Media Agencies: A defining moment

By Craig Reiss

What is a man? And why has that philosophical question shaken the magazine business? Over the past month, Hearst has named a new editor-in-chief of Esquire, and Hearst and Disney through ESPN have announced they will try to discover the new sporting man with a magazine targeted at Time Warner’s Sports Illustrated. Both of these moves may have come from different motivations, but they had one thing in common: the belief that some older version of man has past, and a new one could be captured.

Whatever these moves say about the state of magazine editorial, they reveal even more about the corporate side of publishing. To start, consider the ESPN book.

Since its acquisition of Capital Cities/ABC, Disney has been the most obsessive of the media conglomerates in its pursuit of synergies. Its publishing unit, with Disney Adventures as its signature title, has had the identity of being more a merchandising extension of its other properties than an independent magazine company. Yet from that base, Disney decided to give the green light to what on the surface appeared to be the riskiest venture in publishing today. While it is well known that the top Disney brass are sports fanatics, it’s still baffling why the company is taking so quantum a leap as to challenge Sports Illustrated. This is not a cheap diversion.

Sure, part of the formula is present. ESPN is in the family fold, and this magazine can be an extension of that powerful franchise. It can use some of the on-air talent in its pages. It has the cable network to promote the printed pages, not unlike what so many television networks are doing to make people aware of their Web sites. And in ESPN, it has a credible, authoritative brand name. But is that engine enough to explain Disney’s willingness to risk hundreds of millions of dollars to go against one of the most well-entrenched magazines in America, backed by a company that is sophisticated and dominant in the essentials of publishing, such as distribution and circulation management? There must be another, more compelling reason, and I believe there is.

Disney and its partner in the project, Hearst, debated this launch for many months. By most accounts, the chances the magazine would get the go-ahead were slim. Then Time Warner acquired Turner and soon made the synergistic link of CNN and SI. Suddenly, Time Warner had a link that Disney did not: a television brand with a print brand. As most mega-merged conglomerates do, Disney felt compelled to match Time Warner synergy for synergy.

I’ll admit the ESPN book is a huge risk, but it has a chance. Questions abound: Does it intend to become the No. 1 book in the sports field, or a profitable No. 2? Does the new, modern man want something more in his sports coverage? And can ESPN deliver that in print? On the other hand, the jury is still out on whether CNN/SI will develop into something more than the merging of acronyms and become a brand unto itself.

The Esquire story is less about who the new editor is, and more about Cathie Black, president of Hearst Magazines. This was Black’s moment of truth, not only at Hearst, but also for her gloried career. If there was a knock on Black, it was that she had never appointed an editor. What a way to start, to name someone to the helm of the most storied magazine of the past 50 years.

Black could have easily rounded up the usual suspects and picked the one who could deliver the most buzz. Instead, she selected David Granger, one of the top editors at GQ but not exactly a household name in Kansas. You’ve never seen Granger on TV, and the gossip columns have never sent the paparazzi out to hound him at Wollensky’s Grill. But it was an inspired choice, and I say that not because Granger did a brief stint here at Adweek and is among my closest friends. With this appointment, Black realized she needed to create a buzz in a niche audience-the literary and gossipy community of editors and journalists in New York. Granger will create a brilliant magazine that captures the imagination of the new American man, or he won’t. But whoever was going to be the editor of Esquire, he would have to work his magic under the most cynical of scrutiny of any editor in the business. And Black seemed to realize that this fickle audience would have to give Granger, a popular writer’s editor, all the benefit of the doubts it could muster. In her way, Black figured it out. She gave Esquire its best-and perhaps last-chance to revive.

And who better to determine what a man is than publishing’s leading woman? °