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The Big Plans for Ms. and Sisters

June 06, 1996|PAUL D. COLFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On a December afternoon, Martha Stewart, Gloria Steinem and dozens of ad agency and New York media types accepted publisher Dale W. Lang's invitation to lunch in the Rainbow Room. What an occasion it was--good food and a grand view high above Rockefeller Center highlighting the 20th anniversary of Lang's Working Woman and the magazine's coup in getting Microsoft chairman Bill Gates as the luncheon speaker.

The letdown came months later, when Sandler Media Partners, the leading investor in Lang Communications, went public with its disappointment in the independent publishing company's financial performance and stated that Working Woman and its sister magazines, Working Mother and Ms., soon would be sold to a buyer "with deeper pockets."

An anxious few months passed at Lang before 39-year-old Jay C. MacDonald, a former publisher of Inc. and now chairman of MacDonald Communications Corp., announced last week that he was acquiring the three magazines and planned "to deliver a substantial cash infusion into these properties."

On Tuesday afternoon, hours before MacDonald was expecting to close on his latest purchase, he stressed that he not only considered the three magazines viable in an increasingly competitive marketplace, but he valued them as well-established brand names on which to build his company.

"These magazines have illustrious track records, and they're strong," he said. "On the flip side, like a lot of businesses, the company [Lang] was saddled with debt that was crushing them. . . . I have the working capital to grow these magazines as individual titles and as franchises."

Although the terms of MacDonald's purchase were not disclosed, his unnamed backers are said to include Florida-based Paxson Communications Corp.

In addition, MacDonald said he believes that his previously proposed idea for New Outlook, a magazine that would target newly single women, may take root in his new company.

When asked who will succeed Working Woman editor in chief Lynn Povich, who has decided to quit in mid-June, he praised executive editor Rosemary Ellis as being "clearly influential." He also said Judsen Culbreth would continue as editor in chief of Working Mother.

The 750,000-circulation Working Woman, one of the hot books during the 1980s, has suffered a steep drop in its number of ad pages since then. Working Mother, whose unaudited circulation is said by Lang to stand at 925,000, posted a marginal gain in ad pages last year.

Ms. magazine, founded in 1972 by Steinem and others, was taken over by Lang in 1989 and relaunched the next year in an ad-free format that is widely believed to make money through the loyalty of an estimated 200,000 paying subscribers.

*

Homes, Sweet Homes: Time begat People, which begat InStyle, which has hooked female readers with its fluffy presentation of celebrities in their fabulous homes. Two years after InStyle went monthly and guaranteed advertisers a circulation of 500,000, the Time Inc. property plans to raise its so-called rate base to 700,000, starting with next month's issue. In short, InStyle is in style.

Meanwhile, other publishers also are eyeing spinoff glory.

Last week, Weider Publications Inc., brought out Shape Cooks, the third offspring of its 850,000-circulation Shape magazine. Shape Cooks follows Fit Pregnancy, which was launched as a one-shot in 1993 and will come out three times next year, and Living Fit, targeted in 1994 to active 35-plus women, which Weider now publishes 10 times yearly.

Meredith Corp. has green-lighted Renovation Style, a quarterly being spun off Traditional Home. A second spinoff from Traditional Home, Showhouse, premieres this month.

*

Afterwords: Psychedelic guru Timothy Leary had completed a final memoir shortly before his death last week. HarperSanFrancisco, a division of HarperCollins, says it will publish "Design for Dying" early next year.

* Paul D. Colford is a columnist for Newsday. His column is published Thursdays.

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