INTO THE AGE OF CONGLOMERATES; DESPITE SOME NOTED CASUALTIES, PUBLISHING PROSPERED IN PEACETIME

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William B. Ziff was in a reflective mood when he stood at the Waldorf Astoria podium in January 1992.

In accepting the Magazine Publishers of America's Henry Johnson Fisher Award, the Ziff-Davis Publishing Co. founder reflected on what he felt was his greatest accomplishment: passing the publishing business that he took over from his father to a third generation, three sons and a few nephews that he said he hoped would carry the company "well into the 21st century."

Said Mr. Ziff, who had been running the family business since 1955 when his father died, "When I started out, nearly the entire industry consisted of family-controlled businesses-Cahners, Conde Nast, Conover-Mast, Dell, Hearst, Lane, MacFadden, McGraw-Hill, Meredith, Parents, Reader's Digest, Street & Smith and Time Inc.-to mention only a few.

"Business conversations with these people were not about money and finance. They were about publishing and journalism," he said.

All were now in the hands of multinational media giants. True, a few such as the Hearst family and the Newhouses still owned vast empires of newspaper, magazine and TV holdings. But most of the press barons from the magazine world-like the earlier barons from newspapers and even the entrepreneurs who had triggered book publishing's Paperback Revolution-were all gone.

Ironically, Mr. Ziff's own company was sold in four pieces by his sons just three years later.

Such has been the way of publishing in the postwar, global media village.

The first to feel the sting was the paperback book industry, which got perhaps its biggest boost during the war via the Army Library Services' Armed Services Editions. The group contracted with publishers via the Council on Books in Wartime for the special editions, and distributed 123.4 million copies of 1,300 titles to GIs worldwide.

The inexpensively produced paperbacks for servicemen were stapled together, guaranteeing that the free books would eventually fall apart and not pose a threat to the domestic market once the war ended.

"When the war ended, the ex-GIs were already used to reading books in paperback and it carried through to civilian life," said Kenneth C. Davis, author of "The Two-Bit Culture: The Paperbacking of America."

One of the biggest hits of all time had an impact on several generations of Americans. Dr. Benjamin Spock's "The Common Sense Book of Baby & Child Care" was published in 1946, and had sold more than 39.2 million copies by 1989.

"Name the 50 most popular books of all time, and chances are people read it as a paperback," Mr. Davis said.

But today, Pocket Books and its parent Simon & Schuster are owned by Viacom.

Dell Publishing, another great of the postwar years, is now owned by German media giant Bertelsmann Publishing Group. And Penguin, which introduced paperbacks in the U.K. before coming to the U.S., now is owned by London-based media comglomerate Pearson.

One by one, thanks in part to TV, all the print media changed. After some wrenching readjustments, all now appear to be financially stronger.

"The centralization was driven by technology," said David Halberstam, author of "The Powers That Be," a 1979 book that traced the great family run empires in newspapers and magazines. "The radio networks, the television networks-it made the country one as it never had been before. The media fragmented again later with the coming of cable."

Said Mr. Davis, "The big media companies saw publishing as just an outgrowth of the entertainment industry, even if it has rarely or smoothly worked that way. There are some disastrous stories .*.*. from RCA Corp. to CBS Inc."

CBS, which sold Fawcett Books to Random House in 1982, also once had a magazine division. The unit was sold to a management buyout team in 1987, which in turn sold to Paris-based Hachette Filipacchi in 1988.

Despite the disappearance of many newspapers in the process, Mr. Halberstam doesn't necessarily bemoan their passing. "The good papers tended to get better," he said. "I think there was a rise in more serious journalism [in the years after World War II]. It became a serious, respected profession for the first time."

In the magazine world, which was already consolidating due to the advances of TV, it literally forced the industry to reinvent itself.

"When color television sets became common, that spelled the end of the big, general interest magazines," noted Ben Bagdikian, author and media critic.

The first clang of the bell came with the passing of the old weekly Saturday Evening Post. The magazine that traced its roots to Ben Franklin stopped publishing in 1969. Then came the twin collapses of Look in 1971 and Life in 1972.

Peter Bart, now editorial director of Variety but then a beat reporter for The New York Times, recalled how he had emerged as one of the most unpopular writers in publishing for a while for his work chronicling the demise of the great magazines.

"There is no doubt that television hurt magazines initially," noted Reginald Brack, chairman of Time Inc. Today, however, he said he thinks the media world has evolved to the point where TV helps the print world.

Some titles thrived in the new climate. People was launched only two years after the demise of weekly Life.

"It had a very symbiotic relationship with television," said Dick Stolley, the founding editor.

Today, the magazine that launched with 1 million circulation has reached 3.1 million and is one of the most profitable magazines in the world. The same year that Life died also saw the rise of niche magazines from Folio: and Data Communications to special interest titles such as Ms.

And the trend toward niche publishing is accelerating. The latest edition of "Samir Husni's Guide to New Consumer Magazines" reported 832 consumer magazine start-ups last year, up 5.4%.

Notes Mr. Bagdikian, "Much has been made about the death of print. I think it is exaggerated. I think print will be around long after the current generation is gone."

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