YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


New Magazine Dares to Be Old-Fashioned

October 28, 1994|PAUL D. COLFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; He is a columnist for Newsday

A major magazine has been launched without Kathie Lee, Oprah or any other media darling on the cover. Thomas Jefferson, the slave-owning architect of the Declaration of Independence, appears on the front of the first issue, which examines at absorbing length the contradictions in the life of this "American Sphinx."

Behold Civilization, the Magazine of the Library of Congress, whose November/December premiere goes on sale next week. The glossy bimonthly offers an assortment of pieces designed to reach no particular demographic except those with an intellectual curiosity.

"We dare to be old-fashioned," says Stephen G. Smith, 45, who became founding editor of Civilization after holding top jobs at Time, Newsweek and Knight-Ridder Newspapers.

"When you see what the newsmagazines are covering these days, and when you see Robert Redford on the cover of the Village Voice, you realize that everyone else seems to be chasing after the same stories," he says.

For Civilization, Smith adds, "There were no reader surveys, no focus groups, no surveys of advertisers to figure out what audiences they wanted to reach. This was an effort to come up with a magazine that would appeal to curious, engaged grown-ups who get a thrill out of finding out things."

A Library of Congress display of books that belonged to Adolf Hitler, including a volume of photos warmly inscribed to the Nazi leader by Leni Riefenstahl, spurred a piece on recent efforts to overlook the propagandist's complicity with the Third Reich.

A shelf of newly published memoirs and studies provides the grist for an essay on the black middle class. An 1886 map of Tombstone fortifies an argument for "what never really happened" in the famous shootout at the O.K. Corral.

Among the contributors are Stefan Kanfer and Lance Morrow, two veterans of Time, as well as Diana Trilling, George Plimpton and Anne Beattie.

According to Smith, Civilization will not necessarily celebrate the treasures and curiosities of the Library of Congress, but will try to cover the institution as if it were City Hall and "make the journalistic connection" between the collections and the world of today.

Civilization's business staff is based in Manhattan, and the editorial offices are in Washington. Unlike Smithsonian magazine, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution, Civilization is published under a long-term licensing agreement with the Library of Congress by an autonomous partnership controlled by L.O.C. Management Corp.

The money behind L.O.C. is the corporation's president, H. Fred Krimendahl, a managing partner in the New York investment firm of Petrus Partners Ltd. The word is that L.O.C. latched on to Civilization after the Washington Post Co., which owns Newsweek, had passed on the idea of publishing the magazine.

The initial circulation guaranteed to advertisers (which include upscale names such as Courvoisier and Cadillac) is 150,000. The expectation is to double that by March and to approach 800,000 within five years. Charter subscribers were identified by a mailing sent to a cross-section of magazine readers, especially those known to be well-educated.


Popular Pontiff: One mid-town Manhattan store's window displays Pope John Paul II's new book of spiritual reflections between Burt Reynolds' autobiography and that hot purported tell-all about Nicole Brown Simpson. An awkward grouping to be sure, but one that makes commercial sense because the pontiff has been able to generate an enormous response without prime-time attention and despite the cancellation of his American tour this month.

"Crossing the Threshold of Hope" sold an estimated 13,000 copies at Waldenbooks during its first three days to finish last week as the second biggest hardcover seller in the bookstore chain. It was behind Waldenbooks' No. 1 hardcover, Faye D. Resnick's "Nicole Brown Simpson: The Private Diary of a Life Interrupted."

"Crossing" was also No. 2 at Barnes & Noble Inc.'s stores.

These initial reports from the two major chains come even before the publisher, Alfred A. Knopf Inc., begins to advertise or promote the book in Catholic media. The Oct. 20 issue of Catholic New York, the weekly newspaper of the Roman Catholic archdiocese of New York, contains no mention of the book.

The response also has gone a long way to quell industry carping (at least for now) that Knopf paid an overly confident amount for the U.S. and Canadian rights--more than $6 million--and would never recoup its outlay. The size of the advance, which the Pope reportedly plans to donate to charity, puts him in a league with Colin Powell and best-selling novelists such as Mary Higgins Clark and Barbara Taylor Bradford.

An estimated 1.25 million copies of the $20 title went on sale Oct. 20. A Spanish edition, Knopf's first major experience in Spanish publishing domestically, has gone back to press for an additional 15,000 copies, bringing that total to 60,000. Large-type and audio editions also are said to be selling briskly.

"There was a nervous moment or two," Sonny Mehta, president and editor in chief of Knopf, said Tuesday. "But, finally, the cancellation of the visit somehow focused more attention on the book itself than if His Holiness were sitting at the United Nations and preempting the book in some way."

* Paul D. Colford's column is published Fridays.

'When you see what the newsmagazines are covering these days, and when you see Robert Redford on the cover of the Village Voice, you realize that everyone else seems to be chasing after the same stories.'

Stephen G. Smith

Founding editor of Civilization

Los Angeles Times Articles