'I Got a Bad Rep at the Beginning,' She Admits

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Just how tough a editorial taskmaster is Oprah?

That question buzzed the industry last year when O founding editor Ellen Kunes departed after only three issues, followed soon after by launch publisher Alyce Alston.

Photo: AP
Since its premiere issue in April 2000, Oprah has exercised strong control over O's editorial operations.

Today, Ms. Kunes strenuously insists that, while she underestimated the sheer forces the success of O would spawn, her decision was entirely based on personal concerns over wanting to spend more time with her twins.

That said, O remains a magazine where an out-of-office presence trumps the traditional magazine roles of editor in chief and, in some cases, publisher.

'It's her magazine'
"It's her magazine," one high-profile magazine editor, who had preliminary discussions about taking the O editor's job, said. The implication being that the editor in chief of Ms. Winfrey's magazine O is not equivalent to being editor in chief elsewhere.

The president of Hearst Magazines "told me the other day, 'Frankly, we are surprised at how involved you are,' " Ms. Winfrey said, pausing for effect. "I think that's a good thing." More seriously, she added, "I got a bad rep at the beginning for micromanagement."

Of course, neither the Hearst executive's comments nor those of Ms. Winfrey's best friend and editor at large, Gayle King, entirely dispel that. "People are surprised how hands-on she is," said Ms. King, who gave up an 18-year career as a news anchor to take her first job in publishing at O.

She knows what she wants
In the debut issue last April, the photo feature "Breathing Space" was originally placed on the back page. Until, that is, Ms. Winfrey saw it opposite an ad for a Chesebrough-Pond's skin cream. "How can you take a moment to take a breath when you've got this big purple thing next to it?" demanded a voluble Ms. Winfrey. The feature was moved.

"I think the reader is there for the editorial," Ms. Winfrey said. "Obviously, the ad people think something different. The age-old discussion continues."

The Pond's flap illuminates

Photo: O Magazine..
A typical 'Breathing Space' section from O invites readers to contemplate the serenity of a Montana wilderness.
the problems of dealing with a person who is the brand. (In fairness, Ms. Winfrey staunchly rejects such an idea.)

At almost all other magazines, the business side can make decisions about how to sell and where to take the franchise, via extensions and promotions. This is not the case at O.

'Don't own the brand'
"At O, you don't own the brand," said one industry executive.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the current publisher of O dismisses the notion that her clout is in any way abridged.

"I have as much autonomy as any publisher I know," said Jill Seelig, O's publisher.

One editor who interviewed with Ms. Winfrey was similarly dubious.

"I wouldn't have had a problem" at O, said Elizabeth Crow, vice president and editorial director at Rodale's Women's Health Group. "You either have an editorial director or an owner looking over your shoulder. Some [editors] might deny that, but they'd be less than candid" -- and, Ms. Crow added, better that the person looking over your shoulder at O is editorially, rather than commercially, motivated.

At any rate, advertisers don't sound put off over the staffing changes O went through. "It's not a reflection of weakness of the title," said Valerie Muller, senior VP-director of print services at Grey Global Group's MediaCom, New York. "It's a reflection of the strength of the characters who were vying for authority."

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