Very Fine Day #43: Versha Sharma

"Young people are the ones who are leading on all of this: on racial justice, on social justice, and on the climate crisis".

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I got a call at 9AM on a Friday morning - when I'm sleeping in - and it's like: This is the office of Anna Wintour and she wants to know if you can speak to her in an hour?


VERSHA SHARMA, the editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue, is our guest today for VERY FINE DAY #43.

I like how Teen Vogue tackles politics and culture, particularly for young people, without being patronising. I think there can be a tendency in youth media to dictate what your young audience should be interested in without considering if they actually are interested in that thing.

Anyway… after talking to Versha I’m fully on board.

That said, it wasn’t all we talked about. Versha was born and raised in Louisiana. The Deep South. Only time I’ve ever been there I was pulled over by a cop at 2AM. We go into that. I’m OK, obviously. Still alive. No criminal record. But I don’t even think I can comprehend what it would have been like, for Versha, growing up there. I’m sure there were cool things going on, along with… the not-so-cool. America is a complicated place, but it will often tell you who it is.

We also had this conversation about 30 minutes after the Kyle Rittenhouse not-guilty verdict came through. There’s a bit of conversation about that: how you explain it to a younger audience, what you think about when reporting on it, and how that case - particular - is unique. It seems a tumultuous time to be in America at the moment (when isn’t it?). Life can be dark. The news can be depressing. Focus on what you can impact.

That’s it from me – we’re heading into the final weeks of the year. Look after yourself, your friends, your family.

I’ll see you down the road.


INTERVIEW BEGINS

VFD: Busy day?

Versha Sharma: It's been a busy day. It's a busy week. This is actually the week that Condé Nast did our partial return to the office – they're asking people to come in just two days a week. It’s flexible. But there has just been a lot more in-person meetings, which is fine. It's nice to see people and meet them. But yeah, it's just a busy time right before the holidays.

VFD: Have you had the job mostly in a pandemic setting, then? When did you start?

Versha Sharma: I’ve mostly been in hybrid setting, I would say, because I started almost six months ago now. It'll be six months at the end of the month. And I've been coming into the office zero to three days a week, but I've also been travelling a fair amount for work.

VFD: Right.

Versha Sharma: It's not uncommon for me to be coming into the office, and a decent amount of other people have been coming in, too, just voluntarily.

VFD: Well, it's a nice place to go to the office in New York City, I think.

Versha Sharma: Right? It’s amazing.

VFD: I haven’t been to that Condé office, but I know there are lots of pictures of the building…

Versha Sharma: Yes, yes. I mean, I'm sitting in our cafe looking at the Statue of Liberty right now. It's insane. It’s so nice.

VFD: Yeah, totally.

I've just seen the Kyle Rittenhouse stuff as well, which I imagine you've had to swarm on immediately.

Versha Sharma: Exactly. Of course, it’s one of those days where our Politics Director is off – she's taking a well deserved holiday. But of course, she's been preparing for this verdict all week and then today, Friday, is the day when it actually comes down. But we have one of our writers on it. I'm helping, just to double check everything.

VFD: How do you think about telling that story and explaining that to your audience? I guess we should say that you are the editor in chief of Teen Vogue. So is there anything you think of when explaining a… not so much complicated, but intense, subject like that to the audience?

Versha Sharma: Yeah, I think we always - in these cases - want to be as straightforward as possible. Making sure they have all of the facts upfront and reminding them of context is really important. People know the name Jacob Blake, they know Kenosha, Wisconsin, but they don't necessarily remember what happened when Rittenhouse shot those people last Summer.

So, lead with the verdict news, then go immediately into a bit of context. Y’know: the protests were against police brutality because of the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Reminding people of that, and then giving them information about the trial. Like: it was a mostly white jury, and given some of the comments from the judge during the trial that we saw, I don't think this verdict is necessarily surprising to a lot of people.

VFD: Yeah,

Versha Sharma: That's not something we put in our story. But just by providing the context of what the judge has said, I think that's helpful to people.

VFD: Sure. And what is the Teen Vogue approach to, I guess, having a “take” with that ancillary report. Or is it a “no takes” model – because I know a lot of media companies are like: we don't do hot takes.

