Clean and Sober
Doomsday predictions make great copy. And, by that definition, when it came to covering the consumer magazine industry, 1990 was full of great copy. Magazines were failing. Other magazines looked like they were down for the count. Publishing companies were facing onerous debt. Magazines that were snatched on the block—or rumored to be—to raise needed cash. The industry press would have had a ball—if it hadn’t hurt so much.
It’s been a sobering year. And, as Iris Cohen Selinger reports in her cover story, it’s forced not only considerable soul-searching but inventive approaches to both revenue enhancement and cost containment. Some of these, particularly those that might, in time, undermine the very quality that keeps magazines alive, may backfire. But many may prove cathartic, a modern-day, industry-wide bloodletting. Circulation strategies have taken on new meaning. The grayest of publications have started to brighten up. New technologies, most notably the Mac, have opened doors—and saved a lot of money. It’s a big squeeze, but it’s no doomsday.
Michael Winkleman, Special Reports Editor
Not everyone is wringing his hands—and budgets—over the recent postal hike. In fact, for Phil Miller, the main thing that increased on Feb. 4, when second-class rates shot up 22 percent, was his potential clientele.
While private delivery firms like Miller’s Alternate Postal Delivery actually appeared on the scene in the 1970s, most found they still couldn’t compete with Uncle Sam. But times may be different now: Miller claims to offer 15-18 percent discounts in the 16 markets that APD already covers. The other major private carrier, the nine-magazine-owned Publisher’s Express, says only that its rates are “at parity with or below” postal costs. “I don’t think you save money now, but it’s coming closer,” says Jerry Kaplan, publisher of Better Homes and Gardens, owned by Meredith Corp. a PE partner company.
Both companies have cut their teeth on just a handful of local markets, but they plan to create national networks within a few years by working with well-entrenched newspaper-delivery systems. And so far, customers seem receptive: one PE survey indicated 91 percent of customers were “very satisfied,” while the others cited minor kinks that the firm says it has since addressed.
Delivery experts warn that private services won’t work everywhere for every publication; rural areas and high-security urban buildings present problems, and smaller magazines with scattered distribution aren’t likely to save much. Nevertheless, PE’s Howard Rosen expects that, with this recent postal increase, private delivery services will be moving forward, reaching 50 percent of American households within four years.
Edited by Meryl Davids
Where Are They Now?
Today you’re hot, tomorrow you’re not—these days, the industry’s more fickle than ever. Where are the editors people were talking about last year?
“I’m waiting out the recession,” laughs the ex-New York Post and Manhattan, inc. editor. “I’m really not doing anything.” Nothing but raising her 11-month-old son Teddy, that is.
When Memories folded in September, Winfrey decided to look for his future at another corporation. He joined Reader’s Digest’s newly purchased American Health as editor-in-chief in November.
After Self wielded the ax, Disney briefly consulted on a Murdoch prototype that never launched. Now the only drama she deals with is on TV—as executive editor of Fox’s A Current Affair.
The former Manhattan, inc. edit. director is now editor of Smart—sort of. The Lipstein book has ceased, but it’s not officially dead. So while he’s gotten offers elsewhere, the paycheckless Kaplan still clings to his men’s-magazine dream.
Taxi no longer stands, but its ex-editor is as cheery as ever. After a summer at Spin—its management didn’t suit her impeccable tastes, she says—she’s freelance writing and consulting on interior design.
This downtowner was out when Details was remade down to its last, well, you know. Flanders won’t talk about her current affairs, but the Design Industries Foundation for AIDS says she’s busy helping plan its May Love Ball soiree.
Havoc at Hachette?
While the recent en masse defection of Anne Fuchs, Louis Gropp and Ellen Levine might seem to outsiders like the coup de grace to Hachette’s American operations, industry insiders say non. Despite its storm-tossed appearance, the French company’s United States subsidiary is actually firmly in control. In particular, observers point to the company’s new advertising network, which they predict will go a long way toward restoring much of Hachette’s credibility with advertising agencies.
