So it was at the National Magazine Awards this month. Well over a thousand attendees packed the ballroom at New York's fabled Waldorf-Astoria to mingle and applaud as reproductions of Alexander Calder's "Elephant" sculpture were handed out to editors of The New Yorker, Esquire and, yes, even Glamour in celebration of "editorial excellence and vitality."
Conde Nast employees gathered around no fewer than 23 of the tables in the ballroom-their attendance justified by nine trips to the podium, cementing Si Newhouse's reputation as enigmatic ruler of the glossiest of the glossy empires, one where even if profits are now a priority, editorial budgets remain eye-poppingly lavish.
Bruce Wasserstein was in attendance, hoping that he and Adam Moss would be honored for their budding revival of New York Magazine (they weren't, unless the three nominations count as their own reward). Also there was Martha Stewart, who was warmly received during her trip to the stage to accept an "Ellie." (Those who wished to offer a hearty pat on the back, however, were discouraged from doing so by the burly bodyguards who flanked her table.)
In such a head-swiveling scene, it was easy to overlook Table 19, which was half-filled with executives from one of publishing's most hidebound institutions, Reader's Digest, and half-filled with folks who represent the future of magazines-staffers from Nerve.com, including the co-founder, Rufus Griscom, and editor in chief, Michael Martin.
Nerve is a highly literate, erotic online magazine that showcases great writing and photography. It was a finalist in the category General Excellence Online, and the only original online publication in the bunch. The rest were essentially Internet versions of print magazines, including winner Style.com, home to Vogue and W.
The judges' write-up called Nerve "brainy and brash" with a "youthful spin on sexuality [and] style." But they couldn't bring themselves to award the trophy to the independent upstart; Nerve's editor went home as empty-handed as Graydon Carter.
Had Nerve bagged an elephant, it would have been a bold statement. It's not only redefined the model for profitable niche publishing, it's also one of the freshest editorial voices to come along in years. Eight-year-old Nerve hosts a popular online dating site and is fleshing out a true multimedia brand, with TV, film and book projects. It's also branching into lifestyle areas such as an online music lounges. It claims 1.7 million unique visitors per month, mostly young, college-educated males.
Entertainment Weekly once called it "Playboy's body with The New Yorker's brain," a delicious description for a title that aims at a dual audience and avoids the sophomoric sensibilities of modern men's magazines.
Co-founder Griscom, 37 and a new dad, said Nerve made a 15% profit last year on revenue of about $2 million, and is growing at a 50% clip: "The economics of the online magazine business have really improved a lot."
Nerve gets revenue from premium content and services, and-despite the conservative nature of mainstream marketers-has managed to attract ads from the likes of Motorola and Absolut.
Griscom said Nerve does things that would "terrify old-fashioned"publishers, encouraging readers to sound off about stories and reflecting a world view that's more realistic than aspirational. Its half of Table 19-"a splurge for us at 300 bucks a seat," he says-was a validation of Nerve's achievements, a sign the magazine industry is ready to make space, if only by adding a few chairs, for the future of publishing.