Here are a few tidbits from 1994’s intro to the Hot List; back then, Wired was but a startup.:
“In her first full year as editor of The New Yorker, Tina Brown has given us scandalous covers, Avedon photographs, profiles of Heidi Fleiss and Sylvia Plath, and many more reasons to kvetch, head-scratch, enjoy and read the damn magazine.”
“Rocker, biker, celeb and spelling bee conductor. That’s today’s Jann Wenner, whose personal pursuits once again have spawned magazines for his generation. Tim Whitaker describes how our Executive of the Year intends to keep Wenner Media rolling.”
“Wired: the Bible for the digerati? It’s the startup of the year, with its startling vision of the future and brash graphics.”
Reversing the Field
So far, Si good. Make that extremely good. That seems to be the pattern for the Condé Nast/Advance titles that hold three of the top four slots on our list of the country’s hottest magazines. Never content to go with the conventional flow, Si Newhouse has invested heavily in a trio of books that most publishers would have shown the door. Or the recycling bin.
Newhouse instead has made inroads in categories thought to be sated, jaded or plain outdated. Allure was launched in 1991 in the depths of the recession, amid predictions that women needed another beauty or lifestyle book like they needed another shade of lipstick. Turns out they did: So far, Allure has carved out $23 Million in ad dollars in a tough fashion field, with 700,000 readers turning to its brand of ungushy chic. As for the men-don’t-read dictum, Details has claimed nearly a half-million eager young takers for its downtown view of the world. Its ad revenues jumped and Allure-esque 85% last year, to $15 million. Reward: Editor James Truman becomes the CN house editor. Can his T-shirt exhibition at Pace be far behind?
Meanwhile, the legendary New Yorker—legendary in recent years for its reputed losses—has taken on a vivid new life under Tina Brown. Ad revenues shot up 26% last year, to $70.6 million, while its once staid circulation was boosted a like degree, to 800,000. Newhouse has a long way to go to make back the $170 million he paid for The New Yorker in 1985. With 1993’s results, he’s at least made a start.
Another turnaround project, Harper’s Bazaar, has added more evidence to the Great Editors Theory of Publishing. Under Liz Tilberis, the once-struggling Hearst glossy has posted gains as striking as its covers, doubling as sales to $57.3 million. By upgrading its editorial content, Anthea Disney has positioned TV Guide to survive in a 500-channel universe; the Murdoch title pockted a remarkable $46 million in new ad revenues in 1993. And Bonnie Fuller helped Gruner & Jahr’s YM attract 360,000 new readers and $4 million more in advertising; no wonder Hearst hired her away. (Time for another YM Letterman spot?)
Rounding out our list are four repeaters from last year. Child continues its precocious rise through the parenting ranks; it tacked on 31% in ad dollars. Entertainment Weekly looks more and more like a long-term winner for Time Inc., moving past the 1-million circ mark and nearing $50 million in ad revenue. Home is where the rich heartland is for Meredith. And Country America—1992’s No. 1—is still playing its fast-growth tune.
The 1994 List:
3. Harper’s Bazaar
4. The New Yorker
5. TV Guide
6. Young & Modern
8. Entertainment Weekly
1993: 10 Hot Up-and-Comers
1. Martha Stewart Living
4. Snow Country
6. The Walking Magazine
7. Traditional Home
8. Golf for Women
9. Natural History
Editor of the Year: Talk of the Town
Feeding time at the zoo. The bilious green banquettes at Manhattan’s Royalton Hotel are full, save for the third semicircular booth from the front. This one belongs to Tina Brown, editor of The New Yorker and the most talked about woman in magazine publishing. As I wedge myself into the fashionably uncomfortable seat, a worried look flickers across the face of the waiter. I slide over to the other side. He smiles happily. “Tina usually sits there,” he explains, pointing to the side I just relinquished.