The multipublication buy, announced several weeks ago, aims to refocus the media community on Hachette’s less glamorous but highly successful titles like Car and Driver, Popular Photography and Cycle. “We’re bringing our men’s magazines into the fore,” says coo David Pecker. “We haven’t been fully exploiting the 5 million men we reach.”
The buy actually began when the magazines were owned by Ziff-Davis, but dwindled once the periodicals were bought by CBS, Pecker says. (They were subsequently purchased by Peter Diamandis and, soon after, by Hachette.) In an effort to restore the publications’ combined clout, Pecker aims to target demographic segments within the titles that should appeal to electronics, computer and automobile advertisers, among others. “The network buy was one of the most profitable things Ziff-Davis ever had,” says Marty Walker, president of Periodical Studies Service. “It should be very successful for Hachette.”
While cross-selling the men’s titles may bring in more business, the company still faces problems with its distaff publications. Though the company denies it, many believe Hachette still hopes to find a buyer for Woman’s Day. In the meantime, however, it is pouring in money to shore up newsstand sales and ensure that it doesn’t again fall under its rate base, as it did in 1989. Hachette must also pay off corporate debt and support startup Elle Decor.
But while the company its reaching out to media directors with its new network buy, those who had hoped to see a loosening of restrictions on the type of ads allowed in the successful Elle will be disappointed. Though Diamandis had hoped to soften the company’s policy of excluding categories like pharmaceuticals and feminine hygiene, Hachette’s executive vp, publishing, Didier Guerin holds firm: “It would be a mistake, and a sign of weakness, if we accepted Tampax in the magazine.”
The Big Squeeze
How do you build revenue when ad pages are shrinking? How do you maintain quality when budgets are slashed? It’s a year of hard choices.
By Iris Cohen Selinger
When Savvy launched back in 1979, it was full of promise. Women were flooding the workforce, moving into positions of increasing executive authority, and a monthly primer addressing the concerns these women had seemed perfect.
As the decade progressed, Savvy gained some 500,000 readers, attracted top Newsweek editor Annalyn Swann as editor-in-chief and regularly featured such advertisers as Newport, Hanes and Evan Picone.
But in 1989, ad revenue started to dwindle. Savvy, which had been bought by Family Media in 1985 and later renamed Savvy Woman, found itself in a cash crunch and cut back its editorial budget. Frustrated, Swann walked out, followed by publisher Kristin Norrgard. Frequency was cut from 12 to 10 issues per year, the editorial staff was “downsized” and the number of editorial pages shrunk.
Readers seemed to lose interest; newsstand sales plummeted. Media directors, following advertiser requests to cut budgets, couldn’t justify the buy. They could get the working-woman audience from other fashion and lifestyle women’s magazines. “It simply wasn’t a player,” says Roberta Garfinkle, director of print media at McCann-Erickson. Ad pages dropped 37 percent in 1990, with little hope for recovery in 1991.
For Savvy Woman, this was fatal. With quality down and revenue disappearing, Family Media couldn’t find a buyer. Finally, last month, the magazine was laid to rest, joining a string of fatalities that have plagued the magazine industry over the last year.
Savvy Woman’s story is sadly familiar. Though the characters and the specific details change, the forces remain the same. Ad page growth is not as elastic as it once seemed. Ad revenues, after years of deal making and rate cutting, are no longer on the rise; sheer volume is no longer the supreme measure of a magazine’s strength and demand. Many publishers spent the ’80s starting and buying properties like there was no tomorrow—accepting debt service that now threatens to strangle them. And costs, everywhere, have risen.
For so-called tertiary magazines, those chasing hard-to-define, marginal audiences and those without the deep-pocket resources of a mega-magazine publishing company, this has meant extinction. For most others, it’s meant the Big Squeeze.
The Squeeze is being felt on both sides of the ledger and presenting publishers with difficult choices. If revenue is hard to come by, you’ve got to cut costs. But if you cut costs too deeply, you threaten the quality of the publication. If you threaten quality, you turn off readers, which cuts into circulation, which undercuts the rate base. And on and on. What’s a publisher to do?
Facing fewer pages, many publishers have redoubled efforts to milk more money from those pages that are coming in. In fact, the buzzword for magazine survival today is no longer volume of ad pages but revenue per page. Cross-selling, merchandising and even sticking to the rate card have entered the lexicon. And expenses are being whittled as close to the bone as possible.
