George Magazine Loses a “Yes” Woman As Hachette Steps In

After the first three ad-larded and buzz-inflamed issues, David Pecker, the chief executive of Hachette Filipacchi Magazines, was expecting great things from George magazine. Which is to say, things that make money. “If everything is going the way it goes now, we are looking to break even in year three,” he told The New York Times in January 1996, only four months after its 280-page debut. Of course, it was in that same article that George editor in chief John F. Kennedy Jr. discussed how he had come to the realization that it was his magazine to run as he saw fit. At the time, he used this as a way to explain why he was replacing his handpicked second-in-command, editor Eric Etheridge, who left after clashing with Mr. Kennedy over editorial control, with Elizabeth (Biz) Mitchell, a 28-year-old senior editor, in the new post of executive editor. “It’s my name in the editor in chief position,” he said at the time. “And if the magazine works or doesn’t work, people will say, it’s John Kennedy’s magazine.”

But three years later, things don’t look so rosy. According to the Media Industry Newsletter , as of November 1998, George ‘s total ad pages were down 5.21 percent from 1997, and ad pages in the December 1998 issue had dipped by 20 percent compared to the year before. What’s more, the editorial vision is still a bit murky. Now, Ms. Mitchell finds herself forced out of her job, following the appearance of an item in the New York Post on Jan. 6 that basically announced that Hachette was pressuring Mr. Kennedy to hire a “hands-on editor” to skipper the magazine and “bring it to the next level.” Sources at George , which has the tag line “Not Just Politics as Usual,” chalked the piece up to a bruising game of the same old corporate politics as usual that Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Pecker have been playing since the magazine’s fortunes began to decline. Score for now: Pecker 1, Kennedy 0.

Ms. Mitchell was well regarded, well liked and possibly in over her head, current and former employees at the magazine said. “Eric kind of dissed John,” said one former staff member, referring to Ms. Mitchell’s predecessor, Mr. Etheridge (a former editor at The Observer ). But “Biz knew her role.” As another editor put it, “She understood that this was his magazine. He didn’t feel like just riding his bike downtown; he wanted to actually do it.” But when she ascended to executive editor, she was stepping, if not over, at least by, another ambitious senior editor, Richard Blow. According to sources at George , Mr. Blow, the former editor of the defunct Washington, D.C., power magazine Regardie’s , had expected to get the job. By most accounts, Ms. Mitchell “got along really well” with Mr. Kennedy as he learned the ropes and honed the magazine’s appeal to college-educated thirtysomething women who weren’t political junkies. The plan? “A political magazine for people who don’t like politics,” explained one former contributor.

But from Hachette’s perspective, that plan apparently wasn’t working as well as it should. And so, a vaguely sourced item made its appearance in the Post . When it ran on Jan. 6, it went off “like a bomb” in George ‘s office, said one staff member. Nobody was expecting it, and in addition to asserting that Mr. Kennedy was shopping Ms. Mitchell’s job around, it also implied that she was somehow a temp at that position instead of, as one current editor put it, “a skilled and unquestioned No. 2.” The Post didn’t quote Mr. Kennedy, or anyone else for that matter.

Staff members, used to living with a gossip-hounded celebrity, say that they just decided to withhold judgment on its accuracy until Mr. Kennedy returned from out of town. And, anyway, firing someone in the press wasn’t his style. (“He’s classy,” said one staff member.) According to a person familiar with the situation, Ms. Mitchell decided there was no place for her at George after she met with Mr. Kennedy on the afternoon of Jan. 7. She was gone the next morning, when Mr. Kennedy announced Mr. Blow’s promotion to the staff.

Mr. Blow, the Washington affairs editor, has been at the magazine since the start. He’s the one responsible for bringing in such writers and columnists as David Brock, Tony Blankley, Claire Shipman and Lisa DePaulo, all of whom have provided much of the noncelebrity content in the magazine in recent months. That said, it was hard for many familiar with the magazine to imagine how Mr. Blow would provide much of a break from the magazine as it is now, with its uneven run of features, stale gossip, filler photo spreads, half-baked “rants.”

“When you look at George , you’re like, ‘It needs something,'” said one contributing editor. The January issue spent 21 of its total 100 pages on year-in-review, reader-survey or looking-ahead-to-next-year pieces. With the clock ticking toward the five years Hachette agreed to float the magazine, the question is whether Mr. Blow and Mr. Kennedy can continue to professionalize an environment that former staff members have dismissed as “like a high school yearbook”–although sources at the magazine said that Ms. Mitchell had pulled in the reins lately–and keep its subscribers renewing.

