American Pie 26.02.04

It’s been dubbed the Battle of the Billboard. And it’s heating up. It started when The New York Post rented a billboard facing the offices of the rival New York Daily News and splashed across it a 66ft long poster boasting of the latest Post circulation figures. It read “New York Post Circulation: 652,427”, with the last two figures whirring like a car’s odometer. According to the Post, News executives went to the billboard owner and demanded the poster be taken down.

Told the Post had rented the sign for a year, they reportedly went ballistic and asked if they could buy the space above it to put up their own sign.

Turned down, they are said to be scouting the area for another vacant billboard. Post publisher Lachlan Murdoch, whose idea it was, says: “I was just being a little mischievous.” A spokesman for the billboard company says: “We never thought we were starting another tabloid war.”

Is Forbes watching the pennies? First the heirs to Malcolm Forbes, founder of the publishing empire, sell off their father’s collection of Fabergé eggs to a Russian collector; now the company is licensing its business name for products that range from calendars to furniture. Although Malcolm Forbes left a fortune estimated to be in excess of $1bn when he died in 1990, a lot of it went in taxes, and lately business magazines have suffered from the ad decline more than most. Also Steve Forbes, eldest of his four sons, spent an estimated $76m on two unsuccessful stabs at the US presidency. His brother Kip is now behind the effort to shore up the family finances – and has initiated a number of commercial ventures, including a wine label, jewellery and designer furniture.

Another title being careful with the cash is Reader’s Digest. After more than 80 years as a private company, it’s now publicly owned. Like all publishing companies it’s had some difficult times lately. Its circulation has declined from about 16 million a decade ago to just over 11 million. A crackdown on sweepstakes, which for years were used to sell books, videos and music, was a severe blow. It has reached the point where it has had to lay off almost 600 staff. It has also sold much of the famous art collection of its founders DeWitt and Lila Wallace. Now there is a plan to sell off its headquarters outside New York. If a buyer can be found, Reader’s Digest will rent the property back.

On a more upbeat note, more and more US and European magazines are making inroads in other parts of the world, notably in the Far East. Magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Elle, Marie Claire, Esquire, InStyle, GQ and Harper’s Bazaar vie for space on news-stands in cities like Seoul and Bangkok. The magazine with the most overseas editions is Cosmo, with 51.

In total, Hearst has 135 foreign editions, Hachette Filipacchi has 238 titles worldwide, while Condé Nast has 75. One result is a war of giveaways to attract readers. To push its South Korean edition, Cosmo Girl! has offered readers a shoulder bag, calendar, makeup box and a coupon worth 10,000 won (almost £5) -twice the magazine’s cover price.

When is retirement not retirement? When it’s at The Washington Post. Recently the paper offered long-term employees aged over 55 early retirement at very attractive figures. So good, in fact, it was overwhelmed by the response. More than 50 reporters, editors, photographers and other newsroom staff opted for retirement – so many that putting out the Post became threatened. Rather than withdrawing the offer, the paper has offered a dozen or so would-be retirees contracts if they continue to work as freelances. On their old pay, of course…

By Jeffrey Blyth

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