The Rise of Maxim Magazine

Maxim , the men’s magazine that trend journalists love to puzzle over– see Newsweek ‘s Feb. 1 thumb-sucker entitled “Finding the Inner Swine”–continues its hegemonic surge. On Jan. 26, the magazine announced it is raising its rate base (the circulation guaranteed advertisers) from 650,000 to 950,000 for the second half of 1999. That puts it way beyond such rivals as Details , which increased its rate base as of Jan. 1 from 475,000 to 500,000, and Esquire and GQ , which guarantee rate bases of 650,000 and 700,000, respectively. Only that other category killer, Rodale Press’ yuppified muscle magazine, Men’s Health , beats it, guaranteeing 1.45 million.

“What do I have to say now that we’ve kicked everyone’s butts?” asked editor Mark Golin, who has overseen a 600,000 increase in the rate base over his yearlong tenure. “How do you spell pppbbbffffthhttt ?”

His competitors don’t want to hear about it.

“What does it have to do with me?” asked Esquire editor in chief David Granger, clearly annoyed by comparisons to the upstart. “It’s a magazine for a totally different audience.” And that audience would be? “The lowest common denominator. I’m sure what they’re trying to do is fine. But it’s not what I’m trying to do with Esquire .” No, of course not. Esquire is focusing on more heady stuff these days–like “The Triumph of Cleavage Culture,” which graces the February issue, along with a picture of Pamela Anderson showing us how it happened. What’s up with that? “We thought we had come up with a nice cover to illustrate an article in the magazine,” Mr. Granger explained.

“Numbers do not mean quality,” declared Art Cooper, editor in chief of GQ . Mr. Cooper once dismissed Maxim as a magazine for men who “not only move their lips when they read, they drool when they read.” No matter how right he may (still) be, he now sounds somewhat chastened.

” GQ is an aspirational book,” Mr. Cooper said. “You feel like you crashed a very civilized cocktail party and everyone’s too civilized to throw you out.” He was just back from England, where he’d been checking out Maxim ‘s British competitors–”laddy-boy magazines,” he said, like FHM and Loaded . (Publisher Felix Dennis launched Maxim in England about two years before it appeared on these shores.) “They’re for really interesting losers,” Mr. Cooper reported, running articles that essentially say, “All right, so you’re not going to end up with Cindy Crawford, here’s how to enjoy fat women.”

Notwithstanding the sociological import of that bit of insight, it’s not like Maxim comes out of the blue. “We knew about Maxim for a long time,” said one former Details editor. “We looked at Loaded and FHM and the ‘lad’ magazines and their numbers”–which were huge in England–when Condé Nast was rethinking its own hapless younger-men’s magazine Details . Maxim ‘s growing success has overshadowed Details ‘ tepid performance. Aside from the rate base increase, Details ‘ ad pages in the January and February issues are down 18.3 percent compared to 1998; according to Media Industry Newsletter ; however, ad pages increased 3.17 percent overall in 1998. Still, if January’s “lingerie issue” is any indication, it’s pretty clear that Details is consciously trying to look more and more like Maxim . ( Details editor in chief Michael Caruso did not return calls for comment by press time.)

“I don’t think any of them actually recognize what Maxim is,” said Mr. Golin. It’s not just “cleavage and beer and that’s it,” he added. Speaking of the January issue–which features a slinky Bridget Fonda alongside the cover line “Lingerie Runway: Our models show you what to give this Valentine’s Day”–Mr. Golin insisted, “There are plenty of other things as well … At least I don’t have 12 pages concerning lesbians!” He was referring to February’s Details , with its seven-page sapphic sex section.

Actually, Mr. Cooper and Mr. Granger have a point: It’s hard to compare them to Maxim . Maxim is building a men’s book on the rhetoric of morning-radio shock jocks and the informal esthetic of just-a-couple-of-guys-sittin’-around-puttin’-out-a-magazine. “I look at it this way,” said Mr. Golin. ” Good Housekeeping is 5.5 million. GQ and Esquire are 650,000? What’s the problem? I think maybe there haven’t been men’s magazines men want to read.”

Sometimes, life inside the women’s magazine sorority known in industry shorthand as the “Seven Sisters” can get downright bitchy. Take a recent spat that developed between grocery-store checkout-line rivals Woman’s Day and Family Circle . In a memorandum dated Dec. 16, Jane Chesnutt, the editor of Woman’s Day , complained to her staff that their better-selling competitor had lied to readers in an underhanded attempt to hawk slow-selling January issues.

“I heard through the grapevine that some of you were upset when Family Circle ‘s January issue was distributed last week, with its cover line promising ‘2000 Great Ideas.’ I want you to know that I was too,” she wrote. “That issue does not contain 2,000 ideas. Counting in the same way we count ideas in Woman’s Day (which is fairly liberal, as you might expect), we got around 900, and our counter felt it could be stretched–if you tried very hard–to 1,000. That’s a lot of ideas, but it’s still nowhere near 2,000.”

