O Positive – O, The Oprah Magazine, profile – Statistical Data Included

Noreen O’Leary

The print version of Oprah Winfrey’s philosophy was the hottest launch of 2000 … maybe the hottest of any year

It’s hard to imagine Hearst Magazines president Cathie Black taking a back seat to anyone. But here she is at a recent photo shoot offering to move behind Oprah Winfrey, already seated on a gold brocade loveseat.

Black suggests that the famous editorial director of O, the Oprah Magazine should take center stage in a portrait celebrating the success of her self-titled launch. Oprah, making a joke about the queen and her subjects, disagrees. But the deferential moment on the part of one of the most powerful executives in publishing serves as a reminder that with the debut of O, we have left the world of conventional magazines in which giant Hearst dwells. For all its editorial clout, Black’s company finds itself in the unusual role of acting as the conduit for a secular spiritual phenomenon larger than any media outlet.

“In my 15 years of dealing with people and their dysfunctions, day in and day out,” says Winfrey, “I’ve learned that the word that most defines this decade, even this century, is disconnect. What this magazine does is reconnect people to what deserves priority and to bring meaning to their lives.”

Winfrey’s philosophy provides inspiration and aspiration, Black adds. “We’ve just capitalized on what she stands for.”

That business opportunity, for Hearst and Winfrey’s Harpo Entertainment, has become nothing less than awesome. With little advance marketing, the initial newsstand issue of 1.6 million virtually sold out. It didn’t take long for 1.9 million subscribers to sign up, and at Christmas another 420,000 gift subscriptions rolled in. Advertisers lined up as well, with the book carrying 905 ad pages in its six issues for 2000. O’s initial conservative rate base of 500,000 has already been increased to 1.3 million and, with the July issue, it will go up again, to 1.9 million.

Jill Seelig, O’s publisher, says that more than 8 percent of the magazine’s advertisers are from the technology and financial sectors, and an equal amount is derived from automotive companies. “Marketers are trying to strike that chord with women,” Seelig says. “Suddenly there’s a lifestyle magazine that makes the fit.”

Not that everyone buys into Oprah’s new-age vision. But Manhattan editors who sneer at Winfrey the publishing novice, and her motivational mix of features, pull-out quotes and soul-searching diary exercises, take note: In the last half of 2000, O averaged more than 1.2 million single-copy sales. It outsold established Hearst rivals In Style, Self, Glamour and Vogue on the newsstand, as well as corporate siblings such as Good Housekeeping, Harper’s Bazaar and Victoria. After the first few issues, Hearst began getting more than 1,000 e-mails a day from O readers.

Winfrey is well on her way to influencing the content of women’s magazines beyond her own, just as she has helped reshape daytime TV and the world of book publishing.

“O is starting a revolution, and you’ll see the effects of it everywhere,” says Harlan Schwarz, svp/director of media planning and print services at McCann New York. “All of a sudden, spirituality has come alive in the female marketplace.”

And it doesn’t stop there. While eponymous celebrity magazines are nothing new–wildly popular Martha Stewart Living, published by the doyenne of domesticity herself, is 10 years old–Oprah’s magazine has kicked the genre into high gear. G+J USA Publishing has retired McCall’s and in April will replace it with Rosie, the Magazine, a lifestyle monthly starring talk show host Rosie O’Donnell.

“I can’t do what Rosie does; she can’t do what I do,” Winfrey says. “It’s not just about a name. It’s about what my name stands for. You have to do the work. Your name alone doesn’t sell magazines. I think Rosie will do the work.”

It would be easy to write off O’s success as just an offshoot of Winfrey’s appeal to an estimated TV audience of 22 million a week. But the magazine is resonating with a larger audience, career women who aren’t home watching her show. A recent readership study showed that nearly 50 percent of O readers have professional/managerial jobs. Some 11 percent of respondents never watch her show, while another 43 percent watch less than half the time it’s on the air.

“O is geared toward a reader who’s more affluent than a daytime television viewer,” says Black. “It opens up new market opportunities.”

Winfrey’s appeal, of course, has always relied on a kind of universality that crosses age, race and class lines. Now on her way to becoming the first black billionaire, she has lost none of her relevance to coupon-clipping fans. Winfrey’s credibility provides a real-person editorial voice in a women’s category given to formulaic convention.

“This magazine originates in the persona, values and image of Oprah” says fashion magazine veteran Amy Gross, O’s editor-in-chief. “We’re speaking to a set of values, not a set of demographics. We try to create a very intimate conversation with readers.”

In July, Gross succeeded launch editor Ellen Kunes, who resigned after O’s third issue. She left amid staff turnover reportedly due to the frustration and pressure of trying to please both sides of the Hearst-Harpo partnership. Founding publisher Alyce Alston also left after the third issue.

Gross reportedly shares Winfrey’s exacting standards and came well prepared to collaborate with the Chicago-based personality, having worked for another magazine founder with a strong point of view, Grace Mirabella. She also has explored her own personal-growth paths, attending a couple of three-month, silence-only Buddhist retreats. When she began to interview for the O job, she was about to enroll at New York University for a master’s degree in psychology.

