OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

Nothing is rosy at Rosie.

Until last week, Rosie was one of America's biggest magazines in what's known as the women's service category. For decades, seven publications, collectively called the Seven Sisters, dominated the field, attracting huge readerships seeking cozy editorial content centred on making a house a home. Their ad pages were filled by packaged goods mainstays such as Campbell, Heinz and Procter & Gamble, eager to spend tens of millions of dollars annually to reach the wife-and-mother market.

But times changed, and tastes changed too, to paraphrase an old cigarette slogan, and one Sister, McCall's, founded in 1876 as The Queen - The Illustrated Magazine of Fashion, started showing the ravages of old age. So its owner, Gruner & Jahr USA Publishing, a venture of the German media giant Bertelsmann, made over McCall's with its May 2001 issue as Rosie.

Rosie was an entry in a hot magazine market niche, the personality-driven publication aimed at readers somewhat younger than those still loyal to the Seven Sisters; the templates for those human brand books are Martha Stewart Living and O: The Oprah Magazine, launched by Hearst and the talkshow host Oprah Winfrey.

Rosie was named after Rosie O'Donnell, a comic actress who since 1996 had helmed a successful daytime chatfest syndicated to local TV stations.

A magazine imbued with the rosy personality of O'Donnell, nicknamed the "Queen of Nice", seemed like a no-brainer, and at first Rosie - a 50-50 financial partnership between her and Gruner & Jahr, which oversaw the editorial and business operations - was a hit. Ad pages rose smartly and the issue dated September 2002 is the largest in history under either the Rosie or McCall's moniker. Circulation, pared from the 4.2 million of McCall's to a more manageable 3.5 million, began to climb again; the premiere issue sold 750,000 copies on the newsstand, a key barometer of a magazine's ability to reach readers.

But since the spring, when O'Donnell gave up her talkshow, the relationship between her and Gruner & Jahr soured, growing worse when the company replaced the founding editor whom O'Donnell liked with a top editor of People, ostensibly to stem a sudden plunge in newsstand sales. The two sides communicated only through their attorneys, which of course turned the bitter feud into all-out war for control of Rosie. Marketers were caught in the middle, unsure if their ad pages were going to run in a magazine that would be Rosie in name only.

On 18 September, O'Donnell announced she was washing her hands of Rosie, which led Gruner & Jahr to post a closing notice effective with the December issue. It's the first shutdown of a major women's service magazine since 1957, when Woman's Home Companion folded amid the collapse of Crowell-Collier.

Soon after O'Donnell's disclosure, Gruner & Jahr, which O'Donnell suspected of leaking unflattering reports about her personal life to the tabloids, let fly a caustic e-mail, declaring she had "walked away from ... her fans, the advertising community, her business partner and her contractual responsibilities" - and, perhaps most heinous of all, "her brand".

Perhaps if Shakespeare were still around, he might take a break in his brainstorming sessions with the Conde Nast brass about Will The Magazine to pen these cautionary lines: "Oh, what a tangled tale we weave, when a human brand is up our sleeve."


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