A little more than two and a half years ago, it was announced that the revered Deborah Needleman had resigned from her post as editor-in-chief of the Wall Street Journal’s lifestyle magazine, WSJ. She had taken an offer to take over T: The New York Times Style Magazine after Sally Singer’s abrupt departure. Needleman had become a bit of legend during her tenure at WSJ., and she left some mighty big shoes to fill. Enter Kristina O’Neill, the affable Virginia-born, NYU-educated former executive editor of Harper’s Bazaar, who has quietly made WSJ. into an advertising juggernaut. The September 2014 women’s fashion issue was up 24 percent in ad pages from the previous year, while the September 2014 men’s style issue was up 30 percent—setting new benchmarks, which according to O’Neill, are on track to be surpassed again this year. The 39-year-old editor sat down with Surface to discuss her successes and those to come.
You don’t give many interviews. Tell us a little about your background.
I grew up in Woodbridge, Virginia. I currently live in Brooklyn Heights. I moved to New York more than 20 years ago to attend NYU and never left.
You started out as Candace Bushnell’s assistant in the mid-’90s. How did you meet her?
When I was at NYU, I was taking journalism classes, and one of the assignments was to interview someone you admired. Candace at that time had a column in the New York Observer, “Sex and the City.” When it came out on Wednesdays, my girlfriends and I loved to read it and dissect it. So I called 411, got her phone number, rang her up, and said, “Can I interview you for a school paper?” Well, it turns out Candace had also gone to NYU, so I think she just felt sorry for me, and thought it was charming that I was calling her from a payphone at Dean & DeLuca. I think she thought it was gutsy. She agreed. So we met, I did my interview, and she said, “I don’t think you’ve asked all the right questions.” Our one-hour interview turned into two and a half hours. We got along really well. She needed an assistant, and she liked my story [about her] when it was finally published, and we’d kept in touch, and she offered me a gig as her assistant, so I did that while I was still in school. Come summer, it became a full-time job. At that point, she’d met with Darren Star [producer of Sex and the City on HBO], and the treatment had been worked on. I remember her asking me, “What do you think of Sarah Jessica Parker?”
And you were the reason she was ultimately hired?
No. I take no credit for that. [Laughs] But it was so exciting to be there in those early days in the first season they were shooting. It was a wild time to witness the potential of a newspaper column.
Do you feel the same way about WSJ.? Is it a wild time?
It’s really exciting to be at the ground level of something. WSJ. is six years old; I’m its third editor. But I definitely think in the last two and a half years we’ve transformed it into this exciting platform. People have said it’s gone from a newspaper supplement to an essential monthly magazine.
What do you think made that happen? What’s the special sauce?
If I tell you that … [Laughs]
Mayonnaise and ketchup?
No, there are a couple of ingredients in there that are very special and specific to WSJ. I think the entire magazine industry is going through a lot of change right now. For the real institutional brands like the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The New Yorker—these trusted resources—I think you go big or go home. Or it’s an opportunity for smaller players to do really interesting, creative things, but scale doesn’t have to be as important for them. I think everything else in between feels like it’s trying to scale up when it shouldn’t be, or trying to diversify while getting away from its core values. When you’re a brand like the Wall Street Journal, it’s a very exciting platform to be a part of. There’s a trust and obviously a legacy, an authenticity to the product. It’s surprised me so much how the integrity of the overall institution really trickles down into everything we do, and informs every decision we make. “Integrity” is a key word that keeps coming up when I think about what sets us apart. We don’t do features because we have to; we do them because we want to.
You’ve had cover subjects as diverse as the Knicks’s star forward Carmelo Anthony to supermodel Daria Werbowy. Tell us about how you make these decisions.
It’s not a science. We’re able to put [on the cover] who we’re feeling at that moment.
Doesn’t it get a little scientific sometimes? Like today Carey Mulligan on the cover of this month’s Vogue. She was also on the cover of your May issue.
It’s Carey Mulligan’s moment now. It was Carmelo’s moment then. Woody Allen had Blue Jasmine out when we did him. Wes Anderson was doing The Grand Budapest Hotel. What I feel very lucky about is having that intuition about who’s right for WSJ., but also right for the time.
Are there any subjects you’d kill to have?
I would die for Meryl Streep. [Laughs] We’re working on it.
Does exclusivity make or break a story sometimes?
Exclusivity is really important. And sometimes it’s nice going in and knowing. Obviously, we knew Carey was on Vogue. And Vogue knew when we approached Carey that we wanted her for WSJ. So there’s a transparency in those negotiations. Sometimes we decide that we want to be the only ones.
Recently, you had Rem Koolhaas and Dasha Zhukova smiling together on the cover, which was certainly one of the standouts of your tenure so far. Tell us how that came together.
