Graydon Carter Aborts His Sun-and-Fun Weekend With Barry Diller

James Collard, the British editor who arrived in February 1998 to turn Out , the upscale, centrist gay and lesbian magazine, into a more blithe and sleek read, quit on May 17. It was not a surprise: He’d vanished into an unscheduled “leave of absence” on Feb. 1 after what Out sources described as a series of run-ins with Out Publishing president Henry Scott over the editorial direction of the magazine. At the time, Mr. Scott told Off the Record that Mr. Collard would remain editor in chief. But most people familiar with the magazine considered it a convenient way of getting Mr. Collard, who had a three-year contract, out of the office so that Mr. Scott could try to shore up the magazine’s sales. Out had dropped from an average of 134,700 for 1997 to 118,533 for the second half of 1998. The December 1998 issue sold only 112,002 issues.

Mr. Scott now says that the decline in sales was expected. “It was a calculated gamble, but I think it’s working,” he said, referring to the new, slicker direction of the magazine. “We knew that less-affluent readers would leave the magazine.” He blamed the decline in circulation on the fact that Out had “held off on direct mail until we tinkered with the editorial.” Mr. Scott said he revived the direct mail campaign at the end of April.

Mr. Scott refused to address the reasons behind Mr. Collard’s departure, but he said he doesn’t regret hiring him: “If he hadn’t arrived, we wouldn’t have the magazine we have right now, which I am quite happy with.” He blames most of the carping about Out becoming irrelevant to its readers’ lives on leaders in the gay and lesbian community who are unhappy with the depoliticized, “postgay” ideas Mr. Collard espoused. (“They took the possibility of Out and squandered it on Tom of Finland articles,” is how one gay editor at another publication put it.)

“If enemies of James expect that the magazine will change, they will be disappointed,” said Mr. Scott, defiantly. “Larry Kramer shouldn’t get too excited. And we’re not welcoming Michelangelo Si-gnorile back.” (Mr. Collard fired Mr. Si-gnorile and got a glass of water thrown in his face for it.)

But since Mr. Scott fired former editor Sarah Pettit (currently a senior editor at Newsweek who is in the middle of suing Out ), yet says he’s not unhappy with Mr. Collard, where does that leave Out ? “We’re not interested in going back to becoming a ghetto magazine,” he said. “We are not a news magazine. We do not compete with the Advocate , which Sarah had a bee in her bonnet about.” Furthermore, he added, “We are not a magazine for poor people.”

For the immediate future, Mr. Scott has brought in David Steward, the former president of TV Guide , to help find investors to buy out the chief stockholder, Bob Hardman. (Mr. Steward was a part of the team that attempted to start Tribe , a competitor to Out , in the early 1990′s with Time Inc. Ventures.) Mr. Scott said he’d approached various prominent gay editors over the past two years, including George Hodgman, who recently left Vanity Fair for Talk , but didn’t have anybody lined up yet. (Mr. Hodgman did not return calls by presstime.) “The editorial direction will be set by me,” he said. “We’ll hire a new editor in chief to implement that.”

Starting in the fall, Mr. Collard will write a monthly column for the magazine, though neither he nor Mr. Scott know what it’s going to be about. When reached on May 17, Mr. Collard said his lesson was: “Publishing is a fickle business.”

For a piece that may not ever see the light of day, Jennet Conant’s stillborn Vanity Fair exposé on Steve Brill and his media magazine, Brill’s Content , has managed to get more publicity for the writer-and both magazines-than it may have if it had been published after all.

Predictably, the short life and sudden death of a piece that Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter had been touting for months spawned a number of theories. To hear Mr. Brill tell it, Mr. Carter ordered up a piece on “why [ Brill's Content ] is failing,” as Mr. Brill put it in the Daily News , in retaliation for his calling up Mr. Carter to ask why there wasn’t a woman on the cover of Vanity Fair ‘s woman’s issue. And now, the most popular rumor making the rounds is that Mr. Carter’s friendship with USA Networks Inc. chief Barry Diller may have had something to do with the story’s demise, since Mr. Diller is an investor in Brill Media Ventures.

