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The King of Hearst

Having long suffered an inferiority complex, Hearst's parsimonious ways are becoming the industry norm.

By
with contributions from Amy Wicks
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Frank Bennack

Photo By Stephen Lovekin/WireImage

Appeared In
Special Issue
WWDStyle issue 01/12/2011

In October 2008, Hearst set out its own project to create Food Network Magazine, one other publishing companies at the time held their nose to. But for Hearst, it was a coup, and only a couple of years after it launched, the title is the best-selling food magazine off the newsstand, the third best in selling ads, and its ad pages rose 78 percent in 2010. At a time when magazine executives are saying the words “revenue” and “bottom line” more often than talking about the magic of glossy magazines, Food Network Magazine is a property even its rivals would be proud to own.

It’s also a model that Hearst, having proven it successful, is ready to adopt again. WWD has learned the company will launch a magazine later this year in a joint venture with Scripps for an HGTV Magazine. It will be run the same way as Food Network: soft launch, lots of testing, cautious approach and, if it’s a hit, will be expanded.

The company has also embraced the world of reality TV in a way no other publisher has, with shows such as Marie Claire’s “Running in Heels” on the Style Network; “The Fashion Show,” which partners with Harper’s Bazaar on Bravo, and now it is close to snaring Elle, the magazine that essentially kicked off the genre with “Project Runway” (after a long legal battle, Hearst’s Marie Claire now works with the show).

Elle and creative director Joe Zee had a decent run more recently on MTV with “The City,” a spin-off of “The Hills.” And now Zee is getting a show of his own, “All on the Line,” on the Sundance Channel, which will make its debut in the spring. The show has been advertised as having Zee show a little tough love to struggling designers who need help salvaging their businesses.

“The world isn’t that siloed anymore,” a former executive at Condé Nast and Hearst said. “Will Oprah or Food Network ever be highbrow? No. But those are viable businesses.”

“A few years ago, when everyone made fun of us, and Condé was the big thing, there was a sense of why not me?” said a Hearst staffer. “Now there is a sense of optimism and that things will change.”

Hearst has had layoffs over the last few years, but they were not nearly as public or gut-wrenching as those at places like Time Inc., Condé Nast or elsewhere. In fact, the overwhelming sentiment at Hearst is how, despite some cuts, life feels relatively the same.

“I give Cathie credit for leading us through really tough times of recession,” said Ann Shoket, the editor in chief of Seventeen. “Those were crucial decisions that Cathie made to get us through tough times. Heads down. Tight budgets and staffs.…Was very well done there, well managed.”

Not that Condé Nast and Time Inc. are rolling over. Both have new senior management and both are stepping up their own investments in the Web world. While Time Inc. executives declined to comment, a Condé Nast spokeswoman said, “Condé Nast continues to be positioned for success, with the highest quality editorial products in print and digital — representing unique value to both our consumers and advertisers.”

Still, the long downtrodden feeling that used to permeate the hallways of Hearst as staffers would watch their competitors zoom around Manhattan in Town Cars and order takeaway from Balthazar appears to be diminishing. Hearst employees who spoke to WWD gushed about the recent citrus festival in the cafeteria at the Hearst Tower (“I bought two clementine oranges for 50 cents!” said one) and the recent video campaigns in the elevator that feature editors from Cosmopolitan and Redbook (“It’s so nice! It means the company likes us and is really nice!” said yet another).

“People are definitely looking differently at Hearst than they used to,” said one former Condé Nast and Hearst executive. “I don’t think Hearst has felt the sea change in corporate culture. It’s always run very efficiently and this is the Hearst that they’re used to. If anything, I think there’s a great sense of energy because there’s new management there.”

“After David got here I definitely received more résumés from people at Condé Nast and rival titles,” said Joanna Coles, the editor in chief of Marie Claire. “I do think the building helps. Such a steeple on the landscape of New York. And an expression of Hearst power.”

Hearst…Power? It is a topsy-turvy media world indeed.

Take the Elle deal: Observers might interpret it as a vanity play by Hearst — a move, in the Rodney Dangerfield method, “to get some respect.” Not so, Hearst executives insist. Sure, it will create better group-buy opportunities given the bundling of Elle, Marie Claire and Harper’s Bazaar. But Hearst wants Elle for a much more important reason: the rights to a portion of its 43 total international editions. That’s where the big revenues are. It’s a numbers game and, for Hearst — and, slowly, the rest of the industry — that’s all that matters these days.

Carey sums it up: “For us, prestige is a business with a healthy bottom line.”

 

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