THE TOUGHEST OF TIMES

Published on .

Late last summer, the idea was to gather a gaggle of all-star editors--Tina Brown of Talk, David Granger of Esquire, Jim Kelly of Time, Martha Nelson of In Style, David Remnick of The New Yorker and Mark Whitaker of Newsweek--to have them hash out the question of how magazines function and stand out in a fractured landscape as the ad recession dug in. Then in September, the world changed dramatically, though not dramatically enough to prevent all of the above editors, three of whom have to contend with weekly frequencies in wartime, from facing off with Ad Agers Scott Donaton, editor; Ann Marie Kerwin, New York bureau chief; and Reporter Jon Fine. Below is an edited transcript.

Advertising Age: What role do magazines play in today's media world?

Tina Brown: Magazines are essential in the overwhelming media climate of today. The need for depth, the need for imagination, the need for scope and time and length have never been more pressing, particularly in a situation like we're in now.

David Granger: I was just going to add the word "perspective." Just looking through Newsweek and Time [coverage of Sept. 11]--it was amazing how quickly you guys proved just how good you are. How able you are to provide not just information [but perspective]. Because information, as we all have seen, is this huge, double-edged sword where sometimes it's truth and sometimes it's rumor, sometimes it's gossip. A magazine gives some kind of perspective and is a reliable voice in a world that seems totally untrustworthy.

Mark Whitaker: What's at a premium today is reflection and the ability to stop and think. That's what magazines do. In the media environment right now, they help people figure out what they think about things, and they do it with writing, they do it with analysis, they do it with pictures, they do it with stories.

TV is really a transient medium. It's all about images and sound bites. The Web has some longer things, but I don't think people go to the Web to read anything longer than a few lines to get essential, quick hits of information. There aren't that many newspapers today that are doing anything at any great depth, but the ones that do, unfortunately, most people read very quickly on their way out the door in the morning.

It's really at the end of the day, when people have more time, that they look to magazines, which they can read at their leisure. They can carry around with them all week to really help guide them in figuring out and sorting out what they really think about what's going on in the world today.

AA: We're dealing in an era when people are pressed for time. There are a million cable channels and Web sites. Another editor recently said the dream of every writer now is to do a screenplay, not to do long, impressionistic magazine accounts. To put this as bluntly as possible, do magazines matter in the cultural playing field the way they once did?

David Remnick: They matter tremendously, and nothing has borne that out more than the reaction that we've gotten at The New Yorker in the last couple of weeks. And this is no time for self-congratulations or self-aggrandizement. But to get these e-mails and letters of argument, of emotion, speaks of an engagement with the magazine that is profound.

The idea that longer pieces are just impressionistic and fuzzy and kind of wet is really not the case. Now more than ever, we need to know certain things. We need to have writers as our surrogates and surrogate intelligence, and to be in parts of the world that we don't normally go. Most people who use a passport go to England or France or maybe a place of their origin, but they're not normally in Pakistan or Afghanistan or Tajikistan or wherever this horrendous drama is going to take us.

Magazine reporters, as well as the very best newspaper reporters, go to those places at enormous risk and carry with them whatever skill and intelligence and sensibility they have in bringing this back to us. I can't think of a more essential role to play in American journalism.

Jim Kelly: The major difference between a magazine and the Sun-day New York Times or cruising the Web or watching TV is that the editor gets to create an environment between two covers. You get to, especially in the last few weeks, lead the reader through a series of articles. Some are emotional, some are quite analytical. We tell the stories of the people, then we move on to another kind of story that elicits a different kind of reaction from the reader.

The best kind of editor tries to create an environment with every magazine that if you read it from cover to cover, you're going to get an experience unlike any other kind of experience you would get elsewhere.

Mr. Whitaker: We did a special--the first time we've ever done this--we printed in midweek 2 million copies, sold out. Jim did the same at Time. [For] our regular issue of the magazine again we'll have more than a million copies sold on the newsstand.

