Confirming rumors that had circulated for about two weeks, the Hearst Corporation on Tuesday replaced Terry McDonell, the gruff, straight-shooting editor of Esquire magazine with Edward Kosner, editor and president of New York magazine.
Hearst press releases did not explain the reasons for the shake-up, and neither D. Claeys Bahrenburg, president of Hearst Magazines, nor Alan Stiles, Esquire’s publisher, would comment.
But industry sources say McDonell’s abrupt move to Hearst’s Sports Afield reflects management concern that Esquire had become “diffuse and erratic” and, more significantly, that “the numbers"--the magazine’s circulation and advertising sales figures--had slumped. Competition among men’s magazines has been particularly tough as magazines in general have suffered through a recession.
“For Hearst, it seems like a new strategy,” says Keith J. Kelly, editor of Folio: First Day, an industry newsletter. “Whenever a book is a little sluggish or sleepy, go out and recruit a superstar to revitalize it with the advertising community.”
Kosner, who Kelly’s newsletter has said will receive a package at Esquire worth $600,000 annually, had been with New York magazine since 1980, and edited at Newsweek for 16 years before that.
“I realized I’d edited 675 individual issues of New York magazine,” Kosner said Wednesday. “I love it. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. But there comes a time when maybe one should turn to something else: New problems, new issues, new questions. It’s a healthy thing to do. . . . Obviously there will be changes. Magazines have to be compelling and interesting. If they are, people want to read them, and advertisers want to be in them.”
Stephen Randall, West Coast editor of Playboy, sees Kosner as “an odd match for Esquire. I think New York is a great magazine, but it’s hard to see how that sensibility translates into Esquire. McDonell, Randall said, did a good, but not a great job.
James Truman, who became editor of Details magazine in 1990, about the same time McDonell went to Esquire, is more sympathetic: “I always found something very good and interesting in every issue of Esquire. But as we know, in publishing it’s always about, ‘Is the package hot, sexy and fun?’ Perhaps the components of Esquire were better than the perception.”
McDonell, while remaining stoic about what is clearly a demotion, when pressed, revealed a similar view.
“One of the most difficult questions any editor has to wrestle with is whether they spend time trying to create a great magazine, or promoting themselves as great editors,” he said. “This is especially complicated when few people have time to read everything that they should read to do their jobs well--I’m talking here about everyone from the advertising community to newspaper magazine critics.
“I was fortunate at Esquire to have readers who truly read and appreciate great writing. And I was gratified by their response to the magazine. And I would suggest that the amount we were off in advertising pages may have been symptomatic of something else.”
While his move to the traditional Sports Afield strikes some as odd, it should be noted that McDonell previously worked at Rocky Mountain Magazine and Outside, and had launched the successful Esquire Sportsman during his three-year reign.