Special Report: Black proves she's 'the right fit for Hearst'

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In January 1996, when Cathleen Black was named president of Hearst Magazines, she took office on a Monday; on Thursday, she flew to Detroit ["the auto show was on"] and on Friday was calling on the car companies.

Whatever grand her new title, she understood this is the business. Cathie asks for the order.

That was just over four years ago and as Cathie tells it now, "When Frank Bennack [the president-CEO of Hearst Corp.] told me in 1995, 'We want to make a change at Hearst Magazines,' from that moment I knew I was the right fit. . . The square peg in the square hole [she paused, perhaps rethinking the adjective `square,' and went on] or the round peg in the round hole. I came in to blow dust off the Hearst curtains. I thought we needed some fresh air."

FRESHER AIR

Well, it was more than dust. Hearst had been bloodied by an ill-considered, simultaneous cut in rate bases and hike in rates and the top magazine exec, D. Claeys Bahrenburg, was sacked. Making room for Cathie. Today, the curtains are no longer dusty, the air is decidedly fresh, and Ms. Black is Advertising Age's Publishing Executive of the Year for 1999.

Consider the headlines from her professional year:

Cut a deal with Oprah Winfrey to create a new magazine [on newsstands in New York Wednesday, April 19, with national distribution by the following Monday at 185,000 outlets].

Launched Cosmo Girl ("Still a baby, but in its fifth issue we're selling half a million copies").

Joined forces with Miramax and parent Walt Disney Co. to bring out Tina Brown's Talk, a major new magazine still adjusting its magnetic compass.

Found a new editor (at Conde Nast Publications) to run Harper's Bazaar after the death of Liz Tilberis.

Sold off Motorboating & Sailing to Time Mirror Magazines and Sports Afield to Robert Petersen.

Made a "very serious" bid to buy Fairchild Publications and backed off when the numbers, specifically the upside potential of W, wouldn't crunch to Mr. Bennack's and the CFO's satisfaction.

Took the chair at Magazine Publishers of America.

All this while in a successful marriage, with two children, a dog and a guinea pig, and managing a Park Avenue duplex so splendid the shelter magazines [well, certainly her own House Beautiful] are drooling over it.

Late last month on a Wednesday morning, I trotted across town to William Randolph Hearst's old sandstone fortress headquarters on Eighth Avenue for breakfast with Ms. Black in the dining room of the Good Housekeeping kitchen. We began with coffee and fresh fruit, then a bagel for her and poached eggs for me, and Cathie was off and rolling, a tall, snappy blond in her mid-50s who looks and moves a half-generation younger.

KNOWS THE BUSINESS

But, as Faye Dunaway (playing Joan Crawford) once famously remarked, "I've been to the rodeo, boys," Cathie Black knows the biz. "I'd been at New York in '69 as a peon selling space, then I went to Ms. Left in '75 for San Francisco to work for Francis Ford Coppola on a short-lived magazine, returned to Ms. as associate publisher. Joe Armstrong brought me back to New York the fall of '78. I stayed there until '83 [topping out as publisher] when a headhunter asked me about a Gannett job I didn't want. But that led me to Al Neuharth. We had meetings, and he said, `I'm getting fed up with all these meetings. Tell me what job you want.' But the jobs were all filled, so he rearranged the deck chairs and I became president of USA Today and stayed there eight years. I got there a year after the launch of a three-year rollout. It wasn't in New York yet and the newspaper space salesmen didn't know how to sell it. It was a magazine sale for advertisers, and they didn't understand that. It was an exhausting, exciting, fabulous time. I spent 70% of my time on the road.

"When Al retired I didn't see any future for myself at Gannett, and Booz, Hamilton asked me about a trade association job. So I joined [as president of the Newspaper Association of America]. It was terrific, lobbying Congress and meeting Donald Newhouse, Frank Bennack, everyone. Used to have lunch twice a year with Frank. And then in '95 he called. . . .

"This company," she says of Hearst, "is very lean at the top. I report direct to Frank Bennack. I'm one of six division heads [1,600 people work for her]. Hearst has 20 newspapers, 26 TV stations, 16 magazines. Marie Claire [now in its seventh year] outsells Vogue, Elle, Bazaar and W put together on the newsstands."

"Put together?" I asked, wanting to be sure. "Put together."

So that means everyone's making a pass at Editor Glenda Bailey? "I would hope not with the contract she's under. But the real threat is which dot-com company is after our hot people. It's not just the magazine business that has the problem. I know IBM [she's on their board]. The people issues in our business are now taking more time than anything else. The workplace issues, work-family issues, lifestyle issues. This is a different generation."

WHERE IS THE LOYALTY?

Is there any loyalty? "I think there's more loyalty down than there is up," she says.