But to me perhaps even a more meaningful response has been the one that David [Remnick is] talking about. We've got 4,000 letters and e-mails just in the last two weeks--and these are all from people who are watching TV, who are going on the Web and yet are still looking for that deeper level of analysis and perspective. The reason they subscribe to Newsweek or they subscribe to The New Yorker, Time, Esquire or Talk is because they have a sense of your sensibility, the way in which you're going to approach covering events, and they're in sync with that. They look to you and your writers and your editors to help them sort things out.

AA: If we're to believe some of the pronouncements we've heard recently, we're never going to laugh again, we're never going to cry again, we're never going to consume violent media. Where do you think your readers' sensibilities are going to go, or how much have they changed?

Ms. Brown: Certainly after the events Sept. 11, it feels like we're all in a different century. You feel two weeks later that the days before were just some other time, some other place. But that cultural shift was already beginning to happen anyway, and these cataclysmic events accelerated that change. There was a kind of fatigue with the self-destructive media culture that we have lived in for the last five or six years.

Martha Nelson: Certainly, there's going to be a change, but I agree that the world, the American public have had less appetite for irony than perhaps the editors and writers in New York City for quite a while.

Mr. Whitaker: It would be a real shame if all of a sudden, we all became just earnest and self-righteous and we lost our sense of humor. Because that's another thing that is deeply American and that if the terrorists could, they would take away from us.

We felt very strongly about sticking with our page of editorial cartoons, doing our conventional wisdom watch. Obviously we had to watch the tone, but again, those are the filters that people look to us to provide on the world. There's no reason a really good cartoon can't capture a moment just as well as a piece of writing even in these difficult times.

On the other hand, we all kind of felt that part of the culture [had given in to] a kind of decadence in a way. Just in terms of the TV that people were watching, the movies that we're going to, were kind of a luxury of good times, of peace and prosperity. But as tragic as all of this was, it is probably going to lead to a deeper level of writing, of reporting, of fiction, of art.

Ms. Brown: We don't need to look for virtual pain when you have real pain. So this quest for these kind of jollies that we're getting from watching shows like "Survivor," that feeling has gone. But there's a difference between irony and negativity. There's nothing wrong with smart, witty commentary about the world we live in, but what perhaps people have felt is a fatigue with the kind of what I call drive-by-shooting journalism.

Mr. Granger: For the last 10 years, we have been overly prosperous. There's been no perceived need for there to be change in our culture. Now people see that things will change inevitably or have to change, and one of the things that we can do is identify where that change is going to come from and what our culture is going to be like.

As hokey as it is, there's going to be a new generation of leaders and what a magazine with long lead time can do is prospect for that. It's a fantastic opportunity because people will be willing to absorb that kind of thinking and that kind of writing, and will be eager to welcome those kinds of people.

AA: A really great magazine is an idea. It's a cultural moment. If there is a paradigm shift happening in how media are consumed and how people are thinking--No. 1, what pressure do you guys feel to respond to that? And No. 2, if an editor's a leopard, can a leopard change its spots?

Mr. Kelly: Good editors are always evolving--and the magazine is always evolving. If any of us picked up a magazine from a year ago or two years ago, it would be different from what we have today.

What's going to be interesting in coming months is that--I'm not so sure people are going to become more earnest, [but] people will become more serious. How we capture that in Time, I don't really worry about. There may be a couple of things we've done in the past that we'll do differently, but in terms of the stories we're all interested in, clearly the Gary Condits of the world and the Lizzie Grubmans of the world just fall off the table.

Maybe this is only through hindsight and maybe I'm only imagining this, but it does seem to me that starting sometime in early May of this year, we went through a very silly, silly news period. And that's easy to say obviously after Sept. 11, because there are lots of different kinds of news that would look silly after Sept. 11. But when you think of the two main stories this summer and you think that just six weeks ago, we were all hopped up about Gary Condit and his interview on ABC, [it] is amazing. It's going to be a long, long time before any kind of story that inconsequential gets the kind of coverage it got this past summer.