One of the things I’m really conscious of is to look back at a 12-month run and say, “Did we tick all the boxes of the things that we stand for? Did we cover art, architecture, design, interiors, food, fashion?” We try to get the mix right in every issue, but sometimes one of those features rises to the top. In that case, what was so exciting about the Garage Museum was that not only did it tick the architecture box—Rem’s collaboration with Dasha on the space—but it’s a major art institution that’s about to open in Russia at a time when people aren’t taking those kinds of leaps. It was a really interesting project to learn about, and I’ve been following its progress. Dasha is someone I’m wildly impressed by. And it was great to do the two of them together. I love that it signaled a different side of WSJ. We’re able to do risky, out-of-the-box things because people don’t expect things from us in the same way that you know a celebrity is going to be on the cover of most magazines every single month. Who we put on our cover can change. In April, we had a stairwell on the cover.
What role does design play at the magazine?
Personally, I think design is another area that our reader is enormously fascinated by. Whether it’s interior design, garden design, public spaces, building design. We’re able to marry things. We had a portfolio in the June issue. It’s a museum space, and the design of the museum is as important as what’s inside it. We’re paying attention, we’re competitive in the space.
Do you keep tabs on your competitive set?
When we want to feature René Redzepi, suddenly our competition is Bon Appétit and other food magazines. It could be Vanity Fair. It could be that Jeffrey Steingarten [Vogue’s food critic] is doing something. If we’re going with celebrity, then we’re paying attention to what the competitive set is doing there. The goalposts are always moving. For each story, it’s very individualized. It’s not just a broad stroke. It’s more organic to what the feature itself is, and we might choose, like we did with Carey, to go ahead and say, “You know what, it’s actually kind of great she’s on Vogue.” We feel like we can do something different, do her in a different way. We’re gonna do it the WSJ. way.
Is your WSJ. way different from that of your predecessors, Deborah Needleman and Tina Gaudoin?
I think it’s a new WSJ. way. I don’t want to compare my WSJ. to her WSJ. or to T. I certainly think the way we approach things photographically, stylistically—I think my fashion point of view is honed from working 12 years at Harper’s Bazaar.
Tell us about the design of the magazine
I’m very proud of how it looks. We’ve come up with a visual system that feels very different from the way other magazines look. We’re not afraid, when a story’s a little quiet, to let it be quiet. We’re very conscious of the package. For the overall design, we tweaked the entire thing from top to bottom. I wasn’t a big fan of the prior logo. It felt disconnected to me. I wanted to own the fact that we’re an extension of this amazing 125-year-old newspaper. It’s very easy to go in and say, “I want to shake this, and put my thumbprint on it.” I wanted to put the Wall Street Journal’s thumbprint on it. I think of us as a sixth or seventh section.
How would you describe the office environment at the magazine?
It’s a very familial place. I’m a pretty laidback editor in terms of open-door policy. I’m very approachable. I’m always on my Blackberry. [Pauses] Blackberry? What am I saying? I’m always on my iPhone.
Yeah, my StarTAC. [Laughs] I’m very accessible. I like that people pick up the phone and feel that they can call me directly. I like having lunch and dinner.
Do you seek out writers based on their name recognition?
Not at all. It’s the right writer for the gig. For me, what’s so important is that subject feels at ease. I’m not a square-peg, round-hole kind of person. I don’t like to work uphill. If something doesn’t feel right, we’ll walk away from it.
You kill stories then?
No. I don’t think we’ve killed a single story since I started [Laughs]. But I’m very clear about how I want the interview. How I want the pictures to look. All that planning is done well ahead of time. We really talk things through before we hit Send. Before we commission anything, my team and I debate the merits. It’s important to workshop those things up front.
September issues are most important for a lot of magazines. Yours is “Innovators,” and it’s published in November, coinciding with an awards ceremony. Tell us a little about that.
“Innovators” is the biggest event we do. It’s the one night a year that we basically bring the magazine to life. Not only is it about the 2-D version: writer plus subject plus photographer. That translates into this event. Everything has to holistically fit together. It’s one of the issues we work the longest and hardest on. Literally, after last year’s, the next morning we woke and made offers for this year’s. It’s very competitive. It’s all about the overall fit—does it make sense?
Which editors have inspired you?
Katharine Graham from the Washington Post was a childhood hero. In terms of contemporary editors, I think Adam Moss does a really cool job at New York. I’m admiring from afar what Janice Min is doing with the Hollywood Reporter. I learned a lot from working for Glenda Bailey [at Harper’s Bazaar]. Anna [Wintour] is obviously someone whose tenure and trajectory have been amazing.
Does print media have a strong future?
One hundred percent. Not only ad sales. The overall circulation of the Wall Street Journal is going up.
You just got back from the White House Correspondents Dinner in Washington, D.C. I saw you Instagrammed President Obama while he wasn’t looking. You going after him for the a cover? Pegged to his exit from office perhaps?
The one area we don’t really touch is politics. I’ll leave that to the newspaper.