September 20, 2020

Hearst Employees Say Magazine Boss Led Toxic Culture

For decades Hearst magazines have advised American women on how they should conduct themselves in the home (Good Housekeeping, Redbook), in society (Harper’s Bazaar, Town & Country) and in the bedroom (Cosmopolitan).

This is the company whose stars have included Oprah Winfrey, the head of O: The Oprah Magazine, which Hearst has helped run since 2000; and Helen Gurley Brown, the groundbreaking editor who transformed the once-staid Cosmopolitan into a racy monthly that angered conservatives and feminists alike while selling big on newsstands.

But inside the Hearst Tower in Midtown Manhattan, the Hearst Magazines leader, Troy Young, has drawn complaints from people who said he had made lewd, sexist remarks at work. And in recent weeks, inspired by the civil rights movement, current and former employees at Cosmopolitan and another Hearst women’s title, Marie Claire, have spoken out on social media and during staff meetings on what they describe as a toxic environment.

Mr. Young, a former advertising executive, joined Hearst in 2013 as its first head of digital media. He quickly changed the corporate structure so that the editors of the magazines’ websites reported to him, rather than to the editors of individual publications. As part of his plan, digital editors with relatively low salaries replaced high-priced veteran print editors.

His work impressed Steven R. Swartz, the chief executive of Hearst Communications, and Mr. Young succeeded David Carey as Hearst Magazines president in 2018, winning the job over the high-profile former editor and magazine executive Joanna Coles.

That promotion came after at least four employees had complained about what they described as Mr. Young’s bullying or harassing behavior to the human resources department or senior executives, according to four former Hearst employees who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation.

One incident involving Mr. Young came during a visit to the Cosmopolitan office when he was the digital head, according to two people who were present. Mr. Young picked up one of the sex toys that had been sent to the magazine and asked if he could keep it, the people said. Referring to the openings of two toys, he said he would “definitely need the bigger one,” the people said.

Mr. Young also emailed pornography to a high-level Hearst editor, Jay Fielden, according to three people with knowledge of what happened. Mr. Fielden complained to Mr. Carey, who was then the division president, the people said. Last May, Mr. Fielden left Hearst, where he had been the top editor of Esquire and Town & Country. He declined to comment for this article.

At a Cosmopolitan holiday party in 2013, Mr. Young joined a group in which a young staff member was describing a bad date with a man who complained of an ex-girlfriend’s odor. The woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe a sensitive conversation, said Mr. Young told her that she should have inserted her fingers into herself and asked her date if he liked her smell. The woman said she was shocked by his comment and walked away.

Two Esquire staff members witnessed the incident: Nate Hopper, an assistant editor at the time, and Ben Collins, an editor who is now a reporter for NBC. Both confirmed the Cosmopolitan staff member’s recollection. “I think he violated the decency of what was otherwise a friendly conversation,” Mr. Hopper said. “It has been something that I wish I had done something about in the moment for a very long time.”

Mr. Young, 52, addressed the former Hearst employees’ complaints in a statement for this article: “Specific allegations raised by my detractors are either untrue, greatly exaggerated or taken out of context. The pace of evolving our business and the strength of my commitment is ambitious, and I sincerely regret the toll it has taken on some in our organization.”

As for the holiday party, he said in a separate statement, “Candid conversations about sex defined the Cosmo brand for decades, and those who worked there discussed it openly.” He did not address the other specific allegations.

A Hearst Magazines spokeswoman said that, during Mr. Young’s years as digital chief, his “relentless pursuit of excellence was at times combined with a brash demeanor that rubbed some the wrong way.” The spokeswoman added, “Since being named president of the division, he has worked to develop a more inclusive management style.”

ImageJessica Pels, the top editor of Cosmopolitan, at the ACE Awards in New York last year. Ms. Pels apologized to her staff during a videoconference last month.
Credit…Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Accessories Council

As part of the shake-up on Mr. Young’s watch, Jessica Pels became Cosmopolitan’s youngest top editor in 2018. Before that, she had run the magazine’s digital side and was the digital head of Marie Claire. During the recent weeks of protests against racism and police violence, Ms. Pels has faced staff members’ demands for action on what they described as a culture of discrimination that has long been ignored.

