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Fading Stars
The demise of the mag celebs.


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Myrna Blyth

Remember when Tina Brown’s move from The New Yorker to Talk Magazine was such big news that the New York Times put the story about it above the fold? That was in the heyday of the “star editors,” a group of highly paid magazine superstars whose greatest talent was creating “buzz” and whose doings were gossiped about almost daily in media columns and websites.

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But at the moment such stars are definitely fading. Jane Pratt is about to leave Jane, the irreverent young woman’s magazine she named after herself. (Even before her departure, rumor has it that her management had already kicked her upstairs to an isolated office.) And Bonnie Fuller, another former star best known for job-hopping, tongue-lashing her staff, and missing deadlines, is finding it tough to keep The Star, the gossipy tabloid she now oversees, competitive. Meanwhile Tina Brown, once the very Queen of Buzz, is writing a book about Princess Diana and spending her time tracking down a rumor about who Diana’s father really was. That fact got a very small mention in gossip columnist Cindy Adams’s New York Post column. After Tina’s last magazine, Talk, folded, she hosted a ratings-challenged cable television talk show for a while until that was cancelled. I heard Tina give a couple of speeches where she introduced herself by saying, “I used to be Tina Brown.”

What seems to be working in magazines today is not the creative vision of a well-known editor but rather the hewing to a rigid formula or format that appeals to readers. For example, during the past six months, circulation for In Touch, a celeb-a-zine that puts either Jennifer Aniston, Angelina Jolie, Jessica Simpson, or all three on the cover week after week, increased 49.7 percent to 1.12 million copies. So who is the editor of In Touch? His name is Richard Spencer, a former soap-opera writer, who works out of an office in New Jersey. And he seems so unimpressed by magazines–and their editors–that he has said about his product, “We’re the first magazine to be brave enough to say that people don’t read magazines anymore.”

Circulation also rose 23.7 percent for US Weekly a competitive celeb-a-zine which also puts Jennifer Aniston, Angelina Jolie, Jessica Simpson, or all three on its cover week after week, and now sells 1.67 million copies. The editor of US is Janice Min, who is better known in publishing circles than Touch’s Spencer. And Min, it has been reported, now pulls down a super-sized salary. After months of negotiation with her boss, Jann Wenner–who let her contract lapse–she finally inked a two-year deal which, reportedly, pays her $1.2 million annually.

But Min, who is married to a history teacher and has a toddler son, does not have many “star editor” characteristics. She has been called” hard-working,” “unpretentious,” and a “good manager.” And there are no gossip column items about her as there often were about Bonnie Fuller, her predecessor, when she was the editor at US. Among those items were stories about staffers so enraged by Bonnie’s antics that they did disgusting things to her lunch before delivering it.

Another magazine that’s doing well is Real Simple, which has increased its circulation in the latest report by 13.4 percent to 1.94 million. It was developed after Time, Inc. did extensive research on what women today want in a magazine. In fact, the magazine has had three managing editors in its comparatively short life. It was launched in 2000, and since then its circulation and advertising have continued to grow, no matter who has been in the editor’s chair.

Samir Husni, chair of the journalism department of the University of Mississippi, and popularly known through the trade as “Mr. Magazine,” says, “If we go back historically to the 1920s and ’30s, there were some magazine editors who were better known than their publications–like Henry Luce at Time and Dewitt Wallace at Reader’s Digest. Tina Brown did recreate the importance of the “star editor” to some degree. But that was really an East Coast and, to some extent, a West Coast phenomenon.” The truth of that sentiment was demonstrated once, at the height of Tina’s popularity in the media, when the Magazine Publishers of America conducted man-in-the-street interviews asking people if they knew who Tina Brown was. Nobody did. But one did think she was the love child of Tina Turner and James Brown.

Of course there are still some important editors, especially in the Conde Nast stable such as Anna Wintour at Vogue. Wintour is probably best known to the public at large as the alleged inspiration for the Cruella De Vil-like editor in Lauren Weisberger’s bestseller, The Devil Wears Prada. Weisberger was briefly Wintour’s assistant.

But within magazine circles, Wintour’s power is tied almost entirely to the highly profitable magazine she edits. For example, the September issue of Vogue is a hefty 802 pages and, according to its modest publisher Tom Florio, has “brought in more revenue for a monthly magazine than probably any magazine ever published in the world since the cavemen.”

In today’s business environment, magazine companies now seem to want editors who make money, not headlines, and tend to promote from within or choose seasoned deputies when the editor-in-chief slot is open. If there are any publishing stars today they tend to be the “suits,” behind-the-scene executives focused on the bottom line. A couple of weeks ago, Advertising Age, a trade publication, called the heads of Meredith Corporation–Bill Kerr, the CEO; and Stephen Lacy, the President and COO–”the sexiest men in publishing.” Not exactly the first adjective that comes to mind about these shrewd businessmen. But Kerr and Lacy engineered the purchase of Gruner & Jahr’s stable of women’s magazines, including Parents, for what is considered a bargain-basement price. And today, that’s a lot sexier than being gossiped about the way former Conde Nast CEO Steve Florio often was.

Last week there was even some discussion among magazine insiders about whether Jane Pratt really left Jane because of a case of “wanderlust,” as she claimed, or rather because of increasing conflict with the upper management of Fairchild, the magazine’s publishing company. Whatever the reason for her departure, Samir Husni says, sizing up the current publishing scene, “People always talk about the golden age of magazines. Well, this is definitely the golden age of business people in magazines.”

Myrna Blyth, former long-time editor of Ladies Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness–and Liberalism–to the Women of America. Blyth is also an NRO contributor.



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