Soon Brown breezes in. Newly colored and coiffed, she wears a crisp houndstooth suit, pearl earrings and a snowy-white blouse with an oversized wingtipped collar that frames her bright face; she looks simple, chic and lovely. Warmth does not come easily to her, but she is quietly pleased at being named Editor of the Year and has resolved to be gracious. She cannot help but be keenly intelligent and penetrating; when she focuses her attention on you, you can almost see her molecules vibrating.
There is no murmur of the crowd, no subtle shift of barometric pressure worthy of a mis-en-scène penned during her Vanity Fair reign. But her entrance does not go unnoticed. Minutes after we order, a podgy man in a rumpled suit approaches, moving as if on casters. “Michael Fuchs,” announces the chairman/ceo of HBO, extending his hand like a pontiff waiting for his ring-kiss. Tina extends hers similarly, and for a moment low culture and high culture are locked in a clammy embrace—just the way Tina likes it.
Apparently, it’s the way we like it, too. For it’s this distinctive mixture of pop and pedantry that is ensuring The New Yorker is once again read and talked about, and not only among the media beasts who prowl the Royalton. Former editor Robert Gottlieb called himself a “conservator” by nature, and many would argue he did conserve the best of the magazine. But he shared predecessor William Shawn’s instincts for public relation and marketing—which is to say, none. Shawn and Gottlieb seemed happy for The New Yorker to be a violet by a mossy stone. Brown wants the whole meadow.
No one, least of all Tina Brown, claims The New Yorker is making money (and just how much it’s losing is a subject of gleeful speculation among sour-grapes journalists). But total paid circulation increased 23% last year, advertising was up a welcome $15 Million, and subscribers, on average, are as loyal as ever. The mean reader age has dropped and newsstand sales have nearly doubled. “My theory is Tina’s got a Sicilian grandmother in that background somewhere,” says Steve Florio, who was recently promoted from president of The New Yorker to president of Condé Nast Publications. “She’s tough on everyone around her, but the person she’s toughest on is herself. She plays to win. Every day. Nothing is good enough, which intimidates the hell out of a lot of people. But she made me play my game better than ever before.”
Analyzing The New Yorker is one of hose unavoidable conversations in media circles, right up there with “What’s the deal with The New York Times Style section?” and “Have you tried Prozac?” The consensus: Love it or hate it, The New Yorker is almost always thought-provoking, and it’s never inert. To the 40-year-old Brown, only the fourth editor in the magazine’s 69-year history, there is no wrong subject; the is only the wrong spin.
If Brown is by nature a provocateur, she is certainly not The New Yorker’s first. Legendary founding editor Harold Ross courted controversy just as assiduously. Since taking the job in mid-1992, brown has repeatedly invoked Ross’ name when detailing her course for the magazine. And unlike, say, Bill Clinton’s invocation of John F. Kennedy at every available opportunity, Brown’s claim has the ring of truth.
Brown takes the best writers today and makes them better. Consider Janet Malcolm’s whole-issue piece on Sylvia Plath, Julian Barnes’ scathing chronicle on the downfall of Lloyds of London, and Oliver Sacks’ brilliant article on autism. Stories once relegated to the tabloids are now dissected with intellectual rigor—think of Lawrence Wright’s extraordinary reporting on satanic cults—while baffling technological issues are made accessible: Johnathan Seabrook’s whimsical e-mail profile of Microsoft’s Bill Gates came along right when everyone was saying, “Information Highway? Wha’?”
“Talk of the Town” has recovered from an unsettling period of Vanity Fair-like profiles of the terminally fabulous. “If I saw Mort Zuckerman’s name mentioned one more time.” says a former TOTT writer, “I was going to throw up.” Under former Harper’s editor Gerald Marzorati, it’s being read again. The short media pieces—what Brown terms “the seduction points into the book”—often make competing articles redundant. Richard Avedon, The New Yorker’s first staff photographer, mar be cannibalizing himself at this point, but his stark yet lyrical images are perfectly suited to the magazine.
True, the “Shouts & Murmurs” page and much of the magazine’s criticism are still hit-or-miss. May of the cartoon are now so topical that if you don’t read the magazine on week, you’re unlikely to get the joke the next. (Helpful hint to aspiring cartoonists: Tina never need to see another Bobbitt or Menendez cartoon again, thank you very much.)
