Good ideas gone awry

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When it comes to the dynamic nature of magazine publishing, I am reminded of an anonymous proverb: "Success always occurs in private and failure in full view." I can't help but wonder if that thought was conceived by a publisher.

Over the course of years of watching the magazine industry, I have received thousands of birth notices, all touting their publications as the next best thing. Most arrive on the market with a splash, but more often than not they die with a whimper after publishing only a few issues. Oddly, I have yet to receive an obituary.

After all, what would it say? "The modest Esquire Sportsman leaves behind its meager circulation numbers, several unemployed editors and the monetary debt of a venture doomed to fail."

Many observers attribute a magazine's failure to inexperienced publishers. Yet, the next 10 examples were launched by major publishers that managed to fail, just like the 90% of all others who tempt the publishing waters.

Scanning the hundreds of titles that have launched in the last decade, I have narrowed my list down to a few highly celebrated launches that ended with less than royal funerals. These 10 failed ventures should provide valuable lessons for the next generation.

`P.C. Sources'

Publisher: Coastal Associates Publishing, a subsidiary of Ziff Davis Media

Launch: 1990

Claim to fame: The first issue carried 417 ad pages, the largest number ever for a new magazine.

P.C. Sources aimed to be "the guidebook to mail order and to empower readers to become savvy and assured buyers by mail." It must have worked, because, in the end, its readers became so savvy they didn't need the magazine anymore to help them with their shopping.

Bottom line: Trying to launch a "magalog" (a magazine and catalog combined), the publisher could not keep up with the speed of the readers and their needs, a result of trying to publish a colossal text time and time again.

`Country Living's Countryside'

Publisher: Hearst Corp.

Launch: Summer 1990

Focus: The magazine of "contemporary country life mirroring the people, places and pursuits of a brave new rural world."

Hearst's extension of Country Living's brand somehow took the fantasy out of country and replaced it with service. Thus, Countryside failed to distinguish itself from the mother book and establish an identity of its own.

Bottom line: It's not enough to extend a brand just for the sake of doing so. If the newborn does not have a reason to exist outside the womb, it becomes a liability for the parent. Hearst wisely practiced Darwin's survival of the fittest mantra and pulled the plug on Countryside before it was too late.

`Men's Life'

Publisher: News America Publishing

Launch: October 1990

Goal: To put out "a good all-around magazine for men in their 30s and beyond."

Billed as the Playboy with no bunnies, Men's Life boasted Rupert Murdoch's substantial bankroll, but lacked Felix Dennis' vision of launching a men's magazine that would be "the best thing to happen to men since women."

Bottom line: What could have been an early conception of Maxim went astray by over-emphasizing the power of being "safe at home." In its one and only issue, the magazine featured topics on marriage and sound child-rearing advice, thereby relegating blondes in bikinis as a mere afterthought. With its tag line "A generation of men grows up," it isolated itself from the Maxim audience who never wants to grow up. In short, the magazine lacked fantasy or the thrill of escape.

`CountryPlace'

Publisher: Progressive Farmer, a subsidiary of Southern Progress Corp.

Launch: 1992

Focus: To celebrate a "simpler way of living through articles and features making country living more enjoyable and easy."

With lavish photography, both new and from the archives of Southern Living, CountryPlace showcased life in the country at its best. However, its best was entirely too close to the efforts of Reiman Publications, publisher of a magazine simply called Country, which ironically was considered for purchase by Southern Progress at one time.

Bottom line: Everyone knows that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But, not after you see the "imitated's" black book or, in CountryPlace's case, a cease and desist threat from Country.

`Esquire Sportsman'

Publisher: Hearst Corp.

Launch: Autumn 1992

Target: Readers with a "passion for traditional outdoor activities, but whose lives are driven by very modern attitudes about what is fun."

Unfortunately, the magazine was doomed from the start by trying to use the Esquire brand to allure an undefined audience -- one that may have existed in the '50s during the revival of Ernest Hemingway and the return of William Faulkner when literature and outdoor activities went hand in hand but certainly an audience hard to find in the '90s.

