well set up to absorb digital properties.

WWD: You just talked about doing more recruiting. You’ve recruited a lot of people from magazines. Is this an area you’re actively targeting?

E.R.: I’m looking everywhere. I’m looking for the right person for a role and if that means that they’ve had print and digital experience great. If they’ve just had digital experience great.

WWD: 2020 was a tough year for the entire media industry. How did it impact BDG and especially the lifestyle arm that you lead?

E.R.: We’ve been very busy this year. Like every other company in media, in March and April we did a little bit of consolidating and then realized we were executing at the level we wanted to be executing happily so we have now hired more people than we let go. The advertising market really opened up in the summer and our revenue has increased greatly. We actually had a really great year revenue wise.

WWD: How has it been for you to run all of this at home?

E.R.: In March, April and May I basically blacked out. I can’t even remember. It was such chaos at my home. At that time I had a four-year-old and a two-year-old sitting on my lap and screaming and wanting my attention while we were trying to relaunch Nylon and relaunch Bustle and keep the team together and keep morale up. You just get through it. Everything feels a little bit more normal now in that we adjusted to working from home. My kids luckily have school for part of the day.

WWD: Why is it so important for you to do all these individual site relaunches?

E.R.: I’m not a person who has great experience with SEO, growth — that’s not my background. I came very much from mainly a print background of thinking about a brand, what’s a story for a brand, what does the story look like and so how can I bring that experience to each one of these brands. He said we’ve got SEO down, we understand how to get traffic so your job is very much to look at the brands and make them even more amazing than they are and get readers to love them and create brand loyalty for each one of these brands, so that’s what I’ve been doing for the past year and a half.

WWD: Are you seeing readership levels respond to these relaunches?

E.R.: Our traffic has remained steady if not grown a bit. The world was so crazy and we’re not breaking news sites. So at certain points of the year naturally our traffic would fall when news was really ticking because we very much provide counter programming for current events. We specialize in service, how you interpret events, how you take what’s happening in the world and apply it to your own life.

WWD: Before the pandemic, you had plans to relaunch Nylon in print. Have you had any more thoughts about that?

E.R.: It’s still a priority for the brand. I think it’s very important that it’s done right, so we’re working through timing. Right now we’re in the midst of the pandemic. There’s a lot of uncertainty so I think we’re just evaluating at this point. But I do think that creating special print editions of Nylon is a way to drive a deeper relationship with our reader so I do want to do it. I know it’s still a big priority for Bryan. It’s just a question of pulling the trigger. We now have W Magazine (not in the lifestyle division but in the company) and so I think with that expertise of creating print magazines, it will be easier when we do want to create Nylon print to just do it because we didn’t have that infrastructure in our company before.

WWD: Do you have any involvement with W?

E.R.: No. I’m a friend to [editor in chief] Sara [Moonves]. She’s wonderful. They are operating separately as a mini company within the company.

WWD: Another pre-pandemic priority for BDG was making live events a big part of The Zoe Report. How did you pivot?

E.R.: We’ve done a ton of digital events. We’ve actually gotten a lot of sponsorship for digital events. Would we prefer in real life? Yes. But for the foreseeable future, everything will be virtual.

WWD: A lot of Bustle’s success has been down to articles focused on popular Google search terms. That success is now harder to achieve, especially with Google changing its algorithm to prioritize breaking news. What’s your plan now to get readers to your site directly?

E.R.: Everything I have mentioned to you in terms of my top priorities have been to get people to type in Bustle.com and more people are doing that. I think our celebrity strategy has helped enormously. We can get celebrities on our covers now that other companies would like. Before I started, it was not the case for celebrities to come to promote their latest projects, to have beautiful photo shoots and I think those covers that we’ve done for Bustle — Issa Rae, Kehlani, Daniel Levy — create a buzz.

WWD: Have the algorithm changes negatively impacted traffic to Bustle?

E.R.: I think our last one was down a bit, but nothing major. It’s up and down. You can’t control Google. All you can do is create the best brands that you can.

WWD: BDG was criticized in 2019 for layoffs disproportionately impacting people of color. What have you been doing to improve diversity and inclusion?

E.R.: Of course there’s still work to be done, but I’m pretty confident in our approach. We have an inclusion council that works across the company to address issues that come up about diversity and inclusion. We’re a partner of Black in Fashion Council and our VP of fashion Tiffany Reid is on its board. We have verticals across every lifestyle site called Amplifying Black Voices. We have the 15 Percent Pledge for overall diversity in our content and that includes the talent that we feature as well as photographers. Then there’s a number of recruiting efforts through h.r.

WWD: For the 15 Percent Pledge, is this something you’ve worked on with Aurora James?

E.R.: We haven’t. Each team decided themselves that they wanted to uphold that. I think they’re responsible to their own editors in chief in keeping track. I think it’s something that constantly needs to be evaluated and looked at and added to because I do think it’s one of those things that can seem a little performative. People say it and then they don’t actually do it. So we’ve made it so that you actually have to do it.

WWD: BDG staffers recently formed a union. How has that impacted your division?

E.R.: I fully support, and the company fully supports, the decision for the editorial, design and some video employees to unionize. We quickly, voluntarily recognized them, which I think was the right thing to do. At this point, we’re looking forward to a productive dialogue with the Writers Guild and we’re working through the process.

For more, see:

Media People: Kristen Welker of NBC News

Media People: Kate Lewis of Hearst Magazines

Media People: Dan Wakeford of People Magazine

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