Martha Stewart may or may not wind up in deep trouble as a result of the current ImClone stock investigation, but the mess has already begun to impact a significant part of her media empire: print advertising.
Company data shows that magazine publishing constitutes a whopping 63 percent of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia’s revenue, $43 million in the first quarter of 2002 (the rest comes from TV, merchandising and Internet commerce.) Advertising drives Martha Stewart Living, so if the Krafts and Doves and Pepperidge Farms of the world grow disenchanted with Ms. Stewart’s travails and decide to yank their ads, Omnimedia would be in for some serious pain.
Some on Madison Avenue said that the low rumble of a stampede can already be heard.
“I think people will start bailing out of fear,” said Jon Mandel, the co-C.E.O. of MediaCom, a division of Grey Global Group, which handles huge accounts like Kraft that buy ad pages in that magazine. “A lot of ad agencies are chicken. Rather than wait for Americans to vote with their eyes, they’ll say there are plenty of other places to go-‘Let me get the heck out of Dodge.'”
Mr. Mandel predicted that there will be damage to Ms. Stewart’s magazine business “for at least six months, if not longer.”
Not surprisingly, Ms. Stewart’s sales team is trying to stem the potential flow. According to several people who have met with ad reps from Ms. Stewart’s magazines recently, the team is insisting that Martha Stewart Living is about the content of the magazine and not about the person-an argument that would have sounded ludicrous a month ago.
“I think they are sort of trying to ignore it,” said one media buyer. “They’re in a little bit of denial about it.
“They’re trying to say, you know, ‘There’s always stuff-we’re public,'” he continued. “It wasn’t ignored completely, but if they can change the topic, they’re very happy to do that.”
Through a spokesperson, Martha Stewart Living ‘s executive vice president and publisher Suzanne Sobel told Off the Record that ad pages are up through the first half of the year, and that her sales teams were approaching clients “the same as we always have. This is a strong brand with a continued loyal readership.”
Ms. Sobel declined to say whether the magazine had lost any advertisers of late.
So far there are no measurable results upon Martha Stewart Living from June’s onslaught of bad press. The companies that advertise tend to keep their schedules under wraps, and most of the ad pages appearing now were purchased months ago. In May, pages were up 10 percent over the same month last year, to 185, according to the Publishers Information Bureau.
Still, given their long lead time, ad buyers must now deliberate purchasing space in a magazine named after a woman who could be in serious straits by the time their advertisements appear. “If, in three months, she’s really in deep shit, there could be a problem,” said Joe Mandese, the editor of Media Buyer’s Daily , “This is a place where advertisers could go back to the media agency and say, ‘Look, how come you didn’t anticipate?'”
Said Mr. Mandel: “That’s what causes advertisers to pull out of the ad vehicle.”
Even if Ms. Stewart is proven innocent, some damage has already been done, buyers said.
“Generally, the mature attitude is ‘innocent until proven guilty,'” said the media buyer who had met with Ms. Stewart’s team recently. But, he added, “the reality is it’s going to be an impediment. Our clients are going to ask, ‘Is there anything for us to be concerned about?’ If you’re an agent, you have to advise on these things.”
And just that inkling of uncertainty is enough to sink ad pages, buyers said. After all, magazines like Real Simple and Better Homes and Gardens offer a comparable group of soccer moms to whom Kraft can shill macaroni.
“It’s not going to cost anybody anything to pull out of there,” said Mr. Mandel. “Because you can reach that audience anywhere. There is no such thing as a ‘must-buy.'”
Real Martha freaks don’t even matter, Mr. Mandel said. “Anybody that is exclusively a Martha reader-well, we don’t want them, because they probably stay at home all day.”
Of course, there are more optimistic views to be had-outside of New York, where they don’t get the Post .
Karen Jacobs, senior vice president of print investment at Starcom Worldwide in Chicago, said the Martha obsession has more heat in Gotham.
“I think there is a significant aspect of media frenzy going, particularly in New York,” she said. “I think out here in the hinterlands, it’s a little less frenzied …. It’s a little too soon to be putting nails in coffins.”
Ms. Jacobs explained how Martha Stewart Living had recently touched her own life-in the form of découpage. “I have actually recently bought a vacation home and picked up a découpage project, where you paint something and apply cutout pictures on it. It’s a very 70’s thing.”
Elvis Mitchell, the 43-year-old film critic for The New York Times , recently taped a program for the Independent Film Channel that, for all appearances, was a glammy late night-like talk show, complete with a pop band and big celebrities on the hot seat. A source close to IFC said it was a pilot with the working title, The Elvis Show.
“Elvis wanted the band and the audience and all of that,” said the source. “In fact, he said during the show, ‘I’ve always wanted a girl in leather pants to be in the band.'”