And the fiction? These days , it reminds me of that old Jewish joke about the food at a catered reception: “Not very good—and such small portions.” Stories are down from two a week to one, and those published are often curiously bloodless. “This is not a great fiction moment,” says Brown, and she is probably right.
Even with these flaws, it’s hard to resist a magazine that actually causes arguments—arguments—over artwork. Brown has fought hard to move away from illustrations of docked rowboats and toward Wall Street satyrs and armed kindergarteners. “I was at a meeting with Steve Florio the week the were debating whether to run the Art Spiegelman cover of the Hasidic Jew kissing the black woman,” says an insider. “She was the only one in the building who though is wasn’t totally inappropriate. At some point in the meeting Steve Florio—not exactly know as a pushover—referred to it as ‘the Art Spiegelman cover we probably won’t run.’ I’ll never forget the look Tina gave him. All she had to say was, ‘We’ll talk later.'”
Some may call it controversy for controversy’s sake. Tina Brown doesn’t care what you call it, as long as you pay attention. “We keep hearing that people don’t read anymore. Well, I don’t think that’s true,” she says. “I just think serious material is often presented in an unappealing way. America media polarized between the uninviting serious media and the completely trashy. So you have Time and Newsweek ceding their serious ground and putting Tonya Harding on the cover. But my passion is to put, for example, El Salvador on the cover, and still have strong newsstand sales.”
Brown is equally unapologetic about what critics perceive as the relentless topicality f the magazine. As one staff writer puts it, “It used to be a weekly run like an academic quarterly. Now it’s a weekly run like a high school daily.”
“Look, there are two strands going on in the magazine,” explains Brown. “One, the relevant and contemporary piece, and two, the timeless piece that could have run anywhere within the year. I think it’s important to have both in any given issue, because we are a weekly, and we have to get people to pick us up and read us that week.”
For a woman constantly accused of Brit-pack snobbery, Brown has brought a modicum of democracy to the magazine. The letters page and the Steve Brill brouhaha are a case in point. A “Talk of the Town” reporter sitting in on a meeting at Brill’s Court TV got some minor facts wrong, and Brill, sniffing a whiff of publicity, wrote a piercing letter demanding an apology, virtually unheard of at The New Yorker. He got it. Immediately the press went into overdrive. Some lamented the demise of The New Yorker’s fastidious fact-checking. Others claimed Tina Brown sacrificed her writer and fact-checker because Brill was a friend. Not true, says Brill. “Look, I know here, but if Tina had a party and invited 200 of her closest friends I wouldn’t be there—and vice versa.”
Fact-checkers who have been at the magazine through the Shawn and Gottlieb years say The New Yorker is making about the same number of mistake it always did, even given its new frantic page. Now, however, it has an editor willing to admit them. “I always thought not having a letter page—a place where the magazine could admit to its mistakes—was an arrogant stance,” Brown says.
Perhaps the biggest change editorially is one of the least obvious. Under its former editors The New Yorker was writer-driven. Writers came up with all the ideas and followed their own idiosyncratic interests. At time, those interest might result in a four part series on grain of a childhood in India. “Sometimes you have to save writers from their own ideas,” Brown says. “I’ve never made anyone take and assignment. If I don’t see their eyes light up, I don’t push it. But I’ve been able to turn writers on to ideas that then worked well for the magazine.”
The result of all this change has been the exit of some wonderful writers that “weren’t producing,” according to Brown. Holly Brubach, a woman who could write about toast and make it fascination, was an unfortunate loss (she’s now style editor at The New York Times). Other missed talents include Mimi Kramer, Kennedy Fraser and Liz Harris. Critics have ascribed some of these departures to Brown’s competitiveness with women, particularly women her own age. She’s also reportedly allergic to anything related to feminism; according to some, paragraphs that deal with women’s rights are routinely excised from pieces. “Her most successful working relationships are with older men like her husband whom she can charm,” says on ex-staffer. “And once she has it in for you—especially is you’re a strong woman around her age—that’s it.”
