Newsweek raised a few editorial brows recently with an issue (June 15) edited by Stephen Colbert, the political satirist who plays an egomaniacal right-wing talk-show host on Comedy Central. What does a guest editor do? “In Colbert’s case, he designed the cover and chose places within the issue to insert his character’s voice,” said editor-in-chief Jon Meacham in the Editor’s Note prefacing the issue. “Everything he did in character is signed, so there should be no confusion about what is Newsweek and what is Colbert.” For features, the magazine presented Colbert with about a dozen options, all by Newsweek writers and reporters; he and his team chose the nine that were published.”
Celebrity editors can be used to boost awareness of a magazine, and to generate more revenue. The ad department has a new story to tell prospective advertisers; and browsers who are enthusiastic about a celeb may pick up the magazine to see what’s happening. Usually there is an editorial connection between celebrity and subject matter. U2 lead singer Bono was guest editor of Vanity Fair’s July 2007 issue about Africa, for instance, a continent close to the singer’s heart and charity.
Poor Track Record
But celebs can fail at the box office, too. Tina Brown did not help her cause when she invited Roseanne to guest-edit a feminism issue for The New Yorker in 1995. At least one writer quit in protest, and Brown later admitted it was a publicity stunt that failed.
It is difficult to imagine some magazines without their founding editors, who became celebrities for their publishing success. In Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History, a former staffer at the magazine said “The reason that Rolling Stone was successful is the same reason that Playboy and New York succeeded: each was the complete encapsulation of a single person’s fantasy. Hugh Hefner wanted to be a playboy, and Clay Felker wanted to live on the Upper East Side of New York City. For the record, Felker lived on the Upper West Side. Jann [Wenner] wanted to be with rock stars. And it turns out that each fantasy was shared by enough people to create a successful circulation.”
One danger is that an editor might become more important to the reader than the magazine itself. “Vanity Fair invested so much in the personality of Tina Brown instead of in itself that when she left for The New Yorker, it suffered an identity crisis,” a publisher told Folio: in a 1993 forum on celebrity editors.
At the end of the editorial day, credibility—not celebrity—is your most important product. It determines the value your magazine has to your audience.
What’s the Verdict?
So, how credible is Newsweek guest editor Stephen Colbert? “Some readers and critics will inevitably object, saying that this is a publicity stunt,” Jon Meacham acknowledges. “To them I solemnly say: you are half-right. Of course I am seeking publicity for the magazine. I would argue with the term ‘stunt,’ though, but only because of the popular assumption that a stunt is something silly.”
Here’s hoping that Meacham is right, and I admire his willingness to take chances. But on the surface I read this as justification for a gimmick. And if it is successful, will Jon Stewart be the next celebrity editor at the magazine? That may appeal to the thousands of viewers who think The Daily Show is a news program, but is this an audience a real newsmagazine wants to reach?
Seventy-five percent of subsequent reader mail received in Newsweek’s Letters department was about Colbert as guest editor, which suggests the experiment did strike a chord. Of that amount, 35 percent was positive, 4 percent was neutral, and 61 percent was critical.
Gary Ruschke of Los Altos, California wrote, “I like Stephen Colbert … but this little stunt adds no value to my reading experience. Please stop trying to entertain me. I go to your magazine because I want news.”
John Brady is a partner at Brady & Paul Communications, a publishing consultancy that assists and critiques magazines. For information on his workshop text Magazine Editing: The Practical Approach and his Interviewer’s Handbook: A Guerrilla Guide for Reporters and Writers, his web site is johnbrady.info, or you may e-mail him at Bradybrady@aol.com.