It featured a two-piece pop act, a live studio audience, and Mr. Mitchell hosting and doing interviews with indie film director Jim Jarmusch and actor Bill Murray.
But the world may never see Mr. Mitchell get his Conan O’Brien on. According to the source, The Elvis Show tested poorly in focus groups and may not air. It seems the cinema aesthete with a taste for comic books and sci-fi flicks was a bit awkward in the late night set-up. “The only reason it failed was the format,” the source said.
But both the Independent Film Channel and Mr. Mitchell deny that the program was a pilot, saying instead that it was just another episode of Independent Focus , a program for which Mr. Mitchell has done a few low-key Charlie Rose–style interviews.
When asked if he was hosting a new series, Mr. Mitchell exclaimed: “Oh no! Oh my God! Who told you this? No, it’s nothing like that. It’s just a revamping of what we did in the past.”
Breaking into laughter, Mr. Mitchell added, “No, I’m not a talk-show host.”
Mr. Mitchell said he once co-hosted a syndicated talk show, Last Call, in the mid-90’s, which was graded an F by Entertainment Weekly . “Me and Tad Low. It was not pleasant,” he said. “Having struck out on that once, it would be like a Nam flashback.”
He also said the title, The Elvis Show , was just an inside joke, never an actual title.
But the source with knowledge of the show said that The Elvis Show was hardly a joke. The source said the program even had a campy, colorful Elvis Show logo that appeared in the edition that was focus-grouped.
Not only that, but the Web site of Bruno de Almeida, who directed the program, listed The Elvis Show among his current TV work, complete with the guests and the producers who worked on it. One of those producers, Josh Braun, confirmed for Off the Record the working title of the show. “Are you calling about The Elvis Show ?” he said, but deferred to IFC for details because the program was still “in limbo.”
Informed of the director’s Web site and the producer’s comment, IFC’s spokeswoman, Elektra Gray, said: “They don’t always know what’s going on internally. Sometimes the information is not official and it’s inaccurate.”
An hour after Off the Record mentioned the Elvis Show citation on Mr. de Almeida’s Web site to Ms. Gray, that citation disappeared.
Get out the scorecard, people! The wild lineup changes continue apace at Howell Raines’ New York Times. Word from 43rd Street is that super reporters David Rohde (he’s got a Pulitzer) and Amy Waldman-both of whom starred in Afghanistan-will take the reins in the coveted New Delhi bureau from husband-and-wife team Celia Dugger and Barry Bearak, who are returning to New York. Another post–Sept. 11 comet, C.J. Chivers, the former Marine and police reporter who wrote from Ground Zero before heading into Afghanistan, will now report from Russia.
“The paper is-and should be-a meritocracy,” said a Times source, heartily approving the assignments as a break from the managerial tendencies of ex–executive editor Joseph Lelyveld. “It sometimes seemed in the previous regime that some people got assignments for reasons of promoting a democracy rather than on the basis of absolute merit. Howell puts talent first.”
Meanwhile, Times Paris bureau chief Suzanne Daley and reporter Donald McNeil will leave Paris and come back to New York. Ms. Daley will edit the paper’s Education section. Elaine Sciolino of the Washington bureau will cross the Atlantic to take over for Ms. Daley, and Craig Smith will move from China to Paris to act as a correspondent-but, a Times spokesperson noted, “Craig Smith is not a replacement for McNeil. The Smith position is new, and has wider European responsibilities than McNeil had.” Mr. McNeil will take to the beaker beat and become a science correspondent. Former metro reporter Somini Sengupta will report from West Africa. Metro political editor Kathleen Phillips, meanwhile, leaves for a Nieman Fellowship and will be replaced by former Observer managing editor Mary Ann Giordano.
Then there’s Peter Marks, who- zut alors! -is leaving The Times to become the chief drama critic at The Washington Post . According to Times sources, when Mr. Marks informed Mr. Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd on July 1 of his decision, there was a heated argument. Mr. Raines and Mr. Boyd, said one source, “were shocked and hurt” by Mr. Marks’ evacuation, and were mad they had no time to make him a counter-offer (free tickets to Thoroughly Modern Millie !).
According to one source, Mr. Raines told Mr. Marks: “I don’t even know who the chief drama critic of The Washington Post is!” To which Mr. Marks responded, Hildy Johnson–to–Walter Burns style, “You will!” and walked out.
Mr. Marks did not return a phone call seeking comment. Mr. Raines was traveling and unavailable for comment. Mr. Boyd was unavailable for comment, and Times associate managing editor Bill Schmidt also declined to comment on the matter.
