Off the Record

Was that really Kurt Andersen taking control of Colors magazine, Benetton’s conceptual-internationalist-esoteric title? Or was it Jann Wenner? “Nelson Mandela,” the left-hand cover lines on the Andersen-ized summer 2004 edition read. “Beyoncé-David Beckham-Michael Jackson-Morrissey-Oprah Winfrey-Franz Liszt-Umm Kulthum.”

Franz Liszt?

“Maybe the first Franz Liszt celebrity cover line in history,” Mr. Andersen said. The new editorial director was on the phone from Paris, where he’d come from Milan and whence he was heading off to London. Mobility has always figured prominently in the culture of Colors .

Famous people, on the other hand-even dead ones, let alone Beyoncé-have been taboo. “One of the explicit rules when Tibor [Kalman] started it was this wasn’t going to be about celebrities,” Mr. Andersen says.

Colors was launched in 1991 in what Mr. Andersen calls a “wonderfully irrational act of patronage on the part of the Benetton company.” Corporate creative director Oliviero Toscani, who had sold bushels of sweaters through ads that flouted the established imperatives of sweater-selling, set out to do the same thing for the imperatives of the magazine business.

So the late Mr. Kalman, Colors ‘ first editor and the designer of the numberless watch, used editorial principle and formal constraints to enforce a sense of rigorous oddity. The early issues each dealt with some sweeping concepts-“Birth,” “Race,” “Religion,” “AIDS”-culminating in the legendary 13th issue, Mr. Kalman’s last, which consisted entirely of wordless images.

The theme-issue concept has survived, in narrowed form, to the present day, as has the magazine’s habit of printing each copy bilingually. The theme of Mr. Andersen’s first issue is “Fans.”

And that allowed the new editor to indulge what he called the “perverse” impulse to slap some big names on the cover-albeit in modest 14-point type. “I’d be surprised if they moved a copy,” Mr. Andersen said.

Still, for a publication whose previous cover featured an unadorned photo of a mountain of coal (theme: “Energy”/”Energia”), the Franz Liszt teaser looks something like a step-a strange, sideways step-toward Us Weekly territory. Especially floating, as it does, over a photo of the shirtless back of Mick Jagger, circa 1978.

“We’re doing a lot of things that violate the religion,” Mr. Andersen said.

Another act of heresy: With this issue, the magazine features bylines and author profiles. In the magazine’s earlier days, one former staffer recalls, “the writer was almost the least important person in the building.”

Alex Marashian, who succeeded Mr. Kalman and edited the magazine till 1997, said the magazine was byline-free on his watch “because stuff got handled quite collectively.” The research department would plunge into a topic, turn up concepts and leads, and farm them out to a network of correspondents around the world. Thirty people, for instance, might be tapped to find the “weirdest, most culturally representative hair product” in their particular spot on the globe, Mr. Marashian recalled.

Despite the changes, Mr. Andersen said that on the matter of Colors ‘ editorial creed, “I would call myself a fundamentalist, going back to the first 13 issues.” Mr. Kalman, he said, had sounded him out about editing the magazine in its early days. “Having just come off of my own startup and kind of wild ride with Spy , I guess I wasn’t in the mood to do another at the moment,” he said.

Now, he said, he is. And Mr. Marashian, for one, welcomes the change. “The moment I heard that Kurt Andersen would take over Colors … I thought, ‘That’s just a brilliant idea,'” Mr. Marashian said.

The two editors agreed that the magazine had been in a rut lately. Originally, Mr. Marashian said, the plan had been for Colors to uproot itself and move the offices to a different country every few years. It began in New York, then hopped to Rome, then to Paris. “If we were from anywhere, we were from Mars,” Mr. Marashian said. “Every place was strange.”

In 1997, however, instead of heading on to Bombay or somewhere equally stimulating, the magazine packed up one last time and then hunkered down in Treviso, near corporate headquarters. A “plurality” of its 200,000 issues, Mr. Andersen said, are currently sold in Italy.