After clueing her beleaguered staff into her talmudic study of their rival’s cover lines, Ms. Chesnutt tried to rally them with the Battle Cry of Editorial Integrity (at least if by editorial integrity you mean a magazine that rates its cover lines for salability). “Our response was to load January with just about every top-rated cover line we ever do, along with some new ones that we think will have strong appeal. Family Circle ‘s response was to resort to deception,” she wrote. “I want to reassure you that, just as we’ve never gone this route in the past, we don’t plan to do so now. We have too much respect for both our readers and you, who work very hard to put out a magazine with real integrity that you can be proud of.”

“You’re right there at the checkout line, side by side,” said Ms. Chesnutt, explaining her memo. “I had complaints from my staff.” Has she had complaints before? “Oh, gee,” Ms. Chesnutt sighed. “Look. Family Circle has been around for a long time.”

“I’m flattered they’re watching us so closely,” said Susan Kelliher Ungaro, editor of Family Circle . “They usually just count ad pages.” As for the accusations being leveled against her magazine, she said, “We outsold them on the newsstand last January, and it looks like we’ll outsell them again.” Ms. Ungaro didn’t want to get personal with Ms. Chesnutt, though. She slipped out of her ruthless-career-woman persona and into the more homey one she keeps handy to edit stories like “Bake Our Gingham Mini-Cakes.” “My mother always told me, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” she cooed.

When all of Condé Nast’s magazine publishers gathered for their annual retreat and mandatory golf outing at the Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, Fla., on Jan. 17, they were greeted in their hotel rooms by a free tote bag and a silver frame embossed with their name and the words “Condé Nast All-Star Team 1998.” But that’s not all. Inside the frame was a color publicity shot of their boss, Condé Nast president and chief executive Steve Florio.

The gift came “with no explanation,” said Allure publisher Erica Bartman. Of course, at Condé Nast, publishers quickly learn to survive without explanations. “I’m going to keep it visibly displayed where I can look at it for inspiration,” said Ms. Bartman, obediently. Mademoiselle publisher Nina Lawrence said, “I have a very special plan. I’ve ordered a custom-made Prada carrying case for it so I can carry it safely from home to the office.” Mr. Florio had no comment on his gift of himself.

Ruth Reichl’s surprise announcement on Jan. 25 that she would soon quit her beat as The New York Times top restaurant critic to edit Gourmet left many at the paper wondering who would replace her. “The minute I said this to Joe,” Ms. Reichl told Off the Record, referring to Times executive editor Joe Lelyveld, “we talked about it for a few minutes and I said, ‘Let’s talk about who’s next.’ And he said, ‘Aren’t I allowed to sit shiva ?'” Apparently not. Ms. Reichl was ready with a list of acceptable replacements.

Ms. Reichl wouldn’t say who she’s touting as her successor. Before The Times introduced its Dining In/Dining Out section a year and a half ago, the powers that be put out a nationwide cattle call for big-name food writers. So they have a few options. According to Times sources, right now it looks like the new restaurant critic will come from outside the paper. In the meantime, Times insiders say the interim candidates include: Eric Asimov, who writes the “$25 and Under” restaurant column; food writer Marian Burros, who filled the post in between Mimi Sheraton and Bryan Miller; and feature writer William Grimes. Mr. Grimes, however, said he was not interested in the job. “It’s not that obvious to me,” he said. “I’m not really a reviewer, I’m a feature writer and reporter. To be a restaurant reviewer, you have to be out there eating like an unleashed swine every night.” (Mr. Asimov was out of town and could not be reached for comment; Ms. Burros did not return a call.)

Ms. Reichl said she was approached about her new job only in January by Condé Nast editorial director James Truman, who seems to be trying to get his house in order before the big move to the new building at 4 Times Square. She’s nervous. “It’s scary,” she said. “It’s a big change. It’s a very big change. And it’s not like I’m unhappy. Sometimes you think”–and here she sighed–”Why are you doing this?” Still, she’ll finally have her own office.

Ms. Reichl famously trashed the previously sacrosanct Le Cirque early on in her tenure and moved the paper toward reviewing Asian and other ethnic foods. “They were shocked when I reviewed a Korean restaurant for the first time,” she said. She is expected to do similar things for Gourmet , which saw a slight 3.16 percent increase in ad pages in 1998 over the year before. For now, she’ll stick around The Times , writing reviews and promoting her recent book, Tender at the Bone , through March, before moving to the magazine in May. (Gail Zweigenthal, the outgoing editor who worked at Gourmet for the last 34 years, is not sticking around through the transition period, said Ms. Reichl.)

Ms. Reichl, who before joining The Times ran the food section at the Los Angeles Times , may be in for a bit of a surprise. ” Gourmet is sort of drifting along,” said one fellow food critic. “It’s a sweet place. They’re sweet people … But if she thinks running a newspaper section is at all like running a Condé Nast magazine, she’ll find it’s like riding in her new limo and having a spring poke up through the seat into her ass.”