The Curiosity of 'George'
Soon after George was declared dead on January 4, people began playing coroner, guessing about the perpetrator and the cause of demise. To be sure, Hachette CEO Jack Kliger has said that the sudden death was ad-driven and unrelated to the mag's "superb" content. But insiders pin the blame either on Kliger for weaseling out of promises, editor in chief Frank Lalli for putting out a tame book, or both, for literary crimes against the late John Kennedy Jr. Indeed, if Kennedy could see Linda Tripp decked out in white on the latest cover, they say, he'd be turning over in his grave.
Of course, Hachette singles out the best stories for praise. "The editorial product of George speaks for itself," says a spokesperson, "and the staff is immensely proud of the work they did this past year." Many stories were well reported and well written, says The Washington Post, and Nat Hentoff called a poverty feature "the most vividly detailed, chilling report I've seen about the Other America." (A variation of the mag's content will live on at Georgemag.com.)
Last week, I suggested that Kliger and Lalli are estranged. But according to a spokesperson, Kliger thinks Lalli did a "splendid" job and the two remain best of friends. They never discussed the possibility that Lalli would become editorial director of Hachettebut Kliger told his friend repeatedly that "the current media recession was putting mounting economic pressures on George." So Lalli was not "shocked" when Inside told him his days were numbered. Just slightly . . . out of the loop?
Kliger, who joined Hachette in June 1999, never had much faith in George, and the mag's family was never crazy about him, either. In July 1999, soon after Kennedy's plane went down, Kliger convened a staff meeting. "It wasn't his best performance," one witness told the New York Observer. "He treated us like . . . bankers hearing the annual report," said another. Some took offense days later when, with the Kennedys in mourning and the staff bound to a press moratorium, Kliger discussed the future of George with a New York Times reporter.
More squawks were heard that November, when Kliger told the crew he had found the man to guide George toward profitability. "Why is Frank Lalli sitting here?" someone gasped. But at least Lalli was ready to take on a business challenge that other candidates considered too risky. Departing colleagues praise Lalli as a "hard worker" and "good salesman" who was "more professional than Kennedy, in some ways."
Lalli never sold himself as a pinup. The photo adorning his first editor's letter shows him squinting into a computer, wearing his push-broom mustache as a badge of integrity. His intention was to honor Kennedy, but could anyone channel cultural fusion as eerily as a dead president's son? Pols and celebs deserve scrutiny, but Lalli seemed to be more keen on dressing them up than dressing them down. His first issue posed Heidi Klum as a vote-soliciting Uncle Sam, and before long the mag had become a publicity machine for any celebrity with a cause. Aside from a cover story on Elián González, Lalli got the most PR by throwing star-studded parties in L.A. and D.C.
As an editor, Lalli gave the magazine a somewhat tiresome tone. Consider the following intro to a Bianca Jagger interview: "How she transformed herself from a wild party girl into a serious, committed champion of human rights." Then there was the September cover story, featuring Cindy Crawford and her husband (the inside headline read, "Strange Bedfellows: You Love HimBut Not His Politics. Now What?"). Then there was an earnest story by a Berkeley professor on the menace that is Eminem ("Where Is Tipper When We Really Need Her?"). Who's the target reader herethe proverbial housewife in Dubuque?
Aside from the party budget, the mag was run on a shoestring. In the waning months, only a dozen or so editorial staffers remained, working on antiquated Macs under a rigid chain of command. Under Lalli were Life veteran Steve Gelman and celebrity wrangler Susan Pocharski. Aside from those two, senior editor Debra Birnbaum did most of the line edits. But there were no other midlevel editors, leaving what one source calls "a huge gap, 60-year-olds and 23-year-olds and no one in between."
Despite the sacrifices, George still cost too much. Hachette had spent $10 million to buy out the Kennedy family's stake in 1999, and in 2000, the company spent an estimated $10 million more on operations. George appears to have suffered from the Mort Zuckerman/Daily News syndrome: Because the owner would never fork over enough cash to make the product competitive, it never became a must read for the trendsetters who create buzz. One source says Lalli "felt handcuffed by the restraints Hachette put on him."
By June, a bleak picture had emerged: Circulation was up by 13.8 percent for the first half of 2000, but ad sales were flat. One source says the execs "went to great lengths to be able to say they were up one page over the previous year, before John Kennedy died." In order to do that, this source says, "they sold an ad for a price that didn't even cover the cost of producing it." A spokesperson had no comment.
In the July editor's letter, Lalli boasted of attending a White House event where he met Clinton, who told him, "You guys must be doing something right," because the magazine was being talked about. But Madison Avenue was unmoved. The conventions came and went, and by fall, every day brought new signs of decay. The editors stopped hiring freelance writers and began relying entirely on staff and writers already under contract. Draconian e-mails warned that travel expenses had to be preapproved. "The guiding assumption," says one source, "was that all travel plans should be canceled." By the end of the third quarter, as George entered its fifth year, circulation was close to 500,000, but the mag had sold only 300 ads for the entire year. That's when it became clear that profitability was five or six years away, not two or three.
Last week, Hachette closed the final issue, which is billed as George's greatest hits, featuring work by Norman Mailer and Lisa DePaulo. As staffers shopped their résumés around, they spoke highly of Lalli, but less so of Kliger. While Kennedy had always refused to play cover boy, staffers feared Kliger would betray his wishes, slapping the icon's face on the last issue. Says one Kliger critic, "He's always wanted to make as much money off this magazine as he can, without spending a penny."
Some Hachette types wanted George to die, because they felt it caused the other magazines to suffer. Now, with Mirabella and George gone and Premiere losing money, Elle is the best thing the company has going for it. But the more significant damage caused by George's death will be to the future of political magazines. After this grand a failure, hell will freeze over before anyone bankrolls another glossy mag with politics as its raison d'être.
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