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Kaiser Permanente Logo – Jun 18-19 – Stanford University

Highlights from Keynote Speech by David Granger, editor-in-chief, Esquire

How Donuts and Heath Ledger Helped New Writers Publish in Esquire

Mag's editor-in-chief, David Granger, Shares Insider Secrets to Esquire's Success

By Kathryn Roethel

David Granger, editor-in-chief of Esquire magazine knows how hard it can be to try to get a foot in the door of your dream job.

A year before he was hired to lead the iconic but struggling publication in 1997, he hand delivered his resume and cover letter to Cathie Black, President of the Hearst Corporation's magazine division. Later, he placed a follow up call to Black asking if she be interested in talking to him. Her response, "Not really."

A year later, however, Granger's phone rang. And his 13-year stint at the editor's desk has brought the magazine back to life, winning more national magazine awards than almost any other publication in the same time period.

As the keynote speaker at Stanford University's Future of Freelancing Conference, Granger shared some of the secrets to the magazine's success, his favorite articles from the past decade, and tips for writers hoping to break into the magazine.


I like guts. I truly believe writers should be willing to risk looking silly in order to do something great. Chris Jones got his first assignment when he was working as a sports writer in Canada. He picked the lowest ranking editor at Esquire who assigned stories. Then he showed up at our offices with two boxes of donuts - one for the security guard at the desk and one for the lowest ranking editor.

I met another writer, Lisa Taddeo, after I got a call from a friend who she'd worked for. I had breakfast with her... and started looking for ways to use her. When Heath Ledger died in 2008, I was baffled by the outpouring of emotion. I called Lisa and asked her to report as much as she could on it in a week. Five days later, I had the first draft of a story, and I thought it was good, but it just wasn't there. One of my editors called her and told her we couldn't use it. The next morning - eight hours later - we had a completely rewritten story in our inboxes. It was in first person, and we called it reported fiction. It was both funny and profound. We published it, and Lisa is doing very well today.


It's been difficult for me to assign new work to freelancers in the last 18 months. But even last year, in the midst of the worst economic recession I've ever known, new writers have found ways to force their ways in. I got a proposal from a writer wanting to write about the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. The reporter had already arranged to be embedded with the Army and had gotten the Pulitzer Center to pay all his expenses. All it would cost us was a writer's fee. You don't say no to that. It turned out to be a good piece, and it will run in August.


Despair is a regular feeling for me. If it weren't for despair, desperation and despondency, nothing would ever change in the magazine industry.

One of the first creative things we tried to do with the magazine was run things in the margins. We ran a short story entirely in the bottom margin. It was good - 1,400 words with about seven words per page. You had to flip through the magazine in order to read the entire story. Some people thought it was a gimmick and some people started to get pissed off about it. My favorite was when the fiction community said we were marginalizing fiction.

We also messed with the cover. Magazine covers are boring... We did something radical. We put complete sentences on the cover. People were freaked out by this, but we did it for 3 1/2 years. We put Jessica Simpson on one cover shaving her face and in the background the sentence, "We shot this image to catch your eye so you will pick up this issue and immerse yourself in the most gripping story you will read this year. It's on page 102."

In December 2009, we did what we called an augmented reality cover with Robert Downey Jr. You hold your copy of the magazine up to your computer's webcam, and it talks and sings and dances. Inside, you can hold up one of the pages and see a funny joke from a beautiful woman - in this case, actress Gillian Jacobs.

But all of this is really just to support great writing. It's my job to create a magazine that mandates and encourages great writing, so I do stunts that make that possible.


It's been a good century for articles so far... When September 11 hit, we had a journalist at ground zero for 11 days. Then there was Tom Junod's article about the Falling Man - the man photographed jumping out of the World Trade Center. That was one of our hardest to report. We're covering the rebuilding of the World Trade Center from beginning to end and we've had five articles so far.

We had a great article about what people would do for money. Reporter Tom Chiarella got a New York City street cleaner to let him drive the cleaning truck for $20. He offered to buy a woman's dog for $1,000. It started out as a stunt and ended up being incredibly profound.

One amazing one by Chris Jones was about film critic Roger Ebert losing his ability to speak after his battle with cancer... In the first 11 days the story was on the website, more than 800,000 people read the story, and Esquire didn't even promote it. It was just a story... a long story... with no video. It's not the type of story that's supposed to succeed on the web. That really gave me hope for the future of online journalism.


It was hard for me to get permission to develop an iPhone app. Then, finally, Hearst said I could do it if I didn't spend any money. So I did. Now, we might be the only magazine phone application that has made a little money. We're solidly in the five-figures. And Hearst has decided that Popular Mechanics and Esquire will be the two magazines that will experiment with the iPad.


This weekend, my audience is getting in a car and driving somewhere. They have two bikes on the back of the car, and they're going to stay at a cool little hotel like the Stanford Terrace Inn. They'll pick a first floor room so they can have a backyard with a stream. Tomorrow, they're going to get up at 6 a.m. and ride their bikes all the way to the top of Zion National Park, and they'll get there just in time to see the canyon explode in color. Then they'll have breakfast. Bacon and eggs. Then, I hope they'll have sex after that.


It's an impossible standard I asked my writers to live up to. I asked my reporters to try to repot their stories so they understood those worlds as completely as fiction writers understand the worlds they've imagined. Details emerge only when writers to 101 interviews. The bulk of writers in the internet age accept rumors as fact, but reporting triumphs. For a writer to assume he has something to say in an audacious act... it's an amazing responsibility, and it's a privilege.