Not Very Newhouse

Stale, familiar personality profiles won't save glossy mags

The New York Times apparently wanted to keep us apprised of the State of the Glossy Mag this weekend. First, it ran a rather uninteresting profile of reclusive Condé Nast helmsman Si Newhouse, nominally speculating on what will happen to the company when he leaves:

The most uncomfortable questions involve Mr. Newhouse himself. Though he is, by all accounts, in excellent health and allergic to the idea of retiring, he is 80 years old. Will his successors have his knack for identifying what sells, or his willingness to absorb years of losses on magazines he considers promising?

Unfortunately, it reads pretty similarly to Times reporter David Carr’s Newhouse profile from five years ago, which likewise discussed “the palace intrigue over who will succeed Si Newhouse.” Back then, he was seventy-five, not eighty; but he still wore chinos and old sweatshirts, and he was still awfully shy.

(Women’s Wear Daily, one of Condé Nast’s fashion trade publications, commented last Thursday on the profile’s anticipated redundancy.)

As The New York Observer’s John Koblin noted yesterday, the most interesting aspect of the Times piece is the way Condé Nast’s top executives (minus Si, who declined to comment) speak about the Internet. Tom Wallace, editorial director of Condé Nast, says Internet publications still have a long way to go “to compete with the way we produce words and images in the magazines.” And Jonathan Newhouse, head of Condé Nast International, says: “I think sometimes commentators throw around these assumptions about what is happening to the industry, going the way of newspapers, and I don’t believe it.”

Wait, magazines have a shot at survival? Who knew? This perpetual assessment of the industry’s falterings and failings—its (oft-revised) hopes and dreams, in this period of change—is kind of funny, if only because even when there’s nothing new to report, we’re invariably interested in the topic.

Two other recent Times pieces illustrate this palpable desire to comment on the magazine industry’s topography, be it a new-but-short-lived bump or a different angle on the same spread.

One article, in yesterday’s business section, showcasesEsquire’s upcoming September cover, which will incorporate a battery-operated placard that flashes the good news that “The 21st Century Begins Now.”

Here’s Esquire EIC David Granger: “The possibilities of print have just begun. In two years, I hope this looks like cellphones did in 1982, or car phones.” It’s probably fortunate that the cover’s just a publicity stunt (this year marks Esquire’s 75th anniversary), because Granger’s projected image of a newsstand stocked with blinking covers probably won’t resonate with many magazine readers. But the article rightly spends time on the R&D quotient, courtesy of E Ink—the company whose technology brings us’s e-reader, the Kindle. And in highlighting a fluke, the article might, in fact, make readers think about print magazines’ most essential qualities (probably not batteries).

Last week’s Sunday Styles article, about the disappearance of summer Fridays at women’s fashion magazines, presents a different angle on the future of magazines. Its premise? Good old hard work (and fewer weekend trips to the Hamptons) may save the glossies.

Noting that busy summers are nothing new at these magazines (the fat September and October issues are perennially the year’s most lucrative), the article observes that “with April, May and June ad pages sharply down at most women’s fashion and beauty magazines, there is more pressure than usual to do well this fall.” And so editors and interns alike are putting in overtime to make the fall issues as competitive as possible. Tell the Jitney not to wait!

A preoccupation with “how the industry is doing” may lead to somewhat silly pieces like this one. But, in a weird way, the silly pieces often eclipse stories like the self-serious Newhouse profile. Ultimately speaking to such qualities as perseverance (No Hamptons for me - I need to re-edit this piece!) and reinvention (An electronic cover? Let’s talk China!), they track the magazine industry’s topography much more thoroughly than yet another speculative piece about Condé Nast’s future. Until, that is, we can get inside Si Newhouse’s head. Or, at least, his old sweatshirts.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.