Versha Sharma: I mean, our political newsletter is called the “Teen Vogue Take”. You should subscribe to it if you aren’t - it's a weekly newsletter. But again, for this story, we do differentiate between a news hit and an op-ed, or an analysis piece or an explainer. We do differentiate internally, and for our readers, between those two, but we're not afraid to have that additional take about the trial itself, or whatever it might be. We're definitely not afraid to have a take.

VFD: I can imagine there'll be a few things coming up. And I don't want to throw the whole interview into being all about this, and culture, and the inspection of race relations in America. Because then it will go for a long time.

Versha Sharma: Well, I mean, this is something I was talking about with our writers and editors just now. I do think it's important to remind people of the race of everybody involved in these incidents, and Rittenhouse is white and the men that he shot are also white. And I think people who are casual news consumers might not necessarily remember that - they might assume that because it's a police brutality protest the victims must have been black. The shooter is white. That's why he got off. But that's not always the case. It's frequently the case in America, but it's not always the case.

I think this particular case is super interesting because of the fact that his victims were white. And we're talking about vigilante justice. We're talking about how white supremacy affects other white people. So, I think that is still important context to include.

VFD: Yeah, absolutely. And the class part of it as well. It's a very complicated thing. And again, I don't want to spend 45 minutes unpacking it, because I feel like at the end we’ll just be like: not sure where we are.

Versha Sharma: We're not solving anything today.

VFD: Exactly. Did you grow up in New York?

Versha Sharma: I'm from Louisiana, born and raised. So yeah… no stranger to race relations and the Deep South. I have lived in New York for 13 years now.

It was a very interesting time to grow up as a young woman of colour in the south. And I was definitely coming of age right after 9/11. I was 15 years old in sophomore year of high school when 9/11 happened, and I'll never forget a classmate yelled at me to go back to Afghanistan that day. And I was just… bewildered. Mostly, I was like: My family's not from Afghanistan??? First of all, I was born here. Second of all, my parents are Indian.

But I certainly saw immediate racism and discrimination against brown-skinned people in the south and across America. And even in the UK, that was happening as well. I mean, it happened everywhere. It probably happened in Australia as well. But I think that definitely influenced my political views and my journalistic views. And why I think it's so important to continue elevating the voices of minority communities and underrepresented people. A lot of that definitely goes back to my upbringing.

VFD: Did you have a moment when you were younger where it switched in your mind from: that's weird… I'm not from Afghanistan? Y’know, just being bemused. To then: Oh, shit, this is just gonna be the way things are for a while.

Versha Sharma: Yeah, it probably was right after 9/11. I can’t say that we were systematically targeted in a way before that. Like, we experienced more general or vague racism, but of course it became very targeted against Muslims and brown people after 9/11. My family’s also Hindu. I think that’s a really fascinating part of this whole story: how Islamophobia has affected Muslims so deeply but has also affected other communities that are mistaken for being Muslim. It’s the whole ignorance thing.

But I think that was a big moment for me: when I realised that it wasn’t going away. And when I started hearing stories about my cousins getting profiled at airport security – always getting pulled aside for extra screenings. I was just like: Oh… this isn’t going away.

But I actually think the religion part of it was also important. That was even a little bit earlier. I’ll never forget: I was 11-years-old and I went to Vacation Bible School because my best friend went and I just wanted to spend time with her. And the Southern Baptist pastor tried to “save” me. He tried to get me to sign a piece of paper saying that Jesus Christ is my one and only saviour. And I was just like: I think I need to ask my parents about this right now… I was 11! I’ll never forget that. Just being like: Oh, people here don’t like that I’m different. Or they don’t like that my family is different.

VFD: When did you get out of that? How quickly was that a thing: I need to get out of Louisiana!

Versha Sharma: Yeah, absolutely. I went to college in Louisiana. So I stayed there for that. But I think it was really during college. I got to study abroad in Rome, which was an absolutely amazing experience. And that was just like: Oh, there's this whole, huge, exciting world beyond Alexandria, Louisiana. And this is where I want to be. So I was pretty motivated right after college to leave and to move to a bigger city. Pretty soon after that I came to New York.

VFD: Do you have siblings?

