With Fuller as content czar, Pecker has a big opportunity

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Ask your garden-variety magazinista about Bonnie Fuller and they will tell you she is unrelenting, an ogress, a serial hirer-and-firer and an angle player who gives new meaning to the term "change agent"-inasmuch as (a) she changes jobs frequently and (b) she'll change anything and everything up to the last minute. And woe to those who won't work through the wee hours to aid her.

Me? I say she knows how to bake and butter her own bread-a talent from which both she and American Media should profit enormously.

American Media, publisher of supermarket tabloids and fitness magazines, is in the midst of a strategy-based transformation. Led by Chairman-CEO David J. Pecker, it is trying to find new ways to monetize its formidable distribution clout by broadening its audience and its offerings at a time when most of the underlying assumptions about media and marketing are in play.

Among tantalizing questions: Where are the competitive boundaries? Does print still compete within itself, or are print, cable TV, network TV and online battling for the same eyeballs and ad budgets? Are media responsible only for delivering audience? Or should they become more strategic in their programming and even in their content development? As more media companies work directly with large marketers, are agencies being disintermediated? And what should be the relationship between the "content side" and "business side?" Indeed, to what degree does that distinction still make sense?

The latter is, perhaps, most relevant to American Media's experiment. In the sociology of New York media, American Media and its properties (The National Enquirer, The Globe, Men's Fitness, etc.) are dismissed as downscale. CEO Pecker is linked linguistically to this image; in profiles, he is routinely described (as he was in last Monday's New York Times feature) as "the son of a Bronx bricklayer." Such explicit elitism misses some major facts: that giant infotainment companies, including the Murdoch empire, are built on similar content; that the elite, themselves, are drawn to it; and that the blurring of class lines around celebrity gossip, entertainment news and health information means there's a vast audience awaiting advertisers.

Tapping that audience takes special skills, which Bonnie Fuller has demonstrated at Hearst, Conde Nast and Wenner. But she's always been simply an editor-and a hired hand. As American Media's new exec VP-chief content officer, Ms. Fuller is being asked to step up from editor to impresario, orchestrating a panoply of productions and providers. If she succeeds, the company will grow and, as a shareholder, she will see her rewards increase commensurately.

That success will depend on Mr. Pecker organizing American Media in ways that most publishing companies still find foreign. Business and editorial remain uncomfortable with each other; they still speak the language of "Chinese walls" separating "church" and "state." Each fears the corrupting influence of the other.

But camaraderie and, more important, business planning need not imply lower standards. To the contrary, only if business and editorial (and finance, operations and the other major departments) are brought together can game-changing opportunities be identified and implemented. Having found his content czar, Mr. Pecker's challenge now will be to build and drive this leadership team. If he succeeds, he may do more than reinvent American Media. He will help reinvent American media.

Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is director of intellectual capital at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.

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