A Real Page-Turner

February 19, 2017

On magazine endings, beginnings, and whatever the hell is going on at Condé Nast.

 

“The studios have closed down. There are very few pictures in production. Where there used to be 50, there are 18 now.”


When I read those words, written by the mother of a child star in 1948, when the movie business was imploding, I gasped. Because that 70-year-old sentiment sounded eerily familiar.

 

So did this observation, from Lana Turner:

“My last few years at Metro were like working amid the ruins. Familiar faces disappeared. The wardrobe and the prop departments began to thin out, and publicity people I’d known for so long were dismissed. . . It was all doom and gloom.”

Sing it, sister.                                                                                                                                                   

 

One year ago this month, More magazine folded. This came as no surprise     to any of us who worked there. For most of its existence More  served an

audience  unlike any other—an influential, opinionated, and highly devoted readership with money to burn. But they were women of a certain age, and advertisers just didn’t want to know. So we were already the underdog. And the entire industry was in free fall; even the stalwarts felt more like pamphlets than doorstoppers most months.

I confess I now spend more time on social media, and enjoying the renaissance of great storytelling on TV,  then I do reading magazines. I still love losing myself in a great magazine piece, though more often then not I am pointed to it online by a tweet or a post. Which is fine, but also kind of sad, since it used to be such a thrill paging through a fat, shiny magazine, advertisements and all.    

Sadder still are the endless rounds of layoffs and restructurings, a rearranging of deck chairs on a dangerously listing ship.

I get the need to save money and improve efficiency. But it was quite the jaw-dropper when Condé Nast (Condé Nast!) announced that it was pulling most of the copy editors, researchers, and creative teams from their magazine motherships and massing them into pools elsewhere in the building.
 
In an all-staff email last October, Condé CEO Bob Sauerberg stressed “the importance of acting as ONE company and breaking down the silos that prevent collaboration across our brands.”

Of all the troubles besetting the industry, is the fact that staffers applied their vision, skills, and institutional memory to enhance their own special magazine really a “problem” that needed solving to help Condé Nast survive? What kind of mind considers distinct, iconic publications like Glamour and GQ to be silos?

“Today, [artistic director] Anna Wintour and I are restructuring our creative and editorial copy/research teams to unify these functions under new leaders and relocate them together,” the email continued. “Our powerful and storied brands are our stars and these changes will enhance the creative process . . .”

Wondering how treating so much of the talent behind Wired, Allure, GQ, Glamour, Golf Digest, Bon Appétit,  et al., as interchangeable widgets would enhance the storied brands, I reached out to the company to see if Sauerberg or Wintour would elaborate. A Condé Nast rep would only refer me back to the original email. “We’ve said that they will continue to maintain their unique voices,” he wrote. No further comment would be forthcoming.

Obviously, this is not the first time a medium has had to reinvent itself because of a new delivery system or a massive lifestyle change. Meanwhile, much of the talent in magazines is still there, producing brilliant reporting, gorgeous prose, and powerful images under the strain of waiting for the other Manolo to drop. The trick will be figuring out how to pay for it all now that we readers have been spoiled by the availability of free online content and subscriptions for a song.

Publishers need to become less ad-dependent, says Samir “Mr. Magazine” Husni, director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi’s Meek School of Journalism. Print is “tangible, collectible, and has staying power,” he explains, and committed readers will be willing to pay full price for it. So publishers should take a page from premium cable services such as HBO and focus on “customers who count” rather than on “counting customers.”  

Husni remains proudly bullish on print, noting that his collection of 35,000 magazine first editions includes 845 new launches from 2016 alone, a combination of bookazines, annuals, specials, and “225 launches published with a regular frequency of four times or more a year.”

 

In a remarkable act of magazine karma, just as More folded last year a new magazine aimed at smart, gutsy females of a certain age—albeit those five to 10 years old—was born. Started by glossy-magazine veteran Erin Bried after she grew frustrated by the offerings available to her daughter, Kazoo is a print-only, ad-free quarterly whose goal is to inspire girls to be “strong, fierce and true to themselves.”

 

Within 30 days Bried’s Kickstarter became the most successful journalism campaign in the site's history (as of this writing, only one campaign has topped it since—by a mere $540). The first issue quickly sold out, and Kazoo landed on several “top launches of 2016” lists—including that of Mr. Magazine.

When I asked Husni what type of new magazine he’d most like to see in 2017, Mr. M responded, “Anything with a Vol. 1, Number 1 on its cover.”

Sing it, Samir.

NOTES:
The Hollywood studios quote is from a letter written by Martha Grimes, mother of the actress Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. It appeared in the biography Every Time a Bell Rings: The Wonderful Life of Karolyn Grimes, by Clay Eals, which I read while preparing to interview Grimes for an earlier post.

Ms. Turner’s remarks are from her autobiography, Lana: The Lady, the Legend, the Truth.

P.S. I highly recommend What’s Your Plan B?, a wonderful Facebook group for journalists of all types (including photographers, designers, reporters, and editors) from all mediums. There you will find support, ideas, encouragement, job leads, and much-needed laughs. All you need is for a member to put you in the group. If you need help, connect with me here, or via any of the social media links listed at right.

 

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Photograph (top): © ClassicStock  / Alamy Stock Photo

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