Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Rodale: When Organic Wants to Become a Noun

I keep an eye on Rodale out of both interest and fondness.  I got my start in publishing at Rodale and remain grateful for the generous publishing tutorials provided by ex-President Bob Teufel and other executives.  This newly minted PhD had a lot to learn about the media business.

When the late Chairman Bob Rodale interviewed me for a position, he asked me what I thought about the company’s magazines.  I said from what I had seen of Prevention and Organic Gardening, they looked a little scruffy.  He laughed and hired me anyway.  I would soon learn how powerful and profitable these two scruffy magazines were.

The 1980s and 1990s were a dizzying time for Rodale in terms of acquisitions and startups including Runner’s World, The Runner, Bicycling, Cross Country Skiing, Men’s Health and Backpacker, some no longer in the fold.  These initiatives substantially enlarged Rodale’s demographic and editorial base, bringing young men and upscale advertisers to a company that had been largely down-market. 

Rodale had just announced the launch of Organic Life, which would subsume Organic Gardening where I spent a few pleasurable years trying to find the right positioning for a back-to-the land, largely mail-order magazine that was losing some of its luster and margin.  Rodale has long wanted to define “organic” as both a marketing and an editorial category, one that could attract a substantial advertising base.

In the early 1990s, Rodale, with help from Martha Stewart as a consultant, took Organic Gardening from digest-size to a full-size magazine, at the same time expanding the editorial base from gardening to cooking and d├ęcor.  This was a major and expensive undertaking by a company that had long enjoyed the financial befits of digest-size magazines.  Neither the company nor the market was then ready for this kind of repositioning.  The magazine remained full-size but settled into a predictable how-to editorial offering.    

Rodale hasn’t always been lucky combining core company values with the vicissitudes of the marketplace. The company launched Spring, the Magazine of High Energy Living, in 1983 without fully thinking through its advertising policy which rejected cosmetics that were made with chemicals.  That was not the message Madison Avenue wanted to hear.  Spring was shut down in less than a year.

The company tried again in 2001 with Organic Style to push the definition of organic to include designer dresses, European makeup, and other upmarket offerings, but the magazine was closed in 2005.  The timing was bad, the editorial was not compelling and the market has apparently not yet ready to embraces “organic” as an advertising and marketing category--in other words, as a noun.

But the third time or so might be the charm.  Organic Life, with the existing Organic Gardening as its base property, will be launched in 2015 into the so-called healthy living category that includes Hearst’s Dr. Oz The Good Life and Naturally, Danny Seo, a joint venture with Harris publications.  Rodale has hired James Oseland, a well-regarded editor from Saveur, to run the show.

Both the Hearst and the Harris titles are selling briskly on the newsstand, a good indicator of the vitality of a new title.  These magazines have an advantage in that Dr. Oz and Danny Seo are well-known and are celebrities in their own right with multiple platforms available to promote their titles.  Rodale possesses the same assets.  Perhaps a strategic question is whether the management is willing to let the new editor become a celebrity of sorts to compete in this very personalized space.  The company wasn’t pleased when the editor at Men’s Health assumed an oversized role.

Perhaps even more important is that Rodale doesn’t try to too narrowly define “organic” as it has done in the past.  The word has entered the marketplace as both lifestyle and slogan.  On the practical level, there is no evidence that organic food is necessarily better for you, but there seems a growing interest in organic, holistic living and health.  Editor Oseland promises a magazine that is community and a “clearinghouse of beautiful, authoritative information that will weave together food, shelter, gardening and good living.”

I wish Oseland every success, although I have seen this memo before.  Rodale’s other entries in the category covered similar terrain.  The key will be in the tone and the editorial voice; it will be all in the weaving. 

Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Biggest Sea Story of All

Former wrestler and ex-Governor of Minnesota Jesse Ventura was interviewed remotely on CBS This Morning by Charlie Rose and company about his successful defamation suit against the estate of late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle worth $1.845 million.  After the pleasantries, the hosts pressed Ventura on why he would sue and take money from the estate of a dead SEAL and his wife and children.  After all, Ventura was also a Navy SEAL.  Ventura responded that they should ask the jury who awarded the dollar amount.

