‘Fashion bible’ girds for King Jay translation

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Women's Wear Daily. (Women's Wear Daily)
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Nicole Levy

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Two months after Condé Nast announced it was selling Fairchild Fashion Media for a reported $100 million, the future of the group's crown jewel publication, Women's Wear Daily, is starting to come into focus.

At the beginning of last week, new owner Jay Penske convened the newspaper's senior editorial and business staff for a two-day meeting at a Connecticut hotel to air the comments he had culled from roughly 140 one-on-one meetings with employees and to discuss WWD's strategy going forward, sources said.

Among several points on the meeting's agenda: a discussion of ways to improve the newspaper's editorial product in print and online. 

While Women's Wear Daily remains the industry bible for fashion professionals, a position of prominence solidified under current editor in chief Ed Nardoza, it isn't immune to the declines in advertising revenue all newspaper companies have faced over the past few years. And the 104-year-old publication, which goes to print every weekday, has to contend with younger rivals—such as Condé Nast's Style.com, New York magazine's The Cut, and The Business of Fashion—threatening to undermine its authority with their digital acumen. 

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Enter Penske, whose company acquired the Hollywood trade magazine Variety in October 2012. Under Penske Media, Variety dismantled its paywall to increase its online traffic, cut back its publication schedule from five days to one, grew its data and events businesses and launched new international editions. (Penske, 35, also owns over 20 other media properties, including Deadline.com and HollywoodLife.com.)

The day after the announcement of Fairchild's sale, Penske presented a slide show of his plans for WWD to staff members, sources told The New York Times. Those included extending the trade paper's reach into international markets by opening foreign bureaus and launching local-language websites and events, boosting its web presence and video content, and hiring more writers. 

Since August, Penske has taken the time to collect feedback from staffers, and his call for more employee input last week suggests he has yet to finalize his schema to rebuild WWD. But Penske did make one thing clear: he thinks the trade paper needs a stronger point of view.

During one of multiple presentations he gave, Penske instructed a hotel waiter to enter the room with a glass of milk and piece of toast, and stop short—just as he called for the newspaper to reject "milk-toast" coverage.

Penske's directive addresses an opinion that some alumni and outsiders were quick to voice shortly after Fairchild's sale.

WWD is "very polite" in their coverage, the dean of the school of fashion at Parsons, Simon Collins, told the New York Times' Laura M. Holson.

"In a perfect world, WWD could make a return to the John Fairchild era, where the reporters took no prisoners," wrote former WWD.com fashion editor Véronique Hyland, referring to the WWD editor in chief known for his withering critiques of designers and socialites in the 1960s and '70s. "Fashion needs the kind of gossipy primary source — one based on old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting — that isn't beholden to other, more cautious publications."

Future fashion reviews in WWD will present stronger opinions, Penske said at last week's event. Other topics of discussion at that time included the possibilities of publishing writers' bylines with their reviews and of printing the trade paper one time a week rather than five. 

At a news outlet like WWD, where a number of employees have worked for over two decades, the prospect of a major reorganization is unsettling for some and exciting for others. 

In one presentation, Penske offered a summary of comments from younger employees. He said they felt their voices and ideas were not sufficiently heard, implying that the newspaper's old guard was resistant to change.

Executive editor Bridget Foley, who arrived at WWD in the mid 1980s, spoke up at that moment, raising her voice to ask who these innovative young people were, and asking them to come forward.

One source described Foley's outburst as a moment of awkwardness and difficulty; another characterized it as a pressure-releasing moment of comic relief.

The difficulty of telling the difference between comedy and tragedy may be a theme, at WWD, going forward.

CORRECTION: The original version of this article stated that Penske had plans to extend WWD's reach into international markets with licensing deals, rather than foreign bureaus.