Mr. Whitaker: The need to respect your roots, respect your tradition but, at the same time, figure out how you can improve on it, is essential. It's really a mistake at times like these for a magazine to think that it has to change dramatically, because we all have a very loyal following that we've spent years and decades building up. They look to us for certain things. What you do is figure out what you do best. And then think about how you can do it even better and how you can adapt it to the times.

Ms. Brown: Most of the editors and writers now see this as a kind of wonderful clarion call to do their best. And they're very inspired by the challenge to be more thoughtful and to give of their best. A lot of writers have felt alienated by the culture that hasn't wanted as much from them, and in fact, are deprived of enough access to outlets that want muckraking journalism. The best investigative journalists actually wind up doing trivial pieces and turning that investigative zeal on the wrong things.

Actually, those writers would far prefer to be focused on many of the things that we've talked about today. It doesn't mean they have to be humorless or pompous or earnest, and it doesn't mean we have to be forgoing escapism, which is going to be a fact that people are going to look for, too. Because just as we saw in the World Wars with the choice of movies, there will be a longing as well for beauty and joy and humor and lightness of touch.

So people are very inspired, and instead it's a great opportunity for a magazine to respond and to have everybody giving that much more than they've ever given before.

AA: Let's pick up on two threads I'm hearing, one about lightness and one about seriousness. Martha, this one's got your name on it.

Ms. Nelson: I got it. I'm here to represent ordinary life. Which will reassert itself, I'm here to tell you. Everybody at this table got up and took a shower and figured out what you're going to wear today, and that goes on. This all speaks to the ongoing life that does require that kind of service that so many magazines provide, which is just all about beauty, fashion, and everyday life and lifestyle.

The idea--perhaps it's wishful thinking on some people's part--that celebrities are just going to suddenly go away and that no one's going to be interested in the world of entertainment, that's just not going to happen. These people are embedded in our lives and our psyche in a way that is sometimes hard to even understand in the best of times.

AA: Won't in some ways people need more places to escape the seriousness?

Mr. Remnick: I never thought there was any shortage of places to escape to. What I thought there was a shortage of before this was the opposite. Not that I'm not grateful for the availability for escape, for the movies, or In Style. But this event or events like it--if that's possible to even imagine--should force, for example, television networks to question whether it was really a good idea to shut foreign bureaus around the world, and to squeeze out foreign news in favor of your headache or your pituitary gland, and similar moves made at other media around the country.

By questioning that, it doesn't squeeze out the idea that a movie industry could thrive. There's nothing wrong with that.

The magazine that I work at has this weird amalgam of things where it tries to delight and entertain and, at the same time, publish five pages later a 10,000-word piece on Sudan. I'm under no illusion which gets more heavily trafficked--[William] Finnegan's long piece on Sudan or Roz Chaz's cartoon--I know in my heart and my brain which is going to get read more quickly and by more readers. So be it. But that's the kind of strange blend that The New Yorker has developed into over time.

AA: Magazines are in a very different economic landscape these days. Rising costs, declining revenues. How does that impact you as editors, because I don't know if it's as simple as just saying, "Well, we create a great product and then people buy it, and then we're successful." The economics of the business are no longer that simple.

How do those economic realities affect you? And to go back to the earlier question, what is the continued relevance of magazines as a medium if economically they make less and less sense?

Ms. Brown: You have to be very focused and obviously very much more budget-conscious than ever before. You've really got to define who you are in a very clear way because with less money around, clearly, advertising people are going to make very severe choices about where they put their budgets. It's very important you get your own DNA well-presented to people to make sure that they know what they can get with you is something they can't get with somebody else. The good thing about a new magazine is that we can shape and change, offer things that are not out there already.

