Grumpy Old Man Of The Day, Part 2

Posted by: Jon Fine on November 8, 2005

My most recent BusinessWeek column is about George Lois. Lois, who’s had a hell of a life, managed to be at the epicenter of the ad world in the ‘60’s while designing, at night and on weekends, the iconic covers of Esquire in its glory days.

As the column says, I liked him enormously. But his critique of magazines and magazine covers today is wrong, wrong, wrong.

At the heart of Lois’ lament is a grievance, a cry over where culture is going: All celebrities; all shiny surfaces; all quick-hits of entertainment-lite. It’s hard to disagree with him culturally, but being right culturally has nothing to do with being right commercially.

The bottom line is that there is a bottom line, and the money to be made in magazines is not going to be made by the likes of the New Yorker, the Atlantic, and Esquire. (Over the past twenty years, these three magazines have lost tens of millions of dollars for their owners. And this takes into account the fact that, last time I checked, Esquire and the New Yorker had finally turned profitable.) These days, with conventional media absolutely wetting its pants for fear of its future, the big players in all media are going to be more risk-averse than ever.

This is by no means a happy conclusion. But I grew up in the independent music scene of the ‘80’s, and I was lucky to learn early on that under no circumstances can you depend upon getting serious cultural sustenance—the kind that influences future generations and makes geeks giddy—out of major media companies. When there are glory days in any medium in which commerce and art intersect, it’s likely a fluke. The good stuff isn’t just going to come to you. You’ve gotta search for it. It is, at least, easier to do this now than ever before.

If there weren’t still interesting smaller magazines and independent rock bands and cable outlets and individual Web sites out there, I’d be much more depressed about this than I am. (OK, OK, Mickey Kaus is now an employee of the Washington Post Company. He started kausfiles on his own.)

One point I left out in the column: The bold, spare big-idea covers designed by Lois went to subscribers. Those sold on newsstands were covered in additional coverlines, like magazines of today. Hat tip to former Esquire Editor In Chief Ed Kosner for pointing this out.

UPDATE: Thanks to John Harrington and others who emailed or otherwise communicated with me about this. In Lois’ day, Esquire did not literally produce a different cover (with coverlines) for magazines destined for newsstands. Instead, they slapped a sticker on those covers advertising other articles in the magazine. (Judging from the wealth of Lois-era covers sold on ebay, these stickers could be removed without doing much damage.)

Reader Comments

John Harrington

November 9, 2005 11:36 AM

I'm not sure that there were split editions of newsstand and subscription copies as far back as the 1960's, in George Lois' haydays. My recollection is that started in the 80's, late 70's at best.

Jon Fine

November 9, 2005 4:36 PM

John--

You're right, and updated the entry to reflect. Thanks for tipping me off.

Jon

Zach Coelius

November 12, 2005 2:56 PM

I am slightly saddened that as a blogger you did not have more to say about the role of user created content as an alternative (and eventual successor) to mainstream media. I think that rather then this been a moment for concern we are just starting what is going to be one of the most exciting eras of media ever. Where in the past the limited extend of media meant that we had limited choice and as such lamentations about its quality made sense, the possibility of unlimited media that the internet enables will shift the burden of the question from what we say we want to want we actually spend our time consuming. We have the power, what are we going to do with it? Then who are we going to blame when celebrity blogs and startup online magazines predominate?

My 2 cents...

Diane

January 4, 2006 9:25 AM

Check the numbers for circulation from the Audit Bureau of Circulation, you may be surprised to see that the numbers are not far off what is happening today. The bottom line existed then as it does today, maybe more so since clients and advertisers had so much power then. Maybe the bottom line is that there is no way they (the publishers at Esquire) would have let Lois continue with such controversal covers if they were not profitable. Why would they?

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