Winter of the magazine moguls

Life is losing its gloss for the beautiful people at Vogue and Vanity Fair as the realities of recession hit Times Square. David Usborne reports on cuts and closures at Condé Nast
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The Independent Online

Things used to be more or less civilised at 4 Times Square, the boastful glass and granite headquarters of the Condé Nast magazine empire. But on the day in late January when they shuttered the chic lifestyle title Domino, its editors were told not just to clear their desks but to carry their belongings home with them in boxes. In less dreadful days, courier boys would have been provided.

Such indignities are irrelevant if you are losing your job (with, in some cases, only two weeks' severance pay for more than four years of service). But life for those still inside the tower, even those with corner offices, is getting tougher too, as advertising revenue collapses and those budgets for first-class airfares, nights at the Ritz and limos with drivers are being slashed once and then slashed again.

For years, Condé Nast, with titles ranging from Vogue, to GQ, Wired, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, was a place that excelled in unabashed excess. For some just starting out in fashion or entertainment reporting, it was the only place really worth working at, as Ann Hathaway's character quickly learnt in the film The Devil Wears Prada. (No one doubted that the devil, Meryl Streep, was meant to be a pastiche of Vogue editor Anna Wintour).

Beginners would happily tolerate being paid peanuts, while those at the top, including outside talent on exclusive contracts, were equally happy being paid obscenely well.

"On any given night there were enough black limousines waiting outside 4 Times Square to run a small diplomatic fleet," one industry observer wryly observes. The number puffing out exhaust fumes this Thursday evening at 6pm? Not one, as it happens. Condé Nast, which belongs to the privately-held Advance Publications, is hardly alone in having to draw in its horns because of the advertising recession. But the pain it is starting to suffer – industry observers widely predict that others in its stable of magazines could soon follow Domino into oblivion, including, perhaps, Allure, Lucky and Cookie – is drawing disproportionate attention because of its one-time famous swagger.

Rivals could have been forgiven a touch of Schadenfreude at seeing that the usual army of Vogue assistants at the recent Milan and Paris fashion shows had been reduced to mere platoons. "Everyone likes to crow about us right now, because we crow so much when things are good," one editor at the company said anonymously last night.

In truth, though, the cracks beginning to open in the Condé Nast facade represent ill-tidings for everyone. The company, with its canteen designed by the architect Frank Gehry, has done more than almost any other to afford Manhattan the glitzy sheen of recent years so aptly captured in the Sex and the City TV series. To say that Jimmy Choo heels were part of the 4 Times Square uniform is to evoke a slightly daft cliché, but you get the picture. As the lustre of Condé Nast dulls, so, inevitably, does the glow of Gotham generally.

More broadly, the magazine and newspaper industry in the US is reeling, arguably to an even greater degree than it is in Europe. The Rocky Mountain News, the Denver newspaper, vanished last month, while last week the Hearst Corporation, which publishes Cosmopolitan and Good Housekeeping, closed the print version of the main newspaper in Seattle which its owns, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

A memo sent recently to all Condé staff by the company CEO, Charles Townsend, contains a clue about what lies ahead: "Unavoidably, as the downturn extends, we have to make additional difficult decisions to manage costs and ensure our financial well-being," he wrote. "These decisions involve all of us."

Because it is not a public company, gleaning reliable financial data on Condé Nast is difficult. "As a private company we are not about to disseminate specific financial information, but be assured we are continuing to responsibly and successfully manage our way through this extended recession," Mr Townsend said last week as questions about the company's future began to crowd in.

Fully available, however, are the latest numbers of advertising sales. Magazines in America in particular live or die by the numbers of pages they can fill with ads and the rates they can charge for them.

The trend at Condé Nast is bad, as it is with almost every other publishing concern in the US and beyond. It doesn't help, though, that many of its titles have relied heavily on advertising by luxury goods companies (for Vogue and Vanity Fair) or by major Wall Street financial firms, including AIG (New Yorker). Budgets for advertising in both those industries have sunk to the ocean floor.

