Cargo–Ergo Sum: I Shop, Therefore I Am So Bummed!

In the ideal world of shopping, there are no failed products; there are only failed consumers. “My feeling is, we were ahead of our time,” said Ariel Foxman, editor of the suddenly defunct Cargo magazine.

Mr. Foxman was on the phone from his 15th-floor office at 4 Times Square on March 28, 24 hours after Condé Nast editorial director Tom Wallace called him in to terminate the two-year-old magazine.

“I was shocked,” Mr. Foxman said. “I think the first question I asked Tom was ‘What will happen to our readers?’”

Yes, the readers …. When Cargo was launched, following the success of its all-products, no-stories older sister, Lucky, the question was whether it could properly be said to have readers at all. Cargo would be the magazine distilled—debased?—to its commercial essence: pages to flip, full of products to sell, with no wordy feature hole to break the flow.

Yet Mr. Foxman, 32, believed there was something to it, something real.

“It was never a men’s shopping magazine,” Mr. Foxman said. (Each issue included a sheet of page-marking stickers reading “BUY” or “SAVE.”) “It was a magazine that helped guys figure out the things they would need.” (September 2005: “These jeans reverse from a dark blue rinse on one side to a light gray-blue on the other.”) “It never identified with metrosexuals.” (November 2005: “I would love to find a cleaner, less painful depilation process—and maybe sugaring will do the trick.”)

Cargo could never quite find its identity. Was it gay or straight? Aspirational or achievable? Should the cover have an average Joe, a woman shirtless under a vest, a man shirtless under a vest, or Jeremy Piven? Should the readers wear their collars “not flipped up please” (May ’05) or so that the “collar pop gets noticed” (March ’06)?

“This is a lifestyle magazine, and we looked at the world through the prism of product and services,” Mr. Foxman said. “I know there are 400,000-plus readers out there whose life is organized around ways they spend their money and time. That’s modern. What’s modern is ahead of its time.”

Cargo in certain ways was ahead of its time: It reported the absinthe revival, for instance, nine months before The New Yorker did. Mr. Foxman’s “prism of products and services” has become, for the magazine-reading and -writing population, the dominant point of view: an unselfconscious materialism—not in the old popular sense of greedy acquisitiveness, but in the sense of acquisitiveness as a state of being. One’s existence is constituted in commercial objects. New York magazine constructs a sociology around the phenomenon of grown adults wearing $250 jeans; Cargo simply profiled the jeans.

When the iPod Nano came out, Cargo commemorated the event by printing a list of 1,000 download-available songs—a complete Nano’s worth, pre-selected for readers’ purchase, in alphabetical order by title. “0702 Round and Round—Ratt, 0703 ’Round Midnight—Miles Davis, 0704 Roxanne—The Police.” Stuff to buy is stuff to buy.

Some of the stuff was weird enough or disturbing enough to linger: a plywood laptop bag, a bamboo ski helmet. A March 2006 page of men’s briefs—$225 totem-printed short-shorts, filmy $80 Pradas—was a sort of shock object that could cause viewers to flinch or giggle uncontrollably.

And the Cargo argot had a way of sticking in the mind’s ear. In attempting to revive the double-breasted jacket for everyday wear, the magazine insistently dubbed it the “DB.”

Advertisers were less entranced. According to the most recent Publishers Information Bureau figures, ad pages declined in February by 32 percent compared to the same period the last year. The magazine got notably skinnier.

But at the magazine, staffers said business had seemed to remain as usual. As late as last week, Cargo had extended job offers to a new Web editor and a senior editor. It was scheduled to relocate from its 15th-floor space, split with Bon Appétit, to the eighth floor.

And last spring, in a seeming vote of confidence in Mr. Foxman, Condé Nast secured the loan for him to buy a West Village apartment, according to city records.

But on March 27, Mr. Wallace summoned the staff to the conference room and told them that the market did not support publishing the magazine. The May issue, with Jonathan Rhys Meyers on the cover, will make it to newsstands; the June edition, a week from closing, will not be published. The 40-person staff will be out of work by March 31.

Qualified staffers are eligible to apply for open positions within the company. According to a source with knowledge of the proceedings, staffers will get three weeks’ pay for each full year of service, and will get three months of continued health insurance.

Condé Nast had already closed another shopping title, Vitals, back in September. And with the successful launch of Men’s Vogue, Cargo’s niche in the men’s market appeared to get even tighter.

“The decision about Cargo was not made based on Men’s Vogue,” Condé Nast spokesperson Maurie Perl said. “They were made independent of each other.”

In some ways, Cargo operated very much like a Condé Nast book. According to current and former staffers, the magazine shared the profligate sensibilities of its brethren, in the spirit of the late editorial director Alexander Liberman.

“There was no feeling you would reach a bottom with the budget,” a former staffer said. “Some people treated it like a blank check.”

For a spread on ski gear, then, the magazine did a photo shoot in the mountains of New Zealand. A casual-wear spread was photographed on the streets of Shanghai. One former staffer recalled a last-minute decision to add more plasma TV models to a spread for aesthetic reasons at the request of then Condé Nast editorial director James Truman—requiring Cargo to buy them retail and review them on deadline.

