Joanna Coles on Magazines, Her New Book and the Digital Age
Hearst Magazine's chief content officer sits down with Folio: for a one-of-a-kind interview.
There’s isn’t much left to say about Joanna Coles that hasn’t already been said. Her celebrity within the magazine industry ballooned during her six year stint as editor-in-chief of Marie Claire and then arguably more so during her four-year tenure at Cosmopolitan. The reputation and credibility she established as an editor and thought leader opened up other opportunities outside of magazine media, from developing a TV series (“The Bold Type”), which is loosely based on her life and time with Cosmo, to writing a book about dating in the digital age—“Love Rules”—which was recently published by HarperCollins.
Whatever it is she’s working on, she doesn’t hold back from committing herself fully and putting her own stamp on it. And that approach is clearly working well. Not only has she risen to the c-suite ranks at Hearst Magazines as its first chief content officer, but her new book “Love Rules” has become the #1 Best Seller on Amazon in the Sex and Sexuality category. When you look at the advance praise you might see why. Sarah Jessica Parker, Esther Perel, Ariana Huffington, John Oliver and Amy Cuddy not only gush about the book, but also Coles herself.
“Generally, you never want to take emotional advice from a British person. Joanna Coles is the very rare exception to that rule,” Oliver quips on the back cover.
With endorsements like that, we had to see what all the hype was about. So we sat down to Coles to talk about her new book, her new role and something that we all care about—magazines.
Folio: After reading your book, it definitely seems there’s a need for something like this, given how digital media has changed how we interact with one another. But what inspired you to write it now?
Joanna Coles: I started thinking about writing it four years ago, but I didn’t quite have the time. No one had yet written a book looking at the whole of what is happening to our relationships in this digital world, and that’s what I wanted to do.
I talked to hundreds of women during my time at both Marie Claire and Cosmo, and I was hearing a steady drumbeat of anxiety. When you look at the data around young women’s lives in America, one in five claim to have been sexually assaulted, we also know there’s an epidemic of binge drinking. And 50 percent of sexual assaults take place with alcohol. So it felt very clear that there were some pain points within the culture that I was interested to explore. There’s a tremendous amount that’s great with dating apps but there’s quite a lot that isn’t.
I think the other thing is this is not a zero-sum game; it’s not all digital or no digital. And what I was trying to do in the book is trying to get the best out of digital without losing control over other parts of your life, including relationships.
Folio: The format of your book is interesting. You explain in the forward that it’s inspired by the book “Food Rules.” Did your choice to play up that idea come before or after you started writing the book?
Coles: Well, I like “Food Rules” because there’s so much advice about what to eat and what not to eat. Everybody’s confused, but Michael Pollan just came out and said, eat less and mostly plants and that seemed like a perfectly good way to think about food. I liked the analogy with food. It hasn’t been done before and it felt to me like it may make relationships slightly easier to understand.
Folio: These new conventions for dating have interesting parallels to how our day-to-day lives have changed due to digital media. Do you see this book having lessons for readers who maybe aren’t looking for love, but are still using some of the same platforms to communicate with people and build and maintain personal and professional relationships?
Coles: I hope so. I love my phone. I love being able to text people. I love being able to call and I love people being able to get in touch with me. However, I don’t want to be at the mercy of it. And what’s exhausting is the expectation that you are somehow always available, and that seems to be the same for everybody. If you look at the New York Times weddings announcements, at least a quarter of them now met on a dating app, which is great. I’m not anti-digital, as I said, I think that dating apps are brilliant at connecting people. We all live parallel lives and somebody otherwise may not meet somebody they find to be wonderful without these apps. But I think if you go on them thinking that in two swipes you’re going to find “the one,” you will be very disappointed. Of course, the flip side of them is that they can feel very transactional. And that’s not actually how relationships work.
I felt that we were undervaluing the power of sitting down with a friend. We live in a time when we’re encouraging people to entice crowds of Facebook friends or Twitter followers and yet the value of those connections is not the same as a real connection with someone that you see regularly who knows about your life. And even calling someone a Facebook friend is an interesting perversion of the word “friend,” because friendship takes time. We know that actually every study around friendship suggests that you can’t really have more than 150 people in your network and spend any real time or attention on them.
So what is the value of these kinds of anonymous people out there who “like” something we post, or repost something?
True friendships aren’t actually transactional—friends may be able to help each other, but true friendship is built over years of doing things with people, listening their issues, being involved in their lives, them being involved in your life. It’s really the practice of putting someone else first. That is not what happens with anonymous connections online. You may think that you’re connecting or communicating with a person, but really, you’re communicating with someone you’ve essentially fabricated. You fill in the gaps in your knowledge of them, which is fairly rudimentary because all you’ve been doing is texting each other. So you’re communicating with somebody who doesn’t really exist.
