At the Wheel of the Wennermobile

Kent Brownridge Did the Driving for Jann

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No matter how much graciousness Wenner Media general manager Kent Brownridge mustered upon resigning -- he repeatedly described his recently announced departure from the parent
company of Rolling Stone, Us Weekly and Men's Journal as amicable -- the conspiracy theories inevitably flourished.

Daily News gossip Lloyd Grove, for instance, riffing off New York Times media columnist David Carr's famous characterization of Brownridge & Wenner as "the Thelma and Louise of publishing," posited that "it looks like this time, Thelma strapped Louise into the convertible and pushed it over the cliff." Various others alluded to recent tensions between the two as evidence for the Kent-got-pushed theorists.


First of all, "tensions" between Jann and Kent were part of their shtick. Kent would say something snippy at spaced-out Jann, Jann would harrumph at old-man Kent -- and it was a beautiful thing. (I witnessed that shtick firsthand when I worked for both men several years back, editing the prototype of a stillborn monthly.) It never really mattered, because usually Kent got his way, since Kent had this knack for convincing Jann that he -- Jann -- had had a brilliant, necessary idea that was, of course, actually Kent's.

Which brings me to my second-of-all: If anyone's been strapped into the convertible by himself -- if anyone's gone or going over the cliff -- it ain't Kent.

For the 31 years that Kent's been Jann's co-conspirator, Jann's liked to think that he's had his hands more or less firmly on the wheel of the Wennermobile. But, in fact, a lot of times Jann entirely stepped away from the vehicle -- wandering off into the desert (or onto the ski slopes) or going shopping (with his untold millions) for, I suppose, the finest, most supple leather driving gloves. Meanwhile, it was Kent whose hands got all raw and calloused.

Now Jann, quite terrifyingly -- even to those Wenner insiders who disliked (or even hated) Kent -- really is all alone at the wheel.

I've been thinking about life post-Kent as an inflection point not only for Wenner Media, but for the print-media industry in general. The real Wenner story, its unique value proposition among print-media companies, is that an erratic megalomaniac was paired so long, so steadfastly, with a professional manager.

Last week, I happened to be in Atlanta and at an airport newsstand there, I noticed prominent (i.e., expensive) displays of two just-killed titles: Ziff-Davis' gadget guide Sync and TV Guide's Inside TV. Not far from them was Radar, and next to that, Harper's.

What do these titles have in common? All were/are published by media hobbyists, not media pros. Both Sync (which was actually pretty good) and Inside TV (which was boneheaded) were throw-it-at-a-wall-and-see-if-sticks experiments from desperate media conglomerates that launched them and then distractedly killed them like five minutes later. Radar is a celebrity-obsessed title (100% of the snark of, at a zillion times the overhead!) published by real-estate mogul Mort Zuckerman, whose U.S. News & World Report and New York Daily News are dismal, hapless properties that can't hold on to their readers. Harper's is, of course, a legendarily wonderful publication, but when Editor in Chief Lewis Lapham announced his retirement recently, it was easy to forget that he got to be the great, fearless, outspoken liberal crank of the magazine world by operating outside of it. (Harper's is an artificially sustained property: It's been published by a nonprofit charitable foundation since 1980.)

I could go on about other titles that represent the magazine industry as the Land of Make Believe -- a playpen for wannabe magazine moguls who don't know jack about building real media businesses with real audiences -- but I'll spare you.

Besides, the decline of print is all Google's fault, right? But the thing print people should fear is not so much the Google Gang's hyper-competence, but the print industry's profound incompetence -- the widespread lack of truly professional managers, strategists and innovators.

Granted, the various business models at Wenner over the years have occasionally been seriously dubious, but Kent, God bless him, always had a way with duct tape and bailing wire like no other operator in the glossy business.

Now, with his departure, the Amateur Hour that is the magazine industry just got a bit more amateurish.

The Media Guy's column appears weekly on and in the print edition of Advertising Age. E-mail him at [email protected]

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