death ax to George
Revived JFK Jr. title never caught with ad buyers
By Jeff Bercovici
Putting a long-awaited end to a rather bizarre chapter of publishing history, Hachette Filipacchi Magazines will close George magazine, the six-year-old politics and celebrity title founded by the late John F. Kennedy Jr.
Hachette CEO Jack Kliger notified the magazine’s staff in a meeting held late yesterday afternoon.
"While I have been enthusiastic about George and remain so, the reality of today’s magazine business is that we cannot make George work economically," said Kliger in a statement. "Advertiser support has not been forthcoming. The recent softening of the market has only compounded George’s situation."
The February issue has been cancelled in favor of a special commemorative March issue containing interviews Kennedy conducted for George. The commemorative issue, which will be George’s last, is thought to be an attempt to replicate the success of the special memorial issue that was published following Kennedy’s death.
George’s demise has been anticipated for so long, now that it’s finally here it comes as something of a shock. Neither Kennedy nor his successor ever solved the problem at the heart of George: They never figured out how to explain the magazine to skeptical media buyers, who shied away from advertising in a magazine that appeared to be neither fish nor fowl.
Critics, too, questioned George’s frequently awkward juxtaposition of Washington and Hollywood. Kennedy’s premise that the worlds of politics and entertainment were merging was intriguing, but all too often it boiled down to empty-headed rock stars and movie actors trying to articulate their positions on gun control or school vouchers.
Under Kennedy, the magazine emphasized the glamour side of the equation, resulting in political coverage that was decidedly lacking in heft. The editor’s death in July 1999 left the fate of George in the hands of newly-installed Hachette CEO Jack Kliger.
It would have been easy enough to fold it, given Kennedy’s deep involvement and the magazine’s continuing losses totaling millions of dollars annually. But Kliger chose not to after Kennedy’s death prompted a surge of consumer interest in the magazine, capped by newsstand sales of 400,000 for the JFK Jr. tribute issue. Encouraged, Kliger opted to buy out the Kennedy family’s stake in George, giving Hachette full ownership of the magazine, and pledged to invest $10 million in the title.
A search for a successor to Kennedy ensued during which the job was reportedly offered to a number of big-name political journalists including Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter. Though not the first choice, Frank Lalli’s appointment initially seemed promising. He indicated, from his first couple issues and his remarks to the press, that he intended to move George away from the celebrity-driven puff journalism of Kennedy’s tenure toward a harder-edged, newsier approach.
Alas, it wasn’t long before the puff was back, with stars like Cindy Crawford, Mel Gibson and Michael J. Fox gracing George’s covers during the months of the all-important presidential race. Worse, rumblings of widespread dissatisfaction issued from the ranks. The source of much of the dissatisfaction was Lalli’s management style.
"Frank’s not a young guy. He’s not really plugged into pop culture, and he doesn’t have a lot of experience with politics," one former George staffer told Media Life back in October. Others complained that Lalli shut himself off from his editors, who could have offered the expertise that he lacked.
Meanwhile, ad pages, which dwindled dangerously in the months following Kennedy’s death, showed scant signs of rebounding. Year to date through November, George was down 40 percent in ad pages, with 251.32, and down 24.6 percent in ad revenue, with $10.7 million, according to the Publishers Information Bureau.
-Jeff Bercovici is a staff writer for Media Life.
© 2001 Media Life