By Published on .

Give jack kliger credit. When he was named, after a drawn out search, to succeed David Pecker as the boss of Hachette's U.S. magazine unit in May, Kliger knew he had a chance to make his own mark on a major publishing house. What he didn't know -- couldn't, of course, have known -- was that he would be thrust into the center of a national tragedy just six weeks after he settled into his spacious office.

His handling of that tragedy earned high marks in the weeks after John F. Kennedy Jr.'s Piper Saratoga went down in the waters off Martha's Vineyard. But last week came the first misstep and, with the fate of Kennedy's George still cloudy, the potential lurks to truly bungle things.

I've known Jack Kliger for a decade, used to have breakfast with him at the Grand Hyatt in midtown while he was publisher of Glamour. After he got the new gig, we set up a reservation at Le Bernadin, which doubles as the Hachette cafeteria. The lunch was on July 12, a Monday, and we talked about how he was settling in and setting priorities.

We also discussed George, and Kliger was forthcoming about its problems and the need for a viable business model. He made clear that selling or folding the magazine weren't his only options, that there were still talks to be had with John Kennedy about tinkering with the business plan. Kliger said he was eager to begin discussions with Kennedy, who had been summoned for jury duty.

They did have a meeting, John and Jack, four days after our lunch. By Kliger's account, it ended on a positive note, with Kennedy planning to craft a new plan to present to Hachette. A few hours after that meeting, Kennedy boarded his plane for the last time.

I spoke to Kliger the next week, and his voice was heavy with sadness. He wouldn't give comment on George until after the memorial service, he said, and would put the Kennedys' needs ahead of business pressures. When the family was ready to talk about the future of George, that's when the discussions would start. He did say George would definitely be published through the end of the year, and indicated Hachette was more likely to take full control of the magazine and keep it going than it was to sell it off or shut it down.

It was a fine line Kliger had to walk, and he walked it with class. There was a hot media spotlight, and a lot of sensitivity on the part of Hachette executives in France, who above all didn't want to be cast as villains in this American tragedy.

Then last week came word that Hachette was hiking the cover price of George by two bucks for the October tribute issue. To justify the move there was talk of increased production costs and charitable contributions. But no matter how it's explained, the increase seems crass and exploitative. The tribute issue is sure to be a hot seller, and there's a perception Hachette is trying desperately to squeeze more money out of a magazine that has piled up losses.

Worse than the cover price increase, though, is the continued uncertainty surrounding the magazine's long-term fate. It doesn't lessen the tragedy of Kennedy's death to say George is a struggling title. Circulation is drooping, and ad pages were down sharply even before that fateful flight. If there's one thing media buyers can't stand, it's uncertainty. They would rather sit on the sidelines waiting for clarification of a media outlet's future than make a buy today in a vehicle that might not exist tomorrow.

While conventional wisdom has been that George's plug would be pulled, signs now point to continued existence under a new business plan, with Hachette as majority owner.

If that's the case, it's in Hachette's best interest to replace speculation with fact, to stop putting out vague statements of commitment and clearly state its intentions to the magazine's staff, to readers and to advertisers.

And since there's still time to do it, Kliger may want to reconsider the cover

Most Popular