I'm always fascinated by the start of things, how an idea comes to fruition. So I asked first about Talk and how she and Hearst got involved.

"It happened on several levels," she says. "Frank [Bennack] had been eyeing Tina for 15 years. When he heard about Talk, we all sat up. As I recall, it was announced in July, and Miramax [Films] started talking to us a few months later. They wanted a partner and Miramax called Frank. He called me in and I said, of course! Ron [Galotti, the publisher] is a great publishing exec. The advertising base was there, the national interest in Tina was there. Who on earth could have lived up to the early buzz? So much went into that first issue, that huge party." So Ron was smart asking advertisers to commit to more than the first issue? "Audacious. And he was right. We look now at what we've learned from that business and say, `What did we learn that will help us with Oprah?' "

DEAL WITH OPRAH

And how did the deal with Ms. Winfrey begin?

"That came about in two ways," she says. "John Mack Carter had been trying for six years to get a meeting with Oprah. Then we had one of our group chats where we spend 60 minutes coming up with ideas for new magazines, and an Oprah magazine was on the latest list. So Ellen [Levine, editor of Good Housekeeping] began talking. She knows Oprah a little bit because she's put her on the cover of the magazine and it sells out every time.

"In 1999, we got a meeting. Not with her but with Jeff Jacobs, her business guy, an entertainment lawyer who told her years ago, `Oprah, you can be a major talent or you can be an owner.' And that began her Harpo company. So we went to Chicago. We had boards, mock-ups, a video, paper samples to present in her conference room. Jacobs said, `I can't promise she'll be here.'

"In comes this amazing life force into the room like you just turned on the lights at Yankee Stadium! BOOM! She told us, `This must be the time.' She said everyone had been talking to her from [author and presidential speechwriter] Peggy Noonan to Conde Nast. But what really triggered it was that at the end of her shows, she'll do a 30-minute Q&A with the studio audience that isn't taped, and a woman asked, 'Oprah, why don't you have a magazine?' We arrived four or five days later.

"She felt the paper, said, `I want it to be a Martha Stewart Living or a Town & Country. I want it to be empowering to women.' And that began a journey which has been phenomenal," Cathie concludes.

The Cosmo soap opera was on my mind, from Helen Gurley Brown to Bonnie Fuller to Kate White, all culminating in the birth of its spin-off, Cosmo Girl.

To bring fans up to date, Helen's got a best seller out, she's been given a lavish book party, Bonnie Fuller is safely at rival Glamour, and firmly in charge of Cosmo is Kate White. Incidently, "Michael Clinton [corporate marketing officer and one of Cathie's senior execs] calls Kate, `our Meg Ryan,' " I told Cathie.

"I like that!" says Cathie, "I like it."

'COSMO' BRAND

"With Cosmo Girl selling half a million copies and averaging 50 [ad] pages an issue, it's proof of the power of the Cosmo brand. We launched [Cosmo Girl] simultaneously on the Web site, and they're getting 160,000 hits a day. [That] skyrockets during vacation. Cosmo itself is 2 million on the newsstands and 750,000 in subs. Kate White is exactly right for Cosmo. She's fun and open and will push the envelope. . . She's made what Helen did even better."

Why didn't Hearst buy Fairchild? Did Hearst take too nonchalant an approach?

"We were very serious," Cathie says, stressing the "very." "But Frank will never let emotions override how the numbers work. . . And here [in competition with Conde Nast, which paid $650 million] you're dealing with the `de Medicis.' " Inarguably a success is SmartMoney, the joint venture with Dow Jones & Co. "It began before my watch. Give credit to [Editor in Chief] Steve Swartz, a very talented young man with a deep interest in the Internet." He can't be more than 40, I said. "I don't think he is 40." She sees progress at David Granger's Esquire and likes the new look of Kate Betts' Harper's Bazaar. "They're even selling ads."

OK, let's talk about Bazaar, once No. 2 to Vogue, now also lagging Elle and even W? "Maybe four fashion magazines are too many?" asks Cathie Black, "I answer that in a different way. At the start of USA Today in '82-'83, we were absolutely sure that in 10 years there wouldn't be three newsweeklies. Well, here we are and there are still three newsweeklies. Today, when you consider Marie Claire with 1,300 pages of advertising, maybe there [should be] five fashion magazines."

DIVERSE COMPANY

In changing editors and publishers, has she consciously set out to have more women running the Hearst women's books? For years, two men ran Good Housekeeping. Now two women. "These were not woman moves," she says. "I want a diverse company. What I want is killers! People passionate about their titles. That means men. Or women."

One day Frank Bennack will retire. Would she like to succeed as CEO and run the whole damned company? "Frank Bennack," says Cathie, "will be here a lonnnggg time."

Copyright March 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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