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Ed Driscoll

Vanity Fear

February 26th, 2009 - 12:58 am

Quoting a former executive who says that Condé Nast is “having the worst year of any publisher,” the New York Post’s Keith J. Kelly writes, that for years, the publisher of magazines such as GQ, Vanity Fair and Wired “seemed to ride above the fray in the consumer magazine world. But in 2009, that is no longer the case”:

The publisher is reeling more than its rivals, as luxury-goods retailers hoard their ad dollars. While the industry is down 24 percent in ad pages so far in the first quarter, many of Condé’s venerable titles are down 30 percent. Start-up mag Portfolio is down a staggering 60 percent, while Wired is off 57 percent.

“They are having the worst year of any publisher,” said one rival executive who once worked at Condé Nast and said the company’s recent cuts of 5 percent each on expenses and staffing isn’t enough.

“They are overstaffed and overpaid. They should have cut back 20 percent when they cut back five,” this person said.

That kind of thinking is stirring fears inside that a new round of cuts could be coming. And for the first time in more than a decade, the privately run company led by Chairman S.I. Newhouse Jr. and CEO Charles Townsend could be awash in red ink.

“We continue to manage our business through a difficult economic climate,” said a Condé spokeswoman.

Much of the problem rests with Condé’s policy of never discounting off the rate card.

“Advertisers are finding that they can buy around them,” said the former executive.

And of course, readers are finding they can work around them as well, as Noemie Emery wrote back in 2005:

On March 6 [2005], the Drudge Report noted the fact that newsstand sales for the magazine Vanity Fair had plummeted by 22.5 percent during the last half of 2004, attributed by the editor to three successive covers that showed pictures of . . . men. What Drudge did not cite is the parallel fact that this slide tracks exactly with the mutation of the magazine from a great escape read of the guilty-pleasure variety, the place to go for fatuous film stars, Princess Diana, and society murders, into a Bush-bashing rag of the fiercest variety, one that at times last year seemed almost possessed.

In the July issue (out early in June), readers looking for their quick fix of high life and low morals were startled instead to read a hatchet job on Bush’s female appointees and relations, a glowing account of Iraqi insurgents (“mothers, teachers, and seasoned warriors”), and a big wet kiss bestowed on former counterterror-chief-turned-Bush critic Richard Clarke. Subsequent issues featured an attack on Don Rumsfeld (by a media critic!), an even larger wet kiss bestowed on Joe Wilson (the publicity-hound spouse of outed spy Valerie Plame), attacks on the role of the church in the culture, claims that Bush’s indifference had caused 9/11, claims that Bush’s agriculture department had poisoned small children, an unreadable rant about the horrors to come should Bush be reelected, and a hilariously indignant and one-sided account of the Florida recount that only Al Gore could take seriously.

By September, in order to get at the good stuff–like the tale of an heiress who dropped dead in a health club–one had to wade through no less than four Bush-bashing pieces, including the editor’s letter, two different pieces decrying the neocon chickenhawks, and one very long story depicting the president as a dark reading of HenryV–a born-again wastrel and drunkard who led his country to eventual ruin via an ill-advised war. Every month, the magazine found new ways to kvetch about the president. Bush dodged the draft! Bush was mean to John McCain in the 2000 primaries! Bush stole the election in Florida, and–watch out for those touch-screens!–is planning to steal it again. No one can really know what causes a rise or fall in magazine sales, and it is always possible that large numbers of readers were so repelled by the sight of Jude Law (cover boy on one of the poor-selling issues) that they fled screaming. But it also seems likely that not a few readers took a quick look at the table of contents, and dropped the thing back in its rack.

The new Vanity Fair is a story the old one might have wanted to cover, as it points up an interesting trend: The really fierce strains of anti-Bush feeling come less from established political sources than from what might be called the “glitz-based community”–people connected to Hollywood, fashion, or celebrity media, who produce diversions and lifestyle advice. At the shallower end of the pool of arts and intellect, they tend to produce the facile and transient; they make TV shows, or write them; make clothes, or write about them; try to become, or failing that tend to the needs of, celebrities.

A surprising number are media critics, who live at a twofold remove from engagement, as they comment on work that is less than important itself. Joining Vanity Fair in these up-market trenches are numerous glossies, the style and arts sections of the major papers, the New Yorker, known mainly for fiction and cultural coverage (and for ads for things costing zillions of dollars), and New York, known and read mainly for tips about shopping and real estate, restaurant ratings, and stories on murder and stock market crime. After the election, when the American Prospect and the New Republic were engaged in solemn bouts of soul-searching, the glossies indulged in new bouts of hysteria. “There will be a draft,” imagined New York’s James Atlas: “The polar ice caps will melt. . . . The Patriot Act will be used to stifle dissent in the media. . . . Jews will be rounded up.” “Rounding up Jews” might not seem to compute with Bush’s being a captive of neocons, but logic is not the strong suit of this faction. What Bush seems to be facing is less the normal opposition of a traditional part of the political class than a visceral uprising among fashionistas, a vast metrosexual spasm on behalf of a self-image based on cultural preening. “Do you mean there’s still going to be civilization?” Atlas wrote on the grim morning of November 3: “Classical music, summaries of the week’s New York Times Book Review, murmurous programs on the ‘Treasures of Ancient China’ exhibit at the Met?” Was the Met on the ballot? I seem to have missed it.

What makes all this more than mildly funny is the fact that glitzkrieg–political war as carried on by the glossies–has become in a sense the core of the Democrats, their chief source of lucre, and most prominent face.

John Hawkins recently interviewed Bernard Goldberg, the author of A Slobbering Love Affair: The True (And Pathetic) Story of the Torrid Romance Between Barack Obama and the Mainstream Media. (Click here to listen to my own interview with Bernie on his new book for PJM Political.) John asked Goldberg for his thoughts on the financial distress of American newspapers, but his answer also neatly ties together the two reasons quoted above for magazine publisher Condé Nast’s woes:

I think there are two basic reasons. One of them is technology. The Internet is killing them. The younger readers aren’t buying newspapers. To the extent that they’re reading at all, they’re reading online. And news outlets, news companies haven’t figured out a way to monetize the Web the way they know how to make money off of a newspaper. You can sell a full page in the New York Times and make a lot of money, but there is not an equivalent amount of money on the Web.

But the other reason has nothing to do with technology and has everything to do with ideology. I know real people, who stopped subscribing to the New York Times because they say that they’re tired of reading the editorials on page one. You know they’re tired of the opinions from the editorial page making their way on to the front page.

I stopped buying news magazines, for instance, a long time ago because there was a sermonette in the last paragraph of these stories — a liberal sermonette where they would tell me how I am supposed to think about the subject. So technology is one reason, no question about that, but ideology is the other.

There are people who will not pay money for this stuff anymore as long as they’re perceived as being biased, as long as the newspapers are seen as being biased.

As Goldberg concludes, “I’ve tried to think of another business in America that cares less about its customers than the news business and I can’t think of any…their ideology trumps even their business sense and their desperate need to survive.”

Related: Vanity Fair house photographer Anne Leibovitz is need of a bailout of her own–she’s pawned her photos to make ends meet, rather than sell one of her several mortgage-laden homes.

Update: In the comments to this post, Christian Toto of the Washington Times (and a frequent Pajamas-contributor himself) wrote:

I stopped subscribing to GQ, in part, because of its lefty bias. It’s a men’s magazine — why must it inject liberal ideology into its content?

I did the same when Men’s Health embraced Obama … again, same rationale as listed above.

And you’re gonna tell me I’m alone in my actions?

Not me! For reasons that will become clear at the bottom of this post from 2005.

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