It's a failure worth pondering: Meigher did many things right

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The demise of Meigher Communications is a sad and cautionary tale for anyone in the magazine business. Sad because Meigher appeared to be doing everything right. Cautionary because even doing the right thing seems not matter any more in the periodicals game.

The small New York publisher disclosed two weeks ago that it was selling its two flagship books, Saveur and Garden Design, to World Publications, a Winter Park, Fla., publisher of niche beach titles. Press reports indicate the limited partners who initially pumped $31 million into Meigher will get next to nothing after the $7 million from the sale is used to pay debt and satisfy other obligations.

World's magazines aren't bad; I've even had a byline in its Caribbean Travel & Life in the not-too-distant past. But its products are like salmon roe to the sevruga produced by Meigher. Saveur, a food and travel magazine, is a lush, worldly guide to the aroma and romance of foreign climes. Garden Design links two forms of cultivation-of the yard and the senses-in a similarly sophisticated package. Both broke new ground in the way they wrapped sensuous hedonism in accessible practicality. Where a reader might merely ogle Architectural Digest or Gourmet, she would come away from both Saveur and Garden Design thinking, "I can do this." That excitement made them immensely appealing.

The source of that sensibility was a cadre of the best people in the magazine business-the first thing Chris Meigher did right.

He brought in Dorothy Kalins, one of the great editors of her generation, to supervise his books. Witty, warm, a supremely talented judge of talent, Kalins understood way back in the '70s, when she was editing Apartment Life magazine, that her generation's public disavowal of materialism was a sham. Raised in comfort, baby boomers would forever demand material satisfaction-but they would only feel good about it if it was spiritually satisfying, too.

Her deputy, Coleman Andrews, one of the best writers in the business (I know-I edited him), possessed that same awareness. Their words and ideas were integrated into elegant packages by Michael Grossman, a graphic designer so admired that Harper's Bazaar, an earlier generation's guide to the good life, turned to him for its recent reshaping.

This trio was absolutely devoted to quality. Indeed, quality was the core of Chris Meigher's business model. One of the young bulls who helped keep Time Inc. a force through the '70s and '80s, Meigher knew that the rampant discounting of subscriptions and ad pages that had come to characterize the industry was destroying both its soul and its economics. By 1994, when he started his company, he believed that both readers and advertisers were ready to support-and pay for-real quality.

And that's the scary part. He may have been wrong.

I can't pretend to know what happened at Meigher. I do know that several magazine-industry savants I both like and admire--Joe Armstrong and Valerie Salembier notable among them--left Meigher unhappily, intimating darkly that the company's business practices were not to their liking. But those exits came after Meigher had failed to find its footing, despite the resources, energy and sheer love it was pouring into its pages.

So perhaps readers, faced with thousands of titles at lower prices on the newsstand, had grown too price-sensitive to pay the freight. Perhaps advertisers, despite their cries for quality, really aren't willing to fork over the high CPMs. Perhaps a small publisher simply cannot muscle its way onto newsstands dominated by a shrinking set of retailers, distributors and mega-publishers.

Perhaps, now, there's nothin' but Net.

I am increasingly convinced the future of quality publishing lies largely on the Internet. The periodicals industry and its partners have created a system so increasingly diseconomic that print magazines seem doomed to a spiral of falling class, evaporating audiences and declining margins. When a lifelong magazine pro like Time Inc.'s Dan Okrent predicts the end of print, then you know there's real problems afoot.

The death of print, though, doesn't mean the death of magazines. A technology that can transform the industry's supply chain-and, not incidentally, seamlessly shift some of the real costs of production and distribution to the consumer-has the promise to revive creators, readers and advertisers alike by making quality content and smaller audiences viable. The AOL-Time Warner merger (and tinier developments, like the introduction of elegant, living-room-friendly printers) will undoubtedly hasten this future. As should the fate of Meigher Communications, whose magazines were too early-and too good for their own good.

Copyright March 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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