Starting a Magazine: An Often Funny Look at How Not to Do It

By Jack Limpert

One of the most entertaining books about journalism, and maybe the best book about starting a magazine, is The Fanciest Dive by Christopher Byron. It’s the story of an attempt  in the 1980s by Time Inc., then riding high as the publisher of Time, People, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated, to start a magazine called TV-Cable Week. Byron, a writer and editor at Time magazine, was part of the team picked to start the magazine.

The book has wonderful insights into how dumb big media companies can be, although those of us in Washington already had seen an example of Time Inc.’s  business savvy in 1978 when it bought the Washington Star. At the time, the Star was owned by Joe Allbritton, a Texan who had made millions in S&L’s and funeral  homes; in 1975 he had paid $28 million for the Star and its three television stations. Three years later he sold the Star to Time Inc. for $20 million, keeping the very profitable TV stations. Three years after that, in 1981, Time Inc. folded the Star, admitting that it was losing $20 million a year trying to compete with the Washington Post. Those thrown out of work when Time Inc. folded the Star included Maureen Dowd and lots of other very good journalists. (When the Star went under, Maureen came into The Washingtonian looking for a job. I offered her $25,000 a year, assuring her that she’d never get more than that elsewhere. She did get more that that—at Time magazine, of all places—and then in 1983 she went to the New York Times.)

Some of the most entertaining parts of The Fanciest Dive involve Henry Grunwald, who had been the top editor of Time magazine in the 1970s and then was editor in chief of Time Inc. in the 1980s. As plans for TV-Cable Week got started, the first strange decision made by Kelso Sutton, VP in charge of the business side of the Time Inc. magazines, was to set up the new magazine not in Manhattan, where all the other Time Inc. magazines were, but across from a shopping mall in White Plains. The Sutton decision was explained this way: “He says we can get secretaries out in the suburbs for twelve thousand a year; we’ll save a lot of money.”

It was the White Plains move that gave Byron lots of chances to make fun of Time Inc., such as this: “Here was Henry Anatole Grunwald, the perfect embodiment of intellectual self-possession; whose own father had written the lyrics for the operettas of Franz Lehar; a man who had never learned to drive a car, since he was accustomed to taking corporate limousines everywhere; who numbered among his ‘friends’ the head of government of half of Europe. Here was Grunwald wandering around the inside of the Galleria shopping mall, past Quick Snax and Salad Scene, past The Magic Pan and Pastrami Delights, even as pubescent teenagers swarmed about him clutching  posters of Michael Jackson and licking triple scoop ice cream cones from Slurps. As the tour continued, Zucchi snuck a sideways glance at the look of bewilderment and confusion that had cemented itself to Grunwald’s face, and he thought, Christ, I don’t think the guy’s even been in a mall before.”

Byron describes in often comic detail the many mistakes made by the Time Inc. executives—lots of Harvard men and MBAs included—and near the end of the book Grunwald again is out in White Plains. Here’s Byron at his best:

“In keeping with the no-time-to-waste spirit of the proceedings, someone proposed that instead of adjourning for luncheon, the assembled executives ‘order in.’ A secretary appeared to take orders, and about twenty minutes later a box arrived from one of the fast-food shops in the Galleria. There was the usual: pastrami on rye, chicken salad on whole wheat, cartons of chocolate milk, cans of Pepsi Light, plastic containers of cole slaw.

“Yet no sooner did people start reaching into the box and passing around its contents than something unexpected happened: Editor in Chief Grunwald rose from his chair, stared briefly into the middle distance, and went quickly out of the room. Though several at the table exchanged glances, no one said anything; and when Grunwald returned moments later, the luncheon proceeded as if nothing had happened.

“But something had happened, and although no one in the room but Grunwald knew what it was, there was one TV-Cable Week employee destined to remember the event forever after.

“That person was an attractive young secretary named Katherine Speer, whose desk was in the hallway outside the audio-visual screening room. With her colleagues now departed for the noon hour, and the officials from New York apparently settling in for their working luncheon, Speer was preparing to leave when she looked up to find staring down at her the bushy-browed visage of Grunwald. Said he to the startled secretary: ‘It’s getting late! Please order me a helicopter!’ Then Time Inc.’s editor in chief turned and headed back into the conference room.

“Speer was speechless. Order me a helicopter! Was he talking about some new Galleria delicacy, some triple scoop with a propeller in it? For several moments she sat motionless before the message sank in: the man was apparently serious—he wanted her to order him an actual helicopter!

“Speer opened the Yellow Pages and started looking for Helicopters, then gave up and called the editor in chief’s secretary in New York. ‘He wants a helicopter?’ exclaimed the woman. ‘In this weather? We’re going to have thunderstorms any minute down here! Order him a limousine!”

Toward the end of the book it’s not as funny when Grunwald and other Time Inc. executives return to White Plains to announce that TV-Cable Week magazine was finished and its 251 employees no longer had jobs. But by then the reader has learned a lot about how hard it can be to start a magazine and what it’s like for editors and writers to be at the mercy of MBAs. He suggests that any time a journalist hears phrases like “strategic plans” and “decision trees,” it’s probable trouble. And he concludes that “the best ideas will continue to come from where they always have come—single, visionary individuals acting alone—and not from corporate committees. The story of TV-Cable Week shows why.”

Postscript: Did Time Inc. get smarter after the 1980s TV-Cable Week debacle? In 1990 it bought Warner Communications and by 2000 Time Warner was worth $164 billion. But then in 2000 Time Warner, led by many of the people Byron wrote about in The Fanciest Dive, acquired AOL, then valued at $147 billion.  AOL is now worth $3 billion.

Comments

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