When pressed further, he said the case was about his good name.  He had not in fact been punched out by Kyle in a bar fight in 2006 over comments about Navy SEALS’ actions during the Iraq War.  In Ventura’s words, that never happened and therefore when Kyle referred to the episode in a book and later identified the Governor in public, Ventura was defamed.  And no, he would make no attempt to talk to Kyle’s widow. But he would visit the office of Kyle’s book publisher HarperCollins to chat about the “incident.”  The publisher seemed to get the word and announced shortly after the interview that it would pull the episode in question from future editions.

It was a very strange interview. In the one corner was this relaxed, tanned and hulking ex-wrestler, politician, reality television “truth” seeker weighing in at around 280 pounds.  And by the way Ventura pointed out to his interlocutors that he was on blood thinner at the time of the “incident” and would have been marked by the alleged altercation and would surely have bled. He did not mention his titanium hip replacement.

And in the other corner three focused, professional journalists who asked and probed and did their best but seemed to get nowhere. But the last question got to the heart of the matter. Why would Chris Kyle, America’s most lethal sniper, make up such a bogus story and put it in his book?  Why would he need to?  Didn’t the man have enough “bona fides?”  

Ventura replied that it’s a sea story.  Sailors tell these stories all the time.  One sailor tells another who tells another and so on.  As a Navy veteran who just finished a novel about sea stories, I thought the Governor was reading my mind.

I don’t think this was the answer the hosts wanted or expected. In the dullness of the morning this remark from another time zone, whether “true” or not, seemed to land like a thud on the newsroom floor.  I’m not sure why this response about “tall tales” should have been particularly surprising.  Hiding behind various personas served Ventura well as a professional wrestler and politician.  His recent stint as host of Conspiracy Theories on truTV, which explored everything from FEMA preparing for a Police State to reptilians masquerading as humans in their quest to control the world, proved Ventura has a sense of humor.  And yes, he even sued TSA for aggressive pat-downs. He did mention to that people should take his cancelled television show with a grain of salt.  But he did hint at a “conspiracy” in the cancellation.

I would not have been surprised if Gayle King or her associates asked Ventura that, when referring to sea stories was he referring to Moby-Dick, The Old Man and the Sea, or Treasure Island?  I’ve had this kind of conversation many times over the years while working on my novel, sometimes in earnest, sometimes in jest, and sometimes to send me packing.  After four years at sea and sleeping under too many stars, it’s reasonable to assume a sailor might need his head examined.     

I experienced this first hand, whether guys were bragging about previous engagements, surviving deadly typhoons or their sexual conquests.  I served during the Vietnam adventure and the sea stories ran apace with the military confusions, on-board conflicts and Vietcong in every sampan. There was certainly a psychological element to all of this.

Men and women who are far away from home, displaced, terrified or wounded often tell stories to lessen the pain and place memories, real or imagined in the “collective.”  The ship itself is a psychological container and “vessel” that can wear on a crew after months or years at sea.  In the Navy lexicon a sea story has more than a hint of exaggeration, such as when my ammunition ship swore it had an arsonist on board who grew more dangerous by the day.  I do wonder what the guys are telling their children and grandchildren about this event that hardly made it into the ship’s log book.  Sea stories can also be a contagion and spread fast when pushed by a punishing wind.  And ships can talk.

I can imagine the scene as if it were yesterday.  I am at the ship’s helm taking commands from my captain as we made our way through an Okinawa harbor.  From a distance I can see that the compass directions the skipper is giving me will put me on a collision course with an aircraft carrier.  My only recourse is to say, “Repeat Sir,” as if I did not understand the command.  The skipper repeated the order and I repeated my response at least four times until the captain gave me the final order, reminding me that I was disobeying a direct order. At that point, the Executive Officer assumed responsibilities for the deck and conn and ordered me to turn hard to starboard.  I did with the collision horn ringing in my ears. We missed the carrier by the skin of our teeth.  So I am able to tell this story again and again. Was I really looking through the early morning fog?  Was I seeing things?  Did the skipper have a death wish?

After the passage of time I like to keep my sea stories in deep water where they are well-feed and unpredictable with no respect for tides, time or compass. 

I have also called on the sea gods relentlessly, and they mercifully kept the wind at my back for 100,000 words or so.  Sea stories that contain a psychological resonance might well become narrative fiction or a novel.  Mine is called “USS Bunker Kills: A Sea Story.”  It’s available at Amazon in paperback and on Kindle.