Versha Sharma: I have one older sister.

VFD: OK. Well, Louisiana…

Versha Sharma: Have you ever been there?

VFD: I've driven through it. I've done the drive-by look and see.

Versha Sharma: You should head up to New Orleans sometime.

VFD: Yeah, definitely. I was actually pulled over in Louisiana.

Versha Sharma: Oh, no.

VFD: I was 19 or 20 and driving - we were going somewhere. I was on exchange in the US. We were going somewhere for Spring Break or something like that. Some lovely American tradition. It was my turn to drive and it was 2am and I drove maybe 200 metres before it happened.

Not joking: I pulled out of the 7/11 and then I saw a police car pull behind me immediately. I was just like: here we go... Then it was the lights, the sirens, everyone had to get out of the car, they searched through all of our bags. I’m sitting on the edge of the road thinking I’m gonna die.

Versha Sharma: Did they have a reason?

VFD: I think I may have been swerving a little bit because I was driving on the other side of the road for the first time in my life. So, if I had been afforded even five minutes I probably could have sorted it. It was a lot of bad luck. Anyway, that’s my memory of it.

What did you do in New York when you first got there?

Versha Sharma: When I came here I actually worked on a city council race – that was my first job here. I studied political science as an undergrad and I was also the editor in chief of my college newspaper. I always knew I wanted to do either politics or journalism. So, right after college, I tried politics. I worked in the Obama campaign in 2008, in Louisiana. That was also a fascinating experience.

VFD: What was that like?

Versha Sharma: Oh, my God. Well, Caddo Parish turned blue that year, in 2008, and it has stayed blue ever since – which I think is notable for Louisiana. Caddo Parish is – I think – one of the only places where there’s a slight majority of black people. So it makes sense on a lot of levels, demographically. Still, it was both incredibly exciting to be part of that movement and very difficult at times. Like, our headquarters did get vandalised. None of that is surprising. But it was a really educational experience.

Right after that I actually went to Georgia for a Senate runoff race. The Democrats lost the Senate runoff race in 2008 – that didn’t go well – and then I worked my way up the East Coast. I always thought I wanted to be in DC and work for the Obama administration. I was applying for jobs and I got a last minute job on a city council race in in New York – just a six-week stint. And I was just like: Oh, I have friends in New York. Let’s go do this. So I did that and I fell in love with New York and I never left.

VFD: And then you left politics?

Versha Sharma: Yes. After the city council race I was like: I think I would rather work on the journalism side and combine my two loves to do political journalism.

So then I got an unpaid internship at Talking Points Memo, through one of my campaign contacts, actually. And that was the start of my journalism career and they ended up hiring me as staff and I stayed there for three years.

VFD: So leaving behind the idea of working in politics, was that at all because you were like: This is broken. This is going to break me. Because everyone I talk to who has worked in politics and then has stopped is like: I realised that it would ruin my life.

Versha Sharma: Yes. Exactly. I mean, I was pulling 14 to 16 hour days, seven days a week, for very little pay. And you can do that to a certain point. And then at a certain point, it will break you. Absolutely.

I think there's there's a very tiny group of people in the world who can do marathon campaigning and do it for the rest of their lives. But it certainly wasn't sustainable as a career that could help me pay my bills at the time. But more importantly, I think, as much as I like learning and being involved in policy, the accountability part of it is more important to me. And I can do that as a journalist, more-so than I can working in politics.

VFD: Did you have any friends on that side of the wall that were like: there she goes.

Versha Sharma: No, I think most of the people who worked on that campaign with me completely understood. It was not a well run campaign.

VFD: So, what was it like making that transition? And how quickly did you get going and get running?

Versha Sharma: Yeah, I think it was a pretty seamless transition because, like I said, I'd always been interested in both. So even in college, I was like: Oh, I think I want to work for CNN one day. It was part of my regular news consumption at the time anyway. So that wasn't difficult for me - to kind of slip into that role. And I think I enjoyed it more.

I think I enjoy writing, reporting, editing, getting to frame stories, more than I do just working on a campaign. So the transition wasn't difficult. I started as an unpaid intern, which was a couple months, and really just learning.

