Remember when traditional media companies used to honest-to-God compete -- instead of spending all their time and energy bailing water and throwing bodies overboard?
I do. Which is why I'm oddly thrilled by what's been going down between Rodale's Men's Health and American Media Inc.'s Men's Fitness. It's hand-to-hand combat, folks, fought by shirtless, hairless hunks with glistening six-pack abs!
OK, not exactly. AMI -- also home to the National Enquirer, Star, Shape, etc. -- is run by David Pecker, a perma-tan 61-year-old with a Saddam Hussein mustache. He is, more than anything, a survivor; AMI has been through some rough times over the past many years, including a prepackaged bankruptcy in 2010. Pecker enjoys hobnobbing with Playboy Bunnies (the New York Post recently showed him posing with one in a photo captioned "David Pecker and friend") and Arnold Schwarzenegger (who Pecker made honorary executive editor of AMI's Flex and Muscle & Fitness mags).
Over at Rodale, we've got earthy 51-year-old Maria Rodale. "By day I'm chairman and CEO of the largest independent publisher left in America," she explains in her bio at MariasFarmCountryKitchen.com. (In addition to Men's Health, Rodale publishes seven other magazines, including Organic Gardening and Runner's World.) "By night," she continues, "I'm simply M.O.M. (which stands for Mean Old Mom) to three girls born in three different decades. ... By the way, they like me a lot despite being raised with tough love."
Our two protagonists' paths cross because they both happen to publish men's fitness magazines in what you might call the non-musclehead space.
For years, AMI's Men's Fitness -- which has roughly a third of Men's Health's 1.9 million U.S. circ -- has been adrift, grinding through various interchangeable editors-in-chief and unconvincing redesigns. (In fact, it was so adrift at one point that, back when I was still a magazine editor, a clueless headhunter for AMI contacted me about the editor-in-chief job. Which, trust me, is hilarious if you know me. Also, David Pecker once got me fired from an early media-columnist gig by complaining about me to a skittish publisher/owner -- I'd dared to criticize the National Enquirer! -- so I couldn't imagine working for him and his mustache. But that's a whole nother story. Needless to say, I declined to come in for an interview.)
Meanwhile, under Dave Zinczenko, appointed editor-in-chief in 2000 at age 30, Rodale's Men's Health became a global powerhouse, with 39 international editions. A telegenic guy, he became a frequent "Today" show guest "fitness expert." For a few years he dated actress Rose McGowan and in 2010, Graydon Carter-style, he launched a Manhattan restaurant -- the Lion -- with Mediate founder Dan Abrams (their bromance was the subject of a front-page New York Times "Styles" section feature titled "The Dan and Dave Show").
And then, last November, the wheels came off the bus. Short story short: As it came time to renew Zinczenko's contract, Maria Rodale -- who runs her family's company from global HQ in Emmaus, Pa. (population 11,300) -- realized she was kind of sick of Dave and his hyper-ambitious, buzzy ways. So she forced him out. "It's not Dave's Health, it's Men's Health," she huffed to the New York Post's Keith Kelly. Burn!
Fast-forward to mid-May, when AMI sent out an email promising Men's Fitness readers "something amazing with our June issue -- a complete reinvention that cranks up the level of fitness, nutrition, health and sex advice with some of the wisest, most authoritative stories you've ever read. Want to know how to build shoulders like Vin Diesel? The success secret of multimillionaires? What to cook a woman for dinner -- and then breakfast?"
Nudge nudge, wink wink, etc., etc.
The email was signed "All Best, David Zinczenko" -- who is not technically editor-in-chief, but might as well be, because he and his team of fellow ex-Rodale hands have totally transformed the magazine. Yep, spurned by Rodale, Zinczenko signed on as a consultant/mercenary for Pecker.
The redesigned issue is on newsstands right now, and... it's super Men's Health-y! Meaning, better designed, a little smarter, a little cooler and generally more upscale.
It's basically, you know, Dave's Fitness. And suddenly Rodale is facing the first serious direct competition for Men's Health.
It didn't have to be this way. Maria Rodale could have eased Zinczenko up-ish (to some sort of honorary, powerless corporate role) and out-ish -- letting him sow his wild oats in the restaurant world, on TV, wherever. She could have given him a token contract that would have mostly been about its non-compete clause.
But sometimes being M.O.M. is really hard, and you get sick of administering tough love.
Anyway, I've only met Maria Rodale once. But for inadvertently stirring up a good old-fashioned, down-and-dirty media rivalry, I just want to say: I like her a lot.
Full, boring disclosure: I'm a longtime contributing editor at Condé Nast men's magazine Details, for which I've never written a wise or authoritative story about anything, let alone health or fitness. But all men's mags compete for some of the same readers and advertisers, at least in theory, so I'm mentioning it.
Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.