Oprah Publication Wins in Two Categories

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NEW YORK ( -- "We argued for the longest time about flowers," began Oprah Winfrey, discussing the finer points about a relatively newfound interest: magazine design.

"I don't like skimpy things,"

Oprah Winfrey's O is Advertising Age's Magazine of the Year.
said America's most famous woman, gathering steam while explaining why you won't see, say, a solitary long-stemmed rose lying across a plain white table: "Put the flowers in the vase! PUT 'EM IN THERE! I don't want to count just SIX!"

So Ms. Winfrey, founder and editorial director of O, the Oprah Magazine, doesn't want white space and cool, austere design. In her monthly magazine, there are practically as many pages devoted to books as there are to fashion. Each issue sports a spread, "Breathing Space," that features distant nature scenes so lush and pristine they take on a mystical air, and they're accompanied by text entreating readers to take a moment's escape.

Unorthodox on many levels, but sharp and savvy on all, O hit so hard, so fast that its uniquely American aggregation of contradictory appetites -- community, consumerism and celebrity -- makes it the first ever to be both Advertising Age Launch of the Year and Magazine of the Year.

'Significantly profitable'
"It will be significantly profitable this year," said Cathleen Black, Hearst Magazines president. It is extraordinary for a major consumer magazine to achieve profitability in its first full year.

This, despite an at-times awkward managerial structure, as the publication's guiding spirit works in Chicago, half a continent away from the rest of its staff in New York, and admittedly chafes at some things people within the magazine world take for granted. This, despite the departure of its launch editor and publisher within months of the magazine's debut. This, despite that it's still shy of a first birthday, a toddler in magazine terms. This, despite the fact that O has what one may call the Martha Stewart Living problem -- a magazine so inextricably identified with a person's finite life span.

But even setting aside the ridiculous numbers -- one national distributor's sell-through figures for O's

first few issues topped 80%, in an industry happy to get half of that -- consider its influence. Would Gruner & Jahr USA Publishing be so anxious to start up Rosie had O not come first?

"People honestly can't get enough" of Ms. Winfrey, said Melissa Pordy, senior VP-director of print at Zenith Media, New York, who's never seen a launch take off like O. "It's a phenomenon unto itself."

Didn't want to do magazine
The thing is, Ms. Winfrey did not really want to do a magazine.

She'd already been approached, she said, by Essence Communications, Time Warner and others around January 1999, when Ms. Black and Good Housekeeping Editor in Chief Ellen Levine pitched Ms. Winfrey on a magazine tentatively called Oprah's Spirit.

"I said I don't have any reason to do this. I have a TV show," recalled Ms. Winfrey. "And [Ms. Levine] knew what to say. She said, 'Oprah, you love the written word, and the written word is so unlike the spoken word.' That is, the spoken word fades. The written word persists.

"I went, 'Damn! Ellen. Damn, that's good,' " Ms. Winfrey says. It convinced her, especially since it came coupled with a now-famous synchronicity: At a show taping around that time, a woman stood up and asked Ms. Winfrey out of the blue if she'd do a magazine. ("Weeeeeeeirrrrd, lady" -- a "weird" so weird it lasts several seconds-"Weird! Why are you saying that? Are you a plant?") O is a joint venture between Hearst and Ms. Winfrey's Harpo Entertainment.

It's not surprising that her fans -- who've watched Ms. Winfrey take on TV, movies and books-want to have her in another medium as well.

'Secular religious leader'
"She's, in effect, a secular religious leader," said Gary Hoenig, executive editor of ESPN the Magazine, a joint venture of Hearst and Walt Disney Co. She "can comfort you and tell you there are ways to make you feel less like you don't belong. And in the sense that all magazines are aspirational, this makes you feel part of something larger. That's the best kind of aspiration."

"What I understand is that there is a great need for connection -- most people are disconnected from what really is important, from being able to define what brings true meaning," Ms. Winfrey said. Her magazine offers "a pause to think about, OK, what's important to me?"

Judging from O, the important stuff lies far from the sex-and-slimming obsessions splayed across the covers of most every other women's magazine.

"It's enough that you feel beautiful," said O Editor Amy Gross, interviewed one day before she departed on a Buddhist retreat and whose unassuming dress belies her heavy-hitter editor status. "You don't have to have people fall at your feet and turn green with envy. I think that would be a nightmare. Why would you want that?"

Strong dose of common sense
It is that kind of plainspoken attitude that readers flock to O for. And make no mistake: Though the popular imagination associates Ms. Winfrey with a fuzzily defined new-age spirituality, its pages read far more practical than ethereal. The therapy-speakers it favors -- like Ms. Winfrey's pal Dr. Phil McGraw -- dish up their psychology with a strong dose

A recommendation from the 'O List': diamond and white gold rings.
of common sense. And regular features like the "O List," a wish list of pricey baubles, allows readers to have it both ways, the spiritual leavened by the material.

To be sure, O's appeal is not universal. One male magazine executive's reaction to the first few issues: "Thank God for pornography!"

The in-house party line on O is that it inaugurated a new personal-growth category, but its most important -- and influential -- legacy is its revision of a traditional women's magazine in core areas of self-help, relationships, food, fashion and beauty.

"The traditional elements are in it," agreed Ms. Black, "but with a very strong dose of inspiration and aspiration."

Consider the contents. O's "Something to Think About" feature, an invitation to write responses to questions addressing insecurities or fears, is a grander version of the quizzes that have long been mainstays in women's titles.

Although the internal focus of O is undeniable, it doesn't exactly skimp on fashion and beauty coverage -- and that internal focus just means more pages for articles on relationships, self-study and acknowledgment of the new work and financial landscapes.

Succeeded where others failed
In a sense, O succeeds where other attempts at highbrow women's titles fell short, like Lear's and Hachette Filipacchi Magazines' Mirabella, the latter being Ms. Gross' last stop before taking the O reins from founding editor Ellen Kunes.

But the wild popularity of Oprah's publication has created its own challenges. In fact, O's issues are similar to those at its polar opposite title -- and its predecessor as Advertising Age Magazine of the Year -- Maxim, albeit one arrived at much faster.

How do you manage such growth? "Right now it's just fine," said Valerie Muller, senior VP-director of print services at Grey Global Group's MediaCom, New York. "But pretty soon they are going to have to make some hard decisions about who they want their ad base to come from."

$87,100 color page rate
Already, the color page rate of $87,100 is spiraling past the budgets of high-end fashion advertisers. And ad-side observers say that demographic information on O's readership is hard to come by as circulation skyrockets.

What else is next? Ms. Gross said she would like to run more fiction. For her part, Ms. Winfrey said she wouldn't mind dropping cover-girl duties. "I'm not all that thrilled about it. I have a cover shoot this week, and I am just tired," she says. "But I am not going to put myself in the position of trying to find a celebrity every month. That's a game I won't play."

Anyway, who could loom larger among O's readership than Ms. Winfrey herself?

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