Time Inc.’s researchers try to steer Entertainment Weekly away from stories about African-Americans

Editorial market research is a fact of life in today’s magazine world, with decisions on what stories to run and how prominently they should be played increasingly influenced by what a group of readers tells researchers. But the research done for Time Inc.’s Entertainment Weekly has crossed a line in the minds of a number of staff members by suggesting that stories about African-Americans just don’t work.

Off the Record has obtained Entertainment Weekly’ s compendium of reading scores for 74 issues, from the beginning of 1994 to the middle of this year. Each feature, department and review in the magazine was assigned a reading score out of 100 (the higher the total, the more favorably received) and a reading index score (showing how much above or below an average tally of 100 a story ranks in its own category). But most troubling to some of the magazine’s editorial staff members are the pages that follow most of the report’s sections, where the corporate consumer marketing research gurus make some “observations and hypothesis [sic] about what works and what doesn’t.”

Unsurprisingly, stories about the box office, big stars and sex are said to work in the “Departments” rubric, which encompasses headings like “Biz,” “Behind the Scenes” and “Style.” But under what doesn’t work, there’s a listing for “stories with African-Americans,” using as proof the low-scoring stories about Hollywood directors Allen and Albert Hughes and the controversial making of Matty Rich’s The Inkwell. Secondary features focusing on the Oscars and popular TV shows work, but articles “about blacks and rap in particular (Spike Lee, Tupac, Salt ‘n’ Pepa)” do not. Even in the video review section of the report, “black films” (like Panther and Tales From the Hood ) are said not to work.

Some staff members at EW and at Time are appalled that racially tinged observations are being made at all. “Even if they’re not being followed, it’s horrifying they’re doing that kind of eugenics research,” said one senior editor at Time.

To say that a cover about Martin Lawrence scored poorly because he’s an African-American is like inferring from the poor showing of Liam Neeson and Neil Jordan that Irishmen don’t sell magazines, either. “If readers don’t like a story, your challenge is to make it relevant and interesting to readers,” said one Time editor.

And since the editorial staff is encouraged to be aware of those scores and, some say, to let the observations guide their choice of story subjects, the usual corrupting pull of editorial research has been turned into something far more frightening. In the minds of critics, a market-research apartheid has entered the editorial decision-making process.

Managing editor James Seymore Jr. insisted that these rankings are no more than a guide. “Any editor, including this one, who bases his decision on such research should be fired,” he said. Entertainment Weekly , Mr. Seymore said, has not refrained from covering African-Americans, pointing to covers and stories in recent months that showcased Samuel L. Jackson, Pam Grier and Mariah Carey. Brandy is on the cover of the upcoming issue, he added. “If I did follow these scores, I would eliminate the book section,” he said.

“Understand what this is,” Mr. Seymore said he tells people when he shares this information with them. “This is looking in the rearview mirror. This does not mean we’ll let it determine how we’ll cover things in the future. If that’s the inference some people are getting, then they’re ignorant and shouldn’t be working for this magazine.”

“Anybody who believes anything else is going on is full of shit,” Mr. Seymore added.

Mr. Seymore added that he will no longer be sharing this information with the staff.

Several of the magazine’s writers said they’ve never been given any sense that stories about black-oriented entertainment were not welcome. “I’ve certainly heard we don’t have many black readers, but I’ve never heard: ‘Don’t deal with black stories,'” said one writer. Others said they found the scores helpful. “Readers love trend stories; people aren’t interested in personality stories,” said a staff member. “The only thing I’ve been told is, ‘Let’s do fewer profiles.'”

The Entertainment Weekly case is part of a larger debate about the role of editorial market research in the magazine world, in which adherence to market research is the rule, not the exception. Publications are increasingly being treated like any other consumer product. “Any contact with readers, whether observed or direct, is pure gold,” said Mademoiselle editor in chief Elizabeth Crow, a longtime fan of research.

There are a few holdouts, however. John Huey, the managing editor of Fortune who now also helps oversee Money , said he has not looked at a readers survey since taking over in early 1995. “People do not tell you the truth,” said Mr. Huey, who did admit to using focus groups for feedback on Fortune ‘s redesign last year.

An experiment by Time’s new-media editor Dan Okrent when he was managing editor of Life proves that point. He asked researchers to add to their survey two stories that didn’t exist. One did well enough and the other performed below average. “I think research is one of many tools you use,” he said. “You ignore it at your peril, but total reliance on it is at your peril, too.”

Added Ms. Crow: “Good editors understand there are some pieces that just have to run.”

After author J. Anthony Lukas killed himself in June, friends offered to pitch in and take his place on a planned 18-city tour for his book, Big Trouble . One such volunteer was Columbia University historian Alan Brinkley. That noble gesture would seemingly disqualify him from any book-reviewing chores, but The New Republic didn’t have any problem with the glaring conflict of interest.

In his four-page review that ran in the Oct. 27 issue, Mr. Brinkley did not stint on praise. The book, an 875-page tome exploring the 1905 assassination of a former governor of Idaho and the class divisions tearing through America at the time, is by turns “remarkable” and “extraordinarily rich.” Mr. Lukas’ research is “prodigious and exhaustive.” And Big Trouble is “a story told with such wit, energy and grace that it becomes a riotous, sprawling historical entertainment.”

Mr. Brinkley did disclose that he was a longtime friend of Mr. Lukas and that he commented on the manuscript. But Mr. Brinkley’s involvement begs the question of why The New Republic would hand the reviewing duties to someone who brags he cannot be “an impartial critic.”

Editor Charles Lane referred the matter to literary editor Leon Wieseltier, who did not return a call seeking comment.

Hunter S. Thompson showed up in the offices of Time on Oct. 30, and he brought along his hash pipe and a chunk of hashish the size of a piece of a Toblerone chocolate bar. There to check on the editing of his 3,000-word story purportedly about his experiences on the movie set of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas , Mr. Thompson decided to add a pungent flavor to the atmosphere. But the good ol’ days just aren’t here again.

After lighting up his pipe, he gestured to senior editor Janice Simpson and then to managing editor Walter Isaacson to see if they would like a hit, sources at Time said. But Mr. Thompson found no takers, then or later, from any of the Time Inc. writers or editors who ventured into Mr. Isaacson’s 24th-floor office. After a few halfhearted tokes, Mr. Thompson put the pipe away. Another Time tradition had bitten the dust.

In the 1960’s, founder Henry Luce and his wife Clare Boothe Luce dropped acid while living in Phoenix. As Henry Grunwald recounts in his opus One Man’s America : “‘It’s the most wonderful thing,’ [Mr. Luce] said afterward. ‘You look at that glass on the table and see shimmering colors on either side of it.’ He also reported that he heard magnificent music and thought that a certain cactus he had never liked suddenly looked beautiful.”

Mr. Thompson left his pipe that night, but dispatched his new friend, Heidi, to retrieve it the next morning. Mr. Thompson returned on Halloween night, and he danced a jig while Johnny Depp gave a theatrical reading of Mr. Thompson’s article.

“I found it rather amusing, but I guess it’s best not to talk about it,” said Mr. Isaacson.

On Oct. 30, the day after Daily News executive editor Debby Krenek became the first woman editor in chief in the paper’s 77-year history, more than 25 women crammed into Pete Hamill’s old office to celebrate with tequila shots. But the women-only celebration-and the fact that Ms. Krenek allowed it to happen-did leave some men in the newsroom feeling a bit out of sorts.

“Imagine if a new male editor had ‘the guys’ in for a toast,” one disaffected staff member complained to Off the Record. Some of the male editorial staff felt the Daily News had gotten a bum rap in The New York Times that day when a story about Ms. Krenek’s promotion said the paper had “made feeble attempts to recruit, retain or promote female reporters and editors,” and that this was part of the payback.

But most of the men Off the Record contacted were more sanguine about the distaff party, although they said it was a bit discomforting to be sitting around the newsroom and then suddenly see all the women leave.

“Everyone was searching for the right joke, but no one found it,” said one newsroom denizen. Kidding about filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission didn’t really get a big laugh, nor did wondering if the women were telling dirty jokes about them.

And when some of the women brought out the leftover tequila, champagne and strawberries-“placing it on the file cabinet like leftovers for the dogs we are,” said one newsroom wag-any gestating ill will soon disappeared.

“It was damn good tequila,” said one male writer. “It went down really smooth.”

Time Inc.’s researchers try to steer Entertainment Weekly  away from stories about African-Americans