Lisa Granatstein, “Mediaweek” editor: Mr. Media Interview, Pt. 1

I love to read. They don’t start calling you Mr. Media because you’re illiterate, of course, and magazines have always fascinated me. When I pass a newsstand, I absolutely must stop and see what’s new and different. Drives my wife crazy.

My garage is littered with the carcasses of many forgotten publications, including Might, which was the first most people ever heard of Dave Eggers, and Smart, which gave a lift to a young Terry McDonnell, now editor of Sports Illustrated. Somewhere out there is also a copy of 7 Days, the short-lived city magazine that put Adam Moss on the map. Moss recently led his new magazine, New York, to three big wins in the 2007 National Magazine Awards, contributing to the 0 for 9 shut-out of The New Yorker and its respected editor, David Remnick.

Talking media, and magazines in particular, is great sport for me, so imagine my delight when Lisa Granatstein agreed to do a Mr. Media interview.

Lisa is the managing editor of Mediaweek and editor of Mediaweek.com. She’s a brand name in media coverage and has been so for nearly a decade.

Earlier in her career, Lisa was a reporter for Time magazine and an associate editor of its technology spin-off, Time Digital. She’s also worked at US News & World Report, Conde Nast Traveler Online, and she was a stringer for The New York Times metro desk.

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BOB ANDELMAN: Lisa, the news these days has been pretty bad for print media, especially in newspapers. Every day, it seems another once-proud, ink-stained wretch announces layoffs. Book editors are on the endangered species list, and film critics appear to be next. What, by comparison, is the outlook for magazines?

LISA GRANATSTEIN: I’d say it’s pretty much on par with newspapers. Right now, the industry is really going through a bit of a revolution. Magazines need to change with the times. They are competing not just with cable and network TV but also with the Internet, and more and more, they are finding that their brands are becoming less relevant in print, and they are having to find a way to migrate online and be relevant there, and that’s difficult for a print brand. They don’t have the video capability that TV properties naturally do. There is a lot of technology that they have to build, and it’s been a big challenge, both in terms of drawing readers but also in maintaining an advertising base.

ANDELMAN: As a freelance writer myself, it seems that a lot of the magazines are almost at a disadvantage because a lot of them don’t have writing staffs beyond a few people, so even if they convert to video, they don’t have that loyalty. They hire people one story at a time, one piece at a time, and for the Internet, that’s hard, because you really have to be an everyday presence.

GRANATSTEIN: Right. A lot of magazines have to double up. Writers are writing for the Web site as well as for the magazine. I know in my case, our magazine, Mediaweek, is having reporters file stories daily for the Web site, it’s become a wire service, produce videos, do their own interviews online occasionally, and of course, work for the magazine, and that’s what’s happening across the board. Obviously, the independent magazines, the smaller, regional publications, are suffering much more than the bigger, wealthier major publications such as Hearst or Time Inc. But they, too, are finding it to be a real challenge.

ANDELMAN: And Time Inc. has been selling off magazines and cutting back, right?

GRANATSTEIN: Yes. Absolutely. Just recently, they sold what had been Times Mirror Magazines, then renamed Time4 Media, to a Swedish publishing giant known as Bonnier Group, and that was sold for $220 million. They’re just unloading a lot of titles. They have to pare down. Ann Moore believes in the revolution that is happening, and Time Inc. is becoming less of a magazine publisher and more of a brand maker and looking more at the Internet to grow its brands rather than launching new magazines. I mean, I can’t even remember the last time they actually launched one.

ANDELMAN: Business 2.0?

GRANATSTEIN: Yes, sure. I mean, it was a mystery.

ANDELMAN: It’s been a while.

GRANATSTEIN: Yes, that was a while ago. It used to be, years ago, that magazines, there used to be five, six, or more major launches a year, and now, if you’re lucky, you hear about one or two major ones. The commitment isn’t there to put out a magazine. The costs and the risks are far too high. Ann Moore, the CEO of Time Inc., I believe, is looking more at the Internet properties, at expanding online rather than focusing on the print publications.

ANDELMAN: I guess the biggest magazine launch of late would be Portfolio, right?

GRANATSTEIN: Absolutely.

ANDELMAN: Conde Nast, and that didn’t really win a lot of plaudits. I mean, people didn’t seem very excited by this… It’s like a paperweight. It’s a huge publication, but no one is saying, oh, boy, you’ve gotta run out and get this.

GRANATSTEIN: Right. It kind of landed with a thud, I mean, both in the sense of it being huge with advertising. The publisher, David Carey, who’s from The New Yorker originally, has a real way. He’s quite an amazing publisher. He can really sell, and he sold this, but it has yet to be seen whether the readers are really interested in another business publication.

There was a little bit of buzz, but it quickly died away.

ANDELMAN: Once people actually held it in their hands.

GRANATSTEIN: Yeah. It took a year and a half to get this thing out the door, which is a huge amount of time, and that might have been to their disadvantage. They probably had to spend too much time fiddling around trying to get it perfect, and sometimes you just need to get it out a little faster and then think about what you did, but too much thought sometimes doesn’t help.

ANDELMAN: I guess it’s the difference between are you producing Forbes or Fortune on a weekly basis, or are you producing The Harvard Review on more like a monthly or quarterly basis?

GRANATSTEIN: Right. The key issue is do you really need a year and a half to knock out an issue?