In her first meeting with Winfrey, before she landed the job, Gross says they both agreed on what was wrong with the magazine. “The writing was uneven,” she recalls. “We wanted it more consistent. I wanted the images to be larger. Oprah likes pictures that bleed off the page and are in-your-face. She doesn’t like pictures that are cold, Nordic, edgy.”

Under Gross’ direction, the magazine’s core mix of advice, spirituality, beauty, fashion, health, lifestyle and fitness remains intact. An O staple is Winfrey’s interviews with inspirational figures from Maya Angelou and Elie Wiesel to Jane Fonda and Martha Stewart. Winfrey also writes a column called “What I Know for Sure,” in which she offers her feelings on various personal-growth issues.

Winfrey, whose face has made other magazines big sellers, has appeared on every cover of O. Shot by the likes of Patrick Demarchelier, Winfrey decides what she wants to wear for the lush shots and where she will be photographed. Gross says there are no concerns about institutionalizing the magazine’s cover around Winfrey’s visage, and there are no plans to change. “It’s simple: When you put Qprah on the cover, you sell more,” she says.

When Oprah appeared on the November cover in a ruby-colored Gianfranco Ferre gown, Ferre was swamped with orders from women of all sizes, from all over the country. It’s that immediate bond with readers that’s fueling O’s success. The magazine’s editors make no apologies for features like “portable inspiration” quotations, journal-like writing exercises and good-deed checklists, which all help create that emotional link.

Says Ellen Levine, the editor of Good Housekeeping and O’s editorial consultant: “You either like that stuff or you don’t. They’re connections; sometimes they serve as inspiration, sometimes as reminders. New York media people are skeptical about anything that is attached to emotion. But they don’t get it. They’re out of touch with mass America.”

Manhattan-based Gross stays in touch with her heartland editor, Winfrey, by talking on the phone at least once a week, and they e-mail every day. As an issue closes, Winfrey is sent pages every night.

“Those stories about Oprah being a micromanager aren’t true,” offers Gross. “She might object to an image of a model looking too thin, but she’s not telling me how to edit.” (O’s fashion spreads do tend to use svelte models.)

Gross pokes fun at her own instincts, saying Winfrey is helping her unlearn fashion magazine formulas. “[Oprah] tells the truth without hype,” she says. “I’d do exaggerated cover lines and she’d say, ‘No, we don’t do things that way.’ [The magazine] has a simple purity. It’s beautiful to do a magazine that is direct from idea to page.”

By insider accounts, the run-up to O’s debut was hardly that simple. By her own admission, Winfrey wasn’t happy with the early art direction and copy. She insisted the magazine’s table of contents be placed on page two–prime real estate for advertisers in women’s books–and she had definite opinions about marketing. She refused to allow O’s first issue to be displayed alongside Hearst’s Cosmopolitan, and she didn’t want O advertised on her show, believing that all her media properties should stand on their own. And Winfrey wasn’t happy with a cover price she thought to be too low for the image of quality she wanted to convey. In April, the price will be raised to $3.50 from $2.95.

Hearst itself added to the back-and-forth complications. According to one company insider: “Hearst got nervous about who was running the show. At one point [group publishing director] Ann Fuchs was kind of in the picture, kind of not. [Chief marketing officer] Michael Clinton was trying to get involved, There were so many Hearst-ites hovering.

“You have to admire her: Oprah tried to break with a lot of conventional wisdom and try some new things. She has a lot of disdain for commercialism and marketing. [Hearst] tried to fight her for a year, and now they leave her alone.”

Despite all that, Winfrey felt an early affinity for Hearst, choosing it as a partner after other publishing companies came courting. In the fall of 1998, Good Housekeeping’s Levine, who had witnessed the newsstand appeal of an Oprah cover first-hand at GH, approached her about working on a magazine. By the following January, Levine and Cathie Black went back to Winfrey with tables of contents, prototypes, paper samples and a video of women voicing their interest in an Oprah magazine. Winfrey didn’t buy into the magazine’s proposed name, Oprah’s Spirit, but she liked Hearst’s two envoys and their ideas. She signed on to the magazine concept in June 1999.

Prior to launch, Hearst did a study that showed the magazine would, at the very least, have a solid fan base from which to start building. About 80 percent of Oprah viewers were likely to read the magazine and, the study added, 60 percent of non-viewers said they would do so as well. Lisa Walco, a Los Angeles attorney, falls into the latter category. “Depending on your insight into new-age thinking, the magazine can affect you in different ways,” she says. “For the general population, it can open their eyes to being the best they can be and to function better generally in their lives. To others, it’s a powerful tool. I’ve become quite a fan.”

About 1.9 million American woman would agree.

Noreen O’Leary is an editor-at-large at Adweek.

COPYRIGHT 2001 BPI Communications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group

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