A Vast Exodus at Wenner’s Monthly Makes a Them Out of Us

There’s been another sudden exodus from Us magazine, casting doubt on the editorial stability of the monthly that really wants to be a weekly. Ever since editor Charles Leerhsen was hired from People last May, the magazine has been the scene of a seemingly never-ending game of musical chairs. Eight editors and writers left–some were fired, some quit–soon after Mr. Leerhsen’s arrival. The new editor quickly hired replacements, including managing editor Anne Magruder, who he then fired in November, and Marion Hart, a senior associate editor, who quit in December after working at the magazine a month. Then in mid-March, longtime art director Richard Baker left to redesign Premiere . Mr. Baker had been working on the mock-up for the weekly version of Us , according to several sources at the magazine. Rina Migliaccio, Mr. Baker’s former deputy who left to become art director at Sports Illustrated for Women , will return on April 5 to take his place.

But before it can go weekly and try to take on People , Us has a more pressing problem to deal with: There may not be enough editors left to keep it going as a monthly. Mr. Leerhsen fired eight-year veteran senior editor Carol Dittbrenner and three-month senior editor recruit Bonnie Vaughan in March. Rebecca Dameron, an associate editor who came over with Mr. Leerhsen from People , quit soon after, and Dany Levy, former editor of New York ‘s Gotham Style page who had been sitting in as a freelance editor, just got up and left on March 22. At the moment, the only remaining senior editor is Tom Conroy, who also does a good chunk of writing for every issue.

To fill the gaps, Mr. Leerhsen has hired two editors from Time Out New York : James Baker will be a senior editor and Lynne Palazzi will be a senior associate editor when they arrive April 5. With senior features editor Megan Lieberman in Bali for her honeymoon, at the moment “it’s sort of a skeleton crew over there,” said one departed editor.

According to a number of former Us editors and writers, Mr. Leerhsen demands a lot from his reporters and is a heavy-handed rewrite man. Although considered smart and funny, he has frustrated many writers who don’t recognize their work when he’s done editing it. Editors and writers who have worked with him at both Us and People said this heavy-handedness made for a charged atmosphere, at times, and that people would take their names off pieces after they’d gone through the Leerhsen mill. In the May issue, Spin contributor Maureen Callahan had a byline removed from a rewrite she did of a piece that then got another rewrite ordered by Mr. Leerhsen. “When I saw it, it wasn’t mine anymore,” she said.

“Charlie has a very specific formula,” said one Us writer. “Many times it felt like there was [Mr. Leerhsen's] way of doing things and many wrong ways of doing things,” said another. Both writers said they’d removed their bylines from pieces in the past, but didn’t want to be named.

Mr. Leerhsen’s high standards wouldn’t be as big a deal if newsstand sales were still climbing, as staff members said they had by late 1998. (According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, newsstand sales for the final six months of 1998 were up 20 percent over the same period in 1997.) But according to several recently departed members of the editorial staff, the understanding in the office is that Us hasn’t been doing as well in 1999. Those same sources said that Mr. Leerhsen’s response, so far, has been to redesign the front of the book.

Regarding the recent slew of departures, Us spokesman Kim Light said, “There were open positions and they were filled by very strong people.” Ms. Light also said that the depleted staff would not affect Us owner Jann Wenner’s will to turn the magazine into a weekly. “That’s the plan,” she said. “There’s nothing new to report on that … we’re in the process of lining up a number of aspects,” including, “timing, staffing, distribution and financing.” Mr. Leerhsen was not available for comment.

David Firestone, a reporter in The New York Times ‘ Atlanta bureau, traveled to Sylacauga, Ala., to interview the parents of Billy Jack Gaither, who was apparently murdered for being a homosexual. When he got there, he found Mr. Gaither’s parents in disbelief that their son was actually gay. In his March 6 article, Mr. Firestone detailed how Mr. Gaither’s father shouted at the TV news, “If he was gay. If he was gay,” when a report came on covering his son’s murder. Mr. Firestone followed this scene with a description of Billy Jack Gaither’s bedroom. It was filled with “a large collection of Scarlett O’Hara dolls and other figurines from Gone With the Wind , for which he hunted at flea markets on weekends,” as well as a picture of Clark Gable kissing Vivian Leigh over his fireplace and pink chiffon curtains. Mr. Gaither had also decorated the rest of the house.

