May 16, 2021

The Media Equation: How Esquire Survived Publishing’s Dark Days

Amid the plague that hit the magazine industry back then, Esquire was worse off than most. Beaten up by a crop of lad magazines like Maxim, then hammered by the flight of advertisers and readers to the Web, Esquire suffered a 24.3 percent loss in advertising pages compared with 2008, which was almost as bad, by the way. A Web site for investors, 24/7 Wall Street, predicted in 2009 that Esquire would be one of “Twelve Major Brands that Will Disappear” the following year.

Worse still, guys like me who have a general interest in the general interest — politics, music, sports, and yes, good-looking women — were looking elsewhere for guidance on how to be a modern man. I didn’t fit the demo perfectly — my fashion look has been compared to a laundry basket that grew legs — but I still should have been an Esquire reader. Like so many others, however, I began assembling my own content, grabbing sports from Deadspin, political profiles from New York magazine, and music advice from sites like Pitchfork.

For long-form reading, I had a nightstand full of narrative heaves from The New Yorker, and celebrity news had become so ubiquitous that I found myself uninterested in Esquire cover articles about Angelina Jolie or Ben Affleck, no matter how good the writing was.

Though it continued to be a handsome, well-crafted magazine, amid the sparkle of all the saucy new media, Esquire began to look like your father’s Oldsmobile. And we all know what happened to that brand.

David Granger, the editor in chief of the magazine, said that during those grim days he fired 20 percent of his staff and slashed editorial pages.

“It was ugly around here,” he said, sitting in his 21st floor office in Midtown Manhattan looking out toward the buildings stacked in rows like dominoes. “I don’t think it was ever as dire as it was portrayed, but we had a deep recession in the magazine business, and the recovery has been a fragile one.”

Mr. Granger is known in the industry as a relentlessly decent, talented guy. Balding, with a mug that would not be out of place at a V.F.W. hall, he may wear custom-made shirts, but he will spend more time telling you the story behind the amazing woman who made them than how much they cost. He gets excited about stuff — stories, writing, cocktail recipes, shoes — in a way that is hard to resist.

But nice guy or no, he was up against it back then, hard, and changes had to be made. This would be the spot where the modern media executive jettisons tradition and dumps seasoned writers and editors overboard in favor of shiny faces with reduced price tags. He did none of that.

Esquire’s four narrative horsemen — Scott Raab, Tom Junod, Charles Pierce, and John H. Richardson, who have been turning out big, ambitious pieces for years — remain in place, as do the people who edited them, Peter Griffin and Mark Warren. Classy that, to stay with those that brought you even though your magazine is hemorrhaging money. But here’s the weird part, and no one is more surprised than I am.

Esquire is not dying — it is killing it. In 2011, a year when the magazine industry was flat to down a bit, Esquire was up 13.5 percent in ad pages from the previous year. This at a time when GQ was down 6.3 percent in advertising pages and Details was down more than 10 percent, according to the Publishers Information Bureau. David Carey, the chief of Hearst Magazines, said that the private company did not discuss profits, but added: “Relative to our other 20 businesses, Esquire was No. 1 in year-over-year performance. David has done an amazing job.”

Unpacking Esquire’s revival is complicated, but worth thinking through. As the magazine came under pressure from other publications and the Web, Mr. Granger departed from standard design templates and modernized the front of the magazine to reflect the growing interest in marginalia and small laughs, with goofy asides and in-jokes.

E-mail: carr@nytimes.com;

Twitter.com/carr2n

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=d77abc1e9df7f88d9647f0e5c6dae8d1

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