The new vanity press moguls.

Media criticism.
Feb. 27 2004 5:58 PM

The New Vanity Press Moguls

Welcome, Philip Anschutz! Bruce Wasserstein! Roger Hertog!

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Stage 1: The tyro vanity mogul comes in with grand plans about restoring the publication to its former glory. He makes few noises about the immediate need to make money but hints that profits won't be hard to find because he brings the Midas touch to all of his investments. Quality, the mogul proclaims, will attract readers and advertisers.

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Stage 2: He fires the editor and replaces him with a star (Michael Kelly, Shelby Coffey, Adam Moss), orders a redesign, and drops an expensive direct-mail package to recruit new subscribers. He expands the editorial and art budgets and moves the publication to better quarters, upgrades the paper stock, and thinks about building a publication empire, not just a stand-alone title.

Stage 3: Whoops! As fresh red ink flows, the mogul makes a few course adjustments, steering slightly away from quality to hire "names" who will write talked-about columns and during their TV appearances get the magazine's name chironed at the bottom of the screen.

Stage 4: Still losing money, the mogul reverts to his original economic instincts. "I know how to make money!" he mumbles. "I'm not running a charity here!" He cuts costs, eliminates employee perks, loses dead wood, cheapens the paper stock, increases the price of the product, reduces frequency of publication, and tightens everybody's shorts. David Bradley's Atlanticis sailing into such a space.

Stage 5: The mogul begins to doubt whether he can make money in publishing but realizes that the social standing that came with the magazine will evaporate if he cuts the budget too deeply or overmeddles in the editing. Some moguls, such as Mort Zuckerman, don't care if they become the laughingstock of the industry and proceed apace. Mort usually overcomes his depression at not making any money by firing his editor and hiring a new one and firing him, too. Already he feels better! Fire and hire again!

Stage 6: As the mogul cracks the cocoon, he must decide whether to fly or crawl or hold. Zuckerman usually crawls. At U.S. News he's cut medical benefits, closed the cafeteria, reduced the staff to bare bones, sacked the older (more expensive) employees, taken away the Christmas ham, and closed bureaus. "What Would a Slumlord Do?" guides Zuckerman. Recently, Zuckerman did what a slumlord would do, shopping for a new estate, New York, while neglecting his condemnable property, U.S. News.

Stage 7: Sometimes, just sometimes, good things happen to struggling moguls. Convicted felon Rev. Sun Myung Moon maintains a direct line to God through which he receives a steady stream of $100 bills that keep his Washington Times alive. Times officials confided in 1997 that the paper had lost $1 billion since its 1982 launch.

Stage 8: Before his losses reach the $1 billion mark, the average vanity mogul who has tired of his toy looks to unload his property on an entry-level mogul (Zuckerman to Bradley in the case of the Atlantic).

As the wheel of life turns, the cycle begins anew.

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Editor/writer with ambitions to build publishing empire seeks vanity publisher with unlimited funds. Send proposals to pressbox@hotmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

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