The media minuet

Spring is here. And so is the meeting of media moguls, mavens -- and the National Magazine Awards.


Sean Elder
May 4, 2000 8:00PM (UTC)

Movers and shakers in the media world
are rather like Pokimon, the
"pocket monsters" beloved by elementary
school children. Pokimon, as any
kid can tell you, can only say their own
names when they meet ("Pikachu!
Pik-a-chu!" "Bulbasaur! Bul-ba-saur!"),
while media moguls can only talk about
themselves. And their companies. And
their visions for the future.

But at conventions such as the Media
Summit, produced by the Standard and New
York magazine and held in New York's
Museum of Modern Art Wednesday, these
moguls are given the opportunity to talk
about something else for a change. Like
their competitors. But like the
Pokimon they resemble, they keep
steering conversation back to themselves
and their businesses.

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Michael Wolff, New York's media
columnist and the author of "Burn Rate,"
kicked off the proceedings by saying he
had been to 63 such conferences in the
'90s. Then he added, "Kurt Andersen was
on that many [panels] last week."

Andersen, erstwhile New York magazine
editor and founder of the forthcoming
media gang-bang known as Inside.com, was
supposed to appear that morning, but
apparently did not want to cross the
picket lines outside. (The MOMA staff is
striking for better salaries, health
care, etc.) And probably didn't need to
be on another panel.

Wolff mentioned seeing David Remnick at
the Technology Entertainment Design
Conference in Monterey, Calif., this
year and asked him why he was there.
"You told me I had to start going to
these things," Remnick said.

Why? For media reporters such as
himself, said Wolff, it was for access
-- how to get your phone calls returned
the next time you're on deadline. For
entrepreneurs and players they provide a
chance to talk one-on-one. Before
lawyers get involved, Wolff added, "and
suddenly you're off the air."

This was the first of several references
to the ABC-Time Warner
fiasco
that morning. The summit's
first guest, AT&T CEO Michael Armstrong,
took the stage looking pretty pert for a
man whose company's shares had fallen 14
percent the day before. Speaking of the
brave new future of broadband and
wireless surfing (a future he has
invested over $1 billion of AT&T's money
in) he said, "No longer will we be able
to draw a bright line between content
and conduit."

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Tell the folks at ABC.

Jonathan Weber, the editor in chief of
the Standard and Wolff's co-moderator,
followed Armstrong's remarks with a
question about the ABC-Time Warner
dust-up, calling it an example of
not adhering to principles of
collaboration and putting the customer
first.

In moderating terms, this is called a
"softball," but Armstrong chose not to
gloat over the misfortunes of other
conglomerates. His outlook was
consistently sunny, focusing on the
future of 1,500 channels, with carriage
for everyone and greed for none.

But the blackout (which ended the
previous day, about 36 hours after it
began) seemed to be on everyone else's
minds. If nothing else, it made the
consequences of monopolization less
abstract than, say, the Department of
Justice's brief against Microsoft.
Suddenly, people couldn't find their
favorite channel on cable and it all had
to do with synergies. ABC-ESPN-Disney
was tangling with Time Warner-AOL and
its minions, reminding me of that old
AIDS maxim: When you go to bed with
someone, you're going to bed with
everyone they ever slept with.

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When you do a deal in the world of media
monopolies, you're doing a deal with
everyone that company has done deals
with. Which works until it doesn't.

Geraldine Laybourne, chairwoman and CEO
of Oxygen Media, learned this lesson the
hard way. Her nascent network can't be
seen on Time-Warner cable; they'd have
to remove one of those Arabic stations
or C-Span II to accommodate her. (This
may all change given AOL's deal with
Oxygen.) She was on a panel considering
the convergence of the Internet and
entertainment Wednesday morning. "I
thought Monday morning Time Warner was
going to put us in that Channel 7 spot,"
she said dryly.

The news panel that followed was a
little more old guard: Arthur O.
Sulzberger Jr. of the New York Times and
Norman Pearlstine of Time, Inc. compared
notes and concluded, after all the
tsoris of years past, maybe the Internet
wasn't such a bad thing after all.

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"We want to reach the audience and we'll
reach them in any media," said
Sulzberger with the fervor of recent
convert. "The game is news."

Is converging print and new media
something you spend a lot of time
thinking about? Weber asked Pearlstine.

"We did," Pearlstine replied. "It was
called Pathfinder."

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Meanwhile, the 35th Annual National
Magazine Awards were getting underway,
and media titans began sneaking out of
the theater in the basement of the MOMA
to walk the six blocks to the
Waldorf-Astoria. A bomb could have gone
off in the hotel's Grand Ballroom and
eradicated the magazine business as we
know it. (Not a moment too soon, some
might hasten to add.)

The ceremony has taken on some of the
pomp and flash of other award
ceremonies. This year opened with a
short film singing the praise of those
darn magazines. Here was Frank Lalli,
new editor of the revived George,
talking about the uniqueness of print --
though the footage was of a young woman
at a newsstand, leafing through the
pages of the late, unlamented L.A. mag,
Buzz.

