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A New Duo Seizes the Reins at Ms.

August 04, 1988|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

Want to finalize a magazine deal?

Threaten to ruin the weekend for a lot of New York lawyers.

That's what the new Australian proprietors of Ms. say they did last month to take control of the 16-year-old magazine.

"It has a great galvanizing effect on people when they see their weekend evaporating because these two stuffy broads won't leave their office," said editor-in-chief Anne Summers.

Summers and Sandra Yates, president of the magazine's new parent company, Matilda Publications Inc., were in Los Angeles last week, checking out what "focus groups" of readers had to say in private sessions about their efforts to revitalize the pioneering but unprofitable feminist magazine.

Acted Against Advice

The two were still clearly enjoying pulling off the deal that made them media entrepreneurs in their adopted country. Early last month they overrode their attorneys' advice to briefly delay the purchase--for an undisclosed amount--of Ms. and teen-oriented Sassy magazines from their Australian employer, John Fairfax Ltd., which had decided to get out of the U.S. market after owning Ms. less than a year.

"If we had (delayed) it would have been another day and another day," Yates said, exhibiting the urge to move fast that seems to drive both her and Summers.

Yates, 41, and Summers, 43, may be in a hurry because they have more in mind than just rehabilitating Ms. Noting that foreign publishers bring "a different view of the world" to this country, Yates said that "a lot of the major magazine publishing houses have been pretty comfortable for a long while, and needling the Establishment is good for the consumer and good for the magazine industry as a whole because it forces everyone to freshen up their act."

At Ms., founded by Gloria Steinem and Patricia Carbine in 1972, Yates said the new team will continue to take a more inclusive approach than the original Americans.

Defining Feminism

"Ms. is a feminist magazine, and we regard feminism as the property of all women. It is not the property of the women's movement if indeed it ever was," she said. "Feminism is a motherhood argument these days."

As a "movement" magazine, Ms. was a fractious place, Summers added. "There had been a lot of factionalism and disagreements between people and so I think the fact that we were foreigners, but friendly foreigners, made it an acceptable deal."

Some changes already made demonstrate their all-embracing philosophy. The magazine's size has been increased to 9x11 inches and a redesign has made it airier and easier to read. Changes in content and appearance, along with a subscription drive, have increased circulation by 50,000. Yates said she expects circulation to hit 600,000 by early next year, a 150,000 jump under Australian direction.

Significantly, the magazine is no longer run on a nonprofit basis, meaning it can now speak out on political issues, Summers said.

The lure of politics clearly beckons Summers, who said that Ms. will make its first presidential endorsement in the November issue, due out in mid-October. (The current August issue also is heavy on politics with articles about the party conventions and a reader poll on issues. In the poll, readers listed poverty, hunger and homelessness as their top priorities for the next President, followed by reducing military spending and ending the arms race.)

In the future, the magazine will feature more coverage of women in elective offices, an area where American women have been shortchanged at the national level, Summers believes. The magazine also will look at specific legislation and how it may affect women, she added, listing taxes, welfare and trade as examples.

Covering Money Matters

Readers also can expect more stories about personal finance and economics, Summers said, noting that the November issue will be devoted to money matters.

"Even though our readers are very educated, very affluent and fairly worldly, in the area of money, finance and the economy, they reflect the education of earlier generations of women," the former business reporter and editor explained. "We just weren't taught that stuff. It might sound like the ABC of money but they need it. Women--particularly women in important positions--are scared to admit they don't know what a price-earnings ratio is. So, if we can tell them without patronizing them, we're doing them a service."

As for their own financial future, Yates said the magazine is expected to make a profit in two years.

The Age of Affluence

July marked a milestone in the launching of a magazine aimed at one of this country's more well-heeled population bulges. July 20, 1988, it turns out, was the day that Americans aged 35-59 began to overtake Americans 18-34.

On that date there were about 70 million individuals in each age group. But by late 1990 the older generation will number more than 73 million while the 18-to-34 group will decline to about 69 million in the same period.

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