ANDELMAN: Yeah, and well, they’re what, quarterly right now?

GRANATSTEIN: Right now, I think they’re only publishing two issues this year, and then they are going to be publishing monthly next year. So the next one is coming out in the fall. They also have an active Web site, but you know, it’s a lot of time between two issues, but I guess they’ll be doing a lot of research, yet more research to see what went right and what went wrong in that issue and refining it.

ANDELMAN: And while it was a beautiful picture on the cover, it didn’t really say anything.

GRANATSTEIN: It was a gorgeous picture on the cover, but does it scream business? I’m not so sure. I’m not sure what it was really trying to do. Was it arrogance thinking that there was so much publicity out there everybody knew what Portfolio was? Or maybe they thought the name would be enough. I don’t know. I’m interested in seeing how it does on newsstands. It’s a little too soon to tell, but it certainly led to changes at other business publications, which can only be a good thing. There was a lot of maneuvering and redesigning and overhauling at Fortune and Forbes. I think that’s a good thing. It does stir up the pot a little bit.

ANDELMAN: Well, let’s talk about some other specific magazines. If any of these you’re not comfortable with or you’re not that familiar with, we can keep moving down, but I was kind of curious to see what you thought about what happened when TV Guide switched from digest to full size. Did it stem the tide of the circulation losses, or does it just postpone the inevitable for them?

GRANATSTEIN: I think it actually speeds up the inevitable. I think that the digest — while the magazine itself may have been a little outdated because everybody gets their information from TV listings from TVs, from digital set-top boxes, from the remote, you just use your remote and turn on the TV and there it is or from the Internet there is a variety of places to get this — but the digest was kind of iconic, the actual size, and it made collectors out of people. You hear about, on “Seinfeld,” you’d hear about George’s father in Queens stashing all of his TV Guides, and that really did happen, but now, it’s just a regular-sized magazine. It’s the same size, pretty much, as Entertainment Weekly. It kind of, with its celebrity covers, blends in with celebrity magazines, even though it’s not tabloidy. It just kind of blends in.

It’s not special any more, and I really think it’s going to kill the print brand.

ANDELMAN: Right. Well, and they already killed their Canadian print edition, as I recall.

GRANATSTEIN: I didn’t know that.

ANDELMAN: Yeah, I think that happened around the same time. It’s funny. I love reading the stories. I think they do that stuff very well, but just as you’re getting into it, then you’re faced with half a magazine of TV listings. I’m sorry, I don’t read page after page of TV listings.

GRANATSTEIN: Right. I mean, there was a time when we all did, we needed it, but I think that time is past. I just think that this is a cheaper way of putting out the publication, and they dramatically dropped the rate base, which is a circulation guarantee to advertisers, and I just think that they know what’s coming, and it’s just going to be just a matter of time until they finally kill it.

ANDELMAN: Yeah. I’m curious to see where they go, because of course, they have the TV Guide Channel, but here again, I never have ever turned to it. I don’t see that it’s a necessary… It doesn’t provide any information that I can’t get at the bottom of my screen while I’m already watching TV.

GRANATSTEIN: Right. I mean, it’s a little annoying to see all those channel selections, and I think that they’re going to be stepping up their efforts to promote the channel more. They have just re-branded it, I believe, as the TV Guide Network, and I think there is going to be more programming in terms of series and shows. Maybe that is where their focus will go, and I think that’s pretty smart if they do that. I mean, it’s a great opportunity. They can at some point do what they do on TV online and cross-promote. They are probably already starting to do that. But it’s a hard sell. It doesn’t have a large distribution, and they’ll really have to step it up. It is an iconic brand name, and they have that at their disposal, they just have to focus their energy in the right direction.

ANDELMAN: What about the newsweeklies? I know you worked at US News & World Report, I did five years of stringing for Newsweek back in the 1990s, they don’t seem as necessary as they did ten, fifteen years or more ago, and yet I know on the site recently, I complimented Newsweek because I realized I was actually reading it cover to cover again, that they seem to have done something different to be competitive, but is there any hope for those three?

GRANATSTEIN: There’s a role for the newsweeklies, especially when there are major events. I know that even though personally when Virginia Tech happened or when something like that happens, you do watch the news, you go online for the immediate story, but there is something about sitting back and reflecting and looking at the pictures and reading well-written, well-crafted stories and making you think a little more than you would normally as you are rushing around.

I think that the newsweeklies are under a lot of pressure to stay relevant. Time magazine just changed its publishing date from Mondays to midweek so that they get onto the newsstands, I believe, by Fridays, and that was an attempt to try to get people when they are out shopping to get to the newsstand and pick them up and read them over the weekend, so they get more eyeballs. You know, it remains to be seen whether that works, but they are trying something new. They have just redesigned. They are trying to move things around to try and get more readers or retain their readers, but it is a big challenge, but then you have things like Newsweek putting — I don’t know if you saw it, but there was this cover story about letters written home by soldiers in Iraq who were killed or who died there, and it was so moving and so poignant, and only a newsweekly could really put that together in that way. It just made you realize, yes, there is a reason for a newsweekly, even if it’s not breaking news. It’s a digest of sorts now, but I think there is still some relevance to them.

© 2007 by Bob Andelman. All rights reserved.

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Copyright 2007 Will Eisner: A Spirited Life by Bob Andelman