“Ridiculous,” Brown says. “Anyone who knows me knows I have spats with people, and they’re forgotten the next week.” (Spiegelman, who stalked out when Brown refused to print his urinating Santa cover, is back.) As for the gender issue, Brown has heard it all before. Se reels off her appointments: editors Julie Kavanagh in London, Susan Mercandetti in Washington, D.C., Caroline Graham in Los Angeles, senior editor Kim Heron, managing editor Pamela McCarthy. “In fact when I got to The New Yorker, I was amazed at what a males bastion it was. One editor who’d been there for year told me after I came, with all the women there, it was a bit like the storming of the Bohemian Grove.
“I want people to care about my work, but it doesn’t bother me if someone I don’t like or respect doesn’t like what I’m doing,” Brown adds. “The only thing I care about is talent.”
Talent—and the power to showcase it. To Tina, courting money and power was, in a sense, her birthright. She describes it herself in Life as a Party (“my juvenalia,” she says dismissively), a collection of her viciously funny essay for The Tatler that read like they were written by the evil spawn of P.G. Wodehouse and Nora Ephron:
“Home life was flash—my father was a film producer who managed to preserve his country gentleman air…into the era when the art of setting up a film became Deals on Wheels. ‘Who shall we have to dinner to massage the Iranian/Swiss/Belgian money?’ was a catchphrase that signified the start of the school holidays.”
At Oxford, Brown “matured earlier than the rest of us, not only as a person but in a literary way,” says Simon Carr, a boyfriend of Brown’s at college who is now a novelist and speechwriter for the Prime Minister of New Zealand. Brown started writing for the London Sunday Times while still an undergraduate. After a few years of award-winning writing—and wooing her husband, harry Evans, then the editor of The Time and now president of Random House—she was handed the editorship of The Tatler in 1979 at the age of 25. “She was running this magazine on a shoestring, yet she managed to hire all these glam writers,” says a former Tater photographer. “No one could understand how she got them to write for her. And still, she was constantly dissatisfied with them.”
It was at The Tatler that Tina first learned the advantages of melding her identity with that of her publication—and making both “flash.” “There she was, editing this tinpot magazine, yet spending a fortune on luncheons and limousines,” the photographer continues. “In fairness, she couldn’t drive. But going around in a limo like that was unheard of in England. She would wait until the driver got out of the car and opened the door for her, Remember, she was practically a child.”
Here, too, Brown learned to use her wholesome sensuality to good effect: Many of her Society subjects must have been shocked to discover that someone who looked like Lizzie Bennett wrote like Lizzie Borden. Under the pseudonym Rosie Boot, she wrote a “Guide to London Bachelors” and was not exactly coy in her appraisals. For example, of Simon Oakes, a pretty Hooray Henry, Brown noted: “He is certainly a very personable escort in the wet-smack genre with a sympathetic and insistent chat-up line…I am here to tell you, however, that his melting approach conceals an astonishing pre-happy hour horniness that has earnt him among other nicknames, ‘Any time Oakes.'”
The Tatler, which had been losing money for years, became profitable just as Brown was leaving in 1983. Condé Nast chairman S.I. Newhouse had taken over the magazine the year before and by 1984 he had brought his new star to the U.S. to revive the gasping Vanity Fair. The rest, or course, is infotainment history.
The gripe about The New Yorker from editors around town is this: “If I could pay the best people top dollar and not worry about making a profit, I could have a hell of a magazine, too.” Or, alternatively, “The magazine is so prestigious, Si Newhouse doesn’t care if it loses millions.”
Newhouse cares. And Brown is reportedly under tremendous pressure to make the magazine see black. She admits killing about half the stories she had during here first year, but many were old inventory she felt was unusable. Her current kill rate is about 20%—”commensurate with other magazines, I should think.” She claims she now pays less for stories than Vanity Fair. “Our budget can’t handle it,” she says. according to one report, she’s set a ceiling of $8,000 on freelance pieces, regardless of length. “She’s always been conscientious about costs,” says Florio. “I tell you, it it was my money, I’d let Tina manage it.”
