Thursday, May 17, 2007

Magazine Suspends Its Run in History

Magazine Suspends Its Run in History

After more than 50 years American Heritage, the magazine that furnished not just the minds but, in its original hardcover format, the dens of generations of American history buffs, is suspending publication, its editor, Richard F. Snow, said last week.

The bimonthly magazine, which is owned by Forbes Inc., has been for sale since January, and in the absence of a buyer, Mr. Snow said, the publishers have decided to put the next issue, June-July, on indefinite hold. For at least the time being, however, American Heritage will continue to maintain a Web site.

That leaves Mr. Snow and his staff, which has dwindled to four from a dozen, in limbo, where they have been since just before Christmas, when they were informed that the magazine was going on the block. “It’s a little like sailing the Flying Dutchman through the fog,” Mr. Snow said. “On the other hand, I’ve been here for 40 years, so I can’t really bitch about job instability.”

The magazine has always been a bit of an anomaly among American publications.

The circulation is currently 350,000, or as high as it has ever been, and hundreds of those readers can still be reliably counted on to write in arguing about the true causes of the Civil War or, as happened recently, to point out that the author of a World War II article doesn’t know the difference between the M-1 rifle and the M-16, which didn’t come in until Vietnam.

American Heritage was founded in 1954 by James Parton, Oliver Jensen and Joseph J. Thorndike Jr., refugees from Life, who from the beginning broke most of the rules of magazine publishing. They determined not to accept ads, for example — on the ground that there was a “basic incompatibility between the tones of the voice of history and of advertising” — and instead charged a yearly subscription of $10, a figure so steep at the time that readers were allowed to pay it in installments. They also published in clothbound, hardback volumes with full-color paintings mounted on the front.

The format was an instant hit with readers, who instead of tossing back issues often shelved them in their bookcases, but it initially confounded the United States Post Office, which decreed that American Heritage could use neither the book rate nor the periodical one. That ruling was eventually overturned, but not until the magazine had almost bankrupted itself by paying for parcel post.

The first editor of American Heritage was Bruce Catton, a Civil War historian who wrote in the inaugural issue in December 1954 that “the faith that moves us is, quite simply, the belief that our heritage is best understood by a study of the things that the ordinary folk of America have done and thought and dreamed since first they began to live here.” In the beginning, at least, that meant a fair amount of WASPy nostalgia and a steady ration of stories about the Civil War. That inaugural issue, for example, includes a piece about a Union general who was falsely accused of treason in 1862, as well as articles about the country store, the Fall River steamship line and a lament by Cleveland Amory about the decline of New York men’s clubs.

Mr. Snow, 59, went to work in the American Heritage mailroom in 1965, when Columbia University insisted he take a little time off, and joined the staff full time when he finally graduated, in 1970. He has been there ever since, and in 1990 he became the magazine’s sixth editor, succeeding Byron Dobell.

Either he was a perfect fit to begin with, or over the years he has taken on many of the characteristics of his workplace, for he now closely resembles his own magazine. He is quite youthful looking, on one hand (probably because he is one of those people who mature early and then never change), and a little old-fashioned on the other. He speaks in perfectly turned paragraphs and may be the last person left in New York to unself-consciously use “indeed” as an exclamation.

He favors gray suits and sweater vests, his telephone manners are impeccable, and he has a bubbling, high-pitched voice that turns a simple “hello” into something that resembles the opening bar of a Broadway show tune. Like his magazine he has an almost insatiable curiosity and is particularly expert on the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, not to mention Coney Island amusement rides at the turn of the last century.

Mr. Snow has been at American Heritage long enough that he can remember when it was an empire in the mid-’60s, employing 400 people, with the magazine as a flagship for what was in effect a publishing company selling books, many of them by some of America’s best-known popular historians, by direct mail. He was managing editor in 1980, when the magazine ceased publishing in hardback (except for subscribers who wanted to shell out extra for what Mr. Snow now calls a “padded, leatheroid edition”), and in 1982 when, bowing to economic necessity, it began soliciting ads.

