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The Death of Helen Gurley Brown and the death of the magazine

Tuesday, 14 August, 2012

Last week, the Audit Bureau of Circulations released its latest batch of statistics on magazine sales in the United States. Overall paid circulation declined slightly, by 0.1 percent, in the first half of 2012, but newsstand sales — often seen as the best indicator of a magazine’s appeal — fell by nearly 10 percent. Women’s magazines saw even sharper declines: Vogue down 16.5 percent and Cosmopolitan down 15.5 percent.

The Cosmo cover girl Cosmopolitan is very much in the news today with the announcement that its great editor, Helen Gurley Brown, has died in New York aged 90. For feminists, Brown was a hate figure. Recalling a feminist sit-in at the Cosmo office, the crazed Kate Millet said, “The magazine’s reactionary politics were too much to take, especially the man-hunting part. The entire message seemed to be ‘Seduce your boss, then marry him.'” Helen Gurley Brown brushed all this aside and was rewarded with astonishing popular acclaim. When she was appointed editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan in 1965, circulation was 800,000 copies. By 1983, it was topping three million.

And now? On Sunday, David Carr treated readers of the New York Times to “Wondering How Far Magazines Must Fall“. Sadly, it relied heavily on Tina Brown, the woman many saw as the publishing industry’s successor to Helen Gurley Brown, except that Tina Brown is now presiding over the death of Newsweek and the destruction of its remaining values, such as they once were. Carr concluded his article with the most commonplace of observations: “A few weeks ago, I was in a busy doctor’s office with a dozen others, absently paging through the magazines on the table. The table in front of us was stacked with the pride of American publishing, all manner of topics and fancy covers yelling for attention. Ever the intrepid media reporter, I looked up from scanning Bon Appétit to see what other people were interested in. A mother and a daughter were locked in conversation, but everyone else was busy reading — their phones.”

In her final contribution to the industry she shaped and loved, Helen Gurley Brown donated $30 million earlier this year to found The David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation. Its name was inspired by the memory of her late husband, David Brown, a graduate of both Stanford University and the Columbia School of Journalism. In this time of crisis, the institute could play a valuable role because instead of innovating the magazine industry has been porting content from print to the web and tablets rather than offering readers something different, knowing full well that this cannot be a winning strategy. Why have publishers persisted with this in the face of ruin? It’s called “the innovator’s dilemma”, and Clayton Christensen addressed the conundrum in a famous book of that very title.

The late Helen Gurley Brown was an innovator and an achiever. “She worked a 12-hour day and boasted that she had never taken a day off ‘except for cosmetic surgery’.” The Daily Telegraph


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