“Diller’s Graydon’s new best friend,” said one person familiar with Mr. Carter’s habits. Indeed, Mr. Carter was supposed to fly to Costa Rica on Mr. Diller’s plane over the weekend of May 14. But according to Vanity Fair spokesman Beth Kseniak, he didn’t go. “Originally, he was supposed to be in London on Tuesday, so he could go to Costa Rica” first, she said. “But it turned out he had to be in London on Monday, so he couldn’t go.” Ms. Kseniak viewed the idea that Mr. Carter’s sudden change of plans had anything to do with trying to avoid appearing too close to Mr. Diller as beneath comment. The magazine is sticking with its story, i.e., that Ms. Conant’s piece was unpublishable.

Meanwhile, Mr. Brill is going ahead with a plan to pick apart another one of Mr. Carter’s contributing editors: Suzanna Andrews, who wrote about the feud brewing between investment guru Jim Cramer and New Republic owner Marty Peretz over their business interests in The Street.com . It’s all part of a new innovation Mr. Brill and his merry band of journalistic ombudsmen have thought up over at Content : the “Editorial Questionnaire,” a who’s-watching-the-watchmen kind of exercise in which articles are picked out from various magazines and people mentioned or quoted in them are asked about the experience.

Ms. Andrew’s piece in the June issue was subjected to one of the first mass mailings of this questionnaire. The cover letter, signed by Mr. Brill, begins: “As you may know, one of the prime functions of our magazine is to monitor the media’s performance. One of the best ways to do so is to solicit praise or complaints from those who are covered by the press.” The questionnaire asks if the person was quoted accurately, if the reporters were courteous and, “Generally, on a one to five scale with five the most accurate, how would you rate the story?”

Content editor Eric Effron explained that they’d been sending out the form for their own pieces already but had just recently expanded this customer service into checking out the work at other publications. Mr. Effron said it’s designed to “yield a database” for possible future articles for Content . “We go down a lot of roads that don’t always lead to stories,” he said. At the moment, though, “Nobody, in fact, is doing a story on” Ms. Andrews. He said that sometime in the future the magazine might put up other journalists’ articles on their Web site and let people comment on their accuracy, possibly in an annotation-type form. But for now, “We just don’t know what we’re going to get back.”

Up until the memo came around, working at People magazine was sort of like having a guilty divorced dad-you never had to pay to entertain yourself. Under the hazily defined concept of “keeping current,” staff members could charge movies, books, CD’s, cable TV, magazines, theater tickets and newspapers to the magazine. None of which affected the profitability of the magazine much-it had one of its best years ever last year. But on May 7, a memo was circulated to the People staff which brought an abrupt end to that tradition. It was quite a blow to the cushy culture People people were used to. People sources said it amounted to a pay cut of between $2,000 and $5,000, “depending on how shameless you were.”

“Other than writers, we don’t get paid that well,” complained one staff member. The feeling was, “We’re making more money than ever, so why are they doing this?”

“It’s just part of an ongoing effort to be rigorous in our approach to costs,” explained Time Inc. spokesman Peter Costiglio. He said that the “policy applied to everybody.” The new policy was originally set down in a Jan. 29 memo from Time Inc. chairman Don Logan and editor in chief Norman Pearlstine to all Time Inc. magazines. People got it, but nobody seemed to pay much attention to it. Staff members were under the impression that high-level negotiations were under way to allow them to “keep current” through their pop culture purchases. If that was the case, it didn’t work out.

Along with the May 7 memo came a pile of papers, including a directory of midprice hotels that are acceptable to stay in when traveling on the company’s tab. To some at People , it all sounded suspiciously like the penny-pinching work of Ted Turner, major stockholder of Time Warner Inc.

Meanwhile, over at that other hotbed of salaried pop culture experts, Entertainment Weekly , nobody seems to have noticed a difference since the January memo went around-if they even remember it. Sources at the magazine said they still expense CD’s, movies and books with impunity, companywide policy or not. “It’s our lifeblood,” explained one staff member.