Gear Dumps Expensive Writers; Toby Young Fired Again

The editors at Gear , the magazine founded by Bob Guccione Jr. after he sold Spin , have decided they don’t need all those expensive contract writers, so they’ve ditched a bunch of them. The one-year-old bimonthly, which on its current “Sex Issue” cover describes itself as “the shagadelic magazine for men,” is about to become a monthly. But four contract writers–Toby Young, Julian Rubenstein, Jim Greer and Chrissy Iley–won’t be along for the switch.

Three of the four can be seen in the current Sex Issue: Ms. Iley wrote about her size 34 E breasts, Mr. Young road-tested a suit hooked up to a computer that stimulated his genitals and Mr. Greer wrote several articles, including one on Ally McBeal’s Lucy Liu, who is pictured topless in the magazine.

So Mr Young said the non-renewal took him by surprise. “In my case they originally signed me to a one-year contract in May 1998, and my first check came at the beginning of June,” said Mr. Young, who had been fired as a contract writer once before by the magazine, only to be rehired after Mr. Guccione had a change of heart. When the check arrived this year at the beginning of June, Mr. Young said he was sure “there was no question that I was going to be renewed” for another year.

But beware false signs of job security. “We did tell the writers later than we would have liked,” executive editor Jack Wright said. “The timing wasn’t perfect. That much I’d admit. But is there a good way to terminate someone’s contract? I’ve never discovered one.”

Later, he called back to correct himself: “We didn’t terminate them. We just didn’t renew them…What we were late in doing was not renewing them. Anyone who was expecting a check after that was making a presumption.”

Gear , which is going up against Maxim , the Golin-ized Details and soon-to-launch FHM in the horny young men’s market, is not yet audited, though it claims it sells 180,000 off the newsstand and has more than 40,000 subscribers.

Does this mean that the magazine is cutting costs? “No, quite the opposite,” said Mr. Wright. He said writers could actually make more money if they were paid for each piece they contribute, not one lump sum under an annual contract. “It’s unlikely but possible,” Mr. Wright later said.

He also insisted that eliminating the contracts–which restricted the writers from working for other American men’s monthlies and did not provide benefits–was done for editorial reasons. “What was happening was that we contracted so many writers, it was stopping us from using other ones,” he said.

Mr. Wright would not say if all of the four will still be writing for the magazine. But Mr. Young is not yet ready to say die. “They hired me, they fired me, rehired me, then refired me,” he said. “Who knows, maybe they’ll rehire me next week.”

Color came back to the Daily News cover on July 18 (for John F. Kennedy’s disappearance), 19 (for the David Cone perfect game special section) and 22 (for a life-vested Ted Kennedy and an American flag after John’s body was found) for the first time since 1998. Then it went away again.

“We decided that we would use color because of the extraordinary nature of the event,” said Daily News editor Debby Krenek, who noted that there’s been a color ad for Parliament cigarettes running every Monday for about a month.

The comedy of color in the News goes back more than three years, to when the paper spent $200 million on its new Liberty View plant in Jersey City, N.J., which included supposedly state-of-the-art $63 million Goss Newsliner color printers. The presses had a new “keyless” color-inking system that was supposed to be more efficient–it was designed to not need many adjustments by hand over the course of the print run. Unfortunately, it “wouldn’t work correctly,” Ms. Krenek said. According to one source familiar with the process, too much water got on the plates giving the entire page a reddish-orange tint towards the end of press runs. “It was supposed to simplify press operations,” said Michael Aiello, the News ‘ executive vice president for manufacturing and distribution. Instead there were electrical problems and shut downs.

The News sued Goss Graphic Systems over the faulty inkers, but the suit was dismissed in May 1998. Mr. Aiello said conventional color inkers were installed this past February. But to do so, they had to bypass the defective color inkers and jury-rig the massive printers “to fool it to think it’s still running the keyless inker,” he said. That triggered one problem during the latest experiment in color: On Sunday, there was an electrical short which shut down the entire press and resulted in some of Monday’s paper being printed in black and white. “It’s just a matter of trial and error,” Mr. Aiello said.

But as Rupert Murdoch’s new state-of-the-art South Bronx printing plant gets closer to its grand opening, giving the New York Post both full color and distribution from within the city, the News’ dream of a 32-page color edition is still in doubt.

