In 1983, Black left New York for USA Today. “People thought I was crazy: ‘You’ve got a great job in New York and you’re going to put yourself into the fray of the newspaper business, where you’ve never been? With a start-up that is not going to make it?’ ” she says. “But I thought to myself, This is an opportunity to throw myself into a real game-changer. This could completely transform the future of the newspaper business.” Plus her husband of one year, Tom Harvey, a lawyer, was working for Republican senator Alan Simpson in Washington, D.C., not far from USA Today’s offices in suburban Virginia.
“She was transformational,” says Tom Curley, USA Today’s former president and now the head of the Associated Press. “She came in and had a profile in the ad community that was absolutely necessary. A general-interest national newspaper was a new thing and an odd duck, and she really got people beyond that. She has both the energy and the articulation skills to move the conversation down the road, and she did.”
Yet USA Today became profitable only after Black left to head a newspaper-industry lobbying group. In November 1995, Black was hired as president of Hearst Magazines. “Many of the magazines were doing very well when Cathie arrived,” says Valerie Salembier, who worked for Black at USA Today and soon joined her at Hearst, first as publisher of Esquire and now of Harper’s Bazaar. “Cosmo has always been a big success; Redbook was doing well; Good Housekeeping, Town & Country, Country Living—it was a strong group of magazines.”
Black carefully shored up that profitable core group while launching a few big hits and a number of misses. CosmoGirl, a spinoff from Cosmopolitan, struggled for nine years before being closed; Shop Etc. magazine lasted for only two. She revitalized Esquire by hiring David Granger, who had been a top editor at GQ, Esquire’s longtime rival. “She’s remarkably direct,” Granger says. “Coming from Condé Nast, I remember [GQ editor] Art Cooper would spend hours every day trying to parse the tea leaves: Are you in? Are you out? What did Si [Newhouse] mean by what he said? With Cathie, you never had to wonder. She wanted her magazines and the people who worked for them to be successful. And she’s very direct in letting you know there was a better path than the one you were on.”
Her most dramatic delivery of cold reality came in January 2002. Talk magazine had been launched in a whirlwind of hype, glamour, and ego. Celebrity editor Tina Brown teamed with Harvey Weinstein of Miramax to create not just a monthly magazine but a book company that would synergize their access to Hollywood, Washington, and Wall Street. Or something. Hearst signed on as a financial and distribution partner. Which didn’t mean that the expensive conceptenjoyed Black’s enthusiasm. “When the idea is your idea, you usually champion it. And when it’s not, you usually don’t,” says Ron Galotti, the brash former publisher of Vogue who joined forces with Brown and Weinstein in the new venture. “And Talk wasn’t Cathie’s idea.” Black shut down the magazine after two money-losing years.
Talk was conspicuous at Hearst because it was a big risk and run by bold personalities; the magazine group under Black was otherwise dependably prudent and cautious. “Hearst is very proud of its workmanlike, professional, efficient, smart, bottom-line way of putting out their magazines,” a former Hearst editor says. “And they resented all the attention Condé Nast got, often by spending shitloads of money, which Hearst wouldn’t do. So they’d be envious in one way and superior in another way: ‘We’re really good managers; they just throw money at things.’ ”
Black’s time at Hearst included two enormous successes: O, the Oprah Magazine and Food NetworkMagazine. Black claims that the concept for both titles came out of “visioning” retreats she led with Hearst editors. But insiders credit Ellen Levine, the longtime editor of Good Housekeeping who is now Hearst’s editorial director, for doing the real labor to make both start-ups happen. Nevertheless, Black gave each the green light and helped make the crucial sale to Oprah Winfrey. She also kept Hearst’s magazines largely profitable through one of the worst downturns in mainstream publishing. “During the recent economic crisis,” Salembier says, “she made all of us believe, the editors and publishers, that we could do this with less people, that we were good enough and smart enough to problem-solve.”
Her budget trimming followed a pattern. “When Cathie was cutting costs, she would bring in somebody from the outside for a review,” a Hearst executive says. “Michael Wolf, the consultant, has been in here when he was at Booz Allen, he was in here when he was at McKinsey, and he will go at it in the mathematical pattern that they always use. Then the internal people will act on the findings. Cathie knew bringing some consultant in was more effective because it’s not personal.”