McDonell is Mr. Fix-it
but can he fix Wenner's folly?
A talented editor speaks on his vision for US
By Maureen Garry
Although hes chosen March 17 for the launch date, and the highly respected editor Terry McDonell to lead the way, it will take more than the luck of the Irish for Jann Wenner to successfully transform the lackluster US into a weekly publication.
Taking US weekly is widely regarded as one of the dumbest ideas the magazine industry has seen in a long time.
McDonell is a star, and Wenner will need all the stars in the heavens. Wenners called on McDonell in the past for a helping hand. In 1997, McDonell came on board as editor to help revive Mens Journal.
Now McDonell has taken over from Wenner as editor-in-chief to relaunch US, working with US Editor Charles Leerhsen, who came from People and who many thought would be the one to lead the transformation.
McDonell and Wenner go way back, when both were living in California. Wenner had started Rolling Stone and was looking for people to help launch Outside magazine. McDonell was writing a novel and living in San Francisco. McDonells name was mentioned, and the rest is history. After Outside, he became managing editor of Rolling Stone, then managing editor of Newsweek. He was editor of Esquire from 1990 to 1993. After Esquire, he was editor in chief and publisher of Sports Afield, and from there went to Mens Journal, where he was named editor and vice president of Wenner Media Inc. in June 1997. He also has television writing credits that include work on the shows "Miami Vice" and "China Beach."
Despite the impressive background, one still wonders how has he lasted so long with Wenner, a man legendary for having Attention Deficit Disorder when it comes to lasting relationships with employees. How does McDonell explain his longevity?
"You mean, why am I still alive?" he laughs. "Im pretty good," he says.
But will being good be enough to resuscitate US? Few think so.
In the first half of 1999, total paid circulation for US was down 9.1 percent, to 1,001,344. Its primary competitors, People and Entertainment Weekly, report paid circulations of 3,659,151 and 1,532,835, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation.
Competitors and media executives are skeptical.
"Do we need it?" asks Paul Benjou, senior vice president for media services at Draft Worldwide. "Its not new."
Indeed its not. US has had a number of lives, none of them awe-inspiring. In magazine years, it's something of an old shoe that doesn't take all that well to a new coat of polish as it once did, back when people still believed someone could actually take on People magazine and live to tell about it. In that sense, US is an idea that never quite became a magazine.
US was launched in 1977 as a weekly by the New York Times Co. Then it was sold to MacFadden Holdings and Warner Communications and published it biweekly. In 1985, it was sold to Wenner Media, then Straight Arrow Publishers, and Telepictures, a division of Lorimar-Telepictures. In 1989, Wenner bought out Telepictures and then in 1991 made it a monthly.
The debate over whether the world needs another weekly celebrity rag is compounded by the expense of such a project. Its been reported that the switch to weekly will cost $50 million.
"Theres a tremendous distribution problem and investment putting copies on the newsstand, and the newsstand is not the most efficient way to sell magazines," says Martin S. Walker, chairman of Walker Communications, a magazine consulting firm.
"You use it to build awareness, to make rate base. Theres a 30 percent sell-through on newsstand copies."
And theres a question about the timing. Says Roberta Garfinckle, vice president and director of print media at McCann-Erickson in New York:
"Its late. A lot of advertisers work on a calendar year. By the time US gets to the agencies, there will be no discretionary funds to advertise."
Yet Terry McDonell is neither worried about the timing nor the newsstand challenges.
"This is not an advertising play; its not a tricky launch to leverage ad revenue, he says.
"The economics of a magazine, to work well, are built on newsstand sales. If people like it, they buy it. Ad revenue is wonderful but its not the big engine. Advertisers will like it because the consumers will like it. It wont have faked circulation.
Media buyers wonder what kind of timeframe the company will give the magazine to succeed, butMcDonell dismisses their concern. Says he:
"There is no timeframe. Well know the impact almost immediately." He is confident that theyll win at the newsstand. "With so many newsstands and racks, the numbers are on our side," he says.
How will the magazine change? McDonell says that US is being completely re-designed. But just six months away from the launch, he is vague about details, except to say, "Its design will be very modern looking. Iit will be very accessible, funny, ironic, and interesting. He did preface this by saying, ``Its impossible to tell anyone what youre going to do without looking arrogant or clueless. (Enough said.)
He characterizes the title as "a news magazine for the popular culture, featuring emerging talent." He says that the demographics for US Weekly will probably skew a little younger than its predecessor, appealing to women in their twenties and early thirties. It will be a magazine for "those who look to culture for style and fashion cues, entertainment, and look for lessons, to a degree."
"Its not a magazine where youll see a surgeon in Houston throwing a Frisbee to a dog, he says, in a crack at People and its custom of running photos that in their spontaneity appear to be staged.
When asked how he feels when people call US a People wannabe, he says, "I dont care. Thats ridiculous.
"Look at how well People has done. If we can take 10 percent of their circulation, were doing well."
-Maureen Garry writes from Connecticut.