These days, it seems every glossy magazine is trying to imitate the top-selling In Style, a Time Inc. mag that gives readers the illusion of proximity to celebrities. In Style creates the illusion in many ways, ranging from photos and fawning profiles to instructions on how to buy celebrity products. But selling glitz is no longer the exclusive purview of supermarket mags The New York Times has apparently decided it can play that game, too.
For proof, one need look no farther than the Times's SundayStyles, the section that features "trend" reporting, profiles of social register types, and engagement announcements. As a rule, subjects of profiles in that section are never roasted on a hot skewer, but rather lavished with the kind of sympathetic treatment known in the trade as a puff piece. In the words of one reader, "The Styles section is about rich people and how they live. It's a view of this world that's romanticized and artificial, and designed to make you feel insecure."
Case in point: a June 20 story on the front page of Styles by Alex Kuczynski, who covers the magazine beat for the Business section. The peg for the story was a Vanity Fair party at the Four Seasons; the story itself was a chronicle of anecdotes about the celebrities who flock there daily, as told by the maitre d', who likes to get mischievous with the seating arrangement. It was a fun read, vintage Kuczynski, capped off by the bawdy tale of four society ladies who got drunk and went skinny-dipping in the Pool Room after lunch.
But some Kuczynski fans felt the story lacked irony and distance. Did she really mean it when she called the Four Seasons a place where "everyone is well known, wealthy, powerful, politically connected, supernaturally beautiful or just lucky to be there"? Or when she likened it to "New York's ultimate grown-up version of the high school cafeteria, except every table is the cool table"?
One Kuczynski fan said, "If [New York Observer writer] George Gurley had written that piece, it would have been funnier and more pathetic. It would have challenged the assumption that we should be impressed with this and would have done a better job of pointing out the absurdity of it all." Another fan said, "She needs a little more Lynn Hirschberg in her," referring to the Times Sunday magazine writer who is famous for her ability to turn the tables at the right moment.
Kuczynski previously worked for The New York Observer, where she mastered that paper's snarky tone. Then a few years ago, she got hired to write for Styles. Since being assigned to the magazine business beat, she has been prolific and ubiquitous, displaying good news instinct and turning out pithy dispatches on short notice. There's no reason why a stylist of her caliber shouldn't branch out; indeed, she has lately completed pieces for the Times book review (on a book by Lewis Lapham) and the Times magazine (on Condé Nast editorial director James Truman, as yet unpublished).
But the Four Seasons story was no throwaway assignment. It was pegged to a huge party hosted by Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter and Seagram president Edgar Bronfman Jr. captains of industry with so many mutual agendas it boggles the mind. To begin with, the Seagram Company owns the Four Seasons, which caters to the Condé Nast empire, of which Carter is a prince. That much you could glean from the Times piece. What Kuczynski didn't let on is that Seagram's Absolut is a major source of advertising for Vanity Fair, or that V.F. featured Bronfman in a photo spread in 1994 when he was angling to buy Universal Pictures, which he now owns, or that V.F. is publishing a history of the Four Seasons by Mimi Sheraton in its August issue.
That's not to suggest that there's anything wrong with the Carter-Bronfman alliance they are, after all, both Canadian. But the story behind the party would have been more interesting. Times business reporters typically write this kind of piece, pointing out the cozy behind-the-scenes relationships between magazines and the people with whom they do business. And Kuczynski is no stranger to the trope: In a March 15 story about V.F.'s imminent Oscar bash, she described the magazine's habit of hosting parties for advertisers and then running photos of VIPs associated with the product on editorial pages, a practice she called "shameless back- scratching." In a May 31 story, she described a potential conflict of interest between a V.F. writer and her subject.
But this piece seemed to signal a shift from writing about the marketing aspect of the magazine business to becoming part of the marketing process itself. For example, just as In Style informs readers they can buy the same clothes as their favorite movie stars, Kuczynski told readers they can eat lunch next to their favorite publishing nobs. Indeed, she quotes food critic Alan Richman calling the Four Seasons a "democratic" institution where "You'll see S.I. Newhouse sitting next to a tourist from Cleveland."
