How Popular Mechanics’ EIC Wowed Michael Keaton at the Oscars

The roster of media mavens, moguls and boldface names spotted today at Michael's.

lunch at michaelsMichael’s was a sea of suits today and judging by the ear-splitting decibel level in the dining room, everyone had plenty to talk about. I was happy to be tucked away at my favorite table (27, in case you’re wondering) so I could hear (almost) every word uttered by my oh-so-interesting dining companions.

I was joined today by Popular Mechanics’ dynamic duo: Editor in chief Ryan D’Agostino and publisher Cameron Connors, who both joined the magazine in 2014. When Hearst’s Lauren Demitry first invited me to lunch to meet them, I thought, how on earth am I going to talk about cars for an hour and a half? I needn’t have worried.

Diane Clehane and India Hicks
Ryan D’Agostino, Diane Clehane and Cameron Connors

I knew exactly what I wanted to talk about the minute we sat down for lunch. While prepping for the interview I got a hold of Ryan’s new-ish book, The Rising (Crown), a sensitive and engrossing chronicle of Dr. William Petit’s recovery and re-entry into some semblance of a normal existence as the sole survivor of a crime that shocked the nation. Dr. Petit’s wife and two daughters were tortured and killed by two men who broke into the family’s home in Cheshire, Conn., on a July evening in 2007. A few years later, Ryan, who was working at Esquire at the time, was visiting his parents in Connecticut when he heard Dr. Petit on a radio program talking about an upcoming race that would benefit the family foundation he’d set up in his wife and daughters’ memory.

“I wanted to know, how does a person go on from this?” explained Ryan. “Esquire tells stories about extraordinary men and Bill Petit seemed like one to me. I wanted to find out more about him.” After getting the go-ahead from EIC David Granger, Ryan covered the trial of one the attackers, Steven Hayes, keeping his focus solely on how Dr. Petit was holding up. After the trial, Ryan wrote the article with the help of friends and close family members who had been approved by Petit (who declined to be interviewed) to speak on his behalf.

When Petit re-married, Ryan once again approached the idea of a sit-down with the doctor and this time, he got it. “It took a couple of years to build trust. When he finally agreed, I was told we could talk for an hour, but I was there until after midnight.” The article became the basis of the book (written on nights and weekends over the course of two years) which is a deeply moving tale of the resilience of the human spirit. “I think it was somewhat cathartic for him to talk,” said Ryan. “His wife (Christine Paluf) helped him through the silences. I feel privileged to have been able to tell his story.”

When I mentioned that I thought the book would make a great movie, Ryan told me The Hollywood Reporter recently ran an item about the availability of the film rights. So who should play Dr. Petit? George Clooney “would ace it,” said Ryan. “And Michael Keaton would be great.”

Ryan just might have the inside track to Keaton, because of their interesting exchange on the red carpet during the Oscars earlier this week. Attending as a guest for the first time (more on why later), Ryan found himself within arm’s length of the star and felt compelled to share an interesting anecdote with him. “I went up to him and told him I took my entire staff to see Spotlight and how inspiring I thought the film was.” His reaction? “He said, ‘You did what? You’re a journalist? Where do you work?” Ryan told me he recounted the whole story to Keaton, who listened intently as Ryan explained that one day out of the blue he’d decided to take his editorial team to see the film that “reminds us why we do what we do.” Still smiling at the memory he said, “I know he’s an actor, but he seemed genuinely interested.”

It’s easy to see why. Ryan’s enthusiasm for good stories and storytelling is infectious. Recalling his early days as Popular Mechanic’s EIC, he said, “The first thing most editors think is ‘What can I change?’ This is a magazine that has been around since 1902 and I didn’t want to screw it up. I wanted to keep the total wonder and curiosity about the way things work but expand the scope of what we cover.”

And so he has. This is not your father’s Popular Mechanics, although there are still car reviews. Ryan believes the book has a multi-generational appeal with more of a “psycho-graphic than demographic.” “Our readers are 24 to 54 — I don’t want to lose any of them.” More of a “DIY guy” than a car guy (he drives an old Ford F-150 around Westchester), since coming on board as EIC he has added a new section, The Life, covering gear, food and leisure activities, new columns (Buzz Bissinger’s motorcycle column premieres this month; Gary Dell’Abate aka Baba Booey is writing about technology) and a back of the book page, Popular Mechanics for Kids.

There’s a smart (but not haughty) sensibility and sense of humor throughout the magazine. To wit: cover lines from this month’s ‘Survival 2016’ issue include 14 pages of ‘Real-World Advice That Will Keep You Safe’ including tips on ‘How to stay sane’ and ‘When to eat the dog.'(Kidding!) The April issue features a special section entitled ‘Technology’s Secret Weapon is Women’ and Ryan’s first person account of test driving a Winnebago (which are apparently cool again) with his family in tow.

All of this seems to be working (total audience is 13.5 million, up 30 percent) and has made Cameron’s job a lot easier. March is up 18 percent in ad revenue; in the April revenue jumped 40 percent. The April issue  features a fashion ad from Kit and Ace — a new category for the magazine. Cameron and his team have also brought in new advertisers Miller-Coors among others in the liquor category. “Once you break in, others follow,” he said.

Now back to how Popular Mechanics has gone Hollywood. This year for the first time, the magazine was a sponsor of the The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Scientific and Technical Awards, which were held a few weeks before the Oscars. The swanky affair was held at the Regent Beverly Wilshire and attended by over 400 people, including honorees and some of the magazine’s advertisers. Ryan and Cameron got to spend a little time with the hosts, actors Olivia Munn and Jason Segel and highlights from the awards were shown during the Oscar broadcast. (Hence, Ryan scoring a ticket to the festivities.)

“It was the perfect fit for us,” said Cameron. “It brought together science, technology in movies which is something we have been covering for a while with popular culture.” The publisher told me the Academy “was incredibly professional” to deal with and foresees making this an annual event. “There’s a lot of unchecked space there.” Next year, maybe they can invite Michael Keaton along for the ride.

Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd:

1. PR scion Steven Rubenstein

2. Peter Brown

3. Accessories maven Mickey Ateyeh and Deborah Block

4. Galvanized Brands CEO David Zinczenko — Long time no see!

5. Allen & Co.’s Stan Shuman

6. Paul Wilmott and pals

7. Peter Price

8. New York Social Diary’s David Patrick Columbia with Barbara Lieberman and another well-heeled gal we didn’t get to meet

9. Gillian Tett

11. Andrew Stein

14. Simon & Schuster’s Alice Mayhew

15. Gary Zarr

16. Keith Meister

17. James LaForce and The Wall Street Journal’s Anthony Cenname

18. LAK PR CEO Lisa Linden and Michael Carey

20. Literary agent Frederica Friedman and Valerie Salembier

21. Quest’s Chris Meigher

22. Regina Goodman

23. Michael Taubman

24. Allen & Co.’s Steve Greenberg

25. Marshall Cohen and Rentrak founder Bill Livek

26. Ed Klein with Ed Kosner

27. Ryan D’Agostino, Cameron Connors, Lauren Demitry and yours truly

29. Fred Bloch

81. Sarabeth Schrager

Diane Clehane is a FishbowlNY contributor. Follow her on Twitter @DianeClehane. Send comments and corrections on this column to LUNCH at MEDIABISTRO dot COM.