"Even before Sept. 11th, didn't anyone else find celebrity profiles moribund?" he asked the nodding crowd, ecstatic that finally an answer had come about where--or where not--the industry might be headed. "Yes, fame will endure, but people we've appointed as celebrities have had too much power over our imaginations." Affirmative murmurs signaled relief at this rare show of clear direction. Granger went on to show a slide of the very serious, very dark, very celeb-free cover Esquire had in place of Cameron's countenance to grace November's issue.
Then Granger showed a slide of the cover planned for December. There, surprise, surprise, flashed the unmistakable grins of Julia Roberts and George Clooney. Cancel that certainty. "Well, I didn't change December's cover." Granger was clearly pleased with his presentation's effective visual punch line. "The cover and the story are delightful. And delight has power," he said. "Is it OK to do celebrity profiles again? Well, yeah. But we have to find new ways to do them."
These mysterious new ways are opaque and unfathomable in an industry where the only certainty seems to be a financial crisis that is predicted to continue to slide south until summer 2002. Whether Cipro or celebrity covers offer a way to minimize the strain is anyone's guess.
The publishing crisis dove-tailed consistently with the national one, sometimes uneasily. Gruhner and Jahr President Dan Brewster delivered a call to arms against coming United States Postal Service rate hikes, just hours after the death of two postal workers from anthrax was announced.
Even in the corners where the industry may be seen as benefiting from the national crisis, financial woes loom. News magazines have seen their readerships skyrocket in the past six weeks, but for once the ad money is steering clear of a strong reader base. Business Week's Steve Shepard seemed dumfounded. "Newsstand circulation is up in this, reader intensity is up, and yet advertisers don't want to advertise. They don't want to be in this environment." As New York Magazine media critic Michael Wolff explained, "We're playing a story constantly that undermines consumer confidence."
And so in this damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't market, publishers are scrambling more than ever to figure out what readers want. Many of them are in an especially impossible quandary in which their three-month lead time forces them to predict the mood a season into the future at a time when it seems to shift daily. "We can only deal with this one week at a time, one deadline at a time--it's all you can do. It's all you can know," said Shepard, shaking his head as he surveyed an audience of 550 gloomy colleagues. After listening to a parade of suits urgently intoning the need for forward thinking and decisive leadership in a time of crisis, this was not reassuring news.
But, not surprisingly, Oprah Winfrey presented herself as a steadfast oracle of media omniscience and certainty. "I don't need to do a focus group. I sit with 700 women, and some husbands, every day," she said to the ballroom. "Even before Sept. 11, I said 'connection' is the word of the decade. That is what people are looking for." Her message was as unambiguous as her success, perhaps suggesting that Graydon Carter was right to declare the death of irony. "We don't sell magazines. What we sell is connection, connection, connection," she instructed to the top-brass crowd that suddenly looked as if it had traded in nylons for knee-highs in the priestess' presence. "Be a homemaker. Be a mom," Stewart told the suited throng by way of offering advice for handling its uneasy staffs. "We've got a lot of mopping up to do." Women looked down at their pointy stilettos--bubble-era footwear of choice. \o7 Mopping? In these shoes?
\f7 Questions of stilettos and celebrity are only the outermost symptoms of a publishing culture accustomed to an advertiser-reliant boom lifestyle. Now, these executives will have to strive for Oprah-like connection while downsizing their own publishing "families." Perhaps Stewart's new magazine will offer some helpful tips for making paper houses out of many fewer pages, or how to build new hearths from the rubble of the bust. Sounds hard to do in heels.