Editor-in-chief of People magazine shares journey to success

Baylor alumnus Jess Cagle announced last Thursday that he is retiring as editor-in-chief of People Magazine and editorial director of Entertainment Weekly and People en Español March 31. | Photo courtesy of PEOPLE magazine.

By Caroline Yablon | Copy Editor

Summer of 1986 was an exciting time in New York City for Baylor journalism student Jess Cagle, who experienced a one-in-a-million opportunity –– a chance to intern at a renowned pop culture magazine where he checked facts and covered celebrity parties.

Little did he know then that he would climb the ranks to become the editor-in-chief of People magazine as well as the editor and editorial director of Entertainment Weekly and have cameo roles on televised sitcoms and doing celebrity interviews.

Last Thursday, he announced he is stepping down as editor-in-chief of People magazine and editorial director of Entertainment Weekly and People en Español. He has taken time to look back at his journey to success within the journalism community.

Where you come from does not dictate your future

Cagle, Baylor class of 1987, grew up in small-town Abilene where some people might think to have a career in Manhattan was out of reach. But that was not the case for Cagle. He overcame that profile by building a career in entertainment journalism simultaneously in the Big Apple and Los Angeles for the past 32 years.

Cagle developed a sense of confidence in college while sitting in one of his favorite professor’s class, Dr. Loyal Gould’s mass communications class.

“We would call his class ‘Travels with Gould,’ because he would just talk about himself and all the things that he had done, people he had met,” Cagle said. “You know, from a small town in Texas like I was, you really had not met people with those kinds of experiences. And then you meet him, and he’s just a guy like you, and he tells these stories. And you think, ‘Oh, it’s not impossible.’ But then you soon think, ‘If he can get there, maybe I can get there, too.’”

Cagle knew the entertainment field was his niche from the beginning and quickly sought professional experiences, such as staff writer and entertainment editor at The Baylor Lariat.

Dr. Doug Ferdon, who ran The Baylor Lariat while Cagle was on staff, said Cagle was an entertainment guy from the start. He reported all things entertainment on campus –– from All-University Sing to plays to movie reviews, etc. –– he covered it all.

Ferdon described Cagle as spontaneous and professional –– a student who knew his deadlines and always ahead of the game.

“He looked laid back, but he was always asking questions,” Ferdon said. “He always knew the answers to things.”

Not only did The Baylor Lariat provide Cagle with valuable work experience, but it also gave him a sense of community where he felt his truest self.

“I just remember the feeling when I was in Castellaw and loving those late nights in the newsroom … and never wanting to leave because it was a place where I felt like I was good at something,” Cagle happily reminisced. “It was a place where I could find the occasional Democrat that I felt a kindred spirit with –– that was my community. I think it was one of the first times that I discovered ‘Oh, there’s a community of other people like me — very open-minded, very liberal, very funny, and it was fun to hang out there.”

The amazing summer 1986 People magazine internship

Cagle’s 1986 summer internship jump-started his career at People. He learned how to fact-check. He also was sent to ritzy New York City parties to interview and build relationships with celebrities. He described it as a “magical summer.”

“I met a lot of famous people, and you would go to these parties to cover them, and there were a bunch of celebrities,” Cagle said. “I remember Fergie [Sarah Ferguson –– Duchess of New York] got married that summer if I’m not mistaken. I remember helping to cover the wedding and going to the office at 5 a.m. with everyone else watching it on television and writing down things for People.

Take the initiative and ask for opportunities

As the summer and his internship were ending, Cagle said he desperately wanted to write a story before he left. His ambitions led to bold action. He marched into editor-in-chief Patricia Ryan’s office and asked to go to lunch with her. He ended up asking to write a story.

“I didn’t know better. I didn’t know that people didn’t walk into the editor’s office, but I did,” Cagle said.

Cagle’s bold moves paid off because she said yes to both requests.

Soon after, “the music editor stopped me in the hallway and said, ‘I want you to do a story on this new band,’” Cagle said. “‘They do this new kind of music called rap where they sample all of these different songs within the music.’ He explained what rap was to me. And then I interviewed Run-DMC.”