Some observers postulate that this bloodletting has been healthy, a weaning out of the weak and a chance to see if the strong can survive. Across the board, turning less into more has become the motto. Extracting more revenue for each page they get, magazine executives say, has allowed some companies to show ad-page drops while still maintaining increases in revenue.
Time Inc. Magazine Co. CEO Reginald K. Brack Jr. explains that Sports Illustrated, which was down 10.4 percent in ad pages last year, had its best year in profits ever. “We establish revenue, not page goals for publishers,” he says. This means standing tough on the rate card and orchestrating package deals that generate more revenue. Similarly, Gruner + Jahr president and editorial director Elizabeth Crow notes that although Parents was off 3.7 percent in ad pages, revenue was down only 1.2 percent—because rates went up.
But, as Crow points out, not all titles can afford the luxury of increasing rates. “Market leaders fare better in tough times,” she explains. Second-tier magazines often fall on their faces if they try to crank up rates.
Newsweek publisher Peter Eldredge says that by selling more four-color pages and by introducing demographic editions, Newsweek came within 10 percent of its best year ever. Time Warner, Newsweek and others have introduced cross-selling between properties.
Circulation mavens have been working to stretch their revenue stream as well. But many of the old methods won’t work anymore. Media directors are more savvy to and concerned about quality circulation, more suspicious of the makeup of a subscriber base, so stretching for those extra subscribers seems to make less and less sense. In addition, this month’s postal hike has raised not only the cost of mailing magazines, but, even more dramatically, the cost of direct mail, making soliciting those new subscribers more costly. Moreover, newsstand sales are down.
All this has meant making sure circulation is clean, not tainted by premiums. It’s meant checking pricing on covers and controlling the number of copies produced vs. sold on the newsstand. In a growing number of cases, notes Hearst Corp.’s executive vp and chief operating officer Gilbert C. Maurer, the answer has been to put out fewer copies in order to increase sell through.
For a number of publications, it’s also meant reducing the size of the rate base, eliminating subscribers who are either too costly to attract and renew or who don’t fit the demographic picture being sought by the media buyers.
Just as some observers wonder whether the weeding out of publications over the last year might be of long-term benefit to the industry, there’s speculation that the extensive budget cutting that’s now resulting in smaller staffs, reduced travel budgets and the like is also long overdue. “Pruning is necessary,” says Newsweek’s Eldredge. With few exceptions, most media companies have curtailed big bashes, expensive lunches and travel. “Added-value” and promotion programs that drained coffers in the ’80s are getting slashed. Sometimes the money saved is being reinvested in editorial, often in desktop publishing, which despite its expensive startup cost promises to bring both flexibility and major savings.
Still, the Big Squeeze comes at a point when media companies are taking a closer look at the quality of magazines’ editorial as a barometer of their vitality. As Nancy Smith, senior vp, director of print and media relations at Young & Rubicam, puts it, “We’re evaluating magazines that can endure for the ’90s and build intrinsic relationships with their readers.” Media directors say they are scrutinizing qualitative readership studies and meeting with editors more than ever before to get a better understanding of magazines’ relationships with their readers.
And that raises some critical questions: How deep can you cut, how many staffers can you lose, how many shoots can you forsake before you lose that “quality,” that essence that gives a magazine its reason for being—the information, the look, the tone, the coverage that gives it the edge and makes readers turn to it? While they’re reluctant to go on the record about the impact, editors and publishers alike are privately bemoaning the steps they’re having to take—and worrying about the end result. As one pundit puts it, “How do you know what’s the last straw?”
But cuts are being made. And they’re running deep. Business Week shut down three bureaus and laid off 10 editorial staffers late last year. (The magazine has even hired management consultancy Booz Allen & Hamilton to evaluate such heretofore incalculable costs as how much time writers spend reporting stories.) American Express Publishing downsized the editorial and business sides. Condé Nast, Time Inc. Magazines, Hearst and Newsweek have trimmed by attrition.
