Magazines: The End of an Era
We’ve giving the kiss off to Red Netflix envelopes filling mailboxes that no longer contain letters written in elegant cursive, to personal ads, to chalkboards, to card catalogs and to pull-down maps in schoolrooms no longer teaching Latin, civics, and geography. The era is over for changing out of our sweats for Broadway shows, even if the ticket cost $849, to phone books and to address books; to poodles who haven’t morphed into Labradoodles, Goldendoodles, and Sheepadoodles; to spinach dip in bread bowls; to AOL, VCRs and DVDs; to doors opened for woman; to patience and to privacy. To newspapers. But most of all, to my profound distress, it’s the end of the era of magazines.
Remember magazines? About six times the the size of an iPhone with, say, 250 pages, chockablock with ads hawking Cheese Whiz, Charmin, cigarettes and drugs that required pages of unreadable disclaimers — all this in one handy package with horoscopes, celebrity profiles about Nicole Kidman, disease-of-the-month reporting that scared the bejesus out of you, articles on how to relieve flatulence, save marriages and give blow jobs alongside fashion spreads of animal prints because — news flash — they were in, again. Bringing down the rear — literally — were recipes so complicated they required organ donation? Invariably, the primary ingredient was gluten.
If you were a magazine writer, you worked closely with a top editor who had years of experience and paid you thousands per story. No one dreamt of asking you to write gratis, for “the exposure.” An active freelance magazine writer could put a child through college. Pieces were 2500 or 3500 words long and writers got months to complete them. Afterwards, boatloads of people saw your work. The circulation of magazines was immense, especially that of the Seven Sisters: Good Housekeeping, Better Homes & Garden, Redbook, Ladies Home Journal, Woman’s Day, Family Circle and McCall’s. Each one of these grand hausfraus had a base of about four million readers, but when you added in what the industry called the “pass-along factor” — a magazine sitting in, say, a dental office, gets read ’til it’s dead — the number ballooned. If the piece you wrote didn’t work out, no biggie (a term used in the magazine era,) because you got a “kill fee,” usually 25% of the promised fee, far higher than what today’s web sites pay for “content.” If they do.
Sometimes friends confessed that they didn’t actually like to read magazines. This never troubled me, because working on a magazine was a whole lot more fun than reading them — and especially true if you got to be editor-in-chief, which was my karma, as it was for countless other high school newspapers editors with questionable grammar. After rising in the ranks at a leisurely pace — in the magazine era I had no expectation of reaching the top until I passed 40 — for many years I was editor-in-chief of McCall’s and a few other magazines of similar femininity.
I suspect that my staff wished I’d occasionally called in sick. But there was no place else I’d have preferred to be. I felt born to be a magazine editor, and relished the grunt work as well as the glory. Growing up as I did, in Fargo, North Dakota, magazines gave me a glimpse into a world where people wore head to toe black, abstained from sensible shoes, and referred to Donatella Versace as if she were their college roommate. Having Fargo friends who clipped coupons (as I did,) made funeral potatoes and shopped at Wal-Mart became my superpower, making me confident that I could intuit what ten million women wanted to read.
I especially liked knowing that I’d written just the right coverline to impel millions of shoppers to stampede across supermarket aisles because they absolutely had to learn, say, How Not to be Fat After 35. This line earned me a pussycat pink mash note from women’s magazines’ Mother Superior, Helen Gurley Brown, who somewhere in a leopard-upholstered heaven is wishing she were still an editor-in-chief.
The unwritten job description included being able to dance at office parties and to respect the importance of the Conde Nast and Hearst trinity — good shoes, good bag, good hair. This meant never coming to work with my natural curls in their God-given state, which required 45 minutes each morning to achieve, but in return there were perks, not just a free flu shot but retreats at Canyon Ranch where a randy former President might be holding court along with an expense account that assumed lunches at The Four Seasons, invitations to the White House, an ample salary and if you hung on long enough, possibly a pension.
There was also the cadre of whip smart people you got to handpick for your staff. While you didn’t necessarily feel these gems would be set in a tiara that would top your head in perpetuity, if you were lucky, some of the staff followed you from magazine to magazine. Editors-in-chief attended galas, traveled to Europe first class, appeared on prime time TV (which people still watched in the magazine era) and received free $400 haircuts. People felt obligated to cackle at your jokes and should it hiccup, IT ran to your computer.
Of course, you worked hard. Towers of manuscripts followed you home and Fed Ex found you as you hiked in Patagonia. The pressure always pulsed. This was more than work: it was a seamless 24–7 identity.
I especially loved summers assembling the December issue, often planned by Jewish editors such as myself who invented demonic ways to crack the whip over glue-gun toting readers so their loved ones would be able to enjoy the Christmas our Constitution guarantees. That this put readers at risk of a collective stroke was not my editorial concern. When December actually rolled around, I myself was happy to eat Chinese food like any other self-respecting New Yorker and see a movie, preferably about the Holocaust.
That, my friend, was joy, as was my own 34-year magazine era. Then suddenly, it started going to hell. Rosie O’Donnell, aping Oprah, decided she wanted to start an eponymous magazine. My newly hired boss bought into this knuckle-headed notion. One Friday the TV star moved into “my” office and the following Monday, 124-year-old McCall’s — which your great-grandmother in Pinsk, if she were literate, might have read — re-emerged as Rosie. I was kicked upstairs and seven months later, out. Soon Rosie gave the magazine industry the finger, and beat her own retreat. After a vengeful lawsuit my former boss got canned, too. Soon enough I landed another editor-in-chief job, this time to start a magazine. But my schadenfreude was short lived. After a few years the startup wobbled, as they often do, and once again I was at liberty.
Friends were encouraging. The advice of magazine editor pals, however, leaned toward the moronic, particularly from those who quoted spiritual porn from their pages. “When a door closes, a window open.” What was I suppose to do, jump through it?
I thought I’d been born to be a magazine editor. But I’ve learned that none of us has a single path to fulfillment. I pivoted to writing novels, starting with Little Pink Slips, about a Jewish, Fargo-bred editor of a magazine that gets taken over by a hotheaded celebrity. Five books later, I’m still the editor-in-chief of only me, lamely praying that my laptop doesn’t crash. I’ve made many new friends; none know a Birkin from a bag of bagels. I cook, run, take barre and painting lessons, lead writing workshops, sit on panels at conferences, and write essays as well as books. Now I mostly read novels instead of magazines — I joined two book clubs — with the hope that other authors’ work will pollinate my own. Every Wednesday I take care of my granddaughter from Brooklyn. I never blow-dry my hair.
Had I hung in, perhaps I’d have found another magazine job or reinvented myself in a digital direction. But then I’d never know what it’s like to see your manuscript become a book, to have a reader say your novel made them laugh or cry, or to obsessively scan Amazon numbers.
As I look around, I see that magazines are almost over, done in both by lack of originality — eventually, readers learn that they don’t care if they’re fat after 35 — web sites and social media that the swaggering geniuses of the publishing industry grossly underestimated. Who knew writers would agree to donate their work or that you could have a top job at 27? Every few months another magazine — starved by declining ads and circulation — dies or gets sold to a bland conglomerate in Des Moines. Every few weeks an iconic editor throws in the towel, not having the stomach to spend his or her days firing colleagues.
’Twas a fine run, that of magazines. I will miss their ace reporting, fact-checking, copy-editing, staff camaraderie and brainiac writers who became bosom buddies. But I will always have my Paula Deen apple pie recipe. And that, my friends, is not nothing.