Commentary

The Great (Wo)Man Theory

How are most magazines like a football team? Too much reliance on the star system.

Now, there are some people who are worth the money. Bonnie Fuller of "Us" magazine is worth the money. Fuller took a long-time also-ran in the personality magazine business and turned it into a star. She did it in less than a year. So all hail Ms. Fuller. She’s the Dennis Franchione of the magazine world, the "coach of the moment." (Coach Fran, for those of you who don’t get out past the Hudson much, recently left a multi-million dollar contract on the table at the University of Alabama to take a fatter contract coaching football at Texas A&M.)

But today’s "coach of the moment" might be yesterday’s moron. Fuller’s fans forget "Glamour" lost its glamour at the tail-end of her reign there. (Coach Fran’s fans may wish to forget how his New Mexico squad, featuring future Chicago Bear Brian Urlacher, got crunched at home a few years ago by Rice. I remember because I’m a Rice grad.)

The point is there’s no magic wand, and our reliance on one "star" or one "coach" to turn a failing property around is often misplaced. Why do we keep making the same stupid mistake? Why do we keep confusing individuals with institutions?

Personally, I blame the media. Too many of us cover business as a game, a game hinging on the personality and decision-making of the Great Man (or Woman) at the top. This was a huge mistake during the dot-com bubble. We made stars out of such people as CMGI’s David Weatherall. And Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, a mediocre merchant at best, became "Time" Man of the Year.

Why do reporters and editors make this mistake? Because it’s easy. It’s much easier to analyze a business, any business, in terms of one person than to see the complexity. It’s easier to tell a story about a person than a story about an institution. The yarn about the person makes better copy.

Sometimes, when the person in question is the entrepreneur and founder of the business, this makes sense. You can’t talk about Microsoft without Bill Gates, or Berkshire-Hathaway without Warren Buffett.

But most of the time this is just plain stupid. Who runs Proctor & Gamble? I don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter. Because Proctor & Gamble, like all really great companies, is a system. Its ways of doing business are much more important than the sum of its parts, and certainly more important than whoever has the corner office.

Unless the person in question is an entrepreneur, the founder and owner, in other words, chances are they don’t determine how their business runs.

We should consider that when we’re looking at media jobs, and media companies.

For instance, just the other day the "New York Daily News" was buzzing about Fuller becoming editor of "TV Guide." How did the story get started? Fuller hasn’t renewed her "Us" contract, "TV Guide" has an opening. She made magic at "Us," she’d have to be magic at "TV Guide."

Well, it doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t work that way in journalism, and (by the way) it doesn’t work that way in football, either. I don’t care what Dennis Franchione does in College Station, Texas. They will still be the Texas Aggies. No one person can transform an institution.

Some editors are great fits at their jobs. Bonnie Fuller is a great fit at "Us." She has plenty of autonomy, she seems to like her bosses at Wenner Media. She has a winning streak going. But forget the Great (Wo)man theory. There are horses for courses. Not every editor fits into every institution. And we should look inside the institutions we cover before fitting anyone into our games of musical chairs.

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