Stay in touch with people

As People‘s editor-in-chief, Cagle advises interns and students to network well.

“Take the time to meet the leaders in your industry because everybody is very happy to talk to students and interns. People are eager to do it. I also learn a lot when I talk to interns and when I talk to students,” he said.

Cagle’s senior year followed his internship, which meant it was now interview season. So he saved up enough money to return to New York City during spring break and had lunch with the People’s chief of reporters, who ran the fact-checking department, as a way to check in and stay on their radar.

Even successful careers can stall unexpectedly and accelerate just as unexpectedly

Cagle graduated in 1987 but People was not ready to hire him –– not just yet. So, he started working at the Abilene Reporter-News while trying to plan his career endgame.

Then, November of 1987, Cagle got the phone call he’d been waiting for. People offered him a job as a temporary reporter to fact-check during the holidays. Without hesitation, he quit his full-time job in Abilene and moved to New York City.

“Honestly, they did not give me a job because I was some huge talent at all,” Cagle said. “I got the job because I stayed in their face as much as possible after my internship.”

Cagle said it was vital “stay in people’s faces and write hand-written thank you notes all the time –– those things make an enormous difference.”

In 1988, Cagle’s job was made a full-time reporter. Aside from fact-checking, he said he took every opportunity to cover parties and pitch stories. As a young writer, he said it was important for him to find his own stories and pitch them instead of waiting for assignments to be given to him.

He remembers two of the early stories that he pitched. The first one was about Barry Williams, who had played Greg Brady on the show “The Brady Bunch“, coming to Broadway. Cagle said he interviewed Williams and got that story published in the magazine. The second story he pitched was about Kathy Najimy’s (who starred in movies like “Hocus Pocus” and “Sister Act”) comedy duo called “The Kathy and Mo Show.”

“They had this really buzzy [off] Broadway show that everybody was excited about,” Cagle said.

Cagle said he was able to break out the ranks of just fact checking because he kept pitching stories.

Promotion to Entertainment Weekly

In 1989, a group of people at People magazine started the development of a new kind of magazine for its time, Cagle said. They named it Entertainment Weekly.

“It was all about pop culture and all the different mediums of pop culture,” Cagle said.

The new group asked him to work on the prototype. A year later, Entertainment Weekly launched and Cagle got promoted to staff writer.

Cagle said the magazine had a very rocky start and almost folded. But then it became a massive success years later.

“I kind of got my big break as a writer at Entertainment Weekly,” Cagle said.

His big story that really established him as a writer at Entertainment Weekly was “Whoopi Goldberg duels with Disney” in 1992 which was about the production of the iconic movie “Sister Act” starring Goldberg.

Cagle knew who wrote the original script, as well as one of the stars in the movie. He said they told him that the movie was having a very troubled production where Goldberg had all these fights with Disney and that the script was being re-written every day.

Being an ambitious journalist, he tracked down production creatives to get the scoop. A lot of the biggest writers in Hollywood, including Carrie Fisher, were brought on to help produce the movie. As a result, Cagle said he pieced together a really funny story about the making of “Sister Act.”

“It was just really intense and then, of course, it turned out to be this gigantic hit, and it all worked out,” he said.

Soon afterward, he began garnering bigger assignments, which he said led him to become a senior editor of Entertainment Weekly.

In 2000, he left Entertainment Weekly and moved to Los Angeles to write for Time magazine, where he got to write cover stories for celebrities like Julia Roberts, Tom Cruise, and Reese Witherspoon. Then in 2002, he wanted to go back to editing, so he moved back to New York City and oversaw People’s showbiz coverage until 2009. He said he remembers being there during the Brad Pitt, and Jennifer Aniston breakup. At the same time, he was a contributor to the CBS Early Show from 2003-2008. And for one year (2005-2006) he was a film and film critic for WCBS.

“I discovered I didn’t want to do television full-time, but it was a great skill to have as a print reporter,” Cagle said.

Then in 2009, he became the editor of Entertainment Weekly. His crowning promotion broke in 2014: editor-in-chief of People and editorial director of Entertainment Weekly.

