How 'McCall's' lost its way

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Once a trendsetter in content, a trailblazer in design and copied by others for years to come, Gruner & Jahr USA Publishing's McCall's has made its move into history. When it relaunches in May as Rosie--as in Rosie O'Donnell--McCall's 125-year legacy will be relegated to memory and a mention on the new title's spine.

The nameplate switch creates a significant moment in the industry because the publication's brand, McCall's, was a signature in the women's service category.

McCall's was a fixture in the 1950s and 1960s, says Samir Husni, magazine industry expert and professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi. "It was looked at as a guide. It was one of the greats."


"A reputation can only carry you so far," says Melissa Pordy, senior VP-director of print for Zenith Media, New York. "When there are so many choices, reputation of yesteryear doesn't hold water."

One of the Seven Sisters of women's service magazines, McCall's boasted advertising clout during the early 1960s, but in recent times it has fallen behind. McCall's ad pages last year fell 13.2% to 864.7, according to Publishers Information Bureau. Circulation has joined advertising in the descent. It peaked at 8.5 million in the late '60s, and has gradually decreased. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, its circulation was just north of 4 million for the six months ended Dec. 31.

"The reader doesn't care about your tradition," says Myrna Blyth, editor in chief of Meredith Corp.'s Ladies' Home Journal, which has been a main competitor of McCall's for decades. "They care about how contemporary you are."

McCall's can trace its roots to the 1870s. After James McCall came to America from Scotland, he opened a tailor shop and, subsequently, with wife Belle started a pattern company. In 1876, the couple launched a four-page pink pamphlet, called "The Queen-The Illustrated Magazine of Fashion," that promoted their patterns.

It wasn't until after Mr. McCall's death in 1884 that the magazine adopted his surname. By 1897 it was titled McCall's Magazine, the Queen of Fashion, and included full-page fashion photographs, fiction and advice.


By 1910, its circulation had grown to more than 1 million. Still, advertisers weren't interested and spent only $951,000 on McCall's in 1919, compared with almost $8.8 million directed at Ladies' Home Journal, according to McCall's history.

But William Bishop Warner, McCall's new president, poured money into the editorial content and, a year later, in 1920, it carried almost $2.5 million in advertising.

In 1928, a 23-year-old Otis L. Wiese became editor. He was fired six times in his first year for his rebellious ideas-fired but also rehired. His tenure with McCall's ended in 1958. Mr. Wiese shepherded an innovation that converted the title into "three magazines in one" in 1932, each with a cover of its own. The separate sections were called "News & Fiction," "Homemaking" and "Style & Beauty."

In the late '40s, Marvin Pierce-father of Barbara Bush and grandfather of George W. Bush-became president of the magazine.

Herbert Mayes succeeded Mr. Wiese as editor and poured more money into the magazine.

Mr. "Mayes did this graphically explosive redesign of the magazine, which influenced all magazines and influenced advertising for a while," says Robert Stein, editor of McCall's from 1965 to 1967 and again from 1972 to 1985. "It opened up a use of scale and dramatic design."

By the end of 1960, McCall's was more than $3 million ahead of Ladies' Home Journal in ad revenue and only continued to grow. McCall's ad revenue jumped to almost $42 million in 1963, up from about $18 million in 1958.

Mr. Mayes retired in 1965 and, after that, the magazine went through a succession of changes, beginning with Mr. Stein as editor.

"We started focusing on quality. Newsstand sales went up and it was doing pretty well," says Mr. Stein, who brought in Gloria Steinam as a contributing editor and Truman Capote as a writer.

In 1985, a new editor, Elizabeth Sloan, instituted a new approach that she called "People Plus Service."


But nothing resonated with readers the way the McCall's of the '60s did.

"It lost its way," says Zenith Media's Ms. Pordy.

Mr. Husni adds, "It has a great identity in terms of fashion, design and content. And yet [for the last few years] it has been searching for an identity."

What Gruner & Jahr thinks American women are ready for is Rosie O'Donnell's personality, humor and passion for social causes-wrapped up in a magazine.

The new title will target a younger, more educated and upscale set of women.

Susan Ungaro, editor in chief of Gruner & Jahr's Family Circle and consultant on Rosie, says Rosie will aim to redefine woman's service magazines.

It will cut its rate base to 3.5 million from 4.2 million and will compete with O, the Oprah Magazine and Martha Stewart Living.

Sharon Summer, senior VP-publisher, says there are about 40 pages of new advertising in the first issue, which totals well over 100 ad pages.

"We've done everything that we could with a great American history to succeed, and it didn't work," Ms. Ungaro says. "So we've made this decision to launch Rosie. American women are ready for something new."

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