Folio: You definitely did your homework for this book by speaking to a lot of people and mixing that in with academic research. Through all of this, you must have encountered a lot of surprises, but what surprised you the most, in general?
Coles: Well, one of the things I do think is interesting is how popular culture presents women when they’re drunk. And if you think about “Trainwreck” or you think about “Bridesmaids,” which have moments of real hilarity, but they also perpetuate the idea that women are funny when they’re drunk, yet anybody who’s been in a situation with a very drunk friend knows it’s actually pretty scary, and it’s almost never funny. You’re either trying to stop them from vomiting or making a bad mistake and going home with the wrong person. So I think I was surprised by how usuriously we take binge drinking and how we haven’t made the connection between hooking up with strangers and alcohol abuse.
When you talk to a lot of young women a lot of them talk about how alcohol is an essential ingredient for having a fun evening out, especially because it can help ease the stress of being naked in front of a stranger. I thought that was very interesting. If people want to hook up, that’s absolutely fine, but why are they drinking so much to do it? Drunk sex, for the most part, is not that fun and definitely not fun going home with someone and then the next morning waking up unclear if you’ve been sexually assaulted. That’s not empowering and there is a narrative around drinking that it’s supposed to be empowering for women.
Folio: Rule 12 in the book stands out as a valuable general lesson in life. We are in an era where a lot of decisions are being made for us through social media, influencers, big data or predictive algorithms. But your rule tells us, at least when it comes to dating, we should trust our gut. Do you agree that this principle is universally important, beyond dating?
Coles: You’re right. I do think the gut is a very important tool that we have and it gets out of practice when you spend a lot of time communicating with people online. You’re getting edited and curated versions of what they want you to know. This very much applies in the workplace. You can see bosses tearing their hair out when colleagues working in neighboring cubicles will email or text each other rather than getting up to talk to each other. Also, emails can feel abrupt, and can be sent when someone is in the middle of 30 other communications. Yet, it’s one of our primary modes of communication at work now and that comes at a great loss in terms of understanding the power of being with someone in the moment. That applies to parents with kids, that applies to workplace, it applies to spouses, and in almost all situations, you are better off talking to someone than you are sending them a text or an email or a Slack message.
It’s really about relationship intelligence. We’ve contracted out a lot of our communication to our devices because of speed, and because it’s easier. So that means you get out of practice of having difficult conversations and we lose the skill set to do it. You see that a lot with Millennials in the workplace who sit down and immediately open their laptop. Or you sit in a meeting and they immediately reach for their phones because they’re anxious communicators.
Folio: If your readers could take away one thing away from “Love Rules” what would you want it to be?
Coles: That you do need to put down your device and listen to people and spend time with people, and not only is that the right thing to do, but you will get so much more back from showing up in person.
We were producing magazines the same way that we’d been producing them 25 years ago. It felt like we were ready for a change.
Folio: So while we have your attention we’d be remiss not to talk about your day job. You’re approaching two years as chief content officer at Hearst now, which was a brand new role at the company when you took it. How have you defined that role so far, and what are you especially proud of?
Coles: We’ve done a lot of internal restructuring and grouping people together by subject, not by single brand. So we’ve created a beauty hub; we’ve created a fashion hub and we’ve created a celebrity hub all so that we could harness our top talent and use them across several brands, and not restrict them to one brand. It’s a more effective way of producing content—it’s definitely a more modern way. We were producing magazines the same way that we’d been producing them 25 years ago. it felt like we were ready for a change.
Folio: You have deep roots in print, and you’ve been an outspoken advocate for magazines. But we all know the industry is changing fast, and so are the ways people consume content. With this in mind, do you think magazines still have an exceptional and unique value for readers that other media can’t offer?
Coles: I think we’re in post-digital euphoric moment where we’re beginning to understand that man cannot live by device alone. If you can bear the momentary panic you feel when you disconnect, there is a lot of reward to be had. That could mean spending time focusing on the glories of the magazine, which is really a journey of discovery. Someone else has put this intoxicating mix before you and the concentration that a good narrative story requires will more than pay off when it’s well written. I think it’s a much more restorative way to spend time than scrolling endlessly through content that you’re not sure is real.
Folio: Finally, now that you’re in the c-suite, do you ever miss being on the brand level and the daily grind of being an editor?
Coles: Being an editor is a really hard job actually. It’s a wonderful job but it’s a hard one. I love being in a position now where I can try and offer help and support to our editors. So I don’t miss it. I do miss writing a bit, which is why I wrote the book. I love writing and I find it difficult so it’s a good thing to wrestle with. But I don’t actually miss the day-to-day of editing a magazine. I spent ten full years doing it and I was ready for the next thing.