"It was practically on life support," recalls Cathleen Black, president of Hearst Magazines, who hired Mr. Granger away from his executive editor perch at Conde Nast Publications' GQ. "He understood this was not going to be easy."
Although perhaps not to the degree he discovered. Mark Adams, who worked with Mr. Granger at GQ, recalls an e-mail exchange he had with his former colleague shortly after Mr. Granger left. "I said, `Do you finally feel like there's a light at the end of the tunnel?' " says Mr. Adams. Mr. Granger's response, per Mr. Adams: "Let me put it this way. I am getting the idea that maybe I am in a tunnel."
"He knew he had a long way to go," says Mr. Adams, now deputy editor at National Geographic Adventure. An executive says Hearst then lost more than $12 million a year on Esquire; a Hearst spokesman declined to comment.
But Esquire still occupies the high ground of magazine journalism-a rare destination these days. Its wit and hefty ambitions are arguably matched only by Conde Nast's New Yorker. Unlike The New Yorker, though, Esquire is required to devote serious space to service each month.
Under Mr. Granger, Esquire has balanced both aims. He's kept standards and quality high while editorial budgets shrink. He's made Esquire's newsstand sales increase by double-digit margins for three straight years, while most magazines struggle to stave off losses. He made, and kept, Esquire relevant, with nods in equal measure to what it was and what it must be in order to survive.
Mr. Granger did this in a media world increasingly ill-suited to his ambitions of being "part of the national conversation," while not neglecting what makes his magazine surprisingly fun: its visual palette and playfulness, its greatly improved short pieces.
All this, as recent years severely tested the notions of what constitutes a men's magazine (hello, Maxim) and highbrow general-interest magazine (goodbye, Talk). Mr. Granger even conquered a strong strain of earnestness that gripped earlier iterations of his magazine.
Even he concedes his tenure had a rocky start, and there are times when Esquire trips visibly over its outsized ambitions. But ad page and readership gains have accelerated, and National Magazine Award nominations are plentiful. And, in 2004, David Granger is Advertising Age's Editor of the Year.
THE SWAGGER OF SUCCESS
Mr. Granger, who's 47, is welcoming, albeit with a tinge of wariness. (He's more of editor-as-observer than editor-as-host.) He dresses ridiculously well, mixing and matching textures and patterns against custom-made pinstripe suits. There's a zebra pelt on the floor of his office, and a bit of swagger in his bearing that may not have been when he took the job. More than one person contacted for this article referenced "a complicated father-son relationship" between Mr. Granger and his former boss, GQ's Art Cooper, and it's hard not to imagine the growing consensus that his magazine ultimately outdid the late Mr. Cooper's is a source of enormous pride for him.
"He is doing exactly the magazine he wanted to do," says a friend, "at a fraction of GQ's budget."
But before all this, David Granger wrote a letter.
It was 1996. Ms. Black had just been named president of Hearst Magazines, and Mr. Granger wrote to tell her something. "I said I knew something about Esquire that the last couple of editors had forgotten," he says. "Esquire had started taking out all the service ... With the tangible, takeaway material out of the magazine, I thought it was in danger of becoming Harper's, which is a great magazine but it's going to be a very small audience."
At the time, Ms. Black told him she'd stand by then-editor Ed Kosner. But when Mr. Kosner left in May 1997, in a manner Hearst termed "mutual," Mr. Granger got the job in 10 days.
Mr. Granger's predecessors, Ms. Black says today, were "very tied to the literary tradition. I'm not saying whether that's good or bad, but most people don't want to read really long stories today-you have to mix them up and make them more reader-friendly ... David listened to the readers but crafted the magazine in a way that respected what it was and what it could be."
What it's become is a magazine where almost comically big-think articles-like noted economist Jeffrey Sachs' modestly titled "A Simple Plan to Save the World," from the May issue-appear near fare like real-life "Brutally Honest Personals" ("I'm lanky, ridiculously in debt and almost always stoned").
Mr. Granger's sense of presentation leads him now to blend service with schtick and personality. A gadgets column written by "Men in Black" director Barry Sonnenfeld reveals as much about Mr. Sonnenfeld's deeply absurd, ultra-moneyed existence as his gear choices, as is evidenced by his offhand disclosure that he owns "close to a dozen" Sony Trinitrons. (This sense also leads Mr. Granger to sign on middling songwriter-cum-heartthrob John Mayer to pen a music-related column. "Even my daughters roll their eyes," admits Mr. Granger, "because he's got that image of a pretty boy who's singing to the girls.")
All this came recently. "The last thing we really accomplished was to make the magazine as entertaining as possible. To make it funny," Mr. Granger says. He gives much credit for this to Senior Editor A.J. Jacobs, whom Esquire poached from Time Inc.'s Entertainment Weekly.
PEERS SALUTE MAGAZINE
"He's putting out what some months is arguably the best magazine in America," says Mr. Adams. This view is widely shared among Mr. Granger's peers, judging from Esquire winning four National Magazine Awards this spring.
All the more amazing since Esquire straddles categories-men's, general interest-in severe identity crises. "What is a man supposed to be in the 21st century?" asks Kurt Andersen, the host of Public Radio International's "Studio 360" and former Spy editor and current New York Magazine columnist. "All the complications of what it means to be a man today are, I think, very difficult to embody in one great magazine."
"I and my staff try to make a magazine men will respond to on multiple levels," Mr. Granger says. "I want to give them an entertaining and rewarding experience that gives them some kind of perspective on the world. I can help make their lives a little bit better."
Miraculously, the market has actually helped him. GQ has gone aggressively toward a younger reader, like Fairchild Publications' reborn Details. "It's sort of left the market for magazines for what I call `the high-normal man' wide open," says Mr. Granger. "In some ways, I feel we are the last man standing."
Like we said: swagger. Or at least a long way from staring down a long tunnel, hoping for a hint of light.