But that's a fiction, and a convenient one that conceals the hierarchy of the seating arrangement in the restaurant's exclusive Grill Room. As another food critic points out, "They definitely have a Siberia in the Grill Room. It's the balcony." While all the regulars know the balcony is reserved for tourists, Kuczynski called it Edgar Bronfman's "usual aerie."
Is it okay for the Times to gild the lily like this? Steve Brill, editor of Brill's Content, said, "I love the Four Seasons and I think Alex wrote a lively, interesting piece." But, he said, the piece had a "kind of puffiness that is not the New York Times's standard." Brill said that a newspaper should apply the same reporting standards in all sections. Columbia Journalism School dean Tom Goldstein disagreed, saying the Styles section is "different from the rest of the paper" and that readers should not bring the same expectations to it.
Carol Felsenthal, a biographer of S.I. Newhouse, was less diplomatic. "Alex is an energetic and frisky kind of reporter," she said, "but at the Times in general, there's just not a person who writes critically about the magazine business or the book business. I think the tabloids do a far better job on a daily basis."
And as for Kuczynski? Maybe she's just gotten bored writing about the dream fac- tory, and wants to start working for it.
In the wake of Salon's respectable, if not spectacular, IPO last week, a handful of investors are talking about possible synergies between Nerve and Salon.
Like Salon, Nerve.com is a content-based e-zine aimed at the "cyber-literati." But Nerve is devoted to smut, offering not just original artistic content such as fiction and a photo gallery, but also a page of sex-related links that can take you in nanoseconds from nude shots of Laetitia Casta to gossip about the Marquis de Sade. Nerve is sexy, but not hardcore, and that is precisely what has attracted both viewers and Wall Street investors, who boast that it passes the "wife test." She likes it!
Like Salon, Nerve is free, although the latter's owners claim to have lost "less than a few hundred thousand" dollars last year, before breaking even in December. Nerve raised $1.5 million this spring in a round of financing and is gearing up to raise $10 million more. Nerve claims more than 14 million page views per month. This spring, around the time Salon bought the online community the Well, Nerve bought Bianca, a sexually permissive chat room that has added an- other 50 millionplus viewers, bringing Nerve's total viewers to 70 million, about five times those claimed by Salon.
One of Nerve's new investors, David Chazen, managing director of Chazen Capital Partners, is also a stockholder in Salon, which he called the "gold standard of online magazines." Other investors include Mit-chell Kapor, a founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Louis Rossetto, a co-founder of Wired, and Steven Johnson, a co-founder of Feed.
This summer "is a totally extraordinary period," says Nerve co-founder and CEO Rufus Griscom. The German version of the site is up and running, managed by Bertelsmann-owned Stern magazine. In mid May, Nerve signed the agency 24/7 Media Europe to sell ad space across the continent. Spanish and French sites are being launched this summer, with a Japanese site to follow in the fall. The company just moved into a Soho loft space, hired executive editor Susan Dominus, and is gearing up to launch an online "NerveCenter" in July and a print magazine later on. Thanks to a combined revenue stream from foreign licensing, advertising, and paid personals, the company expects to bring in more than $1 million by year's end.
Nerve's chief financial officer Louis Kanganis says talk of an IPO is premature, but "we are absolutely not ruling it out. We have a strong brand in Germany, and there is a possibility we could list over there, where there is less resistance to our content." Griscom says an IPO is "definitely one of the exit strategies," although they would consider selling the company to a media conglomerate or another portal.
Patrick Keane, a senior analyst at Jupiter Communications, says of Nerve, "Their biggest problem is they have absolutely zero brand. Even for an upscale, slightly pornographic content consumer, they're fighting a lot of noise. They need to spend a lot of money" to market the brand.
Which they plan to do. Chazen calls Nerve a "real sleeper" that will attract not only high traffic and ad sales, but maybe even a little Nerve-Salon synergy. "Pre-IPO," he says, "Salon wouldn't go into this kind of content. But at Salon, they like Nerve a lot. They like Rufus. They'd make a nice fit."
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