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Off The Page

David Hepworth on magazines and beyond

By David Hepworth

Off The Page

The cost of glamour

The heroine of Edith Wharton’s 1913 novel The Custom of the Country is the splendidly-named Undine Spragg. Undine, who is named after a hair product, is a beautiful young woman determined to launch herself into New York society. In order to do this, she needs to use the precious but finite resource of her own beauty in order to exchange her unglamorous beginnings for a fabulous new life, ideally as the wife of some European prince. Here, she wishes to follow in the footsteps of the Marquise De Trezac, who as everyone knows, started out as plain old Miss Wincher of Potash Springs.

Wharton’s novels are all set during the Gilded Age of the turn of the last century, when fortunes were being made out of the stench and indignity of American heavy industry, fortunes that could subsequently be spent on winters in Italy and the grandest boxes at the opera. Undine’s extravagant lifestyle has all been purchased through somebody else’s toil. This is something she has in common with all the grandest families on both sides of the Atlantic then and now. All the fortunes are derived from businesses the beneficiaries know little about. Fortunes spent on diamonds and race horses were all made in coal mining or slaughterhouses. Undine’s dressmakers’ bills are paid by her father who has made his fortune back in the Mid-West in the city of Apex. Back in Wharton’s days, it was accepted that this was how the world worked. Luxury could only be purchased by the hardest labour. The price of glamour was sweat. As they say in Yorkshire, where’s there’s muck, there’s brass. This is not merely a comment on the importance of not getting above your station. It’s a formal recognition of the fact that only the grubbiest trades pay for the glamorous life.

What does this have to do with media? A great deal. The media landscape is full of its own examples of high prestige products being underwritten by low prestige, high volume products, of the posh work in the shop window being subsidised by the unseen labour going on in the sweatshops which lie below the pavements. During the first decade of this century, the television show Big Brother was estimated to be generating over eighty million pounds a year for Channel Four. These millions presumably paid for a lot of award-winning commissions and edgy dramas that looked good on somebody’s CV. The Times is kept going on the back of the money made by The Sun or Sky Sport or even Fox News. The Guardian could afford to move into its massive new HQ in 2008, just as the crash was happening, because it was being bankrolled by the parent company’s stake in Auto Trader. You’ve got to move a lot of white vans in order to make enough money to give your news away. The Washington Post is able to keep its liberal voice alive thanks to the fact that it’s owned by Jeff Bezos whose Amazon is not exactly a byword for liberalism.

Condé concerns

And now Condé Nast, the aristocrat of magazine publishers, is suddenly reporting significant losses. In Britain, the previously high-performing Condé Nast Britain, announced losses of over thirteen million pounds for 2017. This was nothing compared to the American company which lost around $120 million in 2017 according to “people with knowledge of its finances”. That’s a lot of lettuce, even for Condé Nast.

They’ve always been a company prepared to bet big to win big, even if in some cases, there appeared to be no sign of their bets ever paying off. In 1998, Fortune estimated that the company’s most prestigious title, The New Yorker, had lost no less than $175 million in the first thirteen years after founder Si Newhouse had bought the venerable weekly, apparently as a gift for his mother. Even though there appears to be better housekeeping under the title’s current editor David Remnick, mere mortals can only gawp in wonder at how they manage to pay for the editorial on such a title by apparently selling a few ads for retirees investment plans and the odd Broadway show. (I have just looked through the first issue of the New Year and it appears that the largest advertiser is the New Yorker itself.)

How does this relate to the world of Undine Spragg? It relates because for years, this highly prestigious operation, which paid for such events as the Vanity Fair Oscars night party, was underwritten by a business which seems a world away from the fashion salons with which it dealt and the yachts and fabulous houses shown on its pages. What paid for all this was classified advertising, not in Vogue or Glamour but in local newspapers such as the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Staten Island Advance, the papers on which the Newhouse family made its fortune and which gave the parent company its name. For years, the people of suburban America bought and sold their cars, upgraded their houses, booked their holidays at the shore, promoted their shops, cafes, discount events, parades, football games, sexual services and funeral plans through the pages of local newspapers. The Newhouse family owned a good proportion of these papers and it was the profits from them that allowed them to invest in the big posh magazines and to make them even posher.

In the time of classified advertising’s golden age, when things worked in such a way as to make people think they would work that way forever, nobody thought that golden goose would ever disappear. Of course, disappear it did and now, like Undine Spragg suddenly having difficulties paying her dressmakers’ bills, Condé Nast has to face the same restraints as everybody else. It’s no use sending back to Apex City for more money from whatever it is that they do back there. The glamour businesses now have to find their own cash cows, which has never been easy. It also calls for a different culture, something which is more Big Brother than Black Mirror, more Auto Trader than the Observer, more Kalamazoo Gazette than Tatler. Big money comes from mass markets, often from people buying things that you wouldn’t buy yourself and you probably wouldn’t boast about at a party. And anyways, that party’s over.

Probably the best tagline in the world

On at least three occasions over the Christmas break, I was party to conversations in which somebody said, “it’s like that old advert said – ‘All Human Life Is There’.” On each of these occasions, and many like them, I have had cause to reflect on the fact that this does appear to be the most unsinkable advertising slogan that has ever been attached to a magazine or newspaper.

This was first used in the late 1950s in advertising to promote the News of the World. It was actually plucked from that most unlikely of sources, the writings of Henry James (a close friend of the aforementioned Edith Wharton) and placed below a black and white photograph of a cheering football crowd. The original quote, which came from a story called The Madonna of the Future, is “cats and monkeys – monkeys and cats – all human life is there!” An advertising man called Maurice Smelt, who, like many advertising people, was a good deal better read than he cared to admit, thought it would just work as a way of justifying the newspaper’s famous combination of lasciviousness and prurience and he was right.

It is arguably the most memorable tagline that’s ever been applied to reading matter. It’s better even than the TV Times ‘I never knew there was so much in it’, Loaded’s ‘for men who should know better’, the Independent’s ‘it is. Are you?’, the Mail On Sunday’s ‘a newspaper, not a snoozepaper’ and even, though I don’t recall actually seeing it, Vogue’s ‘for the overwhelming minority’.