Editor-in-Chief does more than just print

When Cagle took over Entrainment Weekly in 2009, that was a time when print was on a decline where advertisers and people were moving more to digital. So as the editor, it became not only Cagle’s job to “stabilize” print and keep it vital, but it was also finding ways to grow its readership digitally and finding new revenue streams, he said. Cagle integrated the print and digital teams into one for Entertainment Weekly. By doing that, under his leadership, launched many brand extensions, including Entertainment Weekly Radio on SiriusXM.

During his time as editor-in-chief of People for the last five years, Cagle also integrated print and digital together. With his guidance, People’s editorial staff has grown the magazine’s digital content by producing hundreds of pieces of digital content every week. They have also produced many television programs including the People Magazine Investigates franchise on Discovery ID, and a live daily web series, People Now, on People’s OTT network, PeopleTV. Cagle also hosted The Jess Cagle Interview, where he interviewed celebrities and was broadcast on all of the brand’s digital platforms and SiriusXM’s Entertainment Weekly Channel, according to Entertainment Weekly.

“If you’re the editor-in-chief of People, it’s not about just print, although it’s definitely important,” Cagle said. “I spend a lot of time on the People cover because People sells a lot on the newsstand. But a lot of my time is spent on these other brand extensions.”

Cagle also wanted to use People’s platform for good, he said.

“One of the big things with People, besides growing digital, TV shows, and lots of celebrity exclusives, People is this gigantic brand with a gigantic reach,” he said. “And one of the things that I wanted to do while I was in charge of it, was really use it as a force for good. We’ve done so much for the LBGTQ community. We’ve done so much for gun violence. We published a couple of times, in print and on our website, the numbers of every member of Congress so you can call and ask them what they are doing about the epidemic of gun violence in our country. We’ve really tried to make it a force for good and we’re really proud of that.”

Over Cagle’s career, he has become an insider on the lives of celebrities. For an outsider, seeing even one celebrity walk by on the streets of Los Angeles might make one star struck. But for Cagle, he said he does not get starstruck when he interviews them because they are people like him who are just working.

Meeting a “legend” is a different story, according to Cagle. He said when he met President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman he was star struck.

“It’s always surprising, and it kind of makes sense, because these people are so iconic,” he said. “You suddenly just can’t believe your sitting just two feet away from them, but you know them so well and these are people whose faces are recognized around the world—that’s when you get star struck.”

Embarking on a new journey

Last Thursday, Cagle announced that he will be stepping down as editor-in-chief of People when his contract expires on March 31. He will also be stepping down from his role as editorial director of Entertainment Weekly and People en Español.

Cagle has been working at weekly magazines at Time Inc. (now Meredith Corporation) for the last 32 years, running weekly magazines for the last 10-years and running People for the past last five.

“While that’s a fun job, it is really all-consuming, and I’ve realized that there are a lot of other things that I want to do while I am still young or at least alive,” he said.

Cagle said first and foremost he wants to live under the same roof as his husband, writer-producer Matt Whitney who lives full-time in Los Angeles with their dog. They got married last May and for the last couple of years, Cagle said he has been traveling back and forth from New York City to Los Angeles, which has been hard on him and his husband. Being that a plane ride from New York City to Los Angeles is five or six hours.

“You can only fly back and forth to LA all the time for so long,” Cagle said.

The million-dollar question is: What’s next for Cagle? The first thing he plans on doing he said is taking a few months off to move his things to his new home in L.A. and spend some time there relaxing and clearing his mind. He also plans on spending time with his family in Texas. Work has delayed he and his husbands honeymoon, but now they have plans to go to Bora Bora. He also noted he will pursue some new work projects.

As for what’s next for Cagle’s career, he said he wants to keep telling stories. “I’m looking for interesting projects and finding ways to tell stories because that is what I’ve done for my whole career in some form or fashion,” he said.

Cagle said he is considering more television and radio productions and appearances and writing a book. He’s also entertaining the idea of consulting a variety of media companies. Ultimately, Cagle said, “it’s just finding interesting ways to tell stories” and helping people.