Often the emphasis has been on cutting from the bottom. At Murdoch Magazines, editorial cost-containment means maintaining the best key personnel and cutting junior positions. There’s a similar philosophy at American Express Publishing. “There are two things you have to protect so your franchise doesn’t erode,” says Thomas O. Ryder, AmEx’s president, publishing and direct marketing: “Your editorial product and your key players. Everything else is up for grabs.”
Toward that end, some publications have put their efforts, and, presumably, their dollars, into attracting top editorial talent. Learning from the visibility and credibility they’d gained through Cosmopolitan’s Helen Gurley Brown, Heart Magazines recently hired three new top editors with household names: Terry McDonell at Esquire, Ellen Levine at Redbook and Gael Love at Connoisseur.
Of course, cutting the support staff often translates into more work for those who remain. Witness, for example, Dale Lang’s recent merging of publisher duties by making Carol Taber publisher of both Working Woman and Working Mother. Though Lang Communications executives claim cuts of this sort are necessary, industry executives warn that consolidating these top-level posts endangers smooth management.
If, as Ryder says, everything else is up for grabs, then travel is likely target. Seventeen editor-in-chief Midge Richardson, for example, explains that she’s economizing by scaling back on the number of trips taken for fashion shoots. Fewer staffers than usual will attend the fall collections in Paris. Richardson herself will stay home. “I don’t need to go, anyway. I can meet with advertisers and fashion designers here in New York,” she rationalizes. But that’s only part of her job. Richardson used to help spot fashion trends at the collections, a duty she’s relinquishing this year to save money.
Other magazines cutting back—quite literally—include HG and Elle, which have made or are planning trimsize reductions.
Despite the risk, many magazines have no choice—they’ve got to cut every corner, squeezing every ad page and every reader to stay afloat. But there are those magazines that, by virtue of both deep pockets are forward-thinking publishers, are able to push beyond the Big Squeeze, infusing money, time and people into their titles to gain an edge.
Take Life magazine, which was down 19.1 percent in ad pages last year but is currently testing the notion of going weekly. Time Warner, of course, has many strong magazine franchise, not to mention leverage from its Warner properties. So does Condé Nast, which invested heavily in redesigning Self last year—and is now sparing no expense in starting Allure.
But the paradigm of new strategies for survival in the ’90s may well be the Reader’s Digest Association, which acquired Owen Lipstein’s ailing American Health magazine for $40 million last year. Taking the long view, Reader’s Digest is gradually but aggressively building from the ground up.
To start, Reader’s Digest cut American Health’s inflated 1 million circulation rate base to 800,000. This was followed by direct mail drops to expand the reader mix. Then came extensive readership surveys, a new editor to revitalize the editorial and a new group publisher to help rebuild the book’s image on Madison Avenue. Starting with the March issue, American Health is ready to test its mettle. In a show of confidence, the company is marrying American Health and its crown jewel, Reader’s Digest, in an advertising group-buy package.
Still, examples like Life and American Health are rare. For everyone else, what’s the long-term impact? Will the Big Squeeze be cathartic or catastrophic? Prophesies range from outright hand-wringing to calm acceptance. But Y&R’s Smith probably sums up a sense of reluctant hopefulness that seems to prevail when she says, “The healthy, competitive fallout will strengthen the books that are left. A lot of attention is being paid to drawing in readers. Books in general are much cleaner and of higher quality than they were in the early 1980s. It’s a period of change.” But, she concludes, “change that is good for readers and good for advertisers will benefit the industry as a whole.”
Iris Cohen Selinger wrote about magazines as a senior editor at Adweek.
Editor of the Year: Robert Gottlieb
Rumpled, kind and eccentric, he doesn’t “do lunch” well. But after four years at The New Yorker, he’s performed a magnificent sleight of hand: changing everything about the magazine—while seeming to change nothing at all.
By Judith Newman
Robert Gottlieb reads The National Enquirer. Yes, The National Enquirer. “This is my favorite, favorite quote of all time,” he says gleefully, pointing to a story posted on his bulletin board about a woman who hired a hit man to kill her son because she “didn’t want him to grow up like his father.” The quote reads: “I’m not a crazy person. I’m not an animal. I guess I just made a bad judgment call.” The man with some of the best judgment in publishing beams at me, a slightly wild gleam in his eye, appalled and delighted anew.
