Byline: Lisa Lockwood

NEW YORK — At Mirabella, money isn’t everything.
“Making money is not an overriding concern in the fashion field,” claims Murdoch Magazines president Joseph F. Barletta. “Mirabella does as well as some competitors.”
Barletta says that in a $9 billion company like News Corp. — parent of Murdoch Magazines, which publishes Mirabella and TV Guide, among others — “the idea that something hovers around the line of black and red is so inconsequential in the scheme of the bean counters.” He adds, “The idea that it would have to be closed up is laughable.”
In its 5 1/2-year history, Mirabella, with a current circulation of 600,000, has been plagued by constant rumors of its demise. While Barletta insists that nothing could be further from the truth, it’s no surprise the rumors persist, in light of the following developments:
A dramatic drop in ad pages beginning in 1991 after a highly publicized launch in June 1989.
A revolving door of editors and publishers, with the appointment of the fourth publisher in five years expected soon.
Questions about the diminished role of founding editor Grace Mirabella, who hasn’t seen layouts for some time and has even moved from an expansive office into a smaller one.
Mixed messages in content and frequent changes in art direction.
Some impressive strides in 1994 that stumbled badly in the first quarter of 1995.
But News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch is no stranger to the long haul. Another one of his properties, The New York Post, lost between $12 million and $15 million in 1993.
Just how much Murdoch has poured into Mirabella and how much the magazine is currently losing is a well-kept secret and, when asked, Barletta declined to comment.
Discussing the ongoing rumors about Mirabella, Barletta says: “I find it totally frustrating. I cannot find a way to put this stuff to rest.” In fact, he points out that when Mirabella threw a lavish fifth anniversary party at the Museum of Modern Art last June, Rupert Murdoch flew from L.A. to New York to serve as host and pledge his support to the magazine.
“It’s very difficult to disprove a negative. I hear talk. It’s jealous competitors or bean counters. It can come from anywhere,” says Barletta.
“The only person who never broaches the subject is Murdoch. He has a genuine feeling for it. He’s just not a quitter.
“The company can afford to keep it going. The magazine was trending very well for the last half of the year,” continues Barletta, and was trending toward “breakeven.” However, he concedes Mirabella’s first quarter results would be “pretty disappointing.”
Mirabella hit its peak its first year out of the starting gate, booking 1,200 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 up to 821 in 1994, a 2.8 percent increase from the prior year.
While Mirabella was down 11 percent through May 1994, it was 16 percent ahead in the second half.
But in the first quarter of 1995, Mirabella ran approximately 138.4 ad pages, off 12.7 percent from a year ago, according to Media Industry Newsletter.
“Editorially it changed and got kind of difficult for its loyal readers to accept,” says Barletta. “We missed the market somewhat; that’s why there’s a new editor there.”
Some observers speculated that two uncharacteristically quirky covers back-to-back in December and January didn’t help the ad situation in the first quarter. The December cover featured a model with her hair literally standing on end, and the January cover featured a model’s exaggerated frizzed-out hair.
Others questioned the taste of recent layouts, one of which showed models posing as prostitutes.
Enter Dominique Browning, the new 39-year-old editor-in-chief of Mirabella who succeeded Gay Bryant. Browning moved into Grace Mirabella’s spacious office last month (Mirabella moved to a smaller office) and is expected to bring a fresh point of view to the publication. While she’s got plenty of new ideas for the magazine, there’s one thing she’s missing — a publisher.
Browning had been on the job for only three weeks when she learned a week ago that publisher Catherine Viscardi Johnston resigned to become publisher of Mademoiselle. Now Mirabella’s on the hunt again.
According to Barletta, the magazine was close to naming a new publisher this week, but six other candidates suddenly emerged, all publishers or former publishers, so the decision was put off for a while.
All this hasn’t deterred Browning. She’s plowing ahead and totally revamping the magazine, with one promise: “It will all be different.”
Browning — most recently a founding partner of Chris Whittle’s troubled Edison Project, a privately managed public school system, and before that, assistant managing editor of Newsweek — was hired by Anthea Disney, editorial director of Murdoch Magazines. In fact, it was Disney, not Grace Mirabella, who announced Browning’s appointment.
So where does Grace Mirabella fit into the new scheme of things?
“I see my role no differently than it’s been the past year and a half. I’m not involved in the content. You can’t have a bunch of people editing the magazine,” says Mirabella. “I’m involved in how it relates to the outside world.”
Mirabella says she supports Browning’s appointment. “I think she’s so wonderful. I’m very thrilled. She’s the type of woman I happen to like — women who are so smart.”
“I believe in her mission,” says Browning of Grace Mirabella. “I read the first issues again, which described Mirabella as a magazine of great style for accomplished, energetic and sophisticated women, expressed through wonderful clothing, great photography, great reporting and great writing. I believe [Mirabella] is central in terms of her relationship with the magazine. We hit it off immediately, and she has a lot of ideas and is a great sounding board,” says Browning.
But, just in case there’s any lingering doubt, Browning stresses, “This is my magazine.”
“I was hired because of what I said I wanted to do with this magazine. I’m running the magazine, and I’ll try to do it in a spirit that’s very respectful of her contribution.”
Whatever Browning’s agenda, it appears Grace Mirabella will have to live with the results.
Apparently, the founding editor hasn’t always been happy with the magazine’s direction. Sources say Grace Mirabella was particularly mortified when she saw last November’s issue, which featured a runway model with a cigarette in one of the fashion layouts. While at Vogue, Mirabella prided herself on never running a photograph of a model with a cigarette. Devoutly anti-smoking and the wife of a cancer specialist, Mirabella hadn’t seen the finished layouts.
Discussing some of the changes on deck, Browning turned first to the fashion and beauty pages. “They are extremely important and they must have huge visual impact. It cannot look like a catalog.”
Browning says she brings the point of view of a woman who appreciates fashion, but whose life is outside its world. “I look at it from a very American point of view. I lived in Texas and worked at the Texas Monthly. I think New York is not the same as American fashion.”
Browning says she’s getting to know the staff she inherited, and says she hit it off with the artistic director, Sam Shahid.
Sources have said that Shahid and previous editor Gay Bryant didn’t have the best working relationship, and that Shahid designed layouts and covers without much direction from Bryant. As for the new partnership, Browning said: “We’re working really well together. The chemistry between an art director and editor will be unique to that couple. Sam is a person of enormous accomplishment.”
Of Browning, Shahid says, “She’s modern, she’s young and she’s very, very smart. And she loves photography.”
Industry sources wonder exactly what will become of Mirabella. “It’s a matter of picking a direction and sticking to it,” says a former staffer.
“It’s sad; it doesn’t seem to be able to get a team together and get going,” says a former executive. “The business doesn’t seem to be a lot better.”
As some publishing executives have noted, if you’re not number one in a category, it’s a hard sell. While the magazine over the years has landed some key automotive and high-end luxury business, it struggled with bringing in the fashion business.
Roberta Garfinkle, senior vice president and director of print media at McCann Ericksen, says, “It doesn’t do the magazine any good to have the fourth publisher in five years.” All the moves and changes, Garfinkle says, “have been so low key; part of me thinks it’s too low-key for its own good.” She adds, “I’ve often felt that magazine is one of the most undersold magazines in the whole category. They’re not beating enough bushes.”
Garfinkle also notes that changing editors and publishers at the same time is problematic.
“Magazines can’t afford to do that anymore. They need to change and keep current, but what you don’t need is constant total change. It does nothing but hurt a magazine; it says it’s not stable.”