And getting it up and running will cost money. “There are a lot of things you have do technically to produce high quality color and they take time and they cost money,” said Martin Krall, executive vice-president and chief legal officer. “It takes time to get your workforce and equipment calibrated, and it takes longer to produce the newspaper each night.”

To do color, the News’ contract with its pressmen stipulates additional staffing on the presses. “There is additional press labor required to run color, additional plates and film, and waste will increase slightly,” Mr. Aiello said.

Meanwhile, color and presses aren’t the only problems plaguing the News . The mailroom–where papers are stacked, bundled, and loaded onto delivery trucks–is also plagued by equipment problems. Around the same time the Goss presses were purchased, the News bought “stackers” and “strappers” from Ferag for the mailroom, which were supposed to make loading trucks more efficient. The News wasn’t happy with the equipment and, as of last July, according to a source at the Daily News , the paper stopped payment on the equipment. Ferag subsequently sued the News and the matter is still being litigated in Federal court in Philadelphia.

So the Daily News , under the leadership of Fred Drasner, chief executive officer and co-publisher, has spent millions of dollars on equipment it has later deemed unsatisfactory. “I guess you can call it bad luck,” Mr. Krall said. But, he added, “In both cases it’s not as if the Daily News is not smart enough to operate its equipment or the Daily News screwed it up. I mean there is no doubt in both cases that the equipment doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do.”

Mr. Aiello predicts that, “You will see color in the Daily News by the end of the year,” probably first in the “Sunday product, a page or two at a time.” For the moment, however, “We sort of jumped the gun” on it, he said, and “it didn’t come out the greatest that we’d like.”

Ms. Krenek said “for the most part” she was happy with the recent, short-lived color experiment. But, she added, “Considering that we haven’t been doing color here, some that were going out weren’t as good as we wanted them to be.”

– with Gabriel Snyder

For many stock-option-owning members of The New York Times management who are afraid of being shut out of possible Internet IPO riches if the company decides to spin off its Times Company Digital division, Sholnn Freeman’s “Personal Business” column in the July 18 issue of the Times “reeked of subtext.” Without mentioning the Times , the column discussed a matter on the minds of many Times staffers: “As companies plan to sell shares in their Internet operations to the public, they face a quandary: whether to limit the potentially huge stock benefits in the spinoff to the unit’s employees or managers, or to share the wealth throughout the company.”

The next day, The New Yorker reported that a spinoff of the Times’ Web holdings was very much in the offing–and that it had only been delayed by Goldman, Sachs saying that it wasn’t ready back in May.

Times spokesperson Nancy Nielsen told Off the Record that “There’s been no decision made about whether a spinoff would happen,” of the digital division, which was formed this past May out of the 50 or so Websites the company owns, which are mostly content sites. At the time, the company’s chairman, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., announced, “By aggregating our portfolio of Internet assets into one business unit, we will sharpen our strategic focus and gain the flexibility to bring our digital future to scale.”

For Times staffers, there are two issues here: control of content and dollars. Senior Times management gets stock options as part of their annual bonus. This extends down as far as department heads, as well as some deputies in departments. “It’s how senior editors send their kids to college,” said one.

As for content, much of what’s delivered on the Web sites is repackaged journalism previously printed on paper.

According to several Times sources, executive editor Joe Lelyveld and his possible successor, editorial page editor Howell Raines, who normally don’t agree on much, have united to advance the case that there can’t be “separate and unequal classes of options holders” at the paper.

Said one Times editor: “It’s a big topic here, how to integrate a digital company into a newspaper. There’s some tension on this. If they didn’t let the people who create the content be able to share, it would be divisive.”

“There’s anxiety–not tension–as to how it will all play out,” said another editor. “Less from the money point of view than who will have control over what is New York Times material.”

The Personal Business column didn’t helped the anxiety level. It noted several companies, including Barnes & Noble, which gave a better stock deal to its dot-com employees when their Internet division went public. It also examined how companies like Forbes Inc. and the Walt Disney Company were thinking about taking their Web divisions public. And it quoted a compensation specialist who said, “If companies set out to prevent hurt feelings, then they will fail to create a rich-enough package to attract top-notch talent.”

Said one Times editor: “In my world, it’s the subject of gallows humor. The whole prospect seems absurd.”

But Ms. Nielsen said all will be worked out by the steering committee of Times grandees. “People are obviously discussing” the money issue, she conceded. “I really don’t have much to add.”