VFD: Is that legal in America, unpaid internships? Because it’s not here.

Versha Sharma: I don't think it is anymore. This was literally when it was changing in the journalism industry, so 2009 to 2012, it was super common. And then finally the tide started changing. They started enforcing Department of Labor rules that they were maybe not enforcing before, and of course in the last five years we've seen the big unionisation push, which has been great.

The internship was just learning the aspects of the editing process and social media. This was also a really interesting time where publishers were just starting to scale up on social media. Having a Twitter presence that wasn't an automated “tweet this headline”. Instead, they’d have a human behind it, understanding why that was important. Understanding audience engagement and development to a sustainable business model. I learned a lot at TPM. I felt like I learned all aspects of the business of running a startup news organisation.

VFD: Right. And then what came after that?

Versha Sharma: I was freelancing for msnbc.com, covering the 2012 presidential election. And then I got a job at Vocative, are you familiar with Vocative?

VFD: No, what's that?

Versha Sharma: Oh, boy. Vocativ is an international news startup that had big dreams that did not work out so well. But Vocativ was a very interesting place to work. It was good because I got to branch out into international politics, which I love. Doing more culture reporting, I started reporting more on the gay rights movement, and different cultural issues within the US and outside of it. And that's really when I started getting into video. So my first professional experiences with video, studio production, in front of the camera, behind the camera, that came from Vocativ.

VFD: And what did you learn? What do you mean, in terms of video? Were you on camera, or producing…

Versha Sharma: Yeah, all of it. Producing short documentaries. Doing the research and reporting for a short documentary, doing the actual interviewing, both in studio and in the field, then working with an editor and post-production to actually put the pieces together for the short documentary. So I really learned almost all aspects of the process.

VFD: How do you think that's different to written journalism? Do you use that skill set when you’re constructing things now?

Versha Sharma: Yes, absolutely. I think video journalism is so much harder. That is my hot take. It was something that I noticed at Now This News - I spent 2 years at Vocativ then I went to Now This - and I just remember being on the campaign trail in 2016 and going to a campaign event, or rally, and seeing my other fellow political reporter friends. We would all come back to the hotel or the War Room and be in the same place. They file their report, and they're done. But I have to sit with my editor and producer and stitch together minutes and hours of footage. It just takes so much longer to produce a quality video journalism piece, or even a recap of the same event.

I think one of Now This’s major strengths is that we got so fast at it. And we were very good at quick turn production. But it took us a while to get there. And, again, it's learning how to be that fast on the ground and in the moment. It requires more people and more resources than just written reporting and editing.

VFD: Yeah, it became a meme almost: the Now This social video format. So you were pretty instrumental in that?

Versha Sharma: Yeah, I was brought into Now This in the early days to work with the executive producer Sarah Frank - she's absolutely the person who should be credited with Now This’s incredible growth. But it was awesome to work with her in those early years and figure out this new social video format. My task was keeping our editorial voice consistent across every platform that we were on, and then just defining that editorial voice of being a voice for young people, and young people's take on the news.

VFD: I guess that works pretty well with your current gig in getting young people to understand the news. How did that come about?

Versha Sharma: What, coming to Teen Vogue?

VFD: Yeah.

Versha Sharma: So I see a lot of editorial overlap between Now This and Teen Vogue, which is one of the reasons I was so thrilled to get this role. It's a natural fit in a lot of ways, especially because they're so closely aligned on the issues that young people care about. And also, not afraid to have a point of view a lot of the time, like we were talking about.

At the end of 2020, I decided it was time for me to move on from Now This. It had been seven years which is a very long time, even in media and digital media.

VFD: In dog years or whatever it's 50+ years.

Versha Sharma: It was so long. And literally being there from when our newsroom was 12 people to over 150 people, just amazing growth over the seven years. I knew that I wanted to look for a new opportunity.

The challenge of what I was doing at Now This, and what I wanted to do, is that Now This allowed me a very unique hybrid role where I could do writing, editing, reporting, being a correspondent on camera, and also being a leader in the newsroom and being a managing editor. There are very few jobs in the industry that combine all of those aspects, but they're all aspects that I love.

