Magazine Media’s Year in Review: A Series of Unexpected Choices
From Playboy to Vanity Fair, several key decisions made this year will have profound repercussions in the years ahead—for better or worse.
Seldom a day passes that a magazine executive isn’t called on to pull a lever that has important consequences.
What to put on the cover? That sponsored content looks iffy. Accept it or demand revisions? Take a requested meeting with a rival book’s CEO? Time to change the paper stock? Must I budget (at last) for a seriously upgraded Web presence? Should I poach that expensive editorial talent from across town? How to respond to the many messages from readers who suddenly seem annoyed? Can’t we skip an issue now and double up later in the year?
It’s all part of being a player in our dynamic—and, right now, extremely challenged—business. Making good magazines, and a profit too, is as hard as it’s ever been.
So, as we stumble into the final days of 2017, I’ve taken note of some key decisions by our colleagues. All of them are recent. I’m not making any “right or wrong” judgments here; I’m just saying that every one of these calls will have profound repercussions.
I think of all these as … Interesting Choices:
TIME INC. SELLS ITSELF TO MEREDITH CORP.
It may have been inevitable that the storied magazine company—once the world’s most successful producer of magazines—would go down with but a whimper. It’s been on the decline for years. Still, to learn that it was sold to a publisher that specializes in family and shelter titles (Parents, Better Homes and Gardens)—well, it was a crushing disappointment, to say the least.
Could it have been any more disappointing? Uh, yes. And, sorry to report, it was that as well. Turns out that the Meredith deal was made possible by a huge infusion of cash from the Koch brothers, whose strong political interests are well established. A bitter pill to swallow all around.
AND THEN, MEREDITH ANNOUNCES IT WILL KILL OFF THE TIME INC. NAME
What? The publisher of a nice catalog of soft, female-oriented magazines thinks there’s no residual value in the Time Inc. brand? That is chutzpah. (There are those who say I am just being sentimental, maybe because I was long employed by Time Inc. But I don’t think that’s it at all.)
PLAYBOY CHOOSES TO GO WITH A TRANSGENDER CENTERFOLD PLAYMATE
Well, who saw that one coming? But with the book’s continuing slide into irrelevance—and, now, Hugh Hefner gone—it’s time to be bold. From the perspective of Playboy’s readers, a transgender centerfold is way out there, no doubt.
NEW YORK PUBLISHES ITS FIFTIETH ANNIVERSARY ISSUE AND OMITS A MASTHEAD
Such an interesting decision. A great magazine, masterfully produced issue after issue, chooses to credit no one in its big anniversary package. Seems counterintuitive. Wouldn’t this have been the one time to run a full spread, acknowledging every last person who has played a role in the book’s success?
ESQUIRE PLAYS TOO NICE WITH AN ADVERTISER
I won’t accept as coincidence that Esquire, in its November issue, fawned over a new watch from Timex—just 10 pages following Timex’s advertisement for that very same model. Just looks hinky.
A MATTRESS COMPANY DECIDES TO PUBLISH A MAGAZINE—IN PRINT
Casper, a company that sells mattresses on the Web, decided to shut down its online magazine, called Van Winkle’s, and launch a print book, titled Woolly. That’s an unexpected move, but Casper didn’t become a leading mattress retailer by resting on its laurels (or foam mattresses).
“This isn’t traditional content marketing,” said the company’s VP of communications and brand engagement. “It’s not about building a revenue stream either. It’s really about owning the conversation around wellness and health.” Woolly will charge $12 per issue.
CONDÉ NAST HIRES RADHIKA JONES
A seemingly inspired, out-of-the-box pick as Graydon Carter’s successor at Vanity Fair. Jones had not been high up in the mix of candidates until fairly late in the vetting process. Nice to see someone other than a frontrunner win the competition.
THEN TINA BROWN ADVISES RADHIKA JONES TO BLOW UP VANITY FAIR
Unsolicited advice from a former editor of VF seems maybe a little self-serving, but also probably smart. Times have changed. Don’t be Graydon. Thanks, Tina.
MORE ON RADHIKA JONES (HER FASHION CHOICE)
It was reported that some VF staffers, after meeting their new editor for the first time in Condé’s offices, seemed to disapprove of her choice of leggings, which were covered with images of foxes. OK, OK. Karp as you wish. But Jones is said to be under a mandate that will require a headcount reduction. She will need to make some interesting choices pretty quickly.
THAT POPULAR MECHANICS SEPTEMBER COVER ADVERT
For September, subscribers saw a full-cover image of a young couple in a tender embrace, accompanied by “sell lines” that read: ‘Does your psoriasis ever get in the way of a touching moment?’ In contrast to the high-octane, testosterone-fueled imagery its readers expect to see on PM covers, this ad wrap seemed way, way out of character.
ROGER BLACK UNVEILS TYPE MAGAZINE
For those few of us who care about type and typography, there are some wonderful blogs that please, delight, and inform. And so there was no need for a new magazine—a print magazine, no less—to address the topic. But Roger Black, the legendary publication designer (Newsweek, New York, Rolling Stone), brought out the first issue of TYPE a couple of months ago. I don’t know how he came to what surely must have been a tough decision (who would have egged him on?), but Black’s TYPE, which will be a quarterly, is glorious and should be read by everyone who works on the creative side of magazine-making.
ROLLING STONE CHOOSES PENSKE MEDIA
Well, it could have been far worse. Among the book’s reported suiters was David Pecker and his acquisitive group at American Media. At least Penske, which owns Variety, among other titles, has demonstrated an interest in fact-based journalism. When Jann Wenner decides to finally let go of editorial control at RS, Penske will decide on his successor and the venerable magazine’s path forward.
THE CIRCLE OF LIFE
One regional magazine leaveth (again), and another cometh. Take (“New England’s New Culture”) gave it a good go. After retreating from print and publishing Web-only for a while, the magazine returned several months ago, looking revitalized. But advertisers were not stepping up in sufficient numbers. After just a couple of print issues, Take is saying goodbye for good.
On the other side of the continent, Will Hearst, the grandson of William Randolph Hearst, recently launched yet another magazine intended to serve California’s vast population. It’s called Alta. Hearst says the demographic for Alta will be upscale, thoughtful, New Yorker-like. We wish Hearst all the best as he guides his book into its first full year of publishing.