After months of speculation, Hachette Filipacchi Magazines said Friday that it is committed to keeping John F. Kennedy Jr.'s George magazine alive, if it can acquire majority ownership of the struggling political publication.
George is a joint venture of the magazine chain and Random Ventures, Kennedy's company. In recent weeks, representatives of the Kennedy family and the publishing firm have been discussing the magazine's future.
"We haven't made an agreement yet, but I believe they would like to see the magazine continue," said Jack Kliger, chief executive at Hachette Filipacchi. "We believe there's a great product that we can take and make even better. The concept for the magazine is very viable, but there are also reasons beyond business. We want to continue something that John Kennedy Jr. created."
However, Hachette Filipacchi's commitment is contingent on whether it can control the magazine.
"We don't want to make decisions by committee," Kliger said.
After Kennedy's death in July, rumors were swirling that George would be folded when its publishing contract with Hachette Filipacchi expired at the end of the year. Prior to the fateful plane crash, Kennedy had been meeting with prospective financial partners about ways to keep his 4-year-old magazine alive.
Overall, the magazine was in a slump. For the last half of 1998, George's paid circulation declined 5% to just over 400,000, while newsstand sales dropped 28% to 90,867, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.
But Kliger said Hachette Filipacchi is confident the magazine can stand without its star editor, with some changes.
For one thing, the annual subscription rate has dropped from $17.76 to $9.97. And starting in February, the magazine will be published 10 times a year, instead of every month. Because the price drop is expected to attract more readers, in February George will begin guaranteeing advertisers paid circulation of 450,000, up from the current 400,000.
Dan Capell, editor of Capell Circulation Report, which tracks the magazine industry, believes the changes should boost George's circulation.
"It makes sense to cut the price, because magazine buyers are one of the most price-sensitive groups out there," Capell said.
With George's JFK Jr. tribute issue hitting newsstands Monday, Hachette Filipacchi is trying to capitalize on the flurry of interest surrounding Kennedy. After his death, George saw a surge in subscription orders and single-copy sales, as well as strong advertiser interest. A million copies of the tribute issue were printed.
"We're not fooling ourselves into thinking that the cause of that [interest] will be long-lasting," Kliger said. "We know we've been given a window of opportunity to create a product that can live up to its well-known brand name."
Still, some wonder how a magazine so intrinsically linked to JFK Jr. could continue.
"With him not there, it loses a lot of raison d'etre," said Steven Cohn, editor of Media Industry Newsletter, which follows the magazine industry.
The true test will be whether advertisers give George a try. The magazine's total ad pages were down during the first half of 1999, according to Publishers Information Bureau.
"They need to punch it up, make it more gossipy, and it needs a bit of a face lift," said Roberta Garfinkle, senior vice president and director of print media at McCann-Erikson Worldwide in New York. "But until we see what changes they make, we'll just have to wait and see."