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Monthlies Try to Stay Current

NEW YORK — With the fighting in Iraq all but over, is the Third Infantry Division coming home or turning toward Damascus? Will a peace dividend pull the economy out of its slump, or will business as usual be just as bad? And will Severe Acute...

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NEW YORK — With the fighting in Iraq all but over, is the Third Infantry Division coming home or turning toward Damascus? Will a peace dividend pull the economy out of its slump, or will business as usual be just as bad? And will Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome become a killer plague or a nasty case of the flu?

In each case, it’s anyone’s guess, but editors at glossy monthlies have found themselves stuck making very public pronouncements. June and July issues are shipping, and they’re having to predict whether the world is about to essentially get better or worse — and assign stories with the appropriate tone, depending on that guess.

Just a month ago, they had to figure out when, exactly, the U.S. was going to war. Now, after what looks like victory, they’re wondering if readers are ready to relax a bit. At stake is the relevance of their magazines, which translates into newsstand sales. And the editors themselves say they’ve had a little trouble keeping track of developments.

“It’s all been within one planning cycle,” said Diane Salvatore, editor in chief of Ladies Home Journal. “In the space of a month, we went from ‘how do we cover the war’ to ‘how do we cover the post-war?’ It’s been a bit of a whiplash.”

But closings wait for no one, and an informal poll of editors across a wide swath of genres — from women’s service to personal finance — offers a mixed view of how the world might look three months from now.

Salvatore and her peers at Glamour, Redbook and Marie Claire are all betting that readers will still have Baghdad on the brain through June. “Women who survived torture by Saddam” is a Marie Claire coverline, and Glamour will feature an Air Force mom who flew combat sorties over Iraq. Women in combat is a big theme. “Not only is the reader’s husband or son over there, but it could be her sister or daughter or the reader herself,” said Salvatore. “That’s going to be a huge story as long as we’re in Iraq.”

“Most people are of a mind that this is something that’s going to be ongoing,” said Redbook editor Ellen Kunes. “It’s not that suddenly the war is over, and we can just focus on recipes.”

Even at Vogue, where fashion is seen as geopolitically important, breeziness is out. “Vogue is a celebratory magazine, but that said, we’re intellectually honest, and you have to say these are difficult times and difficult subjects,” said fashion news/features director Sally Singer. “There is not a false tone of cheeriness.”

The magazine plans to run a series of stories on Americans living abroad, she said, and has a profile of Centers for Disease Control director Julie Gerberding in the works. “It’s a way to talk about SARS,” Singer said.

The editors of this spring’s premieres —Lifetime and Radar —are looking for readers ready to move on. It didn’t help that both magazines’ debuts (which won’t arrive on newsstands until Tuesday) were burned a little by the short war — Radar’s story on human shields, for example, is a bit moot.

“I was at Talk after Sept. 11,” said Radar editor Maer Roshan, “and it wasn’t about content, but about tone and mood. You want to cover some aspect of it —I’m curious about the military and the motivations people have for entering it — but I’m not assigning anything specific about Syria.” He added, “Even Graydon [Carter] admitted after the whole ‘irony is dead’ thing that there is a place for humor in tragic times. It just has to be appropriate humor.”

Lifetime’s Sally Koslow, however, isn’t planning any war coverage for July-August. “I think Americans are craving good news,” she said. “We seized every opportunity to rejoice when Jessica Lynch and the POWs were found. People can’t sustain forever the mood of spending every evening in front of war footage.”

But the editors of personal finance think they’ll be fretting over job security. “Leading up to the war was a six- month cloud that seemed to cover Wall Street,” said Kiplinger’s Personal Finance editor Fred Farley. “Now there’s a different cloud — the war went away, but there’s still a bad economy, and it’s been there all the time.”

Farley put Kiplinger’s May issue (its war issue) to bed just as the bombs started falling; now he’s assigning stories on everything but investing. “We’re explaining how people can save $2,000 a year on insurance. In April, we wrote about buying a house in a hot market and selling in a cold one.”

“Look, this is just business as usual,” said Esquire’s David Granger. “We live in incredibly tumultuous times. That was true before Sept. 11 and true before Iraq. The hardest thing about this job is anticipating the future. We can’t focus on Iraq. The world has moved on…I don’t want a steady diet of foreign policy pieces.”

Nor do his readers. Nor do any of his advertisers. “The war effect is something I’m going to spend time talking to editors about,” said Peter Gardner, chief media director of Deutsch agency. “I don’t envy their task, believe me. But it will affect how we plan and buy and think about their magazines. You build confidence in a magazine in part through how much you believe in editorial. That’s what they’re being paid for.”

Oddly, the most optimistic editors are at the magazines one might think would have suffered the most at the hands of the war and SARS: travel books. Through reader polls, Condé Nast Traveler editor Tom Wallace found that 99 percent of his upscale audience plans to keep traveling no matter what; 61 percent of respondents even thought that SARS would be under control by the end of the year. “But we’ll wait for a signal from the CDC before touting a destination affected by SARS,” he said.

“I would love to do something right not about the archaeological heritage of Iraq and the museums right now,” said Travel + Leisure editor Nancy Novogrod, “but at the moment, Iraq is a bit too unstable to write about.”

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