Byline: Lisa Lockwood
NEW YORK — When it came to Mirabella, Murdoch Magazine officials insisted that making money didn’t matter. But in the end, money was all that did matter.
As reported, Rupert Murdoch pulled the plug on Mirabella Wednesday afternoon and said he was putting the title up for sale, sending shock waves throughout Mirabella’s headquarters, especially among those who were recently recruited.
Murdoch stuck with the magazine for almost six years, losing an estimated $20 million to $30 million. Usually, he’s not so patient.
“Murdoch’s M.O. when things get shaky is to pull the plug on a magazine,” said Frank Smith, vice president, group supervisor of Young & Rubicam. “Look at Married Woman and Men’s Life” — two Murdoch magazines that folded after their first issues.
The announcement was no surprise in publishing circles. Rumors of Mirabella’s demise had been circulating for two years, but Murdoch officials had just recently assured its new editor-in-chief Dominique Browning, as well as the press, that it was committed to making a go of it.
In January, Browning was brought in and given the freedom to turn Mirabella into what she wanted it to be. Browning hardly got that chance. Her debut issue in May, featuring Drew Barrymore on the cover, will be the last one published by News America Publishing Inc., Mirabella’s parent, unless a buyer is found.
On Thursday, Browning, in a rather classy gesture, was calling top editors around town trying to place some of the fashion shoots she commissioned from various photographers. And editors were frantically calling around looking for jobs.
Regardless of seemingly endless editorial tinkering, Mirabella wasn’t making much progress on the advertising front, nor did prospects look good. After publisher Catherine Viscardi Johnston resigned in January, “ad pages went into a free fall,” said one source.
The company dragged its feet on naming a new publisher, and only last week was reportedly close to hiring Nancy LeWinter, formerly of Hearst. But something must have been brewing, because News America put off making that decision. Now, News America says it’s spending the next 10 to 15 days looking for a buyer, and if no one shows up, the magazine will be shut.
“There’s certainly a buyer out there for the subscriber file,” said Martin S. Walker, chairman of Walker Communications, a magazine consultant. “I can’t imagine someone will let that go down the tubes. Conde Nast or Hearst will pay some amount of money for it.
“The only three companies who could conceivably make a go of [Mirabella] are Hachette, Hearst and Conde Nast,” he said, because of their other women’s titles.
“One of the reasons Mirabella didn’t succeed was it’s very hard to be a magazine sitting alone when there’s no synergies for packaging with other magazines,” said Walker. “TV Guide [another Murdoch property] is so different.”
Observers say that over the last few years, Mirabella had lost its editorial focus and identity. While its original mission was to go after intelligent women in their 30s and 40s, in recent years, the editorial direction got much younger. Losing its point of difference, Mirabella found itself competing in a category dominated by Vogue, Elle and Harper’s Bazaar.
And the advertising community kept getting mixed messages about what the magazine stood for and where it was headed — particularly in light of the fact that there had been three publishers in five years.
“I don’t think Mirabella was a bad magazine, but from an advertising standpoint, you have all the CondA Nast books, and, if nothing else, they’re very visible and have a sizable sales force and very visible publishers,” said Y&R’s Smith. “You’ve also got the resurgence of Harper’s Bazaar under Liz Tilberis.
“If you’re not one of primary books in the category, and budgets are tight, you’re not going to stay on the plan,” said Smith.
Steve Klein, media director and managing partner of Kirshenbaum & Bond, said baby boomers represent a viable demographic to reach, but “they’re not not reached by Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.
“In the fashion business, it’s all about what’s new and fresh and young,” said Klein. “And, outside that category, advertisers are trying to capture the younger mentality. The Neons and the liquor business have chased a younger audience. There’s a whole movement of people who’ve gotten tired of chasing the baby boomers who are home nesting.”
“It’s a sad commentary on the whole genre of upscale magazines for intelligent women,” observed Roberta Garfinkle, senior vice president, director of print media at McCann Erickson.
“There are not enough people who want to read that kind of magazine. A couple of people who have tried to do magazines for the executive woman have failed,” said Garfinkle.
According to Audit Bureau of Circulation, Mirabella’s average paid circulation for the half ended Dec. 31, 1994 was 637,183, up 4 percent from 613,102 in the year-ago half. Single-copy sales for the second half were 104,100, down 18 percent from 126,838 a year ago.
“Maybe it was never going to be a one million circulation, but it would have made money. It could have been a jewel of a magazine,” said Julie Lewit-Nirenberg, Mirabella’s founding publisher, who held the post for three years. “If I had the money, I would buy it today.
“The original concept was very strong and very good,” said Lewit-Nirenberg. “It was well positioned for the marketplace and the reader. There are 65 million women 35 years and older. The first year, we sold 1,183 ad pages. That market has gotten strong and stronger.
“The grass roots support for the magazine was tremendous. But about two years ago, they took it younger and right back in the fray, and it lost its focus and unique selling proposition,” she said.
Some sources said Murdoch didn’t financially support Mirabella the way Conde Nast, Hearst and Hachette support their leading fashion titles. Mirabella ran skimpy ad campaigns and didn’t have the budget for big promotional events that some see as vital in the image-obsessed fashion business.
Mirabella peaked its first year out of the starting gate, booking 1,183 ad pages. After two good years, the magazine’s ad pages started to tumble and dropped to 750 in 1992. Ad pages then climbed back to 821 in 1994, a 2.8 percent increase from the prior year. But Mirabella again ran into trouble in the first quarter of 1995, when ad pages slipped 14.8 percent.
Besides its difficulty bringing in ad pages, Mirabella was plagued with internal strife on the editorial side, which just recently began to abate under Browning.
“When Gay [Bryant], Amy [Gross] and Grace [Mirabella] were there, it was like a three-headed monster,” said one source. “There were three different visions and three different voices.”
Sources said that when Gross left to join Elle two years ago, Bryant took on more power, and she didn’t have the image or style that was appropriate for a fashion magazine. Last fall, Bryant hired Sam Shahid as creative director, which some observers said was a mistake since Shahid had never designed a fashion magazine. He and Bryant reportedly had a strained working relationship and Shahid needed more direction, but as one source pointed out, “it was on life support when he got there.”
A couple of back-to-back covers with models’ hair standing on end and type that was difficult to read soured many people on the magazine last fall.
“Editorially it changed and got kind of difficult for its loyal readers to accept,” said Joseph Barletta, president of Murdoch Magazines, in an interview last month. “We missed the market somewhat; that’s why there’s a new editor there.”
Over the last two years, Grace Mirabella’s editorial role diminished, as she became more of an ambassador for the magazine to the outside world. In a recent interview, Browning — a founding partner of Chris Whittle’s Edison Project, a privately managed public school system and, before that, assistant managing editor of Newsweek — said Mirabella was now “my magazine” and that “it would all be different.”
While people were optimistic about Browning’s appointment and the direction the magazine was headed, sources said she joined way too late in the game.