After marking time with celebrity frivolity ("Bette Midler--From Bawdy to Boffo!") and yuppie-pandering ("'Fax machines are making headway as the to-die-for home office appliance . . . "), Ms. magazine got back to basics not long ago.
"It's War!" proclaimed the August issue in blood-red letters next to a defiant cover line reading, "If Patrick Henry, Frederick Douglass and Thomas Jefferson had ever been pregnant against their will, they would have been right there rebelling--and so will we."
Inside the issue, a battalion of writers--most prominently Ms. co-founder Gloria Steinem--breathed fire about abortion rights and the Supreme Court. Advertisers who got wind of what was coming scattered like kitchen bugs.
It was Ms.' 17th-anniversary issue, and it was the Ms. of memory--smart, impassioned, unapologetically partisan.
It also may have been the final harrumphing chorus for Ms., or at least the glossy, colorful Ms. of nearly two decades running. Never a consistent moneymaker, the magazine has experienced mounting losses in recent years through four changes of ownership.
The newest owner, magazine investor and publisher Dale W. Lang, took over in October--on Friday the 13th. His first order of business was to put the magazine temporarily out of business.
Lang hasn't yet told this to Ms.' 550,000 subscribers, but the magazine's December issue and its special "Women of the Year" issue in January have been canceled.
The new owner, who last month described the magazine's condition as "dire," has said he would attempt to recast Ms. as a subscriber-supported publication that carries no advertising--a transformation that may be without precedent in the magazine industry. That said, both Lang and Steinem, now a Ms. contributor and consultant, have stopped talking publicly.
The official silence has left open the question of when Ms. will reappear, and in what form. The consensus is that the magazine will re-emerge as a newsletter--a low-cost, non-slick sheet that speaks its mind without worrying what the makeup and shampoo sellers think.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a longtime Ms. writer and editor-at-large, describes the prototype under development at Ms.' New York editorial offices as a six-times-a-year, black-and-white newsmagazine.
But Pogrebin sounds circumspect: "We don't really know what to expect at this point."
As Ms. lies comatose, the impulse to reach for symbolic portents for the social movement it championed is strong. "Ms. may in fact have passed its time," says Cathleen Black, one of the magazine's first ad saleswomen (Ms. had no salesmen until two years ago).
Black, now publisher of USA Today, adds: "The women's movement has so permeated every level of society that it isn't a separate thing; it's a part of life. Ms. came about as the result of tremendous turmoil in the 1970s, but that kind of upheaval is not such an identifiable thing any longer."
Black and other observers point out that Ms. has always struggled to pay its bills. From the beginning, they say, the magazine never resolved a basic contradiction: It invested much of its limited capital in trying to build the mass readership that advertisers rush to embrace; at the same time its activist bent made advertisers queasy.
Despite periodic attempts to round off Ms.' harder edges, even a warmed-over version took more stands than advertisers could stomach, argues Clay Felker, the editor who oversaw the first Ms. in December, 1971, when it began as a supplement to Felker's New York magazine.
"I can't think of one ideological magazine that has ever made money, whether it's Ms. or the New Republic or the Nation," says Felker, now editor of Manhattan, inc. "The simple fact of the matter is advertisers never want to get in the middle of a fight. It says something about America that people won't support a publication with an ideology. It's totally wimpy."
John Mack Carter, editor in chief of Good Housekeeping, says Ms. had particular problems attracting the advertisers that buy most of the space in magazines read by women--fashion and cosmetics companies, personal-care products and packaged-food manufacturers.
"Feminist ideology is simply antithetical to those kinds of advertisers," says Mack. "Ms. had to stay true to its roots. There was no backing away from it. But that brings up the obvious dichotomy, the conflict of interests between the advertiser and the editorial content."
Or as Pogrebin puts it, "We promised when we started that we'd never do a story on how to make your eyes up just to please an advertiser. Ever."
Well, never say never. Ms. recently began adding features that might have mortified its original editors. To boost newsstand sales, it has taken to putting actresses and singers on its cover--Cher, Cyndi Lauper, Oprah Winfrey.
The November issue, with Glenn Close on the front, carries a fashion-advice column and a brief discussion of the latest hairdos. "Confidence (is) the new buzzword in salon land," the magazine reports.