Bottom line: Publishing a magazine is a creative process that changes with time. Taking a recipe from 50 years ago and trying to make it work in the present will not work in magazine publishing. If one is to succeed, a publisher must stay in the here and now.

`Top Model'

Publisher: Hachette Filipacchi Magazines

Launch: Spring 1994

Focus: This Elle spinoff focused "on one super model each issue thereby enabling readers to share the secrets of these famed beauties and find out what the life of a model is truly like."

I have to agree with The Wall Street Journal when it wrote, Top Model is "perhaps the most overt attempt to capitalize on the interest in models." Unfortunately, this interest in models waned as fast, if not faster, than the crowds waiting in line to eat a $12 veggie burger at a local Fashion Cafe. These cafes, as one might recall, popped up like mushrooms sprouting everywhere, until one killing frost ended it all.

Bottom line: Tying the concept of a magazine to a fad may give it a quick boost at first but, to be sure, the ride won't last for any appreciable length of time -- at least not until the next comes along.

`Mouth 2 Mouth'

Publisher: Time Inc. Ventures

Launch: 1994

Mission: To "boldly go where no magazine has gone before."

Mouth 2 Mouth tried to accomplish that dubious task set forth by its mission by aiming itself simultaneously at "an audience of teen-age boys and girls." If that weren't enough, Mouth 2 Mouth also bestowed upon itself the tagline: "Voted World's Best Magazine." Its super-hip look at celebrities, fashion and up-and-coming trends, in the end provided an expensive lesson to the powers that be not to target a magazine to fickle teen-agers of both sexes. In reality, Mouth 2 Mouth published two issues and went where many other magazines have gone before it: the world of R.I.P.

Bottom line: Until proven otherwise, launching a specialized magazine for both sexes doesn't work.

`Home Garden'

Publisher: Meredith Corp.

Launch: March 1995

Claim to fame: The largest-circ launch for Meredith in five years with a booming 400,000 copies.

Home Garden, which arrived as gardening titles were growing like Mississippi kudzu, was born with the editors' assumption that "as baby boomers put finishing touches on the inside of their houses, the logical place for them to turn their attention to is outside." While the first few issues flew off the newsstands, baby boomers soon discovered that there was more to life than working in their garden or, better yet, discovered they had no time to work in their garden. In the end the magazine came to a screeching halt equaled only to the jolt with which it was born.

Bottom line: Never judge a magazine by its first year of life; after all, everyone says nice things about newborns. It's those "terrible twos" that one needs to worry about.

`The Net'

Publisher: Imagine Media

Launch: June 1995

Goal: To be a stylish, step-by-step guide to the Internet.

The magazine's mission was to "help you plug in, log on and reach out." Tagged as a cyberspace companion, it was cast like a net over the ocean, trying to capture as many Internet "newbies" as possible. However, The Net may not have realized that it was making an ominous prediction for its own future when it published, on its inside back cover, a quote from a silly cyber chatter. He wrote, "When I die, I want to go like my grandfather did -- quietly, peacefully, in his sleep. Not like his passengers."

Bottom line: As with all publications aimed at any new industry, whether it's the Internet or the new economy, once the specialty becomes the norm, the topic will begin to be covered in more general content magazines. Thus, it negates the need for a specialized publication. That is why The Net was reborn as Business 2.0.

`Virtual City'

Publisher: Washington Post Co.'s Newsweek and Virtual Communications

Launch: 1995

Goal: To be the authoritative guide to cyber culture.

Treating virtual reality as a culture like the skateboarding or surfing culture proved to be all virtual and no reality for this magazine. Virtual City, once declared a "fresh and readable guide to cyber culture," ended up neither fresh nor readable. Adding to its own demise, its dry humor failed to unite what is intentionally, virtually separated.

Bottom line: Magazines are great reflectors of society and societal conventions, yet when it comes to measuring the pulse of a culture that cannot be seen or does not want to be seen, you enter the "Twilight Zone," or in this case, the virtual zone.

Samir "Mr. Magazine" Husni is a professor of journalism at University of Mississippi and author of "Samir Husni's Guide to New Consumer Magazines 2000.

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