As the newsroom changes continue apace, it’s not surprising to hear they haven’t all gone so smoothly. The rockiest region appears on the national desk, which Mr. Raines continues to shake like a Statue of Liberty snow globe. Recently, Mr. Raines tapped his man in Trenton, N.J., Dave Halbfinger, to head up the Atlanta bureau and appointed the metro desk’s Dean Murphy to walk the streets of San Francisco as that city’s bureau chief.
Here’s where it gets interesting. On the San Francisco job, Times sources said, Mr. Raines approached and hired Mr. Murphy without informing his predecessor, Evelyn Nieves, that she was out of a job.
“As far as I can tell,” one Times source said of the situation, “it’s a big mess.”
Ms. Nieves was one of six correspondents or bureau chiefs from the national desk who were originally told they must move to either Washington or New York earlier this year, which really got the Times newsroom cooking. But one Times source said that Ms. Nieves spoke with Mr. Raines in March, and had come to an agreement that she could remain as the paper’s bureau chief in San Francisco into 2003. That position was later reversed in the first week of June, the source said, when she came to New York for a series of meetings with Mr. Boyd. Unbeknownst to Ms. Nieves, Times sources said, Mr. Murphy had already been offered the post by Mr. Raines and accepted it.
According to one source, Ms. Nieves and Mr. Boyd came to an agreement that she could take on a beat within the metro section examining poverty. Things derailed, however, according to a Times source, when metro editor Jonathan Landman told Ms. Nieves that it wasn’t an option. (Mr. Landman was on vacation and unavailable for comment.)
According to sources, when the formal announcement of Mr. Murphy’s promotion was made the first week of July, it made no mention of Ms. Nieves’ status within The Times .
Katy Roberts, the national editor, did not return a call seeking comment . But Times associate managing editor Bill Schmidt said Ms. Nieves still had a future within The Times .
“The plan,” Mr. Schmidt said, “was for her to come back to New York. Right now, a number of options are being discussed.”
Ms. Nieves declined to comment on the episode or her place at The Times , saying only, “I look forward to any new challenge where I can fully use my talents.”
As for The Times ‘ Atlanta bureau, The Times’ has quelled a headache. Former Atlanta bureau chief Kevin Sack quit the paper earlier this year rather than relocate from Atlanta, where he has joint custody of his daughter. He has since joined the Los Angeles Times as a national correspondent, reporting from Atlanta.
Though Mr. Halbfinger is well-liked, Times sources said there wasn’t exactly a stampede for the Atlanta bureau-chief job. Source said that some candidates were wary of the extra attention they thought they’d receive in Atlanta, where Mr. Raines began his career as a Times correspondent before becoming its bureau chief in 1979.
“It’s not a glamour city, but it’s a spot someone should normally jump at,” one Times source said of the Atlanta job. “But they weren’t. The whole experience with Kevin and [former Atlanta correspondent] David [Firestone, a correspondent who left Atlanta for Washington] with Howell scared away a lot of people.”
Another Times source said of the newsroom’s Atlanta-phobia: “Part of it has to do with how much scrutiny you’d get. Also, foreign news is considered hot right now.”
Asked about the matter, Mr. Schmidt said anyone should be excited about a call to the Peach State, and that Mr. Halbfinger was an excellent choice.
“I was bureau chief down there. It’s a great job. When the posting came up, we talked to a bunch of people and finally settled on David. He’s going to be great.”
But even Mr. Halbfinger, who temporarily subbed down south from April to June, ‘fessed up that he wasn’t crazy for Georgia at first. “I went down there fully expecting to want to come back, but I fell in love with it,” he said.
On Wednesday, June 26, New York City writer Chuck Young received a call from his friend Timothy White, the editor in chief of Billboard . Mr. White was calling Mr. Young about a column he was writing about the old days at Rolling Stone , and wanted to jog his memory about the experiences the two shared as Rolling Stone staffers in the mid-1970’s and early 1980’s.
They made plans to see Monsoon Wedding on Tuesday, July 2. The following day, Mr. White died of a heart attack at the age of 50 after he finished his final column. Mr. Young would spend the day he was supposed to see his friend as a pallbearer at his funeral.
At the gravesite, John Mellencamp, another pallbearer, played “Can the Circle Be Unbroken?” on an acoustic guitar while a violinist played in accompaniment.
“That’s one of the moments I lost it,” Mr. Young said.
For Mr. Young, Mr. White’s passing brought a sudden end to more than two decades of friendship that began while Mr. White was an editor of Crawdaddy and Mr. Young was just out of Columbia University’s graduate school of journalism. After Mr. Young became a staff writer at Rolling Stone , he helped recruit Mr. White to the fold.
“He was a very emotional person,” Mr. Young said. “Music plays on your emotions. He understood that.”
Off the Record can be reached by e-mail at spappu @observer.com.