“We all felt very bad about taking advertising,” Mr. Snow recalled. “But it had the odd effect of making us feel we were in touch with the world. There was a sense of a living connection to a process that was actually sort of fun — or at least it was fun while we were getting ads.”

American Heritage remained more driven by circulation than by ads, however. According to Scott Masterson, a senior vice president at Forbes and president of American Heritage, the magazine was losing money when Forbes bought it in 1986 and then bounced back for a while. But in the late ’90s, Mr. Masterson said, it failed to reap the kind of profits that many magazines did, and after 2001 it experienced the same downturn that afflicted the magazine business in general and had trouble recovering.

Part of the problem was the Internet, Mr. Snow said. “We’re really a general interest magazine,” he said. “We don’t play to a history buff in any narrow sense — like the Civil War re-enactors, for example. They can go on the Web and get thousands and thousands of hits.”

Three years ago Mr. Snow and Mr. Masterson decided to embrace the magazine’s aging readership and rejiggered American Heritage to appeal more specifically to baby boomers, mostly publishing articles about things that had happened in their lifetime. The formula was an editorial success, Mr. Snow said, yielding articles like one that appeared in the February-March issue about the Wrecking Crew, an unheralded studio band that played on many hit records in the ’60s and ’70s. But it failed to provide the hoped-for bump on the business end. “Forbes has been very, very patient,” he said. “but basically they’ve been carrying us for a while.”

Over lunch recently at Keens — another venerable New York institution, decorated with old clay pipes and playbills and where he pointed out, for the sake of accuracy, that the famed mutton chop is really lamb — Mr. Snow lamented that the next issue of American Heritage might never get into print.

“We’re just about finished with the issue, and we have a particularly fine piece by Teller, the nontalking half of the Penn and Teller team,” he said. “It’s a superb piece of writing, an essay about a fellow named David Abbott, who was a great American magician.”

Mr. Snow added, “You know, some issues are better than others, but I don’t think there’s been a single one where anything really bored me.”

He said he was still unsure about his own fate, but if need be he could go back to writing historical novels. “I’ve written four,” he said. “Two were loathed by everyone who read them, but two actually got published.” And no matter what happens, he has worked out a crucial point of his severance: He gets to keep his Royal manual typewriter.

“That was the typewriter I was assigned in 1970, and it will follow me to the grave,” he said, and he added: “I wish this were more a sign of granitic stability, but in fact it’s a sign of my computer incompetence. I use it just to type labels, but it works beautifully. Every year someone comes in and cleans it. I don’t think he’s paid by Forbes. He’s some spectral presence who just turns up.”

Newspaper Industry Proclaimed "Vibrant, Growing"

Newspaper Industry Proclaimed "Vibrant, Growing"

According to recent provisional data from the World Association of Newspapers Paid-for newspaper circulation went up 1.9 percent year-on-year to more than 510 million paid-for copies in 2006, and the number of new paid-for titles grew to more than 11,000 for the first time in history.

Gavin O'Reilly, President of WAN and Chief Operating Officer of Independent News & Media Ltd., said "The prognosis for newspapers is actually quite different to conventional wisdom... Those of us in the newspaper business are very confident in the future... producing relevant and compelling products for our local markets, aggregating growing audiences and showcasing them to advertisers."

Based on preliminary figures from more than 200 countries and territories, to be published next month:

Paid-for circulations grew 1.9 percent over 12 months and 8.7 percent over five years. With free newspapers, global circulation grew 4.3 percent year-on-year.
Free daily newspaper circulation more than doubled over five years, to 40.8 million copies a day

More than 1.4 billion people now read a newspaper daily
Paid-for daily titles surpassed 11,000
Print is the biggest advertising medium in the world, says the report, with a 42 percent share. Newspapers alone are the second largest, with 29.4 percent of global advertising spend.
Advertising revenues rose 4 percent in 12 months and 15.6 percent over the past five years

More than 6 billion US dollars have been invested in newspaper printing and production equipment in the last 18 months
O'Reilly noted that "Hidden in those figures is the fact that newspapers... actually represent more than the combined advertising value of radio, cinema, magazines and the internet."