W Magazine Sold to Bustle Media Group and Investors Including Kaia Gerber

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W magazine, the oversize fashion magazine whose 450,000-person circulation belies an outsize influence, is changing hands again. Now to be known as W Media, its new operating partner will be Bustle Digital Group, a web company whose properties include Bustle, an online magazine for women, and Mic, the social justice-focused website, along with a group of investors that includes the movie and television producer Jason Blum, the racecar driver Lewis Hamilton and the model Kaia Gerber, Cindy Crawford’s daughter, who is just 18.

“We did it all over Zoom,” said W’s editor, Sara Moonves, who will remain. “None of us even met in person.”

Ms. Moonves, 35, got help putting together the group from the model Karlie Kloss, who is also investing. Ms. Moonves met her in 2009 during a Vogue shoot, Ms. Kloss’s first, with Annie Leibovitz.

Ms. Moonves was working there at the time as the assistant to the stylist Phyllis Posnick.

She became known as a stylist for having a love for quirky, kaleidoscopic shoots with an Alice in Wonderland aesthetic — as well as for being a collector of people. Her father is Les Moonves, the former head of CBS. In high school at Harvard-Westlake, she became close friends with the actor Jonah Hill.

ImageFrom left, Lewis Hamilton, Kaia Gerber, and Jason Blum are investors in the purchase of W Magazine by Bustle Digital Group.
Credit…Isabel Infantes/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images; Andreas Solaro/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images; Valerie Macon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Ms. Moonves met Mr. Blum through W’s editor at large, Lynn Hirschberg.

Mr. Blum is also a friend of Bryan Goldberg, who heads Bustle and founded Bleacher Report, a sports website that Turner Broadcasting bought in 2012 for what Lizzie Widdicombe of The New Yorker reported was more than $200 million.

The deal is the latest attempt to revive a title that seemed at death’s door in March, when Marc Lotenberg, the owner of Future Media Group, furloughed the majority of W’s staff and suspended its publication, blaming the coronavirus.

Just nine months before, he had bought it from Condé Nast in a deal The New York Post estimated at $7 million.

Credit…Rebecca Smeyne for The New York Times
Credit…Deidre Schoo for The New York Times

In the weeks preceding the shutdown, the magazine was hard at work on a new issue whose cover subjects were Dua Lipa and Megan Thee Stallion.

Mr. Lotenberg was hardly the ideal suitor for the magazine — his design and fashion title, Surface magazine, was notorious among contributors for its late payments — but Condé Nast, its parent company since 1999, wasn’t unloading W because things in the industry were good.

The changing news cycle has rendered much monthly content obsolete. More and more, celebrities were turning to Instagram to promote their own projects (and publish their own staged photographs).

Mr. Lotenberg’s purchase of W came with the understanding that he would be able to pay Condé Nast in installments, said two Condé Nast employees who requested anonymity because the negotiations were private. By January of 2019, as Mr. Lotenberg later acknowledged to The Times, he was running behind on payments to them and to vendors.

The pandemic made things worse, making him open to finding a buyer.

Credit…Colin Dodgson, via W Magazine
Credit…Tim Walker, via W Magazine

Most of the magazine’s employees thought this was a fine idea indeed, and Ms. Moonves began what she described in an interview as a “complicated undertaking” to locate a buyer.

It turned out there were several.

But the biggest partner will remain Bustle Digital Group, whose primary experience is online but was eager to expand into print. Now it has a title that has won numerous awards over the last two decades for photography but that also needs to expand its digital position. Ms. Moonves said W would publish six print issues in the next year. The furloughed staff is back on the job.

The high celebrity quotient of the deal notwithstanding, she doesn’t want the magazine to turn into another experiment in synergy, the way Talk Magazine was in 1999 when Tina Brown, the former editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, and Harvey Weinstein started it in collaboration with Hearst. (Talk folded in 2002.) But Ms. Moonves also wouldn’t rule out Ms. Gerber and Ms. Kloss as cover subjects.

“We’ll pick the best people for the magazine,” she said.

Mr. Goldberg is not a universally beloved figure in media. A story about him last year in The Columbia Journalism Review described him as a kind of “digital slumlord” known for “snatching up gutted media properties, bidding low and running them on cheap labor.”

Elizabeth Spiers, the former editor of Gawker and The New York Observer, characterized him in a piece for as a practitioner of “lazy entrepreneurial solipsism.” (When interviewed by Ms. Widdicombe of The New Yorker, he spoke of his intention to make Bustle the “biggest and most powerful women’s publication in the world,” which has not exactly happened.)

But Ms. Moonves sa the possibility of having a consortium of people as an ideal situation in a sharing economy, a way to have “more players at the table.”

“If there was ever a moment to figure out how we do this differently, this is it,” she said.

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