Esquire taps insider to replace Jay Fielden as editor-in-chief

Hearst tapped an insider to become the new editor-in-chief of Esquire, the venerable men’s title that has been torn by dissent in recent months.

Michael Sebastian, who was running the digital side of the publication, was tapped on Monday to succeed Jay Fielden, who told his staff on May 30 that he was exiting.

Another insider, Nick Sullivan, fashion director since 2004, has been promoted to creative director, a newly created position.

One of the new editors’ first tasks will be to rebuild a staff that has been decimated following last month’s announcement from Fielden, who led Esquire for the past three years, that he was exiting when his contract expired at the end of June.

Bruce Handy, a top deputy, turned down the job of interim editor-in-chief. Michael Haney, the No. 2 who had experience running before he was lured to Esquire, also resigned in the wake of Fielden’s departure.

Then last week, at least six more staffers were handed their walking papers.

Hearst’s chief content officer Kate Lewis praised Sebastian as a “great storyteller and a champion of features and reporting. He is also a wise editorial strategist, listening to the audience and acting responsively. He has raised the bar on the website and has accelerated the growth on the politics beat,” she said.

Sebastian, a former media reporter at Ad Age, ran the Esquire web side for the past two years. “Every day on the internet is a referendum on a brand’s relevance and I am excited to bring that kind of thinking to all platforms for Esquire,” he said in a statement.

With a digital person gaining full control, rumors were swirling that Esquire would cut back on the number of print issues it publishes next from its current level of eight in 2019, but a Hearst spokeswoman said there were no such plans at the moment.

The Esquire team has been racked by discord that burst into the open when it was learned that Hearst Magazines President Troy Young and the company’s chief content officer Kate Lewis had killed a story by Maximillian Potter and Alex French on a long history of sexual predatory behavior by famed Hollywood director Bryan Singer.

Singer, who was involved with “Bohemian Rhapsody” and the X-Men movies, denied the claims. After Hearst brass killed the story late last year, it was published in The Atlantic. A behind-the-scenes tick-tock in the Columbia Journalism Review on how the story ended up in The Atlantic fanned yet more discontent in the ranks at Esquire.

The criticism was grounded in the idea that neither Young nor chief content officer Kate Lewis had the hard-nosed journalism chops to evaluate such a story.

After the CJR story appeared, Eve Burton, Hearst’s top legal officer, issued a statement defending the corporation’s decision to not run the story. But bad feelings lingered.

From day one, Sebastian has secured something that Fielden always wanted but was blocked from achieving: control of both the digital and print side of the publication.

His appointment was announced by Young and Hearst Corp president and CEO Steve Swartz.

Under the old arrangement at Hearst, all the digital properties reported to Young, a veteran of Say Media, who was the head of Hearst Magazines digital before being promoted to president of the whole Hearst Magazines division last year.

Print editors chafed under the structure because it deprived them from having an impact on the smaller but fast-growing side of the operation while contending with advertising erosion and resulting cost pressures on the print versions.

But with Young at the top of the company, many of the top EICs have begun to gain control of both web and print versions.

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