In A 'New York' Minute, Madison Avenue Finds Logic Of Deal To Be Minute

A day after Bruce Wasserstein was declared the surprise winner in the derby for New York magazine, media mavens unanimously conveyed a single sentiment: good luck - you'll need it.

Wasserstein, the dealmaker-turned-publisher behind the New York Law Journal, American Lawyer, and other titles, emerged from the shadows during the last hours of bidding for the venerable mag. He paid $55 million and assumed some of the publication's debts, a considerably higher price tag than most pundits expected. Tabloid behemoth American Media and a group led by New York Daily News publisher Mort Zuckerman (which included Miramax's Harvey Weinstein and ad exec Donny Deutsch) were believed to be the leading contenders for the magazine.

While several of the execs contacted by MediaPost asked not to be identified - perhaps for fear of having their names attached to less-than-flattering comments about New York magazine's outgoing owner, Primedia - all of them agreed that the new regime has a long road ahead of it. Specifically, they questioned whether New York could reclaim the editorial and marketing cachet it once enjoyed. "This magazine has a proud heritage," said George Janson, Mediaedge:cia's senior director, director of print. "Will it be home to great writers again, as it was in the beginning? There are so many major industries headquartered [in New York City] - fashion, finance, media. I have no idea why they've gotten away from doing long-form investigative pieces."



Janson suggested that should the new regime decide to make wholesale changes, it might look to Texas Monthly for inspiration. "They do so many things well," he said admiringly. "And it sells more copies on the newsstand than New York does right now, which is pretty amazing when you think about it."

While a tougher editorial focus was the primary suggestion that media pros had for New York's new owners, mostly they wondered how Primedia let the magazine regress into its current state. "You see 'Stars Gone Wild!' on the cover and you think, who's making these decisions?," said a media consultant who frequently works with Primedia. Added an agency media planner: "There's no question in my mind that the magazine can become an elite property again, but it's going to take some time."

What this likely means: a rough few months, if not years, for Wasserstein et al. As it is, most recent stories about New York contained the curt phrase "hemorrhaging cash." A recent New York Observer analysis, in fact, noted that 42 percent of the publication's circulation was yielding "little or no profit"; ad pages are down 4.5 percent, and ad revenue has tumbled 11.8 percent in 2003, according to the Publishers Information Bureau.

Which is probably why several pundits questioned why Wasserstein wanted the magazine so badly. "Where's the fit?," one said. "Plus they're going to get killed on printing and distribution because they're not part of a major media company." Janson, on the other hand, suggested that the purchase might have been "an ego play. He could have bought it more for the prestige, to be honest."

When asked whether the purchase of New York will boost Wasserstein's profile on Madison Avenue, Janson said it mostly depends on how the magazine evolves editorially. Still, he asked sarcastically, "What is he going to package it with, American Lawyer? Come on." The media planner gave a similarly split verdict, suggesting that national advertisers will always be intrigued with the publication to a certain extent: "You see it in the living rooms of all the influentials, and New York [City] itself is such a nerve center. For those two things alone, there are always going to be some companies that want to be [in the magazine]."

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