But it's a very tough marketplace, and I do think there'll be many, many casualties in the next year or two--that you're going to see more closings.

AA: Not always a terrible thing if some marginal titles close--

Mr. Remnick: Unless you're there.

Mr. Whitaker: This is something that for some of us actually is going to change as a result of this, at least for a while. What I found at Newsweek and in just from looking at Time and to some degree at The New Yorker too, we were all trying very hard to do what we do best, which is to report and write intelligently on the events of the day. But in order to bring in more advertising at a difficult time, we were doing more sort of special features. Time did "America's Best" and David had theme issues and in Newsweek we had something called "Next Frontiers," and so forth, which you had to schedule a month in advance and go out to pitch to advertisers. It helped pay the bills for all the other things, and also we were able to do some good journalism in the process.

Right now, it is doing what we do best that is going to be the key to future advertising, future circulation. This is really an opportunity for those of us in the news business to shine.

AA: Are you concerned that there's going to be pressure to be a little more advertiser-friendly in 2002, given what happened this year and given what's happening right now?

Mr. Granger: I don't know what more advertiser-friendly would mean. I've spent a good bit of the last four years trying to convey the virtues of Esquire to advertisers on a regular basis. I talk to them. They buy into an idea of Esquire that I've spent a lot of time articulating for them, and that idea is just to do an entertaining, intelligent magazine that can touch on virtually any topic and can try to bring perspective to our readership.

I work very closely with my publisher, probably more closely than I would have expected to before I became an editor in chief, trying to let her know exactly what we're doing editorially and why we're doing it, so that she and her staff can talk to advertisers about it. I don't feel tremendous pressure to go out and sell my soul. I feel tremendous pressure, as Tina said, to be incredibly responsible with our resources and to do what we can to work as efficiently as possible. But mostly I just have to create a good magazine.

AA: Newsstand sales in terms of overall percentage of circulation levels vary very widely around the table. But it still is the top indicator of a title's heat, a sense of getting things right. I'm wondering what sorts of pressures you are feeling to make your issues pop on newsstand.

Mr. Whitaker: There has been this incredible misperception about news magazines that somehow the way to sell magazines is by going light, doing celebrities, doing back-of-the-book covers and so forth. There is nothing that is better for our newsstand than a huge news event. All of our best-selling covers of all time have all been huge news events.

Mr. Remnick: But in normal times, in non-crisis times, that's not the case. If you were to put a foreign news story on your cover six months ago, as opposed to a religious cover or a childcare cover--

Mr. Whitaker: Yeah, it depends. There has to be a sense of magnitude and crisis.

AA: Jim, sorry in advance for singling you out on this, but you've mentioned the Christy Turlington yoga cover was an excellent seller for you.

Mr. Kelly: News is Time magazine's best friend. Period. Full stop. What we went through starting basically in January when I took over was what we've done over the last seven or eight years. Which is when there isn't obvious, obvious news out there--and [Sept. 11] is about as obvious as it gets--you have to find ways to redefine what you put on your cover. What you try to capture is what people are talking about; you try to set the agenda to some degree.

So, we did "AIDS in Africa," and we did global warming, and neither of those issues sold well, which will shock no one around this table. We did the "Science of Yoga" because I saw some stat about how many people were studying yoga and I saw a magazine about yoga actually, which was quite interesting. It had some health claims in it, which I wondered about. Does it really help arthritis? So that ended up the "Science of Yoga" and it sold really, really well, but I don't see that as selling out at all.

AA: Tina, what sort of pressures are you feeling on the newsstand?

Ms. Brown: A new magazine has pressures on the newsstand, and we certainly have had that pressure. You do the best magazine you can. You have to bring to it quality and imagination. The one thing a monthly does require is that imagination to do something quite, quite different that the weeklies are not doing. The weeklies are extremely good; they're performing not just in the news arena very well but also in the literary sense very well.

