Monday, May 07, 2007

A Beloved Mag's Painful Lessons

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A Beloved Mag's Painful Lessons
What media companies can learn from the rise and fall of the much-beloved teen mag Sassy 0/b4034031.htm

Not every magazine that rarely made a buck and died young gets a wet kiss of a book written about it, so tip your hat to Sassy (1988-96), the teen title whose story is recounted and memorialized in Kara Jesella and Marisa Meltzer's new How Sassy Changed My Life.

During Sassy's brief, underfunded existence, it shot to a circulation of 800,000 pretty quickly, but didn't score ads as easily (and went through three owners). Sassy came and went while a subset of young America remade media via indie music labels and photocopied 'zines. Despite its glossy-mag garb, Sassy resonated with this culture, which gave the mag a similar secret-handshake signifier of status among its acolytes.

There is something heartbreakingly familiar, something very "After School Special," in Sassy's saga. Smart young outsiders start something, do a bang-up job-and remain marginalized by the mainstream. Sassy taught a difficult lesson that remains valid: What's culturally significant can be lousy business, and often requires a pivot from a property's founding vision to be successful. For those who bonded most intensely with Sassy, this lesson was all the more painful because that bond was so deeply felt.

PLAINLY GEARED TO OUTSIDER TEENS, Sassy was born in a pre-Web world, when there were no fancy interactive ways to find like-minded souls, back when such teens needed a campfire like Sassy's to encircle. These teens found each other with a giddy relief, and also shared a grievance against those not in their club. Both qualities were never far from Sassy's surface. These traits, and being simpatico with the indie movement, endeared it to twenty- and thirtysomething white urban hipsters, too. This ensured geek-chic status, but even some Sassy-ites wondered how hipster cred helped a magazine intended for a mass-market audience of teen girls. "I don't think it's the only factor, but one could argue that Sassy cooled itself to death," says Kim France, a former staff writer who now edits shopping magazine Lucky.

There are media properties that mark cultural moments and ones that go on to become good businesses, but one cold reality about mass media is that what draws purists and early adopters is often not what equals boffo box office. Histories of other zeitgeisty magazines confirm this. Wired, which I admire, is today far removed from the utopianism and outré layouts of its early issues. Now, much of it is about business and tech toys. Today's Rolling Stone is light-years away from its overtly underground beginnings. (Its debut issue was packaged with a roach clip.) Sassy's turn toward more mainstream mores was clumsy and late, courtesy of an owner that in essence (foolishly) fired all veteran staffers. Sassy's founding editor, Jane Pratt, who now hosts a talk show on Sirius (SIRI ) Satellite Radio, tweaked her formula when she started young-women's title Jane. "I made a conscious decision to do a different kind of magazine-one that was an alternative to what was out there, but in such a way to be appealing to advertisers," she says today. A rare recent teen-mag hit, CosmoGirl!, hit it big by wrapping Sassy's geek- friendly vibe in a more mainstream sheen.

Today, an autumnal chill has descended on teen magazines as readers flock to the Web. Two of Sassy's three main rivals, Teen and YM, are gone, as are Teen People and Elle Girl, two titles that followed Sassy. But nothing, then or since, looked or sounded like Sassy. (Perhaps they learned from Sassy's failure to expand a tightly proscribed niche.) Pratt recalls conversations with Sassy-ites in which everyone agreed it's better to be a fondly remembered, defunct magazine than "an O.K. magazine that sticks around for a long time." In the end, Sassy was a band, not a brand. A moment, not a media business. And what cultural moment is more keenly remembered than one that's irretrievably lost-one you can pine for forever, like a lovesick teen alone in the night?

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