But in other respects, Cargo was out of sync with Condé Nast’s sensibilities. It could never find a cover strategy, and when it settled on the tried-and-true celebrity cover, the subjects were more B-list than usual Condé fare: Matchbox 20 front man Rob Thomas (November 2005), Olympic skier Jeremy Bloom (February 2006) and Mr. Piven (March 2006).

“The celebrity focus has to do with attracting new readers to the magazine,” Mr. Foxman said. But, he said, “the business plan is a lot more sophisticated than that.”

Mr. Foxman said he hasn’t made plans yet for his post-Cargo life, and is sifting through fan letters and preparing for a family vacation in Florida.

“As an editor, you are the reader’s advocate,” Mr. Foxman said. “We remained an advocate for our readers, and what the readers wanted. Today I’m getting e-mails from perfect strangers from across the country saying that they read in the newspaper that Cargo is closing and how disappointed they are.”

Condé Nast has announced that Cargo subscribers will receive GQ for the remainder of their subscriptions. Through a spokesperson, GQ editor in chief Jim Nelson welcomed Cargo’s bereft readers.

“We’ll work hard to earn the loyalty of those new readers, and hopefully we’ll be able to give them something of what they looked for and came to respect in Cargo,” he said.

The March edition of GQ features an item urging men to consider wearing “subtle pleats on slim cut-pants” such as a $425 pair from Miu Miu. Another page instructs readers “How to Pull Off Workwear (Without Looking Like a Tool)”: “If you buy one of Carhartt’s iconic zip-front jackets, get it a size smaller than you normally would—it’ll be trim and snug, the way you want it.”

“I have a deadline,” Judith Miller said. “That’s nice to say again.” Ms. Miller was on the phone the afternoon of March 27. It had been five months since her last deadline. And she had blown that one: Her final New York Times story, a first-person account of her testimony in the Valerie Plame Wilson leak investigation, missed the cutoff for the national bulldog edition and was left out of 270,000 Sunday papers.

Now Ms. Miller was putting that piece—and the unraveling of her decades-long Times career—behind her, while batting away questions about her return to active duty. She was on assignment for The Atlantic and had been back to the Middle East, and she didn’t want to get into the specifics.

“It’s nobody’s business,” she said. “I’m just a reporter now. I’m not going to talk about stories I’m working on.”

According to sources at The Atlantic, Ms. Miller is working, on spec, on a profile of Libya’s Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. Ms. Miller and the fading Libyan strongman go back more than 20 years. In her 1996 book God Has Ninety-Nine Names, Ms. Miller recounted a private tractor ride with Colonel Qaddafi, in which he boasted that Libyan “fedayeen” would “act inside American streets if we are attacked.” Ms. Miller, however, would be safe: “‘You will never be harmed,’ he purred.”

Sources at The Atlantic said that Ms. Miller’s Qaddafi piece doesn’t currently appear in the magazine’s lineup, and that it was unclear who had assigned the piece. The former ranking editor, managing editor Cullen Murphy, stayed behind in Boston when The Atlantic relocated from Boston to Washington, D.C., late last year; the January issue was Mr. Murphy’s last. New top editor James Bennet was appointed March 1. Mr. Bennet and managing editor Scott Stossel declined to comment on Ms. Miller’s assignment.

Owner David Bradley hired Mr. Bennet as the final step in a methodical and orderly transition to The Atlantic’s new home—one in which Mr. Bradley rebuilt the editorial apparatus himself, then brought in an editor to run the operation.

That relocation has been less complete than initially billed: Mr. Bradley still has a handful of Atlantic staffers in the Boston office at North Washington Street, which they now share with his recently purchased Harvard-alumni glossy, 02138.

And March was not a tranquil month for The Atlantic. The magazine beat all comers with eight National Magazine Award nominations. But two days after the list of finalists came out, with Mr. Murphy’s name all over it, the former managing editor decamped to Vanity Fair—along with star national correspondent William Langewiesche, a finalist this year and a past Ellie winner.

Mr. Langewiesche said his decision to leave after 15 years was independent of the relocation and of Mr. Murphy’s move.

“These were totally separate things,” Mr. Langewiesche said by phone. “I had started talking to Vanity Fair long ago. We both agreed we’d make a decision on our own. I would have gone there if Cullen had decided not to go.”

Mr. Murphy was Mr. Langewiesche’s editor at The Atlantic, but Mr. Langewiesche said it’s not certain whether Mr. Murphy will edit him at Vanity Fair.

According to sources familiar with Mr. Langewiesche’s plans, he had also been in talks with New Yorker editor David Remnick in recent years, but the courtship didn’t lead to a job offer.

Mr. Langewiesche said that at Vanity Fair, he wants to steer away from his trademark sprawling features, which have exhaustively explored events such as the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster and the recovery effort at Ground Zero. “I would hope my writing will change,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons I’m going to Vanity Fair. I would like to get away from the really heavily generalized pieces.”