So, the pressure is to come up with something that is somehow on the news but off the news. Some-thing that can be created well in advance and still have the relevance.

AA: What was your best cover over sale like the last 12 months and the single worst cover on the newsstand?

Ms. Brown: The best cover was our September issue [with Helen Hunt], which wasn't about a cover, it was a lot of news in the issue.

The least performing was the March issue with Uma Thurman because it wasn't hard news, and when you don't have the hard news to get the set circulation kind of buzzing, you're then much more dependent on the kind of celebrity you have. So all the celebrity is really is a kind of insurance policy against the fact that the rest of the news and issues gives the newsstand lift, because you can have an issue that's thoughtful and interesting but just doesn't have the breakout thing that makes people run.

Mr. Whitaker: Despite what all of us may do at one time or another to sort of goose the newsstand, I've come to have a very high respect for the intelligence of newsstand buyers, who are after all paying for our magazines, to sense what they're getting.

We discovered a long time ago that actually celebrities don't sell for us. It was interesting--[Princess] Diana used to be, before she died tragically, this kind of cash cow for People magazine. We didn't do that many Diana covers before she died, but we did a few and they never did that well, because I think people weren't necessarily looking for the Newsweek take on Diana. On the other hand, when she did die, and it became a news story, that did very well for us. When we have done back-of-the-book covers that have done well, they tend to be about subjects like religion and health, and not the things that would necessarily do well for In Style or even Talk, because I think that people feel we've established some authority in writing seriously about those subjects.

Mr. Remnick: The New Yorker's completely different because we don't have photographs on the cover. We don't have, as it were, people on the cover. We are for the most part subscriptions. Mainly our circulation picture is the ardency of the subscriber. Once somebody starts subscribing to The New Yorker, all the statistics tell us they subscribe for life.

So it's an extremely ardent audience that then stays there, and the makeup of the magazine is not geared for newsstand. With the exception of putting this cover flap on for newsstand, most weeks the image could just as easily run the next week or the week before.

AA: But even for a subscriber you have to stand out in a pile of mail and other options that they have.

Mr. Kelly: You're right. A coffee table is the newsstand. What anyone at this table wants is to be there when the subscriber gets it in the mail. You want them to get it that evening and find a reason to spend a few minutes with it right away.

Mr. Remnick: And that's probably why The New Yorker had to add the timely to the timeless in a sensible way. In a way that didn't pretend to be something it wasn't, but did have an attachment to the moment, side by side with pieces that did not, in addition to fiction or poetry or cultural criticism.

AA: We would like to hear from Martha on this because you deal with that newsstand issue on a different level.

Ms. Nelson: We're about two-thirds newsstand, and our subscribers are almost all from insert cards. We have about 600,000, 700,000 subscribers, and they all came from newsstand buyers. Our entire magazine is built out of people picking it up on the newsstand. If we put a blank cover out, we can probably sell 800,000 copies.

As important as the cover is, once you have that certain core reader, which for us would be a core audience of about 800,000 people who will pay $4 every month, they are really as concerned with everything that's going on in the inside of the magazine. That link to the reader makes them come back, no matter who you're putting on the cover.

Now, if you can get another 200,000 or 300,000 copies by your choice of celebrity and cover lines, that is meaningful, and it's hard work that you have to do every month, trying to move that needle.

The celebrity on the cover isn't necessarily the silver bullet that everybody was hoping for when they were looking at their declining newsstand. That said, do we feel a lot of pressure on the newsstand? Yes, we do. Do we watch the consolidation of wholesalers with trepidation and the financial health of the wholesalers, is that a concern for us? Of course it is. For anybody who lives by the newsstand, it's an inordinate amount of energy and time that you spend just staring at that cover across the room, every day, and trying to take it apart and figure out, will this appeal to people or won't it?

AA: As editors, you are all obviously savvy about the businesses that you're part of as well. Are any of you concerned that the reader doesn't pay enough of the freight? What are your feelings on the economics of magazine publishing?

