In the middle of Megan McArdle’s article on “Tech Moguls and the TNR Meltdown,” she has a great excerpt from Jack Shafer, formerly of Slate and Reuters on the 21st century rinse-and-repeat cycle of brand-name media:
As Jack Shafer pointed out, there’s a lifecycle to rich people who buy magazines thinking they can make money on them:
Stage 1: The vanity mogul announces that he’ll return the publication to its former glory but says he doesn’t need to make money right away. Quality, he says, will attract readers. (That’s you, today.)
Stage 2: He replaces the editor with a journalistic star, redesigns the publication, expands editorial and art budgets, moves it to better quarters, and muses about parlaying his single title into a publication empire. (You’re writing that memo now.)
Stage 3: As fresh red ink flows, the mogul hires “name” writers to compose columns that will be talked-about and to get invited onto television to build buzz. (I see it in my crystal ball.)
Stage 4: Still losing money, the mogul grumbles, “I’m not running a charity here!” He eliminates employee perks, increases the price of the product, and reduces frequency of publication.
Stage 5: The losses make the mogul want to bail, but can he abandon the rise in social standing that the publication has given him? He wonders how much budget cutting he can do without being compared to Mort Zuckerman, who has amputated and bled U.S. News & World Report to the point of homicide. He sacks the troublesome “star” editor and hires a pushover.
Stage 6: Panic. The mogul does everything that Zuckerman did to U.S. News. Cuts medical benefits. Skips issues during the summer and the holidays. Closes the cafeteria. Reduces the staff to bare bones. Shutters the bureaus. Makes staffers give plasma and confiscates the proceeds. Fires the pushover editor for a paper shuffler.
Stage 7: He finds a new sucker to buy the publication. And we return to Stage 1.
I’ve worked at one magazine that defied this cycle, The Atlantic, and one that didn’t, Newsweek. And unlike most journalists, I’ve also worked at a bunch of firms that are not media companies, including ones that failed. Both journalists and non-journalists usually fail to understand just how weirdly different media companies are from other sorts of firms, which means they don’t understand that experience with one side gives you virtually zero insight into how the other kind works. Without unduly sucking up to current and former executives, let me note that David Bradley succeeded at The Atlantic by hiring people who understood the business — including Justin Smith, who now works for Bloomberg — and giving them room to do what needed to be done.
I’m not at all sure I agree with McArdle’s take on the current state of The Atlantic. As with whatever ultimately becomes of TNR, as with Time magazine — and even Newsweek — there is indeed still a publication called The Atlantic. Other than its masthead, it bears very little resemblance in tone and substance to its previous form.
And while the New York Times is still owned by the Sulzberger family, just compare Gay Talese’s The Kingdom and the Power, published in 1969, and Bill McGowan’s similarly-themed 2010 book Gray Lady Down to see that today’s Times has little similarity to its previous form other than the masthead and slogan.
Incidentally, earlier in her article, Megan writes, “But even by my profession’s cinematic standards, [Chris Hughes’ TNR debacle] is going to be one for the Criterion Classics collection.” Heh. If a decent comedy screenwriter could be found, it would certainly make for a great made-for-TV movie along the lines of HBO’s The Late Shift or its likely inspiration, Larry Gelbart’s satiric 1993 adaptation of Barbarians at the Gate.
In the meantime, a riveting documentary about a magazine with an eccentric plutocratic socialist leader and aggrieved staff exists already: The September Issue, on Vogue magazine in 2007. It really does have a Last Days of Pompeii feel to it, seeing as it was filmed a year before the housing bubble blew up the economy, followed by Barack Obama getting to work at fundamentally transforming America to a standard that TNR could finally give its blessing to.