NOT LOVING NEW YORK: How do you keep your staff at an upmarket magazine when you’re about to be sold? That seemed to be the problem this week when Vogue poached New York Magazine’s fashion director, Mark Holgate, to become its senior fashion writer.

Holgate’s departure doesn’t spell disaster for New York, but it was another grim moment in a grim few months for the staff, and served as further proof that even the most reputable titles are not impervious to badly run parent companies. Although editor Caroline Miller is respected and well liked, unending belt-tightening at Primedia and the prospect of a sale have contributed to a year of departures.

This story first appeared in the November 21, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Miller was said by several sources to be very upset over Holgate’s resignation.

In the last eight months alone, the magazine has lost its publisher, Alan Katz, to Condé Nast’s Cargo; Intelligencer columnist Marc Malkin to Us Weekly; features editor Meredith Kahn to WWD sibling W; senior editor Michael Steele to Us Weekly; contributing writer Jennifer Senior to The New York Times Magazine; Best Bets editor Shyama Patel to Seventeen, and political columnist Michael Tomasky, who left to take over The American Prospect.

Some of the turnover is due to New York’s long-standing position as a launching pad for talent, but as one staffer said, “This is not normal. And it [Holgate’s departure] is a big loss.”

“It’s as bleak as I’ve ever seen it. The prospects just seem so grim. David Pecker, for God sakes,” the staffer said of the tabloid mogul who is prominently in the running to buy the magazine. “At first we thought the sale would be really fast, but now it’s dragging out. We’re not some scandal sheet and the chickens are coming home to roost. No one deserves this. This magazine puts out really good journalism.”

Making matters worse, the sale has made it increasingly difficult to fill jobs that have become vacant.

“It’s a place with good people and it gets raided a lot,” said one person who has worked at the magazine. “People are willing to go work at that place under ordinary circumstances, but no one in his or her right mind would do that right now.”

While the sale of New York was anticipated well before the official announcement in September, the staff was hopeful the magazine would wind up at a better parent than Primedia. In the weeks following chief executive Tom Rogers’ departure from the company, there was a sense of glee among the staff. After micromanaging Miller with a barrage of e-mails that generally boiled down to upping the service quotient, there was hope the magazine might have room to take more risks.

That sentiment was bolstered by the firing of Primedia’s editorial director, Elizabeth Crow, whose ideas were seen by the New York staff as downmarket and sensationalist.

The magazine made real changes. Within weeks, Miller was back to running news stories on the cover, such as a package on the turmoil at The New York Times; the murder of Hamptons millionaire Ted Ammond; the possibility of a Wesley Clark and Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, and the Kennedy-Cuomo marital crack-up. Miller also, according to a source who worked at the magazine then, expressed relief that she could finish a long-planned redesign without having to consult Crow.

But by the fall, the prospect of a white knight seemed more distant. Major publishers like Advance (which owns W, WWD and Vogue), Time Inc. and Hearst decided they were going to stay out of the auction, increasing staff concern over the potential pedigree of their new owner.

The circulation picture and the magazine’s financials have not helped. While New York could wind up selling for upward of $50 million, three sources with knowledge of the attempted sale said the circulation and financials of the magazine were far worse than had been anticipated.

“No one’s coming out saying it’s not a troubled business,” said one.

“Whenever a sale is imminent, people get nervous,” said a New York staffer. “Part of that is practical and, frankly, it should be a sign to Primedia to get this done quickly. Of course, gossip and gallows humor are some of the things that this magazine thrives on.”

Most staffers say despite worries of there being too many cooks in the kitchen, they would like the magazine to wind up in the hands of Daily News owner Mort Zuckerman, who is putting a bid together with New York’s media columnist, Michael Wolff, and ad giant Donny Deutsch. But, of course, it’s not up to them. — Jacob Bernstein

EXCUSES, EXCUSES: When your advertisers are at your door with pitchforks and torches in hand over a few “misstatements” on your magazine’s last report to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, to whom are you going to turn? Well, someone apparently asked the Magazine Publishers of America for help — which is interesting, considering the MPA’s last president, Dan Brewster of Gruner + Jahr, was just grilled under oath a few weeks back about “managing the financials” at one of his more troubled magazines. Coincidence?

No, because circulation is on everyone’s mind these days, which is why the MPA sent a confidential memo to members on Thursday with some handy talking points. MPA president Nina Link confirmed the contents of the letter.

The first thing to keep in mind, according to the MPA’s letter, is that everyone audited by ABC has collectively exceeded their rate bases since 2000, so on the whole, the magazine industry is pretty honest.

As for those talking points, the short answers advertisers may hear magazine publishers mouthing soon are: “One, MPA supports independent audits; two, they have been around a long time and they work; three, we believe in our auditors’ abilities to address any compliance issues that might arise under their rules, and four, in order to meet the needs of the changing marketplace, publishers, advertisers and auditors are working together to simplify, clarify and expedite the process.”

Remember, you heard them here first. — Greg Lindsay

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