And then I found out that Lindsay Peoples Wagner was leaving Teen Vogue and that they would be looking for a new editor in chief. My friend told me about it. She was like: You should apply for this. You'd be great for this. I was like: Wow, that seems like a long shot. But that sounds like a really cool, amazing job. Let me try this. I actually came in, late in the process, where they were close to selecting a finalist. I introduced myself, I knew some people on staff, I asked them for advice or insight into working here. And then everything happened with the appointment of Alexi McCammond. And I was like: Oh, I was too late. That didn't work out. Let me go look for other jobs.

VFD: How’d you feel about that?

Versha Sharma: About what happened with her?

VFD: Yeah. And then also, consequently, what happened with you. You say you’re getting close to getting a job - or you're in the final stage - and then the way you find out it doesn’t happen is when someone else gets the gig, right?

Versha Sharma: Yeah, I mean, I hadn't even interviewed or anything. I came in at the time when they told me they were close to selecting somebody. So I wasn't even considered for that first round. I don't feel like it's my place to comment on Alexi and what happened with her and the way that it happened.

But after that, I was like: Oh, so they are looking for an editor in chief still. After they decided to part ways. Let me throw my name back into the ring, because I am still interested in this. So, after that, then the interview process actually started. And I had my first round interview with Conde HR and then I met Anna Wintour on Zoom.

VFD: On Zoom. Not the way everyone imagines it happening.

Versha Sharma: I know. But I think it actually helped when I finally met her in person, because I'm like: I’ve already talked to you! And then I interviewed with basically every Conde Nast executive. They took the job application process very seriously after that, which they should. And then it worked out. And I'm very happy that it worked out for me to get this role and be able to come into this team and the team is amazing. And we're still building it. We have four open roles that we're hiring for right now. So it's exciting to get to come in and work with a great team and then also build it a little bit too.

VFD: Was there a moment in that process where you either felt like you'd nailed it or you blew it?

Versha Sharma: That is a great question. So the first round HR interview, the guy explained to me: You're gonna interview with our lead HR person, and then this other person in marketing, and then you’ll meet Anna. I was like: OK, I know the timeline. I'm very thankful that initial conversation with HR went so well. The guy liked me so much that he apparently went straight to Anna and was like: You need to talk to this woman, I think she's the right person for the role. So I thought I had time but I got a call at 9AM on a Friday morning - when I'm sleeping in - and it's like: This is the office of Anna Wintour and she wants to know if you can speak to her in an hour? And I was like: What????

I had just had the interview the previous day. I had no idea that was coming. Thankfully, I had prepared a lot for the first time. I was prepared, but I was scrambling. I was like: This is crazy. Thank God it was on Zoom, because I would not have been able to get myself together in-person.

VFD: Just mainlining coffee.

Versha Sharma: I literally had pillow creases still on my face when I was putting my makeup on. I will never forget that moment. But it went surprisingly well. She was very charming, she was very nice. We had a great conversation. And then I was like: OK, wow. So that went a lot better than I expected it to when I woke up two hours ago.

VFD: And now we’re here. I'm guessing in that process, and before you started, people were asking you about the vision you would implement, or what you'd like to see on Teen Vogue. And stop me if they didn't, I just feel like they’d ask that.

Versha Sharma: It's a question I get a lot.

VFD: So what do you tell them? And then how much of that have you managed to do?

Versha Sharma: I would say two main things: actual editorial vision is just coming in at a really crucial time for young people entering this next phase of the pandemic.

When I started, people were about to go back to school. Everything that's gone on with student debt crisis, and the economy, and the lack of jobs during a pandemic, and the unionisation push and labour. Just everything! Education, politics, even fashion and beauty. And then, of course, the climate crisis, which touches all of these areas. I just think it's such an interesting time. Let me add one more thing: record voter turnout among young people in 2018 and 2020. Fantastic to see.

So I think I came in at a time when young people are more engaged than ever, politically and socially. I think that's incredibly exciting. I want Teen Vogue to continue reflecting that. I've been such a fan of Teen Vogue for many years because it does a great job of that already. I'm one of those people who certainly started paying attention again, in 2015, 2016, when I feel like Teen Vogue really found its political voice. Now it's in a different era, right? We have President Biden now, we're coming out of the Trump era, we’re very much dealing with the aftermath of what he's left. But he's still a force in modern Republican politics, he has not gone away.

