On September 15, the Brown Institute welcomed Joanna Coles, Hearst’s first Chief Content Officer. Coles spoke to about 100 students on the lawn outside the Mathematics Building on the Columbia Campus. Just a week before her visit, Coles was promoted from Editor-in-Chief of Cosmopolitan, a position she held since 2012, to the head of content at Hearst.
We asked her about her time as a journalist, an editor and now as a collaborator with technology firms. Coles spoke of her experiences with platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Google. Personally? “Twitter is an art form,” she said. But professionally, she’s seen friction between tech and “content,” the stories we prize as journalists. Part of her new job is to figure out whether Hearst should try to repackage its material to reach the audiences of a particular platform, or partner with tech startups to create new platforms and build new audiences starting with Hearst content. Coles is a member of the board of Snapchat, and described her experience designing Cosmopolitan content for the app’s new Discover feature. Coles said that Shapchat’s Discover is “the hottest emerging platform for news.” We also asked Coles about other aspects of the tech and content divide, including the well-known gender gap in fields like computer science.
In addition to tech talk, we asked Coles about Cosmopolitan. Just a day before her visit, the magazine had published a controversial interview with Ivanka Trump. Coles said “I’d like to think the Cosmo reader wants to know about mascara and the Middle East.” She gave credit to Helen Gurley Brown, longtime Cosmopolitan editor and founder of our institute, for changing the magazine and producing real journalism. Of course she also said that HGB would probably have been the first to take a selfie or to send a sext. Finally, Coles commented on Cosmopolitan as a magazine. Despite her commitment to new platforms, she believes print will survive. Her own media diet includes time alone with stacks of magazines “absorbing the nutrients.”
Coles also had some advice for our students. The rate of change in our industry is only accelerating, and this cohort is facing a complex, yet exciting, world of new platforms and new opportunities for journalism. New journalists, she said, need to be well informed and pay attention “when everyone else turns away.” As for a work ethic? “You’re not working hard enough!” She also spoke about the strength of loose ties in finding your next job. Oh and when we offered her a bottle of champagne in gratitude for her time at Columbia she advised, “Never drink on a story. It’s the path to ruin and madness.”
Thank you, Joanna Coles for taking the time out to visit our school. It was a gift!