But not 50,000 words on, say, “unbuilding” Lindsay Lohan. “I’m not at all interested in Hollywood,” Mr. Lange-wiesche said. “They’ve got those bases well covered. They don’t need me.”

Meanwhile, The Atlantic’s newest enterprise reporter said that she intends to keep looking for chances to write about her accustomed subjects.

“It’s a wide range of topics, from the First Amendment and government secrecy to weapons of mass destruction and Islamic militancy,” Ms. Miller said. “That’s exactly what I’m going to be doing. I’m getting out and doing things that interest me.”

—G.S.

Kobe Bryant could visualize success. “He said, ‘Here’s what I think, and can you just picture it in the front row of the shelves at Barnes & Noble?’’ said Josh Gotthelf, editor and publisher of Dime magazine.

Mr. Gotthelf was recounting the creation of the cover of Dime’s February/March issue, a moodily lit close-up of Mr. Bryant’s unsmiling face. Below the Los Angeles Lakers star’s right cheekbone, a cover line touts “An exclusive story written by KOBE BRYANT.”

Written by? The editors’ note at the front of the magazine declares “It’s not some ‘as told to’ bullshit,” a message Mr. Gotthelf amplified: Mr. Bryant, the editor said, typed the piece himself—via “his Sidekick, actually, on team flights.” It arrived in a half-dozen or so major chunks, Mr. Gotthelf said, “directly from his e-mail address.”

The collaboration was born, Mr. Gotthelf said, when Mr. Bryant’s representatives contacted the magazine about somehow putting their client on the cover. Dime was just as interested in getting Mr. Bryant—“There’s only a handful of guys that really can move magazines,” Mr. Gotthelf said—and in a follow-up conference call, as Mr. Bryant laid out his specific ideas about how the cover should look, the editors suggested that the star write the story himself.

Mr. Bryant, who is making more than $14 million from the Lakers, did not get a paycheck from Dime. “What’s he going to do with our dollar a word?” Mr. Gotthelf asked.

He did, however, get to be on the cover the same month that Nike unveiled its $130 Zoom Kobe 1. “It was no accident that the story and the sneaker came out the same week,” Mr. Gotthelf said. And on Jan. 22, with the magazine and the shoe both on the way, Mr. Bryant dropped an attention-grabbing 81 points on the Toronto Raptors, the second-highest individual scoring performance in N.B.A. history. Dime celebrated the occasion, Mr. Gotthelf said, by offering a promotional 81-cent subscription rate.

As a magazine writer, Mr. Bryant has a declarative prose style, with long paragraphs. He tends to write unsurprising jock assertions about the will to win and the desire to compete (“I’m determined to lead this organization back to the top,” Mr. Bryant wrote). But as those bits add up through three pages of text, the author sounds more and more like a hardwood Nietzsche: Frustrated by “people who are comfortable with second place,” Mr. Bryant described coming to the realization that it’s “OK to be different than others …. [It’s] OK to feel like a loser if you don’t win it all.”

Still, Mr. Bryant offered some revelations. “We came at him with 15 juicy topics we wanted him to talk about,” Mr. Gotthelf said. Mr. Bryant passed over some of them, but he did describe how—in the spirit of teamwork—he set out to master the skills that would allow him to cover for Shaquille O’Neal’s weaknesses. “I had to step up and make them my strengths,” Mr. Bryant wrote.

And without directly discussing his sexual assault prosecution in Colorado, Mr. Bryant declared in the piece that the experience connected him to his African-American identity: “I never truly believed that my own people wanted to identify with me. But that’s the thing about adversity: while you’re going through it, you look around yourself and see exactly who it is that’s rallying behind you …. They have shown me that even though I grew up in Italy, I am a part of Black America.” The capital B, Mr. Gotthelf said, is house style.

—T.S

Author Adrian Nicole LeBlanc spent almost 12 years researching her first book, Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx. It took far less time to come up with her second one, which she just sold to Kate Medina at Random House.

The new book is tentatively titled Give It Up, and it sounds as if Random House might have taken the name to heart; according to one publisher familiar with the deal, the house paid around $800,000.

The book will be based in the world that Ms. LeBlanc explored in a 2004 New Yorker article about standup comics in a West 46th Street comedy club. It will explore the life of a New York comedian named Rick Shapiro, who incorporates themes of child abuse that he suffered into his act.

The new project represents a drastic change from the subject she became known for. Random Family was about a heroin dealer named Boy George and the women and girlfriends in orbit around him, and it became a symbol of a particular form of heavily reported literary nonfiction. The book was a best-seller when it was published in 2003.

In the course of shifting topics, Ms. LeBlanc also changed publishers and agents. Random Family was put out by the Scribner unit of Simon & Schuster, and the agent who worked on the book was ICM’s Sloan Harris. Ms. LeBlanc’s new agent, Tina Bennett, declined to comment on the deal.

—Sheelah Kolhatkar

Cargo–Ergo Sum:  I Shop, Therefore  I Am So Bummed!