Brown has successfully courted new advertisers such as Gianni Versace, Ralph Lauren and BMW, and she has lured other, including IBM, Apple and The Gap, back into the magazine. But she is tight-fisted about spending the magazine’s own money on advertising. “She’s much more comfortable promoting through parties, social contact, art events and publicity than through paid advertising,” says Jeff Goodby, co-chairman of former New Yorker agency Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein, San Francisco. “Who’s to say she’s wrong? It’s working, right?”
Perhaps it’s Brown’s policy of reaching out to advertisers that has created her image of a high-living party animal and professional publicity hound. At the mention of her inclination for personal promotion, Brown looks at me archly, one eyebrow raised. “When was the last time you saw me on Charlie Rose?” she asks. “I’m not, because I’m the one who doesn’t want to make the speech, who doesn’t want to appear on television. People who know me know I am about the work.” Because she has two young children—George, 7, and Isabel, 3—Brown limits her partygoing to once a week.
“If it wasn’t for Tina, Harry would be out every night of the week,” says a colleague of Evans’ at Random House. “But she’ll go to a party with him, and as soon as her business is over—and believe me, for her it’s business—she’ll be glancing at her watch and barking, ‘Harry! The children are waiting!'”
Motherhood has shaped more of Brown’s decisions than most people would guess. In addition to simply loving print journalism, much of the reason Brown didn’t go to Hollywood when offered tow substantial studio job was that “it’s very to be a good mother when you’re doing movies.” Motherhood, Brown says, is “the hardest part of my life. Very often your head is completely wrapped up in something else, and yet your children need you.” Brown has bought her parents an apartment across the hall from her, which helps relieve some of the guilt about the time spent away from her children. “I’d like to have another two, actually, but I don’t see how I can live my life and have them,” she says. “My husband’s daughter just had a little girl and I have to say I felt rather…moody when I saw her.”
If Brown is disdainful of the idea that she wants personal celebrity, she certainly doesn’t deny she is interested in having her writers on Charlie Rose—although she stops short of saying she makes them celebrities. “Writers make themselves stars. But I think I know how to market talent,” she adds. What she may not see is that treating writers like starts has in some ways made her own job more difficult. “Tina wrote into various people’s contracts that they’d have to write for ‘Talk of the Town,’ but it didn’t work,” says former TOTT editor Alexander Chancellor, who has moved back to London to write for The Telegraph. “The writers tended to be a bit grand—they weren’t the kind of people happy to churn out an anonymous paragraph at a moment’s notice. For all the sins of British journalism, the is nevertheless a spirit of gaiety about it—which is perhaps missing in the USA.”
Brown would agree. “There’s quit a pompous media culture in America,” shes says, not perceiving her role in creating it. “I miss the irony, mostly, the ability not to take life as seriously as we do here.”
Some things about England irritate her, particularly the British penchant for seeing any kind of aspiration as “pushy.” “People have to conceal their ambition in a cloak on gentility,” she says, “which is a dishonest way of dealing with life.” But Brown deeply misses her native country. “I would love to go back to London—in the right moment,” she says.
Brown heads back to the office, leaving me with that little squeeze-and-retreat that passes for a handshake among Brits. Before she goes, she rather excitedly mentions an upcoming issue of the magazine, which will be devoted entirely to movies. Of course, New Yorker loyalists will mourn about the vulgarity of the premier magazine of it s day turning itself into a fanzine for feathery piles of film company dollars. Everyone will talk about the issue, many will hate it, and it will probably contain some of the most incisive pieces on film and the entertainment industry we’ve read in a long time.
Somehow, I think Harold Ross would approve.
Judith Newman has written about several past winners of Adweek’s Editor of the Year honor.
Executive of the Year: Casting New Stones
By Tim Whitaker
“Tina is editor of the year? Why couldn’t I have been named that, too?” The much celebrated publisher of Rolling Stone, US, Men’s Journal and Family Life (and, yes, the top editor on the masthead of all four as well) has just been told that he will be sharing Adweek honors with Tina Brown, the much celebrated editor of The New Yorker.