Mr. Granger: My role is to be as much of a strategist along with my publisher and the people at Hearst as I can be. More than ever, I have to work with every resource I have to sell more magazines, to convince advertisers to spend more money. I never really thought as a 24-year-old living in New York that an editor also had to be a business partner. But that's the reality of, at least, my business.

Mr. Remnick: Well, first and foremost, the editor's job is to produce a great magazine--and to pray for a few other things: a great publisher, a long-sighted owner, the good luck of the market. An editor should also be sensible about his or her own budgets. And if advertisers have any questions about the magazines, to meet with them in a way that's legit and sensible and frequent, if need be. But first and foremost an editor is, in fact, a non-business person in my mind; that's why we have a publisher.

AA: What are the economic pressures you're under?

Mr. Kelly: The World Trade Center, shall I say, clarified all our goals, both personal and professional. That's what something like this does. My publisher made a decision in 2 seconds to send this [holds up Time's special issue] to every subscriber. This is not a newsstand-only special. So every subscriber got it. And that cost money. There's no way 48 pages without any advertising is a way to make money, when you send it to every subscriber. So since Sept. 11, the folks that I deal with most directly have not cared about what it cost to put out the kinds of magazines we were putting out.

Ms. Nelson: But that's also a great long-term investment in your relationship to the reader.

AA: But do you feel as an editor that you have to be a strategist as well and your role now has to be beyond the role of just putting out editorial?

Ms. Nelson: I've always felt like I was deeply involved in the strategy of the magazine, but I think that inherently comes anytime that you start a magazine. Because you're automatically trying to explain it and sell it, and build enthusiasm for it to virtually anyone you talk to. You don't care if it's readers or advertisers because you're out there really introducing this new magazine.

So I've always been involved in it, but I think we have had that traditional wall between church and state. It may not be as pious as it once was, and there's much more communication and cooperation. But what it does do is to continually reinforce the idea for me that the most important asset that I, as an editor, can bring to this venture is the reader, and the trust and the loyalty and the enthusiasm of the reader

Ms. Brown: I do think that I have to be strategic. You've got to be very fast about changing direction a lot, and then coming up with ideas that are out of the box for marketing. It's a time for much more creative publishers than perhaps it has been in the past.

When I first went to Vanity Fair, the publisher was the ad guy who went out and sold the ads. And you did have contact and communication, but the ad guy was the ad guy. And I think as time goes by, we do now expect all publishers to be much more creative business partners than they were. The old style, take somebody out for lunch, get the ad page, seems to me that kind of selling has been made a little redundant. Business partners now have to be a lot more enterprising and a lot more out of the box and a lot more competitive.

Mr. Whitaker: At Newsweek we have both advantages and disadvantages. We just don't have the kind of resources others do. When Time decides that it wants to print 6 million copies, it's got a huge production apparatus at its disposal, which is for all the Time Inc. magazines. And if they want to re-divert it to focus on Time and People and a few other publications, they can.

We feel that we're sort of every week David going up against Goliath. For us to be able to print 2 million copies in a couple of days requires a lot more strategy and scrambling. So it's more on those kinds of issues that we've got to be a little strategic. How to really go up against a competitor with such deep pockets and resources, and be competitive with the kinds of resources we have.

The great advantage we have is that we work for a company--the Washington Post Co., which is a publicly held company but also family run--that has a very long-term perspective and is deeply committed to journalism. That gives us a kind of independence and a security that, as long as it's journalistically right and defensible, we can do whatever we want. Because that's fundamentally what that company stands for, rather than standing for a broader world of entertainment.

You have to be strategic about figuring out what your competitive advantages are, business-wise as well as editorial, and trying to make them work for you.

Roundtable online: AdAge.com QwikFIND AAM69U. Balancing patriotism and objectivity in wartime: AdAge.com QwikFIND AAM67N.

In this article:
Most Popular