It seems that Hachette has determined it is time to meddle with George . Ms. Mitchell’s departure was accompanied by several longtime employees on the advertising side getting the boot, too, including associate publisher Deborah Marcogliese and creative services director Negi Vafa. Launch publisher Elinore Carmody was replaced a year ago, and co-founder Michael Berman was shipped off to another part of Hachette in mid-1997. But, of course, Mr. Kennedy wasn’t going anywhere: It’s his magazine, and he gets a take of the profit–when, and if, it appears. Current and former staff members are careful to defend Mr. Kennedy: “I’m telling you, John has brilliant editor instincts,” insisted contributing editor Lisa DePaulo. “He understands who the reader is.”

Ms. Mitchell and Mr. Pecker had no comment on the change. Mr. Kennedy released a statement citing “creative differences” as the explanation for Ms. Mitchell’s departure. And Mr. Blow told Off the Record that he is “excited about building on Biz’s considerable success.” Sources at George say that Mr. Blow is expected to make at least two hires at the understaffed weekly. One thing that’s not going to change is the editor in chief, or, since a big-name outsider hasn’t been hired, his role. “Would this magazine exist without John?” asked one insider. “Would anyone delude themselves that it would?”

Senior editor Hugo Lindgren is leaving New York magazine to rejoin his front-of-the-book pal, Ariel Kaminer. Ms. Kaminer recently left New York to edit a new front section in The New York Times Magazine , leaving Mr. Lindgren in charge of New York ‘s Gotham pages all by his lonesome. But Ms. Kaminer wasn’t going to be able to handle the new section, set to be called “The Way We Live Now,” all by herself. Enter Mr. Lindgren. “She suggested Hugo, and he was the right person for the job,” said Times Magazine editor Adam Moss. The mix of columns and items will replace the current Sunday section in late February. “It’s going to be grueling,” Mr. Moss said. To edit, that is. As of Jan. 12, New York magazine editor in chief Caroline Miller had not decided who would take over Gotham.

While C-Span agreed to train its video cameras on Hustler publisher Larry Flynt’s news conference, the powers that be over at The New York Times decreed that their reporters weren’t allowed to cover it. The Times has struggled with how to cover the previously off-limits private lives of public figures all throughout this season of scandal. The decision to not cover the juicy, porn-funded public humiliation of supposedly hypocritical Republicans on the evening of Jan. 11 was made by executive editor Joseph Lelyveld.

“I plead guilty,” Mr. Lelyveld told Off the Record on Jan. 12. “If a mainstream news organization broke a story about public figures and consensual sex, we wouldn’t repeat it, either … The choice before us would be to do the reporting ourselves, or do nothing with it.” Mr. Lelyveld added that The Times avoided repeating the stories about Troopergate and Gennifer Flowers for the same reason. “We don’t want to be in the business of reporting sex,” he said.

People managing editor Carol Wallace has gained a reputation for running Time Inc.’s most profitable magazine with an iron fist. Her tough management style has reportedly led to the defection over the last year of several longtime writers and editors to Us , Life and The Wall Street Journal . Well, chalk up another one. Just before New Year, Todd Gold, a 16-year veteran who was deputy Los Angeles bureau chief, announced he was leaving to produce Roseanne Barr’s talk show. People is “not a place that nourishes creativity” anymore, he explained.

“I’ve known Roseanne for a long time,” said Mr. Gold. Indeed, his cozy relationship with the kinds of people who populate the pages of the gabby weekly was detailed in a gushing Dec. 31 e-mail he cc’d to the entire staff. In it, he recalled “exclusives” with Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand, Calista Flockhart and others. He also extolled his “long friendship with Henry Winkler,” remembered “drinking a $2,000 magnum of wine with Julio Iglesias and both of us passing out on his sofa midway through the interview, partying backstage at Live Aid with the Who, David Bowie and all the other rock stars,” and making “lasting friendships with people like Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner [and] Heather be thy name Locklear.” Over all, Mr. Gold wrote, “I’ve had the definitive People magazine career.”

Not that there weren’t rough patches. When he decided to jump over to the other side and start a television production company, his bosses wouldn’t let him “extend the brand” of People by producing TV shows based on the magazine, he said.

“It was supposed to be funny and over the top but at the same time asking this serious question: How can the world’s largest and most successful magazine not have room for someone who helped define the magazine to grow?” Mr. Gold told Off the Record. Instead, he added bitterly, “they promote the inept.”

Through a spokesman, Ms. Wallace said: “Everybody has their own way of saying goodbye.”