“Tina Brown? Now I’m all out of whack.”
What? You expected gracious? Think again. For all his notable achievements (launching Rolling Stone at the age of 21 with just $7,500, propelling score of music and literary careers in the ensuing decade), Jann Wenner hungers for recognition. He’s been characterized by journalists and employees as vain, abusive, immature and vindictive—and that’s just a sampling of some favorable press clips. Wenner’s brazen behavior, both in public and behind closed doors, has been well documented.
But wait. Something’s amiss here. Sitting in his sumptuous and finely appointed office in midtown Manhattan, Wenner certainly appears the Citizen Kane wannabe as previously billed. With snow swirling out the window behind him on 52nd street and a frantic assistant in the outer office scrambling to get him on a flight to reach the slopes by daybreak tomorrow, his tanned and youthful face take on a familiar impatient demeanor.
“Have you check LaGuardia yet?” he booms out irritably. At his elbow, a freshly brewed cappuccino awaits; nearby is a pack of Marlboros. He is sporting the patented mixed metaphor Wenner persona: a five-day growth of beard and disheveled hair, blue jeans with preppy crew-neck sweater.
But look closely and there is something new: Could that be a glint in his eye? It is! Jann Wenner is joking! And what’s most remarkable is that he is making himself the butt of his own joke. “This is the part of the interview where I reveal my explosive personality, right?” He waives and unlit Marlboro around his face majestically. “It’s a ten-year-old cliché, this egomaniacal personality of mine.” Pause. “But I guess I have to live up to it.” Pause. “Oh, and for the record? Tina is one of the best editors in America.”
Is it possible? Self-deprecation on the part of the man who just renamed his company Wenner Media, dropping the old Straight Arrow moniker? A touch of humility from one who still cavorts like a star-struck teenager? Has Jann Wenner, at the age of 48, finally grown up?
Whatever the verdict, Wenner is today a formidable and grown-up player in the high-powered communications world. Through Wenner Media may still be undersized next to such goliaths as Time Inc., Condé Nast and Hearst, the company is aggressively on the move—rolling the dice on new projects, promising yet more launches, and posting revenues in excess of $100 million a year.
Wenner has come a long way since the days he published Rolling Stone out of cramped and funky digs in San Francisco. His Rockefeller Center headquarters house some 300 employees in elegant, loft-like fashion. “When we moved here,” says Wenner, “we all just naturally started acting like suits.” And why not? When asked what byline he enjoys reading the most these days, Published Wenner is quick to answer: Bill Safire. And his favorite reading material: the Op-Ed pages of The New York Times.
Though full-bodied maturity may still be down the road for Wenner Media, 1993 was an impressive year of growth. Consider the fortunes of the titles:
*Rolling Stone: Even if it’s likely unlikely to ever again be the standard bearer for an entire generation as it was in the ’60’s, the magazine retooled its edit in ’93 to embrace younger readers (best-selling issues included Pearl Jam and Beavis & Butt-head covers) and scored a much-talked about interview with President Clinton. What’s more, using Rolling Stone’s cachet, Wenner Media issued “25 Years of Essential Rock,” a greatest-hits seven-CD box set. In this age of cross-media frenzy, the CDs broke sales records for the Rolling Stone/Time-Life joint venture. And Rolling Stone continued o grad the lion’s share of record advertising, while its circulation held steady at 1.2 million.
*US magazine: Long a drain on Wenner resources, US finally found a winning formula in 1993. Previously thought of as a pale, confused imitation of People, US has secured a nice with young female readers. Us now sells a half-million copies off newsstands each month, and it closed the year up 21% in advertising pages. In February, Wenner replaced editor Ian Burch with James Meigs, who has given US more clout and credibility with the Hollywood-New York entertainment axis.
