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From AJR,   September 1999  issue

An Uncertain Future   

Can George magazine stay in business without its founder?

Related reading:   Shifting Into Overdrive

By Carol Guensburg
Carol Guensburg (carol.guensburg@verizon.net) is senior editor for the Journalism Center on Children & Families, a University of Maryland professional program - and a nonprofit. It receives primary support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Guensburg spent 14 years as an editor and reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel after working for three other papers.     

WHAT WILL BECOME OF George without John?

Even before his fatal July 16 plane crash, John F. Kennedy Jr. was striving to prop up his financially ailing magazine. The glitzy monthly, launched in 1995 as a star-studded synthesis of politics and pop culture, was leaking an estimated $4 million this year alone. Its celebrity founder and editor in chief was in the process of soliciting investors and drafting a new business plan, amid speculation that publisher Hachette Filipacchi Magazines would deep-six the periodical by December 31.

Kennedy's death leaves George's fate all the more tenuous.

Its 30 staffers have taken a vow of silence, declining to speak with their media confreres and cloistering themselves in their Manhattan offices. Former employees, out of loyalty to Kennedy, his creation and their onetime colleagues, have been reticent, too.

"People at George...generally ask that we not talk to the media, and I'll respect that," says Hugo Lindgren, who'd been an associate editor there and now is an editor at the New York Times Magazine.

Numbers tell part of the story. In the first half of the year, George suffered a 20 percent loss in advertising revenues and a precipitous 30.3 percent drop in ad pages, according to the Publishers Information Bureau. Its circulation for the last six months of 1998 had waned to 403,894 from 424,994 a year earlier, the Audit Bureau of Circulations reported--a figure nonetheless estimable for a political mag. Still, Kennedy had said George needed to reach 600,000 to be profitable. And its newsstand sales--a key barometer of public interest--slid by 28 percent over that period.

In addition, George lost a critical ally when David Pecker, then Hachette's chief executive, left March 31 for American Media Inc. That company puts out the tabloids the National Enquirer, the Star and the Weekly World News.

Such developments fueled talk that George was ripe for retirement.

"Look for France-based Lagardere Group [Hachette's parent company] to pull the plug on current affairs magazine George," The Delaney Report, an industry newsletter, predicted just days before Kennedy's plane disappeared. It quoted an anonymous Hachette insider as saying that the company "will either fold it or put it up for sale, but there aren't too many people around who would buy it. The turnover on the magazine has been a killer."

George had cycled through several executive editors, with Richard Blow moving up to that spot early this year. And in May, Kennedy dismissed Publisher Steve McEvoy and Associate Publisher E. Michelle Amlong. Both positions remain vacant.

In an interview with Advertising Age, new Hachette President and CEO Jack Kliger said he had met with Kennedy the afternoon of July 16, and that they agreed Kennedy would revamp the magazine's business strategy. Weeks earlier, they'd decided Kennedy could seek outside investors for the 50 percent share held by his company, Random Ventures. Hachette owns the other half but has supplied all the capital. Kliger said that, by meeting's end, both men were optimistic about maintaining the joint venture.

Upon Kennedy's death, Kliger issued a statement that Hachette was committed to George. But by the late July interview with Ad Age, the executive assured George's publication only through 1999 and said he would meet with Kennedy family representatives to determine the magazine's future. Kliger did not return phone calls from AJR.

Kennedy had courted at least several prospective investors, including a group headed by Keith Stein, an executive in the Canadian auto parts company Magna International and founder of the Web site Americanpresidents.com. The site breathlessly touted the news that "the late son of former American President John Fitzgerald Kennedy flew to Toronto" July 12 to discuss "a possible buy-out" of Hachette with Stein. In late July, Stein told U.S. News & World Report that "the deal `is still under consideration' " and that he was planning to meet with the Kennedy family.

George had one of the most successful launches in magazine history when it made its debut almost four years ago. The inaugural October/ November 1995 issue, with supermodel Cindy Crawford decked out as George Washington, sold out all 500,000 copies within days. (The mag shifted to monthly publication in August 1996.)

Kennedy announced his intentions in that first issue: to create "a lifestyle magazine with politics at its core." He filled its glossy pages with celebrity musings (from Madonna, John Travolta, Demi Moore, et al) and playful "Primaries" tidbits (the August issue suggests a makeover for presidential candidate Bill Bradley), elements that helped earn some media critics' disdain. But while he emphasized the lusty side of politics, as in a February profile of vampy Eleanor Mondale, or an August piece on California Rep. Mary Bono (cover tease: "The Republicans find a sex symbol"), Kennedy also showcased serious examinations of politics, media and more. Recent examples include "How the Mafia Infiltrates Wall Street" (December) and "The Toughest Bosses in Congress" (July).

Pursued by paparazzi all his life, Kennedy knew how to get attention. The son of a Democratic icon, Kennedy avoided partisanship in his magazine, recruiting former New York Republican Sen. Alfonse D'Amato and ubiquitous conservative pundit Ann Coulter as columnists. He used his connections to score interviews with elusive figures: Fidel Castro, George C. Wallace, Bill Gates, conservative philanthropist Richard Mellon Scaife, Louis Farrakhan, the Dalai Lama. And he scolded two Kennedy cousins as "poster boys for bad behavior," flanking the September 1997 rebuke with a photograph of his own nearly naked body, strategically obscured.

"The last time an inside photo spurred that kind of interest was when Helen Gurley Brown put Burt Reynolds in Cosmo," observes Steve Cohn, executive editor of the Media Industry Newsletter. "That shows the power of Kennedy, which is both good and bad. His persona was so strong."

Which may be George's undoing.

"They're going to have a tougher road to hoe, because John was so closely aligned publicly with the magazine," says Eliot Kaplan, editorial talent director for Hearst magazines. "It was his vision; he was in there every day, working."

"It's like the star of a TV show suddenly dying. He's irreplaceable," Cohn says, suggesting it would be like publishing Martha Stewart Living without Martha. "Hopefully, for the staff's sake, there will be some continuity, but the odds don't favor it."

Beyond that, "access to some of the people they've covered in the magazine might be more difficult," says Marlene Kahan, executive director of the American Society of Magazine Editors. "But he has in place a very strong staff."

Brill's Content Editor in Chief Steven Brill, who recently had been huddling with Kennedy about George, holds out hope: "If the right people get involved, I think [George] can survive and ultimately thrive."

George had an impressive renewal rate, between 55 and 57 percent, Kennedy had told Brill, and "that is the bedrock of an ultimately successful magazine," Brill says.

"I tend to look at the basics. Did he have a distinctive idea? I think he did."