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Do magazines matter? Shockingly, some publishing industry leaders are saying no.

In a New York Times Magazine piece assaying the role of Conde Nast Publications' editorial director James Truman, mag trade correspondent Alex Kuczynski quoted Truman's predecessor, the legendary Alexander Liberman, on the declining influence of monthlies. "They put a bar code on the cover," Liberman lamented, "and that's when the magazine ceased to be art and became a product to be sold like a bunch of bananas."

He went on: "I dealt with artists and with the transformation of culture. James spends his time worrying about advertising."

The death of Willie Morris, the celebrated former editor of Harper's, prompted Kuczynski to a follow up, in which she posited that the days when glossies could stir national debate were "long gone." Norman Mailer, whose own rag writing still defines much of what we recall as the '60s, called the medium today a collection of "glitz bags."

These startling pieces aptly summarize a rarely voiced interior monologue within the contemporary publishing world. Magazine companies seem to have given up on the idea that they can drive the culture-that they can dictate fashion, anoint a star, launch a candidate, nationalize a cause. The most they can do, publishers and editors are saying, is tack within the passing scene.

The launch of Tina Brown's Talk epitomizes the medium's capitulation. While I've had fun in this space before with the talk about Talk, there is, in fact, something refreshing about Brown's belief that an old-fashioned general-interest monthly can energize the culture. Would that her backers had the same faith.

But however Talk's innards are received-and let's face it, it's a fine, fun, fascinating first effort-its paper-centric business plan raises the hurdles it must leap.

From the moment Brown announced her deal with Walt Disney Co.-owned Miramax Films, Talk promised to be an exciting exercise in synergy-in the creative deployment of content, marketing and distribution strategies across media platforms. When Disney joined with Hearst Corp. to support the magazine, it only highlighted the potential. Hearst is a powerful owner of ABC broadcast affiliates; between them, Hearst and Disney (ABC's owner) could easily launch a syndicated broadcast program to augment the Talk brand. Hearst's cable networks are among that medium's most successful; a cable show, akin to A&E's "Biography," could similarly profit-and profit from-a print tie-in.

Indeed, as co-owners of ESPN, Hearst and Disney had done just that in developing ESPN The Magazine, using the cable sports network to catapult would-be readers to the publication. Yes, Talk looked like a thoroughbred in the new breed of multimedia properties.

Alas, not. Talk is a but a mere magazine, handicapped by its owners' lack of creativity, risk aversion, or both. Instead of making the kinds of investments that could both garner it an audience and empower its brand, its proprietors are content to let Talk sink or swim on the newsstand-these days, a rather polluted aquarium.

Magazine professionals seem resigned to secondary status.

"Today," S.I. Newhouse Jr. told The New York Times, "the people who make the money and spend it on advertising are the most creative people around."

That's a sad commentary, for advertising-as noted last week-is locked in its own depression, desperately seeking ways to recapture the vigor of the '80s. For the magazine industry to relinquish its cultural imperative to the ad trade is deeply irredentist.

But perhaps there's hope. Late last week, Graham Phillips was named chairman-CEO of Y&R Advertising. Why was that inspirational? After all, The Wall Street Journal called the appointment of the former Ogilvy & Mather executive a turn to "the old guard."

Ah, but Phillips had spent a year chairing the public relations giant Burson-Marsteller. Parent Young & Rubicam's new CEO, Thomas Bell Jr., had spent even longer in the PR and political marketing fields. And Ed Vick, the holding company's newly named chairman and chief creative officer, first made his mark at Y&R running its design subsidiary, Landor Associates. For the first time, a major multinational advertising company is being run by people steeped in disciplines outside of media advertising-and deeply committed to the idea that in the new world, branding must take place across media platforms.

If it does, the media and ad professions can thrive.

If that old dog Y&R can learn this new trick, so can the magazine industry. And so can we all.

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