Charting the Masthead
Cricinfo.com Goes Glossy
Gay Talese’s Basement
It has haunted past presidents of the editor’s organization, but it’s not the only thing they have to worry about.
by Wesley Wade
Somebody had better hire a shaman over at the offices of the American Society of Magazine Editors. The trade organization may need more than hope and a prayer to dispel the curse that has afflicted its leadership. In the past 10 years, three of its former presidents have either lost their jobs during or after their terms in office or watched haplessly as their magazine folded.
In 1997, while he was president of ASME, Frank Lalli was replaced as managing editor of Money and was promoted to senior executive editor of Time Inc. Within six months he had quit that job and started his own consulting business, and three years later, after being appointed editor-in-chief of George magazine, he was unemployed again when George went under. A month after George Curry was elected president of ASME in 2000, he lost his position as editor-in-chief of Emerge—dissatisfied with the magazine’s meager earnings, its parent company, Vanguarde Media, put it on indefinite hiatus. And in 2002, while president of ASME, Susan Ungaro was replaced as editorial consultant at Rosie magazine, and three years later, she lost her job as editor-in-chief of Family Circle—which she’d held for 11 years—after Meredith Corporation acquired it.
Now that Ungaro’s successor as ASME president, Newsweek’s Mark Whitaker, is ending his term in office, you have to wonder whether the curse will strike his replacement. According to those in the know, that will be Cynthia Leive, the editor-in-chief of Glamour and current vice president of ASME. Whether or not the celebrated women’s magazine or the talented Ms. Leive will fall victim to ASME’s kiss of death, the magazine industry (like the newspaper business), remains in flux, and the new president will be faced with an array of problems, what with the surging Internet, endless rounds of mergers and acquisitions and the volatile state of the economy.
The past year’s industry developments give some indication of the work she will have cut out for her. Last year saw the failure of many fledgling and mature titles—including highly touted ones like Sync, Radar and Vitals. Meanwhile, other celebrated publications—Time, Family Circle and Good Housekeeping among them—experienced declines in earnings. An industry scandal was revealed when the Audit Bureau of Circulations charged that several magazine companies, including Time Inc. and BusinessWeek, had overstated their readership in an attempt to sustain revenues from advertisers. And, as if all that weren’t enough, the threat posed by the growth of the Internet has put editors and publishers in a tizzy as they continue to try to figure out how to harness the technology while simultaneously maintaining a strong and relevant print presence.
Clearly, the 900-member group of magazine editors that comprises ASME, which works in conjunction with the Magazine Publishers of America (MPA), will not be able to overcome all the challenges affecting the industry. Nevertheless, there are three critical issues that ASME could, should and, one hopes, will continue or commence to address. Chief among them is the battle to protect editorial integrity in an increasingly commercialized business environment. As the trade group representing the interests of magazine editors, ASME is responsible for establishing and clarifying—and trying to enforce—standards and guidelines that can help insulate editors from the pressures of publishers and advertisers. Secondly, ASME can help promote diversity in an industry where the people who create magazines look too little like their multiracial and multicultural readers. Finally, ASME could take meaningful steps that would open up its own house, as a way of giving voice to the astonishing array of smaller and less affluent—but, perhaps, more politically and culturally adventurous—periodicals.
Currently, ASME attempts to address the first issue using a set of guidelines that aim to assure readers of a magazine’s integrity and editorial independence from advertisers by promulgating rules for keeping editorial content separate from advertising, and clearly identifying what is an ad and what isn’t. But rules alone aren’t necessarily enough; editors still regularly succumb to corporate demands that stretch the guidelines to their limits. It’s part of ASME’s job to make sure that the spirit of the guidelines are taken seriously by its members.
“I think the basic thing that the head of the ASME could do,” said Frank Lalli, who is now vice president of development at Reader’s Digest Association, “is to inspire people to come into the magazine business and then to do their best work, and that [requires] a setting of standards. The magazine awards [presented annually by ASME] are a very valuable thing. They set a benchmark.”
Yet the issues surrounding the standards and guidelines still bedevil the industry. “We’ve revised the ASME guidelines for editors,” said Susan Ungaro, now an ex-officio board member. “That was under [Mark Whitaker’s] presidency. We looked at it and decided to make it simpler and make it the Ten Commandments for editorial integrity.” Ungaro, who is currently president of a large nonprofit, believes that the changes helped make the guidelines clearer and more precise, not only to further encourage the separation of church (editorial) and state (advertising), but also to allay the fears of those editors who have argued that the guidelines have hurt the industry by preventing magazine publishers from competing effectively with the Internet and TV for advertising dollars.
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