The latest advertising sales figures are enough to make any managing editor's heart shrink. They are down 47 per cent at Architectural Digest (the much stodgier refuge of former Domino readers) 32 per cent at editor Graydon Carter's Vanity Fair, 56 per cent at Wired, 60 per cent at Portfolio, the group's infant business affairs glossy, 41.6 per cent at Gourmet ... and on it goes. Of all the group's titles only one has seen an up-tick in advertising revenue: Golf World. And, of course, as advertising shrinks so do the numbers of pages in the magazines when subscribers find them in the letter boxes. The issue of Portfolio published yesterday was the thinnest in the magazine's short history.

In the autumn, publishers of Condé titles were told to cut budgets by 5 per cent. By all accounts, that has not been enough, however. Sources this week indicated that Mr Townsend has been told by the owner of Advance, Samuel Irving Newhouse, to find another $50m (£35m) in cuts, and soon. "We half-assed the cuts last year," one Condé Nast publisher told the New York Observer, which reports that an additional 10 per cent cut in non-salary, discretionary spending will shortly be demanded of top editors.

Condé Nast was for years a financial stronghold. In good times, titles like Vogue were virtual money-machines so it did not matter if the most respected of all its publications, The New Yorker, edited by David Remnick, wavered between profit and loss. It was quite acceptable also to pay the editors of the fattest, most profitable magazines salaries measured in the millions of dollars. Better still, Advance has a large stable of regional newspapers across the US that for years were reliably profitable. Indeed, the magazines provided the gravy.

But as the fortunes of newspapers have collapsed, suddenly it is the magazines that must keep the entire ship afloat. And even their buoyancy is coming into question.

Titles that don't close may be forced to publish less frequently. According to one industry source, even the weekly magazine The New Yorker, where writers are already under stringent new spending curbs that have meant a virtual ban on foreign travel, may be on track to go fortnightly or even monthly. The Condé Nast spokesperson, Maurie Perl, was adamant that altering the publishing frequency of The New Yorker is not being considered, however. "We continue to manage our business through this difficult and challenging economic climate," she told The Independent.

"Like everyone else who is dealing with what is going on in the economy, we have in some instances to make some difficult decisions to ride this out, which we are doing responsibly and successfully."

Scaling back will not come easily for some of the gladiator editors at Condé. Mr Carter, who as well as editing Vanity Fair is the owner of the Waverley Inn – a restaurant as famous for its shy celebrity diners as for its macaroni cheese with truffles – promised a less extravagant Oscar-night party this year, but still ended up with a 1,000-plus guests.

He, like Ms Wintour, may also have to face up soon to some of the staff bloat at his magazine that was unkindly satirised last week by Fashion Week Daily. It cheekily printed a faux Vanity Fair masthead under Mr Carter's picture (with a king's crown on his head) listing the people who work for him, including "Architecture Consultants (1)", "Contributing Editors least likely to Contribute (3)", "Spanish Names that Sound Fancy" (2), and "Men in Saigon (1)".

A case of very bad timing might be diagnosed for the upcoming release of a documentary showcased at this year's Sundance Film Festival: The September Issue.

Featuring Ms Wintour in almost every frame, it is reportedly a gripping account of the putting together of what turned out to be the biggest, most extravagant issue ever of Vogue, for September 2007. Today, the film seems a little, well, inappropriate.

While there is no joy in anybody being laid off – including everyone who used to toil at the late lamented Domino – some inside the company privately admit that there may be something almost cleansing about the new strictures at Condé Nast.

"There is a lot of gallows humour flying about. But I think everyone that still has a job is happy to have it right now, and in a way there is less complaining going on around here than there used to be," one company veteran acknowledged. "It's a very healthy dose of reality".

Some of those inside 4 Times Square surely can't wait to get back to trading in dreams, however.