Zoo’s Company: The Story Behind the Men’s Mag Zanesville Story Smackdown

While the Giants clinched victory down in Indianapolis Sunday night, a contest of editorial mettle was taking place between New

A tragedy better suited to longform magazine journalism could hardly be imagined. (image via Esquire.com)

While the Giants clinched victory down in Indianapolis Sunday night, a contest of editorial mettle was taking place between New York’s top men’s magazines.

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Shortly before kick-off, The New York Times reported that Hearst’s Esquire would post a movie-style trailer for a March print story about the Zanesville zoo massacre (remember when that suicidal exotic animal collector released 56 dangerous animals into a small town in Ohio?) along with a preview of the piece by Chris Jones. The latest in a series of editorial widgets (last month’s: a QR code on cover boy Bill Clinton’s crotch!), the trailer was designed to build buzz and boost sales of the print issue. The full story and a longer trailer would be online later, according to The Times.

During halftime, Mr. Jones, an Esquire staff writer, pointed his 10,000-odd Twitter followers to the trailer, which had gone live on Esquire.com.

Mr. Jones’s tweet set off an email chain among editors at rival GQ (including web editor Sean Fennessey, who was at the Super Bowl). The Condé Nast title was sitting on its own 11,000-word piece about the Zanesville zoo, penned by its own staff Chris, Chris Heath, for the March issue.

GQ planned on publishing the story a few days ahead of the magazine’s on-stand date but had built the web version weeks in advance, anticipating Esquire’s drop.

“The conversation was: ‘How fast do we put it up?’” GQ senior editor Devin Gordon told Off the Record.

Because Esquire published only a preview of its story on Sunday night, the editors decided to take the rest of the night to make sure display copy and homepage art were perfect, and hit publish Monday morning. By noon on Monday, Esquire had ditched its big publicity plan, and had published Mr. Jones’s story in full.

“Good old-fashioned hand-forcing,” Mr. Jones tweeted later that day.

“We’ve known about this for weeks,” Mr. Gordon said. “We’ve been calling it ‘The Zoo-Off.’”

But until this week, the zoo-off had been pretty cloak-and-dagger, as far as glossy men’s magazines go. Mr. Jones and Mr. Heath discreetly stalked each other in December, when both writers were in Zanesville, reporting their pieces. Mr. Heath spotted Mr. Jones around town, but GQ editors, judging from Mr. Jones’ forthcoming tweets about his reporting, assumed the Esquire writer didn’t know another reporter was hot on the trail.

In fact, Mr. Jones had known GQ was working on its own Zanesville zoo story almost immediately after he pulled into his town. He scheduled his first interview, with the county sheriff on Monday at 1 p.m. They talked for two hours and Mr. Jones said, half-seriously, that it would be helpful if his source didn’t speak to anyone else. The sheriff responded that he had one more interview scheduled for later that afternoon.

“As long as it’s not GQ,” Mr. Jones joked, and the sheriff’s face dropped.

“You always want the story to be yours but GQ is particularly a rival,” Mr. Jones told Off the Record when we reached him at home in Port Hope, Ontario.

It turned out the Chrises were staying at the same Hampton Inn. Unfamiliar with Mr. Heath’s appearance, Mr. Jones routinely checked the hotel desk to see if he was still there. It was a rainy week and Mr. Jones was fighting off pneumonia, in addition to the paranoia.

“I played all sorts of games in my head,” Mr. Jones said. “How should I write this so its different?”

In the end, Mr. Jones put GQ out of his head and wrote the story straight, like he pitched it.

“It’s one of those stories where you get out of the way,” Mr. Jones explained. “You’re a small town Ohio deputy in the woods, looking for tigers.”

Which is exactly what GQ expected he would do. Mr. Gordon said that in editorial discussions, Mr. Heath predicted Mr. Jones’s visceral, action-movie style but knew that his magazine’s piece would take a different approach, including recreating, through reporting, the menagerie’s late owner, Terry Thompson.

“My wife said it’s more philosophical,” said Mr. Jones of his rival’s piece. “I’m not sure I’ll be able to read his story. I’m super insecure.”

“He’s really good,” Mr. Gordon said of Mr. Jones, “The story is big enough and amazing enough for two good stories to be reported. I am biased, but I think ours is better. I think its scope is incredible.”

Zoo’s Company: The Story Behind the Men’s Mag Zanesville Story Smackdown