When people speak of Robert A. Gottlieb, 59, the third editor in The New Yorker’s 65-year history, they tend to throw around words like “genius,” “fanatically focused” and “kind.” They don’t often say, “child.” But Gottlieb is, esentially, a 10-year-old. Today, shifting restlessly in a creaky, straight-backed chair, he wears dusty, black pants, sneakers unevenly laced and a pink, preppy shirt that remembers, long, long ago, a visit from an iron—it looks like his mother tried to make him presentable, and gave up.
He’s intense and respectful in the way only an extremely intelligent child can be; he take you seriously, whether you deserve to be or not. His passion for kitsch is legendary, and he has a keen sense of the ridiculous: The office where the venerable William Shawn once presided now houses a bowling-trophy clock, a wall hanging of Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest and a B’nai B’rith poster advertisement for a lecture titled “Sex and the Single Jew.” But there is not a jot of sarcasm or cynicism in Gottlieb. Behind the frumpy facade—rumpled as an unmade bed, and as inviting—there’s a deep well of freshness and a profound capacity for surprise. Cast in fiction, Gottlieb is David Copperfield with yiddishekopf, running The New Yorker the way young Trotwood might have seen fit.
Which means running it very well indeed. During 1990, The New Yorker posted its highest circulation ever (623,000). According to a Simmons Market Research study, average reader age has dropped—from late- to mid-40s—and income level, already high, has increased.
All this, while winning 1990 Magazine Publishers of America awards for both fiction and reporting. In other words, the great fear of New Yorker afficionados—that financial success would compromise editorial integrity—has not come to pass. The New Yorker—like it or not—is still The New Yorker.
And that’s because from the beginning, Gottlieb, who’s been reading The New Yorker “fanatically” since he was nine, understood the mindset of his readers. They do not date their magazine; they do not even shack up with it. They commit. Talk to anyone who’s been reading The New Yorker for years (and that’s a sizable proportion of subscribers—the magazine has a 73-75 percent renewal rate) and you find a for-better-or-worse, in-sickness-and-in-health mentality among them. Perhaps more telling is Gottlieb’s own description. He likens The New Yorker subscriber to “the demented governess who believes the baby is her own.”
As everyone who tracks the internal rumblings of The New Yorker knows, the welcome wagon wasn’t exactly waiting for Gottlieb when he pitched up. Owner Si Newhouse, ever a master of understatement, concedes the transition from the venerable William Shawn to Gottlieb “had its rough edges.” In fact, it was more like Amityville at The New Yorker: dozens of the most esteemed writers and editors in America, standing beady-eyed at the door, with one message: “GET OUT!”
Gottlieb didn’t hesitate for a moment. “What was being voiced was a totally appropriate expression of distress at Mr. Shawn leaving. What they couldn’t know at the time was not only did I think it would be a mistake to radically change the magazine—it was against my temperament.”
His tight friendship with Si Newhouse notwithstanding, Gottlieb did not become The New Yorker’s Gottlieb by bulldozing his way to the top. Insiders agree that Gottlieb, as a former colleague says, “does not do lunch well—in fact, doesn’t do lunch at all. He got where he is by being brilliant.” He grew up an only child with a delicate constitution on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, attended Birch/Walthen Prep (“Sentiment is intellectualized emotion,” quoth the solemn 17-year-old under his yearbook picture), and graduated from Columbia University with a class of future media titans that included Max Frankel, Roone Arledge and Larry Grossman.
At Simon & Schuster, Gottlieb began developing his gifts for bringing clarity and economy to difficult manuscripts; he edited, among others, Joseph Heller, Doris Lessing, S.J. Perelman and Jessica Mitford. Moving to Knopf in 1968, first as editor-in-chief and then as president, Gottlieb continued to proved his range as editor. He brought in Toni Morrison and Miss Piggy, Chaim Potok and Elvis (Albert Grossman’s headline-grabbing biography). His stable of thoroughbreds included John Cheever, John Updike, Barbara Tuchman, John Le Carré, Robert Caro, Michael Crichton and Niccoló Tucci. (Tucci gave Gottlieb more than his manuscripts—the editor married his daughter, the actress Maria Tucci, in 1969.)
