In mag world, impresarios beat the moguls every time

By Published on .

If there's anything we've learned about the periodicals business in the past two decades, it's that consumer magazines fare best when run by impresarios. For this reason, I salivate at the possibility of Michael Wolff and Donny Deutsch taking over New York magazine.

In the English fashion (which in most other respects I detest), I am compelled to state my interest in the matter. Mr. Wolff is a friend of several years' standing; Mr. Deutsch is my quarterly interlocutor on the CNBC slam-fest "Kudlow & Cramer." While I'd love to gain from their acquisition of New York, their pursuit of which The New York Times revealed last week, it's unlikely I can, given my day job and the fact that my talents have largely evolved from prose to PowerPoint. My selflessness established, allow me to return to my thesis.

Magazines are vaudeville. Done right they offer a mixture of low comedy, melodrama and high-wire acts. In a good glossy, every element of Aristotelian theatre is present-hubristic ambition cut short, buffoonery rewarded, a heavy dose of "I-wish-I-could-be-her-but-I'm-glad-I'm-not-him" catharsis. There are few places left where this heady mixture is available (Charlie Rose is too high, Letterman too low). Our vaudeville is in magazines, and our Minskys are the proprietors (and proprietary editors) who produce them.

A good impresario must revel in his (or, pace Tina, her) "public-ness." Messrs. Wolff and Deutsch are to Broadway born, Runyonesque characters for our more "proper" age. Like any of the great show- men (Belasco, Hurok, Merrick in theater; Wenner, Liberman, Luce in print), they revel in the show, and realize that the show isn't just the finished product but the act of putting on the act.

(It's symbolic that the Wolff-Deutsch disclosure occurred the same week that George Plimpton died. Mr. Plimpton's reputation rested in no small part on his tireless, affable celebrity. Certainly, it contributed to the success of the Paris Review, a publication as influential as it was unread.)

Big companies can try to emulate such showmen, but they're constrained by the requirements of business, notably the promise of continuing profitability. Indeed, that's the underlying thesis of Mr. Wolff's delightful new book, "Autumn of the Moguls." Moguls, in Mr. Wolff's telling, are the antithesis of showmen. They are "instruments for the creation of vast companies," whose purpose is not "the winnowing out and promotion of good media," but who instead exist solely for deal making. Most of the celebrated media moguls, he makes clear, fall into one of two categories: "good lousy deal-makers and bad lousy deal-makers."

To the impresario, on the other hand, there is no distinction between the deal, the content, the creativity and the pleasure of manipulating all of the above-along with the audience. (Had Donny Deutsch wanted to be a mogul, he would have tried to buy Interpublic. Instead, he sold his agency to Interpublic and pocketed a few extra mil to finance the next phase of his career-as a showman.)

The contemporary media business is a perfect medium for such modern impresarios. It's quite democratic: a meritocracy of the shameless. In fact, even if their deal for New York magazine comes to naught, Messrs. Wolff and Deutsch have benefited. They've turned themselves into players, just in time to boost the awareness of Mr. Wolff's book and Mr. Deutsch's new CNBC show, both scheduled to premiere (drum roll) next month.

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

Most Popular
In this article: