Picking Up Where George Left Off

When George magazine went dark following the death of John F. Kennedy Jr. in July 1999, its readership was on the rise. In fact, the title posted a 25% increase in circulation in the months following his death, yet Hachette Filipacchi was unable to translate that growth into advertising sales without the magazine’s figurehead, and it folded in March 2001 after four years on the newsstand. Surrounded in veil of Kennedy glamour, the magazine’s buzz may have outpaced its publishing reality. It became the most-read political magazine, yet it lost as much as $4 million a year. Even so, Kennedy family friend Helen O’Donnell believes it proved there is a reader for a magazine that is part politics, part Hollywood. Based on that belief, she aims to launch Common Good magazine, what many see as a successor to George early next year.

“John was who he was, and you can’t imitate that,” says O’Donnell from her Cambridge, Massachusetts office. “If John were alive, George would still be up and running and without question I wouldn’t be doing Common Good. That is how I got into this.” The goal for the glossy is to have some of the same things George had. There will be politics and entertainment in every issue, and they will revive the “what would you do if you were president” section; yet O’Donnell insists her aim is not to do George Junior. Instead, she says it will be a “common man’s” New Republic or Atlantic Monthly, with “short and sassy” articles and an eye for photography.

O’Donnell has had a quick lesson in the magazine world since announcing her plans to launch Common Good nearly a year ago. She had written a book of the same name that focused on her political lineage of growing up the daughter of Kenny O’Donnell, a name in Democratic politics dating back to the Kennedy White House – yet publishing a book and a magazine once again proved to be two very different tasks. “We’re going to run this magazine like a Kennedy campaign,” she explains. “Tight, low to the ground, and no frills.” To that end, the magazine packed-up and left New York during the late summer, opting for the less expensive Bostonian climate. “Politically and business wise, I have a lot more pull here, so it’s playing to your base if you will.”

By revising Common Good’s business plan, O’Donnell says she has been able to cut the amount of money she needs from $25 million to $10 million. Its editorial focus has also shifted. “We had talked a lot about being very non-partisan without a particular viewpoint and what we’re leaning toward now is, like George, we’ll have a magazine that will take in both sides of the political spectrum but I’m obviously a very political person so the magazine will reflect my views.” O’Donnell says a meeting with News Corp. chief Roger Ailes earlier this year helped convince her that middle of the road is not always the best course. “The readers that we’re after also watch Fox. They watch Bill O’Reilly. Their news is quick and it has an edge, and we’ve determined it’s the same audience.”

Common Good has also adjusted its circulation targets, lowering its rate base from a previously stated 500,000. “We’d be happy at 100,000 for the first year,” she says. To help drive sales, O’Donnell is once again turning to her deep-rooted political connections. The magazine will be heavily marketed to the Democratic faithful in organized labor. “We’ll get readers on the high end and the low end, but those will be our core readers so we’re going to try to work out some distribution deals through the unions,” she says.

In its preliminary meetings with advertisers, Common Good has also positioned itself as a meat and potatoes book, hoping to take ad dollars from such Middle America companies as Wal-Mart and Foot Locker. “Those are the core of where our readers will be,” explains O’Donnell, adding the advertising marketplace has determined their launch as much as anything. “Given the economy, I felt I should give it a few more months for the marketplace to be better. I think we’re still brave to do it in March, but I want to at least have that introductory issue done in March. If I were to delay it longer, some investors might get shaky.” O’Donnell says she has had meetings with a number of media companies in the United States, Britain and Canada to handle the “back office” issues, including advertising, marketing and distribution. “If we could work out a partnership like that, then I wouldn’t have to recreate the whole wheel. That seems to be going over real well because what I bring to the table is access, writers and editorial that they could only dream about.”

Yet buyers may be a much tougher crowd to convince. “I don’t see anybody crying out for a magazine like this,” assesses Arnold Worldwide senior VP Barbara Reilly, who does a considerable amount of market analysis for the agency. “In the research that we have done, I am not hearing people say that is what they desire and they want to hear more about. We’re hearing that people are still disgusted with politicians and corporate America, so it will be interesting to see how they react to a magazine like this.”

In a twist that only a political magazine could have, since the November election, interest in her left-leaning magazine has grown. “With the election results, I got a flurry of interest from investors and other people felt that now I could make the magazine what it really is supposed to be.” Namely, an unabashedly liberal read. “That’s been an interesting change,” says O’Donnell. “The lesson is that you need be yourself and play your strengths, no matter what the circumstances – whether it’s the magazine business or politics."

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