Gottlieb’s detractors at Knopf complained he could be a bit of a tyrant, creating a charmed circle around him that left no room for outsiders and giving his editors little publishing leeway. Adam Gopnik, a former Knopf editor and now a staffer at The New Yorker, denies these allegations, hinting at professional jealousy. “Bob went out of his way to bring special and eccentric talents in-house—look at Gordon Lish, for instance. This was not narrowcasting.”
Gottlieb also earned a reputation as a workaholic and effortless organizer. Says Daniel Menaker, a New Yorker editor and writer for more than 20 years, “Bob’s as approachable and open as Mr. Shawn was secretive and formal—or at least he tries to be, given the delicate egos he’s dealing with and the tough decisions he has to make every day.”
“He’s faster than a Patriot, and more targeted,” purrs Self editor Alexandra Penney, who called Gottlieb in a moment of desperation and asked to “borrow” one of his writers for an important story. Within an hour, she had Mark Singer on the phone. Adds Gopnik, “Bob’s admiration for [the choreographer George] Balanchine is one of the profound impulses of his life. Bob has a way of liberating you to write, the way Balanchine liberated his ballerinas to dance.”
Gottlieb himself is a bit less hyperbolic. “You cannot legislate talent into yourself,” he says, “But you can legislate efficiency and courtesy.”
This attitude went a long way toward smoothing paths once Gottlieb arrived at The New Yorker in late 1986. As appalled as the staff was by Mr. Shawn’s dismissal, they were reportedly more disturbed by the way he was ousted than in his actual leaving of the magazine. During the early ’80s, The New Yorker seemed to have lost touch with its audience—and, consequently, with its advertisers—to a degree unequaled since the pre-1968 days when the magazine virtually ignored Vietnam. Everything about it seemed ossified, almost a parody of itself.
The muted covers of Hamptons houses or stately interiors, without reference to human events or even human existence. E.J. Kahn’s 70,000 word epic on grain. Auto-pilot political adherence to what was rapidly becoming known as “the L word.” And then there was the preponderance of those Ann Beattiesque, suburban-alienation stories. Think of New Yorker fiction of the early ’80s, and you see an affluent woman in bed with her lover, staring at the ceiling, silently yearning for her other lover.
Gottlieb certainly had every reason to institute change. Yet he recognized that change—to staffers and readers—was about as comfortable as chewing a ball of aluminum foil.
Ultimately Gottlieb has changed everything, while seeming to change nothing. It is a magnificent sleight of hand. Covers are brightly colored and topical—each week they have an idea, a point, while adhering to the magazine’s policy of never saying anything about what’s inside. There’s slightly more air on the page, and while a story or article can be every bit as long as in Mr. Shawn’s day, there’s a tendency toward shorter works. Color, and the occasional photograph (the horror!), have been introduced when appropriate—which means, simply, when Gottlieb likes them.
The listings at the front of the book feature new mini-columns of the week’s most notable events—sometimes coy and irritating, like “Edge of Night Life,” but undeniably more user-friendly. “Notes & Comment” is ever more incisive (if still predictably limousine-liberal), and “Talk of the Town,” now written by a larger pool of writers, has lost its tone of unremitting smugness. Cartoons are more abundant and timely, and new cartoonists reflect Gottlieb’s warped humor.
Poetry still sometimes seems locked in some catherine wheel of angst, but the fiction is the magazine has become more freewheeling, gritty, comic. These days, characters have bodily functions. They curse, have sex, die. Notes Daniel Menaker, “There is simply no chance these pieces would have been published when Mr. Shawn was here.”
Gottlieb, while stuck showering hosannas on his predecessor, concurs. “The boundaries of what we do in fiction have changed,” he says. Thankfully, Gottlieb has made it harder to pinpoint precisely what a New Yorker story is.