George Curry, the new president of the
American Society of Magazine Editors,
brought an air of surety to the
proceedings when he mentioned that three
nominees -- National Geographic,
Harper's and the Atlantic Monthly -- had
been publishing in three different
centuries.

So there's hope for George after all.

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The winners were as follows:

Personal Service: PC Computing won for
"Small-Business Secret Weapons," by
Bonny Georgia. Editor in chief Paul
Somerson held the distinctive
four-pronged "Ellie" award like a
weapon, and looked for a moment like a
reluctant lion tamer, with a stool but
no whip.

Feature Writing: Sports Illustrated,
"Moment of Truth," by Gary Smith.
Managing editor Bill Colson said "a
picture can be worth 7,000 words."
(Smith's consideration of the 1957
Cotton Bowl was inspired by a picture
taken in the Texas Christian University
locker room, pre-game.)

Special Interests: ID, "Loving Las
Vegas" (September/October); Chee
Pearlman, introduced as former editor in
chief, accepted the award and thanked
Penn Jillette for convincing her that Las
Vegas was the design capital of the
world.

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Public Interest: The New Yorker, "A
Demon in the Freezer," by Richard
Preston, a story of the return of
smallpox.

Essays: The Sciences, "Clock of Ages,"
by Brain Hayes, an examination of a
200-year-old clock built to last 10,000
years. The venerable D.C. magazine had a
table in the peanut gallery (next to
me). Editor in chief Peter Brown took a
while to reach the stage and said of his
trophy, "Brian told me this was a weapon
the Klingons use."

Reporting: Vanity Fair, "Madness
Visible," by Jeanine di Giovanni (July);
"The Forensics of War," by Sebastian
Junger (October). Two Kosovo horror
stories. Graydon Carter accepted the
award saying, "I started off having a
really bad hair day ... I look like
Georgia O'Keeffe."

Design: Fast Company, Patrick Mitchell,
design director. Editor and cofounder
Alan M. Weber shared memories of
photographers hanging up on Mitchell
when he called asking them to shoot for
a business magazine.

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At halftime, NBC's Gene Shalit presented
John Mack Carter (former editor of Good
Housekeeping, Ladies' Home Journal,
McCalls etc.) with a Hall of Fame award.
Carter had given Shalit a job reviewing
films at LHJ, and NBC had called him on
the basis of those reviews. The
president of the network stared at
Shalit "for several hours," he recalled.
"Then he said to me, 'Let's talk about
radio.'"

Back to the awards:

Fiction: New Yorker, "The Third and
Final Continent," by Jhumpa Lahiri (June
21-28); "The Barber's Unhappiness," by
George Saunders (Dec. 20); "Dominion,"
by Robert Stone (Dec. 27-Jan. 3).
Fiction editor Bill Buford thanked all
of his editors by name.

General Excellence in New Media: Business Week Online
, Bob Arnold, editor. Not to be
outdone, Arnold thanked his entire staff
by name.

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Reviews & Criticism: Esquire, Tom
Carson's Screen column. David Granger
(whose magazine was nominated for five
awards) called Carson a "contrarian",
and also thanked Jay Woodward, who edits
him, as well as Hearst head Cathie Black
"for her patience and belief in
Esquire."

Profiles: Sports Illustrated, "The Ring
Leader" by Frank Deford, a profile of
Bill Russell. Colson accepted saying,
"Frank Deford is one of my favorite
people in the world." Colson started
reading Deford in the '60s,
fact-checking him in the '80s and edits
him now.

Photography: Vanity Fair, Susan White,
photography director. Carter likened
their star photographer, Annie
Leibowitz, to Steichen in the magazine's
original incarnation.

General Excellence (circulation under
100,000): Nest, Joseph Holtzman, editor
in chief and art director. Holtzman, the
genius behind the bizarre and fanciful
shelter mag, took the stage in a striped
T-shirt and sweater. On stage early, he
was off even sooner. Whispered one
editor: "Get him some media coaching."

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General Excellence (circulation 100,000 -
400,000): Saveur, Dorothy Kalins,
editor; "It's been a tough year," she
said and thanked creative director
Michael Grossman and the publication's
new owner, Terry Snow "who has given us
back our future."

General Excellence (circulation 400,00 -
1,000,000): New Yorker, David Remnick,
editor. Taking the stage for the third
time, Remnick said, "Last year [when the
magazine was blanked] I thought this
lunch was really long."

General Excellence (circulation over 1
million): National Geographic, William
Allen, editor in chief. The crowd
erupted into sustained applause;
National Geographic remains a
sentimental favorite for crusty New York
editors who read it as children,
dreaming of adventure. "This is the best
photograph I've seen all year," said
Allen. "I've never been up here before."

He probably meant to use that line for
the photography award. But they got beat
there.


Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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