The barely veiled subtext of Mr. Firestone’s reporting was, essentially, how could anyone think Billy Jack Gaither wasn’t gay? But at least one editor at The Times found the scene offensive. Writing in the “Greenies,” Times -speak for the photocopied packets of articles that are annotated and distributed around the newsroom several times a week to either pick apart or praise staff work, this particular editor found the description of Billy Jack Gaither’s bedroom off-agenda–that is, not how gay people should be viewed by The Times . The editor, whose critique was made anonymously, as is the fashion with the “Greenies,” noted that Mr. Firestone’s peek in the bedroom, “perpetuates a manner of stereotyping and feminizing gay people, as if collecting dolls and worshipping Scarlett O’Hara were confirmation of someone’s homosexuality. Homosexuals do not collect dolls as a matter of course, nor is a poster of Scarlett and Rhett kissing above someone’s bed any indication of their homosexuality. (In fact, Gone With the Wind is not even in the canon of gay cult films like The Women or Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? ) … I thought we had long since abandoned a characterization of gay men that presents them as sissies.”

Mr. Firestone wasn’t too fazed by the reaction. “I had suspected that there would be people out there who wouldn’t like it,” and who would think it was a “gay stereotype,” he told Off the Record. But he didn’t recall any special concern from his editor regarding his characterization of Billy Jack Gaither’s bedroom. As to concerns that the depiction of Mr. Gaither might be unacceptably sissylike for the fully assimilated gays at the paper, Mr. Firestone stood firm.

“There is not a monolithic way to live as a gay person,” he said. “This is how one gay person lived. And I thought it was important to say that. I certainly didn’t put it in in any way to denigrate him.” Still, he added, “It’s just a Greenie. It’s not the kind of thing that makes you angry.”

Eric Etheridge has signed off from Sidewalk New York, the Microsoft Corporation’s ultimately un-hegemonic on-line city guide he has headed for the past two and a half years. Mr. Etheridge spent many years in print journalism, working as a senior editor at 7 Days , Rolling Stone and The Observer before a short run as executive editor of George during its heady launch in 1995. However, he’s not backtracking into so-called old media. Instead, he’s going deeper into cyberspace, joining an outfit called Deja News Inc. as a vice president in charge of … well, whatever vice presidents do at on-line companies.

Deja News has been on a bit of a spree lately, trying to upgrade its media image. In December, the company hired former Spy publisher-turned-ESPN Internet Ventures president Tom Phillips as its president, and moved its headquarters from Austin, Tex., to Manhattan in anticipation of a change in direction for the site, which currently acts as a host for “on-line discussion forums.” Mr. Etheridge, who started on March 29, would not comment on what he’ll be doing or what the company was planning. A Deja News spokesman wouldn’t comment, either, but said an official company announcement of the hire would be made during the week of April 5. Mr. Etheridge wouldn’t say whether all of this is leading to one of those get-rich-quick Internet initial public offerings. Jamie Pallot, a senior producer at Sidewalk who worked as Mr. Etheridge’s deputy in putting together the New York site, will take over the executive producer post.

The Wall Street Journal seems particularly obsessed with Y2K hype. On March 29, the paper’s Marketplace section alone featured an article entitled “Steering Clear of High-Tech Gear Didn’t Free Broker of Y2K Woes” and an entire health care story under the rubric “The Y2K Problem” on page B1. But for all its careful parsing of the issue, The Journal ‘s reaction to impending Y2K doom and how it relates to its employees has been: Put a Band-Aid on it! To wit: On March 24, Dow Jones & Company’s Project Year 2000 task force staged a kind of Y2K fair in the 14th-floor employee cafeteria at the paper, handing out bottles of “Year 2000 Compliant Natural Spring Water,” mouse pads, M&Ms, little baggies with a candle and a “Project Year 2000″ lighter inside, totebags and a tiny “Survival Kit” that contains two small adhesive bandages, antacid, aspirin and an antiseptic towelette. There was also an inflatable life raft filled with more bottles of water, which some disgruntled staff members took to be symbolic.

“We were going on the survival theme,” explained Kimberly Quill, a member of the Project Year 2000 team, which is based in Chicopee, Mass. “We had some trinkets to get people in there. And then we force-feed them information.” Mostly, she said, people wanted to know what they should do about their home computers. But with employees reeling over Dow Jones chairman Peter Kann’s 25 percent pay increase–bringing his current salary to a grand total of $1.15 million while Mr. Kann has seen fit to eliminate the Journal editorial employees’ retirement fund (with a promise of some reorganized fund to come)–well, as one put it, “What do we need these tchotchkes for?”