*Men’s Journal: In the bleak ad climate of 1992, Wenner decided to plunge back into a category he had reluctantly abandoned years before: the active men’s lifestyle magazine. Aimed at men who came of age in the ’60s and after, and are now more interested in climbing mountains than mounting barricades, Men’s Journal features lots of participatory sports, adventure-filled escapes and $150 all weather gear to look the part. One of its main competitors is Outside, a title Wenner sold in 1979. So enamored was Wenner with the subsequent success of Outside (“I’m never credited for having help shape the original concept,” he says) that he lured editor John Rasmus away from it, assuring both a solid start for his magazine and a tweaking of his rival. MJ began publishing monthly in September 1993, a full year ahead of schedule, and it already boasts a rate base of 225,000.
*Family Life: The brainstorm of former Doubleday president and publisher Nancy Evans, FL was launched in August ’93 with an impressive 76 pages of advertising and a goal of combining service pieces, thoughtful journalism, and splashy graphics for parents of children ages 3 to 12. Like Men’s Journal, Family Life has a strong, established leader to chase: FamilyFun, a three-year-old Disney publication, has been catering to the baby boom parent audience since 1991. With Evans as editor-in-chief, Wenner Media recently published FL’s third issue, with a vastly improved redesign similar to MJ and a rate base of 160,000.
Though Wenner is able to combine some resources when publishing his magazine, he says the shared overhead is only worth “a million or two a year.” he asserts that each new startup costs the company $7-10 million, and probably more, “because once I get going, I start to spare no expense. It’s got took look great out of the box.”
Wenner can sound like a generous sugar daddy wen talking about his new projects, but he is known to be cost-conscious. “Jann knows what to spend money and what not to spend money on,” says Bob Wallace, a senior producer at ABC’s Prime Time Live who served 15 years as executive editor at Rolling Stone. “His secret is that he has good instincts for what the public wants and he’s able to produce it at a relative low cost. That’s what keeps you in the action in publishing today.”
Buoyed by the turnaround of US and the early success of Men’s Journal and Family Life, Wenner hints there might be another new title in the near future. “We’ve got one we’re real serious about right now,” he teases. “It’s a title that’ll surprise a lot of people. On the surface, it wouldn’t seem to fit in with what we typically do, but we’re on a roll.”
These days, when not on vacation in Aspen or the Hamptons (he now takes summers off), Wenner’s calendar is often crowded with entrepreneurs seeking funding. That he’s become the target of so many pitches reflects his new statues as a publishing rainmaker. Yet he wearies of the process.
“I get a lot of superhighway CD-ROM types who want to talk to me about putting my magazines online,” Wenner says. “These new tech people are some of the worst business men I’ve ever spoken to. They want to invade my subscriber base, but what they offer in return is a joke.”
Again, Wenner prefers to follow his own inclinations—wherever they may go. Back when he was a working editor and took blue pencil to paper, he was one of the best in the business, the kind who could put a writer’s prose on track with a single read. Yet as an interview subject, face to face, he holds forth unedited, conversing in spirited bursts, rarely pausing to ruminate before responding to any question thrown his way. In an era of carefully crafted corporate public relations, Wenner’s candor, even when self-serving, is refreshing.
“The stories we write, the magazines, we produce at this company, come out of our passions. We’re independent, we stand for something. Rolling Stone, Men’s Journal, Family Life—you take a look at them, and you say, right, I get it. At Condé Nast, they package magazines. They create and editor-as-star culture and a politicized environment. They deal in cosmetic fashions whatever the title, and they’re good at it, very stylish. Frankly, I don’t think we could produce their kind of magazines. Take Details—now this is off the record—oh hell, put it on the record, somebody’s got to say it, Details is a bad magazine. How about a reality check, folks? What the hell is it?
“Our magazines are distinctive because they’re real. We don’t do a lot of testing or marketing surveys and focus groups. We don’t look at the world and say since there are three million unwed mother out there we ought to publish a magazine for them. If it feels good, wee do it. We do a dummy, talk to a few advertisers, and three to six month we’re out there. We’re about good instincts.”
