Day One Of Trial: It Doesn't Look Rosy For Rosie

The first day of the much anticipated Rosie O'Donnell vs. Gruner + Jahr trial was filled with enough media frenzy and celebrity intrigue to fill a magazine itself, but the opening testimony did little to settle who actually was responsible for the demise of the plaintiffs' short-lived Rosie magazine. The testimony of the day's big witness, Susan Ungaro, an editorial consultant who worked on the magazine, dealt mainly with events that led up to the brouhaha that caused Rosie magazine's demise.

Ungaro, a former editor-in-chief of G+J's Family Circle magazine, served as a consultant on Rosie magazine prior to controversial decision by G+J CEO Dan Brewster to replace the editor of Rosie magazine, a move that precipitated O'Donnell's decision to walk out on the title.

One thing did make clear, was how Ungaro crucial O'Donnell was to the magazine's inception. O'Donnell laid out her vision and went over the storyboards she created, which Ungaro later revealed to be mediocre at best. But the magazine was to be based on O'Donnell's vision, adopting more than a little bit from her popular daytime talk show too, but focusing mainly on celebrities, food, crafts, and social issues. What O'Donnell didn't know, apparently, was that Brewster and his team had more food, crafts, and celebrities in mind, and less on social issues or Rosie's personal convictions.

Rosie the magazine was born principally to supplant G+J's terminally ill McCall's magazine. And Brewster's vision was to turn the failing McCall's into a celebrity magazine on the strength of O'Donnell's status and appeal to other celebrities. He wanted to see it surpass Martha Stewart Living magazine and Oprah Winfrey's O magazine -- with rate bases of 2 million and 2.7 million, respectively-with a rate base of 3.5 million readers.

This, of course, did not happen. An enraged O'Donnell abandoned the magazine, collapsing everything in on itself, resulting in the loss of over 100 jobs, and not to mention disappointing her subscribers and fans.

Ungaro was the supervising editorial consultant throughout much of Rosie magazine's short-lived tenure, which essentially placed her in the No. 2 spot behind Brewster. Ungaro stressed that she never reported to O'Donnell, but rather advised and consulted her. She also made it clear that ultimate control was Brewster's. In fact, O'Donnell's role, as Ungaro put it, was "the editorial voice," meaning, "she was responsible for the magazine's mission statement, subject matter, vision and attitudes." In actuality, under the contract, O'Donnell wasn't directly responsible for very much, aside from the magazine's tone.

Aside from the fact that the magazine wasn't selling very well and slowly losing its consumer base, the testimony suggested that the beginning of the end really was Brewster's decision to oust editor in chief Cathy Carventer in favor of the relative unknown but well-connected Susan Toepher, formerly of People magazine.

However, Ungaro noted that O'Donnell showed signs of wanting to jump ship even before the replacement of Carventer. The prosecution cited an email O'Donnell wrote to Ungaro suggesting they incorporate more controversial celebrities into the magazine like Mike Tyson and Boy George to inject some life into it and acquire the attention of younger readers.

Ungaro replied that the email showed a "reckless disregard for the brand," pointing to a passage that implied O'Donnell didn't care whether the magazine survived or not: "I would rather go down swimming by trying to break records than stay on the shore and watch people swim," said O'Donnell in that email.

Shortly after receiving that email and overseeing the departure of friend and colleague Carventer, Ungaro removed herself from Rosie magazine. Afterwards, in an attempt to make the magazine more like People magazine, Brewster brought in Toepher.

The defense claims that the decision to redesign the magazine and make it more celebrity-oriented like People magazine was not brought to O'Donnell's attention, and she feels that in the process of redesigning the magazine, her vision, values, and public persona-which were the original ingredients of the magazine-were compromised, prompting her to walk out on the project.

In a statement issued to the press, O'Donnell affirmed: "This is not about money. I'm sorry about all the lost money, and I'm sorry for the jobs lost (over 100). No one can own your name. I am confident that when the facts are presented, the case will be solved."

O'Donnell is expected to take the stand next week.

Next story loading loading..