Offshoring Comes for Condé Nast’s Copy Editors

After a round of layoffs in New York last year, the publisher set up an English-language copy editing hub in Mexico City, leaving remaining employees fearful their jobs are next to be shipped across the border

Shortly after six U.S.-based copy editors were laid off in April 2021 from Condé Nast’s Content Integrity Group, which handles copy editing and fact-checking for most of the publishing giant’s titles, its division based in Mexico City, which publishes Spanish-language editions of Vogue, Glamour, Architectural Digest, and GQ, started building a new copy editing group in Mexico City to work on its American magazines. Last May, several job listings went up for English-language copy editors, fact-checkers, and a “hub director.” Three of the laid-off copy editors in the U.S. had been part of the copy hub, a group of five copy editors who worked on whichever title needed them, which was dissolved in concert with the layoffs. “We were sort of swing players,” said Gaylord Fields, one of the survivors of the hub who is now a copy manager primarily for GQ. Despite not being assigned to any one magazine, the group often focused on Architecture Digest’s digital stories. “We were essentially AD’s copy editors. Not officially by title, but we handled 100 percent of their copy editing,” Fields said. “And so AD digital was left without support. And then these two Mexico City hires, we trained them to do the jobs we were doing before.”

Members of the Content Integrity Group, including Fields, had been involved in organizing the Condé Nast Union since before last spring’s layoffs, but the specter of outsourcing reaffirmed their belief in the union’s necessity. “I’m not saying that you can’t find good copy editors in Mexico City, but you already have established great copy editors here. And the idea of going into the unknown in order to have non-unionized, lower-salaried copy editors — it’s easy to feel less than safe about your own job,” Fields said. “The idea of replacing unionized workers with probably non-unionized workers does bother me. There’s a workforce that you can energize in another country, that you can pay less money, and if having a particular standard of copyediting is no longer a requirement, then why not do this cost-cutting move?”

No one who spoke with The Fine Print could say with certainty that the salaries of the copy editors in Mexico City are lower than those of their counterparts in New York. “I would imagine that the whole reason that the company did this was to exploit them and pay them less,” said Michael Quiñones, a copy manager in the Content Integrity Group working primarily on Vanity Fair, “but I’m not sure.” The Fine Print reached out to the five copy editors in the Mexico City group, but management warned them in a Zoom call on Wednesday that they would need permission from the company to speak or else they would be in breach of their contracts, and none ultimately chose to comment.

A Condé Nast spokesperson did not answer specific questions about the layoffs and wage disparities between the New York-based copy editors and Mexico City-based copy editors but did provide a statement. “Last year we announced our new global operating model. Our editorial teams now work across borders in sharing content, strategy and best practices across our brands,” they wrote. “Global headcount grew by 3 percent in 2021 and we currently have approximately 500 open roles, over half of which are based in the U.S.”

After years of staggering operating losses — The Wall Street Journal reported Condé Nast lost $120 million in 2017 and The New York Times put its 2019 loss at $100 million — The Journal’s Alexandra Bruell recently reported that the publisher returned to profitability in 2021 in part due to “cost savings from reorganizing its global operations.”

For a period, copy editors in both hubs in New York and Mexico City overlapped. “When they got laid off there was a lag. They stuck around for about two months, maybe longer,” Fields said. “There was an initial date that was set — ‘Your final date is X’ — And then it was extended another month. I think the reason for that is because they were having trouble hiring people in Mexico City, because it’s a pretty hard hoop to jump through to find people not just who are adept at copy editing in English but living in Mexico.” There were some unspoken tensions in some encounters. “They had a meeting where it was the last week with one of the women who was being laid off and it ended up being the first week of these two new hires,” recalled Quiñones. “I thought that was really awkward, and other people did too.”

At first, there was little discussion of any connection between the layoffs and the new hires. “I don’t think we had a chance to even process what was going on. Only in retrospect did we understand,” Fields said. “We put the obvious two and two together.” Around November, when more people joined the Mexico City hub, including Anthony Parks, who started as director that month according to his LinkedIn profile, the New York-based copy editors started to get suspicious. “When it was made clear that there was going to be this department based in Mexico City, that would be incorporated into our group — once it became not just here were a few people that were hired, but there’s a leader, there’s a director of their group — when it became formalized, it was clear that this was a new direction,” Fields explained. For the copy editors at that point, he said, “there was an obvious, direct relationship between the layoffs and this new group forming.”

That realization caused some in the Content Integrity Group to question their initial reaction to Condé Nast’s global reorganization. “I actually have a little bit of a background in international affairs and I was like, it wasn’t a bad thing, it wasn’t like our jobs are going overseas. It was like, it’s being rearranged and it’s no big deal,” said Quiñones, who holds a master’s degree in international relations from The New School, “but this was like, ‘Oh, wait, no, actually, yeah, there’s also a hub in India, and nothing wrong with that, but doing the same work as people who are getting laid off.’ So it’s like, we’re gonna be replaced. So you feel like you’re working in this insecure environment where you’re just kind of waiting.”

Contributing to their consternation is that Condé Nast management hasn’t clearly communicated how they plan to proceed with its copy editors around the world. For instance, members of the rank and file are unsure if the group in Mexico is set to expand. “I just try to go to those global workflow meetings and get a glimmer of what’s going on. It’s just been a lot of restructuring and synthesizing, wherever possible, across brands and across regions at the same brand. I’m kind of waiting for the next shoe to drop and waiting for some kind of super reorg to hit us,” Quiñones said. “It seems, from talking to certain people, that the replacements will continue, and why wouldn’t they?” 

When U.S. staff learned that global copy director Robin Aigner had visited Mexico City, some interpreted it as a portent of this eventuality. A Condé spokesperson said, “Robin manages a global team and as any team would, when opportunities arise, they gather in person.”

The New Yorker was one of the first Condé publications to unionize — in March, eleven more Condé titles organized but have yet to be recognized by management — and the gains they’ve won in subsequent bargaining have given the copy editors hope. “That was why I was like, ‘Oh, yes, the union, what can the union do about this?’” Quiñones said. “At the time that this was happening was when The New Yorker won their contract after a couple of years. So then I started looking through the contract, and there’s a pretty specific provision that says you cannot take work already being done and give it to permalancers or freelancers or anyone outside of the bargaining unit if it results in the loss at work or the termination of somebody in the bargaining unit. So I was like, ‘Oh, well, this is exactly what we need.’ It’s the one way I can see that we’ll feel a little more secure. This is a very clear benefit. There’s a lot of benefits, I think, to having a union, but this was the existential benefit.”

So far, the Mexico City copy editors have integrated pretty smoothly, in part because of the shift to remote work and the fact that most communication is happening on Slack. But they haven’t formed the sorts of close workplace relationships that would make conversations around unionization tenable. “We’re out and proud union members. They know this. But it’s just been a taboo subject, it seems, because I don’t think we want to antagonize them, and they don’t necessarily want to spook us,” Fields said. “They haven’t reached out to us about organizing or showing any sort of solidarity that I know of. Whether we’ve reached out to them, I don’t think that’s happened either. It’s not that we necessarily think of them as the enemy. Not at all. Personally, I like working with them. I think they’re lovely people, and they’re coming up to speed as copy editors, but it’s more of what they stand for.” He added, “it would be in our best interest to see if they would like to organize on their end.”