Ms. Pels held staff videoconferences in the wake of social media comments posted last month by Jazmin Jones, who had worked under Ms. Pels as a video editor at Marie Claire. In an Instagram post, Ms. Jones, who is Black, accused the company of racial discrimination, saying she was made to feel uncomfortable in threads that touched on race in the interoffice communications app Slack.

A screen shot of a Slack conversation posted by Ms. Jones shows an editor, who she identified as Ms. Pels, commenting disparagingly on the hair and makeup of a staff member of color during an on-camera appearance for a Marie Claire video. Ms. Pels sprinkled the Slack conversation with remarks that she was committing a human resources violation by making the complaint.

In an interview, Ms. Jones, 30, said, “Hearst doesn’t care about you if you’re not a skinny white lady.”

During a videoconference last month for the Cosmopolitan staff, a woman of color confronted Ms. Pels over being pulled into meetings she would not normally have been part of when camera crews were present. She said her inclusion was evidence of the company’s attempt to promote a false appearance of staff diversity, according to a recording of the meeting obtained by The Times.

Prachi Gupta, who covered politics for the Cosmopolitan site during the 2016 presidential campaign, before Ms. Pels became editor, said she felt that Black and brown women were made to “feel less than equal” at the company. “Because there were no women of color in leadership positions, I was not able to seek advice or counsel when I was pushed into some of the uncomfortable positions,” she said.

In a June 6 Twitter post, Ms. Gupta, who is Indian-American, wrote, “From the get-go, I was tokenized. A white P.R. person at Hearst told me that it would be easy to book me for media appearances because my look was ‘very on trend,’ and it was clear she meant that I wasn’t white.”

Credit…Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

Ms. Jones’s and Ms. Gupta’s descriptions of their experiences were echoed by 10 former and current Hearst Magazines staff members in interviews with The Times.

In a videoconference staff meeting, Ms. Pels offered tearful apologies. “I have not done enough to correct imbalances,” she said, according to an audio recording of the meeting obtained by The Times.

In a statement for this article, Ms. Pels said diversity was a “career-long priority for me.”

“At this pivotal moment, my team and I have been making real changes and having extensive, honest and passionate discussions about the progress that needs to be made, and the work I can do as a leader to actively facilitate it,” she said in the statement.

As Cosmopolitan’s top editor, Ms. Pels has conducted interviews with Democratic presidential candidates and published an essay in favor of the Black Lives Matter movement by Senator Kamala Harris of California.

Hearst employees have questioned company leadership at a time when employees at its more glamorous rival, Condé Nast, have done the same. There have also been staff revolts at other media organizations, including The Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Wall Street Journal and Refinery29.

Last month Hearst Magazines appointed Samira Nasr, previously Vanity Fair’s fashion director, as the top editor of the U.S. edition of Harper’s Bazaar. She is the first woman of color to hold the post. And Cosmopolitan started an initiative, “Cosmo Can Do Better,” that calls for the hiring of more Black people and people of color. As part of it, the magazine released staff statistics, saying its work force was made up of 29 percent Black people and people of color, 61 percent white employees, with 10 percent undisclosed. Its leadership comprised 21 percent people of color, the survey said. A Hearst spokeswoman said the company is committed to diversity at all levels.

Michelle Ruiz, a former senior editor at Cosmopolitan, said the messages of inclusion and empowerment from many Hearst publications were at odds with company leadership. She described an encounter with Mr. Young at the Hearst cafeteria that took place when she was heavily pregnant. “So, is the baby mine?” he said, as she recalled it.

“For an executive at the company to suggest that he’d impregnated me was clearly inappropriate,” said Ms. Ruiz, now a contributing editor at Vogue.com. “There’s a real hypocrisy to elevating this man to lead a company populated with magazines that are preaching women’s empowerment on their covers.”