Distrusting grandiose conceptualizing, Gottlieb has staunchly refused to discuss his “strategy” for The New Yorker, except to say there’s no strategy at all: “An editor is only a series of responses to a hundred little decisions he must make every day.” One key to his success, he says, is his commitment to never changing the essential philosophy of the magazine: “We are not subject-driven—we’re writer-driven.” In nonfiction, Gottlieb may have lost a couple of major thinkers when he came on board.
But he’s brought in some truly extraordinary writers to worry their pretty, pointy heads regularly on subjects not covered in the magazine before: fashion, business, popular music. “We’re under no obligation to write about any particular subject. So why do we write about, say, baseball? because one of our writers, Roger Angell, writes about it. Angell is the point, not baseball. Our writers can create their own genres.”
Clearly, as an editor, Gottlieb has reassured his audience of governesses that nobody plans to snatch their baby away. In the process, he’s also managed to make peace with his business staff.
For years the joke around the magazine was the rigid division of church and state, of advertising and editorial. New Yorker CEO Steven T. Florio, 41, formerly at GQ, recalls his first New Yorker party in 1985, pre-Gottlieb. “There’s this long table in the room, with a buffet duplicated on ecah side. one side had run out of salmon, so without thinking I went over to the other half of the table. Suddenly, everyone was looking at me. Someone grabbed me and whispered in my ear, ‘Listen, that’s the editorial side of the table,’ and stared at me meaningfully. I thought he was kidding. He was not.”
Gottlieb simply did not buy into what everybody regarded as a truism: that there must be a deep divide between the world of commerce and the world of quality. Gottlieb had history on his side: At the height of its acclaim in the late ’50s and early ’60s, The New Yorker was selling more ad pages than any other magazine in the country.
Under Gottlieb, The New Yorker accepted its first glitzy foldout ad in 1987. It has created promotional tie-ins for advertisers like The Beef Industry Council and Ralston Purina, utilizing longtime New Yorker cartoonists. Most alarming to purists, New Yorker writers have had roundtable lunches with potential advertisers. Last year, Garrison Keillor, for example, spun a complicated tale in which Steve Florio was a hooker at a Minnesota state fair, Gottlieb was a cowboy, and The New Yorker was “Bob Gottlieb’s Little Ranch.” “We think it’s a great way to introduce clients to the wit and wisdom of The New Yorker,” says Florio.
Adds Nancy Smith, senior vp, director of print and media relations at Young & Rubicam, “There’s been some controversy about these talks, but they’re amazing and incredibly fun. They bring The New Yorker to life.”
The New Yorker still may not be read by the 24-year-olds in charge of media placement—and certainly the magazine’s rosy advertising projections for ’91 have been darkened somewhat by the Persian Gulf crisis and the resulting loss in travel advertising. But Florio’s hardball tactics have undeniably changed the perception of the magazine in the advertising community. “In this depressed advertising environment, where trendy magazines are either folding or not trendy anymore, advertisers are going back to basics,” says Smith, who claims several Y&R clients have been placed in the book for the first time, and others have not cut back their schedules, as they have in other books.
Gottlieb calls his relationship with Florio “an Alphonse and Gaston” routine: They’re each other’s biggest fans, and they claim they stay that way by never infringing on each other’s territory. “I’m struck by the passion Steve’s people have for the magazine,” says Gottlieb. “They’re not hacks. I mean, there are certain magazines you have to be a hack to form a relationship with.”
“Remember, for years I was president of a company,” he continues. “I’m a business person, too. I’m not bored or made uncomfortable by business. But then again, I’m relieved that I don’t have to concentrate on anything else but the quality of what we do.”
After our interview, Gottlieb proudly shows me around The New Yorker office, pointing out bits of history here, points of interest there.
He takes special care to introduce me to Brighton, a life-size wooden chimpanzee he bought in England. “Look at that face. He’s so sad, so profound. I still remember pushing him in a supermarket cart from Simon & Schuster to Knopf. He’s been everywhere with me.” Gottlieb caresses the face of the chimp, murmuring, “Baby.”
Writers, editors and New Yorker readers also get Gottlieb’s gentle touch. And like the chimp, we, too, will be following him around.
10 Hottest Magazines 1990
2. Condé Nast Traveler
4. The Economist
5. Financial World
6. Decorating Remodeling
7. The Atlantic