Now the offices are back in New York, and there’s a completely new editorial staff. And what had become a “portfolio of photographs,” Mr. Andersen said, will now be “more like a conventional magazine, in that it has text as well as pictures.”

But conventionality has perils of its own. Mr. Andersen’s debut issue conveys the surprising news that people in other countries enjoy soccer. And sometimes, caught up in their enthusiasm for soccer, they beat and kick each other-for six and a half pages’ worth of photos, in fact. (Because we are one global family, there are also two pages of Lakers fans rioting after the 2000 N.B.A. Finals.)

Bloody soccer-riot photos do, however, fall under Colors ‘ traditional editorial mission of finding the grimness in fun things and vice versa. It’s harder to see the global import of a Q&A with the ubiquitous JT Leroy (” JT, eres una paradoja total … “).

For the Colors traditionalist, an even more jarring contribution comes from Pico Iyer, in a piece titled “The Land of the Rising Fan.” It doesn’t get better from there. “The Japan we imagine from afar is placid, tidy, and seamlessly efficient, correct to the last place,” Mr. Iyer begins. Yet despite their-how you say? Conformity? Submissiveness?-the Japanese, Mr. Iyer confides, have a startlingly wacky side.

“A Newsweek piece could start like that,” Mr. Marashian groaned.

The trouble is that “we,” in theory, just might be Japanese ourselves. In the shift from the omniscient Colors to the writerly one, Mr. Andersen said, such questions were up for debate: “Is there an institutional voice or presumption or set of assumptions … ?”

“In [the magazine’s] sort of delightfully un-American way,” Mr. Andersen said, “nobody knows exactly who reads Colors .”

Is race really a proxy for class? The New York Times sure hopes so. Sources at the paper say the staff is mounting a long-term project along the lines of 2000’s “How Race Is Lived in America”-only dealing with economic, rather than ethnic, divisions.

The previous project, which won the staff the 2001 Pulitzer for national reporting, was supervised by assistant managing editor Soma Golden Behr and then–deputy managing editor Gerald Boyd. With Mr. Boyd a casualty of the collapse of the Howell Raines administration, the package on class is in Ms. Golden Behr’s hands, according to a source at The Times .

Two writers said to be working on the series declined to comment about whether or not the project exists.

Times spokesperson Catherine Mathis similarly declined. “At any given time, we have many projects underway,” Ms. Mathis wrote in an e-mail. “Some do not ultimately result in articles. Some do.”

Last Thursday, the New York Post ‘s Richard Johnson reported that the about-to-be-released movie Laws of Attraction , starring Pierce Brosnan and Julianne Moore as feuding divorce lawyers, includes a prominent plug for Page Six. The day before, Page Six had included a prominent plug for the movie-in the form of a rare Page Six ad.

Which came first in the strange meta-promotional gossip cycle? Product placement or ad placement? Mr. Johnson said he didn’t even know the Wednesday ad had been there. As for his column’s role in the movie, he said, “The earliest I heard about it was when somebody went to a preview showing and told me about it.”

The gossip columnist said he had no idea whether or not anyone else at the Post had consulted with the filmmakers about putting Page Six in the script.

“Maybe it’s one of those synergy things,” he said.

Last week, Off the Record misattributed a quotation from New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent’s Web log to Mr. Okrent. The quotation actually came from executive editor Bill Keller and described Mr. Keller’s reluctance to investigate complaints about reporter Judith Miller’s work that predated his editorship. Mr. Okrent’s own quote about his own reluctance to investigate Ms. Miller was: “I have decided as a matter of policy not to address issues that arose before my tenure began, except insofar as they relate to the paper’s actions from December 1, 2003, forward.”

Also last week, Off the Record incompletely described newly hired New York magazine photography director Jody Quon’s previous position. She was a deputy photo editor at The New York Times Magazine .

Off the Record-current per-item correction rate: 28.5 percent-regrets the errors.