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Rosie O'Donnell Quits Namesake Magazine

September 19, 2002|CORIE BROWN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rosie O'Donnell packed up her name Wednesday and walked out on the magazine business.

After feuding for months with the publisher of Rosie magazine, the former talk show host said her editorial control was being diminished by executives whom she accused of smearing her reputation.

"I cannot have my name on a magazine if I cannot be assured that it will represent my vision and ideas," O'Donnell said in a statement.

It was a stunning conclusion to one of the few success stories in a depressed magazine industry. Although lampooned by some, the magazine simply named Rosie offered a quirky mix of features that reflected O'Donnell's outsize personality and struck a chord with 30-to 45-year-old working women and mothers.

What started out as a blissful 50-50 venture between O'Donnell and the Gruner & Jahr USA Publishing unit of Bertelsmann--the world's fifth-largest media company--turned nasty in recent months. Sources leaked word of internal fights over features, cover stories and personnel changes.

"It is truly shocking and disappointing that Rosie O'Donnell would walk away from her obligations to her staff, her business partner and her magazine audience," said the publisher's chief marketing officer, Cindy Spengler. "In doing so, she destroys the value of the business we created and violates the conditions of our binding contract."

With the November issue already at the printers, the last issue of Rosie will be the December issue. No decision has been made concerning the magazine's 200 employees.

The tumult underscores the dangers inherent in building a magazine around a celebrity. The magazines carrying homemaking celebrity Martha Stewart's name are going through a similar upheaval as their namesake labors under allegations that she profited from illegal insider stock tips.

The difficulty of turning around a dying publication in the current industry environment underscores the magnitude of the loss to Gruner & Jahr. In its earlier incarnation, Rosie was the 125-year-old McCall's magazine, which was losing $2 million a month. Rosie the publication had narrowed its losses to less than $1 million a year and boasted more than 3.5 million readers, according to the publisher.

But there were some indications that the behind-the-scenes upheaval at Rosie may have begun to take its toll in recent months.

In the wake of news stories this summer chronicling rising tensions between O'Donnell and Gruner & Jahr, newsstand sales have been falling from the magazine's debut of 550,000 issues to as low as 200,000, according to publishing industry sources.

Some observers, however, have privately speculated that the decline in circulation reflects O'Donnell's mismanagement of the magazine and her refusal to collaborate with more senior magazine veterans looking to soften the magazine's image.

O'Donnell insisted that readers turned to her for honesty, not the upbeat features typical of other women's magazines. She accused those critics of a smear campaign, leaking her questionable suggestions for cover profiles--convicted rapist Mike Tyson, for one--and hiring family and friends.

"Nasty and untrue things about me began appearing in the press--as you all know," O'Donnell said in her statement Wednesday.

"The challenge of creating a new kind of woman's magazine seemed daunting to some--impossible to others, but never to me," O'Donnell said. "I wanted to create a magazine that spoke honestly to other women.... We did it."

Now it's up to the lawyers that both sides have hired to decide who will pay for its demise.

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