Listen to Wenner talk, and his demands for editorial vision and inspired art direction are apparent. Once notorious for meddling at every stage of the production process, Wenner nowadays is largely a hands-off manager. “I approve covers and write cover lines,” he says. “If I get a story idea, I’ll pass it along. That’s about it.” His greatest asses may be his ability to position—and when necessary, reposition—his magazines for readership approval and commercial success. The way he views his role as publisher comes across when assessing the state of his individual titles:
On Rolling Stone: “We are a magazine for 25-year-olds. That’s where we live and we can’t lose sight of that. The magazine has always blended two of my favorite passions, music and politics. And yet we can’t be the anti-establishment magazine that we once were. Today, we have a president who is sympathetic to the Rolling Stone point of view. So it’s clear we cut across a lot of lines. But whatever we cover, we must remember our youth audience.”
(Despite Wenner’s insistence that Rolling Stone is targeting the youth market, there remains the perception—particularly when compared to such upstarts as Spin and Vibe—that RS is a bit of a rock dinosaur. The biggest obstacle to changing this impression way be Wenner’s personal loyalty to rock’s old line. When asked what CDs he’s listening to these days, he quickly cites the darlings of the baby boom set: Jackson Browne, Boz Scaggs, The Rolling Stones and Van Morrison.)
On US: “I learned some hard lessons with that magazine. When I bought it, it was in worse shape than I imagined. I had to let go of 40 people in two weeks. Biggest lesson I learned? Not to either launch or acquire a magazine until I have the editor I want in place. Now, finally, we have it right. We decided to change the frequency to monthly, gave it the first-class design treatment, and infused some in-depth journalism. We also went from reporting on Cher and Burt Reynolds to covering people like Demi Moore and Tom Cruise. Now it’s a money maker. It’s no longer thought of as Rolling Stone’s half-wit brother. And you know what? When all the magazines hit my desk every month, the first one I reach for is US.”
On Men’s Journal: “Men’s Journal probably reflects my own personal passions most these days. I’ve always had an active lifestyle. I get ideas for the magazine all the time. Do I think all our readers are adventure types? No. But I think we appeal to men who might someday take and adventure vacation. At the least, they care about health and fitness. We don’t have a pot-belly readership. We’ve added books and music and lots of smart departments that go hand in hand with the kind of readers who want to pick us up.”
On Family Life: “When Nancy Evans approached me with the concept, I said, ‘Great, let’s do it.’ I didn’t need a marketing survey to tell me it was a winner. But if she hadn’t agreed to be the editor, I wouldn’t have gone ahead. She brings her passion to succeed to the magazine. I have three children myself, so in many ways Family Life is a magazine that reflects the other part of where I am today. If I take one of my kids to the dentist, I think, ‘Great, let’s do a piece on kids and dentistry.'”
Wenner reaches to the table behind him and picks up a framed picture of his three boys: Alexander, 8, Theo, 7, and Gus, 3. “They’ve changed me,” he says. “I spend a lot of time with them, more than most fathers do with their kids, I think.”
Here we glimpse the Family Life Wenner, the one who’s been married to the same woman, Jane Schindelheim, for 26 years, who sometimes takes his kids to the ski slopes with him and says some of his best moments come when he’s driving around in his van conducting spelling bees for the family.
He then gets up from behind the table and removes a framed picture from the wall. “Look at this,” he says. In the photo, he is standing at a podium giving a talk. Sitting nearby is John F. Kennedy Jr., a Wenner pal. “Think Adweek would want to run this with your story? How about it send it over?” And just like that, we’re observing the US magazine Wenner in full blowhard regalia, the one who still gets off on buddying up to the famous and near-famous, who shamelessly name drops and makes sure that his visitor knows he spent last evening dining with Yoko Ono.
In the old days, when the only magazine Jann Wenner had to worry about was Rolling Stone, he was the quintessential spoiled brat, the petulant publisher toting a coke spoon in one hand and a glass of vodka in the other, and easy take for a writer working a profile. But today Wenner is a complex middle-aged personality, a difficult subject to nail with any certainty.
For further insights, best to keep your eye on your local newsstand.