The announcement last year that the Australian publishing giant John Fairfax Ltd. was taking control of Ms. magazine, America's most widely read feminist periodical, was greeted with reactions ranging from enthusiasm to dismay.
Would a professional editorial and marketing operation expand the magazine's audience? Or would commercial pressures from distributors and advertisers dilute the journal's politics?
The current issue, the first with Aussie Anne Summers at the helm, only partly answers such questions. The most notable change is in the quantity and style of political coverage. Freed of constraints governing nonprofit organizations, the new Ms. has an expanded news section that, for example, rates the presidential candidates on such issues as abortion, child care, the equal rights amendment and civil rights.
New Writers on Board
Dallas Times Herald political columnist Molly Ivins has become a regular contributor and John Leonard begins his column on the media with the March issue. Also new: Alexandra Armstrong's money column and conversations between prominent women.
According to Margaret Bald of the National Writers' Union, Fairfax has increased rates for writers "substantially," to a competitive $1 per word. In addition, writers are being paid on time, which was not always the case in the old days.
Though they may not be of concern to the average reader, the mechanics of editing deeply affect the quality of a magazine. Writing for the old Ms. was, as a former contributor puts it, "almost always an outrage."
Since the magazine was run as a collective, everyone on the staff could have input on any article.
"They got in the habit," another writer said, "of seeing every assigned piece as an opportunity for elaboration. You were likely to find the strangest things in your copy."
Now, Summers said, "No piece will be handled by more than one editor besides myself."
The magazine's new, wider, saddle-stitched format "enables us to design nicer looking layouts, but still be treated like a weekly by the news dealers," she said.
The budgets for photographs, illustrations and design also have been increased.
One small cloud on the horizon involves the February cover story about Colorado Rep. Pat Schroeder, who considered running for President. Written by veteran political writer Jane O'Reilly and titled "Who's Crying Now," the story inspired a Hollywood-style brouhaha between the writer and editors.
The article, which argues that the energetic eight-term congresswoman from Denver has "moved firmly into the leadership of progressive, feminist political forces," applies an original and informative perspective to an event that was treated routinely by the established political media.
However, O'Reilly--whose piece on "The Click Moment" graced the magazine's first issue in July, 1972--was upset enough by the editing to consult a Hollywood attorney who normally handles disputes over screenwriting credits. Eventually, O'Reilly asked to have the name of her immediate editor, Gloria Jacobs, added to the byline to underscore that she no longer considered it "her" story.
The writer said she has adopted a wait-and-see attitude toward the new Ms.
"What happened to me may not be a really good example of what will happen to others," she said. "I may have gotten stuck in the transition from the old to the new."
Editor Summers dismisses the contretemps.
An 'Important Story'
"Jane submitted a very long piece near deadline. We had to collapse into a week an editing process that normally would have taken five or six weeks. It is a good and important story with lessons for the future of the women's movement."
Summers said she is "about 80% happy" with the new Ms.
"The principal role of a feminist magazine in the late '80s," she said, "is the assumption we bring to bear, not as an ideological or theological approach but as a practical matter, that women still have a way to go. It's why we look at subjects like child care or discriminatory insurance policies. And why we look at lessons for the future in the experiences of women like Pat Schroeder."
The up-and-coming Westar Media publishing company in Redwood City will introduce yet another slick design magazine in mid-April--Southern California Home & Garden.
It's the brainchild of Westar's chief executive, Sloan Citron, the 31-year-old publisher who moved to the Bay Area 2 1/2 years ago from the Sunshine State, where he was general manager of Miami magazine and South Florida Home & Garden.
Westar's first venture, Peninsula, was born six months later in April, 1986. Covering San Francisco's southern suburbs in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, Peninsula is an upscale monthly closer to New York magazine in looks and aspirations than its Los Angeles counterpart.
In the spring of 1987, the company introduced a successful series of hard-cover hotel guest books for three geographic regions surrounding the Bay Area. Then, last October, came Northern California Home & Garden, a monthly inquiry into the houses, art, furniture, collectibles, gadgets, recipes and gardens of the region's upwardly mobile residents. Its circulation is now 50,000.
"The secret of magazine publishing today," Citron said, "is to find your niche." He argues that national magazines can't address regional issues and interests--especially when it comes to design.
"The homes, the landscaping and gardening materials, the design materials we cover (in the new journal) will reflect the climate and conditions of Southern California," he said.
Canvassing an area from Ventura to Orange County and from the beach cities to Palm Springs, Southern California Home & Garden will "offer homeowners a vehicle with which to better accomplish their goals," according to the publisher.
Regional Issues Featured
National publications aren't going to devote money columns to the pros and cons of earthquake insurance or discuss the effects of smog on native plants in gardening reports, he said.
The publisher's market studies indicate that the Northern California edition is reaching an affluent audience. Editor Angeline Vogel, recruited from chic but accessible Bon Appetit, said the southern version will be original and appropriate to the region it covers.
"We will have local writers covering local artists, craftsmen and architects," she said. We hope to be very strong on local gardening. We want to be full of information people can immediately use."
The magazine will sell for $2 and "never be shorter than the first issue's 84 pages," Vogel said. The premiere issue, due April 13, will feature a Silver Lake greenhouse that has been remodeled into a one-bedroom cottage, how-to columns on working with an interior designer and shopping for home security equipment, a photographic tour of the Fairfax District, and a look at kitchens of professional cooks.
The winter issue of Granta, the British quarterly of international writing, edited by American Bill Buford, headlines a powerful, sharp comic novella by Hanif Kureishi, who wrote the screenplay for "My Beautiful Laundrette."
Also featured is a memoir by Wycliffe Kato, writing about Uganda's breakdown under Idi Amin, and CBS News producer Leslie Cockburn's report, "Guns for Drugs: America's Secret War." Doris Lessing, Carlos Fuentas, James Fenton, and Nadine Gordimer also contributed pieces. (Granta, $6.95 per issue or $25 for one year, is distributed by Penguin. Write: Dept H5, Granta, P.O. Box 909, Farmingdale, N.Y. 11737.)