I wanted us to take that level of political and social engagement, which was also unprecedented in the way that we saw the racial justice protests in response to George Floyd's death. Young people are the ones who are leading on all of this: on racial justice, on social justice, on the climate crisis. So Teen Vogue should be emphasising all of those voices and all of those issues, all of the time.

Gen Z also really understands intersectionality, I think. Even mor-eso in a way than millennials - and I am a millennial. So I want us to be super reflective of that going forward as well. There have been fascinating conversations this year in the fashion and beauty industry about how these brands and the industry contributes to incredible amounts of waste. What is it that the industry can do to cut back and really help out with this, and how can Gen Z - on an individual basis - be an ethical consumer? I just think there's so many questions that young people are asking themselves and asking of systems right now. And Teen Vogue is just a great place to collect all of that and be a resource and be a guide. And that's exactly what I want us to do.

VFD: Without being rude, but it’s also something I face in my job - what is your technique to ‘know what the kids are doing’? For lack of an easier way of saying that. I'll talk to my staff and I'll be like, So I know cool things are happening. But maybe we should talk about it, get some ideas… Perhaps there are some cool things I just so happen to not know about…

How do you approach that?

Versha Sharma: I think it is those conversations. My staff is all people in their 20s and early 30s. We have a lot of student writers for us, which I think is great. We're constantly getting pitches from students, and we greenlight quite a lot of them. So I think it's just being very open to those pitches and those conversations and listening.

Of course, we are all on social all the time. So paying attention to what the TikTok trends are, what those conversations are on Instagram as well. Paying attention to the social conversation, and just making sure that we're listening to the right groups of people and actually listening to teenagers and Gen Z and people in their ‘20s. That's how we do it.

VFD: Yeah. Pretty straightforward. I guess m final question is around digital storytelling, and telling stories on the Internet. That seems like something you've done your whole career, not just in journalism, but also in political manoeuvring. What do you think people misunderstand about digital reporting or digital media that they might not think about traditional media?

Versha Sharma: Let me think about that. I feel like there's actually been a positive shift in this direction. But at least just a couple years ago, I think people didn't really understand the power of social reporting, or UGC. And that still felt very new. I think a lot of older brands or legacy brands still don't understand that TikTok and Instagram and just social video in general - and still very much Snapchat - is so popular for young people because of the level and opportunity of authenticity. I think that's still misunderstood. I feel like I'm talking more about social reporting than I am digital, specifically. But it’s the same family.

VFD: I know what you mean. It’s the new form of “reporting” in general.

Versha Sharma: Exactly. So I think there are people who still misunderstand that, or who aren't listening, or who think that they can reach a younger audience if they just come up with some how do you do fellow kids TikTok and just put it out there, rather than actually listening to Gen Z and listening to what they're saying and trying to reflect that. So I think people still misunderstand that.

VFD: Yeah. I agree, definitely. I don't know how we'll get people to come around - the people that still haven't come around. It’s like: It's been 15 years.

Versha Sharma: What are you waiting for?

VFD: I'm done talking about this.

Versha Sharma: It has been exciting to see people in my cohort and age group get leadership positions now, because now that we're in these roles, we can really push for it.

VFD: Yeah. That's definitely true, but it's funny to still see the narrative play out from those same people but directed at the youngish people that are now in positions of power. And it's like, Why do you think they’re making the decisions now? It’s not because they’re doing anything wrong, or digital media is bad, or social storytelling. It's an interesting time to work in media. I feel like we're at the start of another wave. But a nice one.

Versha Sharma: I hope so. How long have you been working in media?

VFD: Oh, 10 years. I know I sound like it’s been depressingly longer. But I think it's just because I started when I was 19 and have only ever done that in a lot of ways. And it just becomes your life. You have to learn to live with that. Some people have good work/life balance. I certainly don’t.

Versha Sharma: It’s always the goal.

VFD: It’s a good thing to talk about. I’m going to sleep in, I’m going to have a weekend without my phone. Sure you are.

Thanks for taking the time to chat.

Versha Sharma: Yeah, of course.