The Man Who Invented the Modern Magazine

From a book review, “The Showman of Vanity Fair,” by Ben Yagoda in the Wall Street Journal:

People who aren’t historians or followers of the magazine business can be forgiven for assuming that “Condé Nast” is a fictional brand figurehead, like Betty Crocker or Dinty Moore. That’s how closely the name aligns in the popular imagination with the group of magazines published by Condé Nast Inc., currently including Vogue, Vanity Fair, Architectural Digest and the New Yorker. Indeed, a mental image of this Mr. Nast might be something along the lines of Eustace Tilley, the monocled, top-hatted dandy who used to be on the cover of the New Yorker’s anniversary issue each February and now can be seen at the beginning of the Talk of the Town section.

In fact, Condé Nast (1873-1942) did live and breathe. Along with Henry Luce, the founder of Time, Life and Fortune, he was one of the two most important figures in 20th-century American magazines. . . .

One of his innovations was creating special “themed” issues dedicated to subjects such as automobiles and yachting, the better to sell ads against. Another was establishing regional ad offices. And a third was auditing and guaranteeing circulation numbers, heretofore notoriously fanciful. His personal style abjured the hard sell. . . .

Unlike Luce, Nast was strictly a publisher, never an editor. But he was intimately involved with the contents, especially the covers, of Vogue . . . and the other magazines he would acquire or start, including Vanity Fair, House & Garden and Glamour. That emphasis on the cover as a sort of billboard for the magazine itself would become a universal tenet of the industry.

An even more significant business shift was an outgrowth of his special issues at Collier’s. When he started out, magazines reflexively aimed for the largest possible circulation, and subjects of general interest. Nast instead championed the idea of a “class” publication. By that he didn’t mean high-class or fancy. Rather, as he put it, this was “nothing more or less than a publication that looks for its circulation only from those having in common a certain characteristic marked enough to group them into a class.” As a result, advertisers targeting people with those inclinations, aspirations and appetites didn’t waste their ad money reaching any of the rest of the world.

The commercial brilliance of the concept can be seen in its near-universal adoption. Today, except for a handful of legacy general interest publications like the New Yorker and the Atlantic, every magazine is a class magazine, from Bass Player to Bass Angler. . . .

Today, all magazines have it rough. Readers have become accustomed to getting their “content” for free, on the internet. More magazines than I care to count have grown emaciated, from lack of advertising, then perished. Domestic print titels Condé Nast titles has folded in recent years include House & Garden, Glamour, Gourmet, Details and Self.

But through it all, Vogue has persisted, a tribute to Nast’s vision.

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