The most surprising thing about Mort Zuckerman's media career -- perhaps the most surprising thing even to Mort Zuckerman -- is that it is going to make him an incredible amount of money. What he stands to make in the media business may surpass even his margins in the real-estate business.
It might or might not be ironic that the media property that is going to make him all this money is the one he has had the least to do with. Zuckerman, whose properties include the Daily News, U.S. News & World Report, and (until its sale a month ago) The Atlantic Monthly, went into the media business, like many rich men before him, to increase his social cachet, celebrity standing, and political power. The property, however, that is going to make him all this money -- it is for sale with an asking price of as much as $200 million -- is one that is uninterested in (even ignorant of) the chattering classes, deeply resistant to celebrity culture, and blissfully uninvolved with politics.
In fact, that's the formula -- eschewing cachet, celebrity, and politics; the Zuckerman antidote, you could almost call it ("Don't believe all the recent buzz about the rise of the individual. As we move into the next century, both our work and leisure activities will require stronger team, organizational, or community affiliations," proclaims the magazine, quoting psychologist Maureen O'Hara) -- that has made the Zuckerman-owned Fast Company the hottest magazine in the country. Quite possibly there is no one more shocked by Fast Company's unlikely success than Mort Zuckerman himself.
Actually, there is probably at least one other person who is as shocked, and that is Tina Brown.
Talk, of course, was supposed to become the year's hot magazine by applying the Tina formula: highlight and exalt those individuals who by dint of audacity, originality, beauty (or even ugliness; remember her famous profile of the Manhattan dominatrix), obnoxiousness, perversity, brutishness, brilliance, lineage, and/or wealth have risen above the rest of us. All well and good. But if Fast Company is hot -- its current issue is a Vogue-size 450 pages -- and if it has gotten hot by creating a world where social class doesn't exist, where hierarchies are flattened, where no one is edgy or ironic or even all that verbal, where the group replaces the individual, and where you can be really, really successful, even billion-dollar successful (success is ultimately the point about Fast Company as well as Tina Brown's magazines) without having to become Ronald Perelman, well, you can see how it might be hard for both visions of success to be hot at the same time.
Hot is not so much a description of a magazine as a status. Although it is less codified than "best-seller" for books, or "hit" for movie, or "front-runner" for politician, it is no less meaningful. Achieving heat is how a magazine without limitless resources (i.e., a consumer magazine not published by Time Inc., Hearst, or Condé Nast) survives its start-up phase (there are many other, potentially mortal, issues that occur after that phase).
Heat happens quickly, customarily within a magazine's first year -- that is, before its numbers (circulation, renewal rates, demographic profile) are audited and disseminated to the advertising agencies who will or will not put the magazine on a media schedule. Heat, in other words, is not reality -- but heat helps create reality. Heat is a big first weekend. Heat is an unexpected showing in the Iowa caucuses. Heat is the Big Mo.
"In the Fast Company world, everyone works for a rational, progressive, evolving company, is approximately the same age, and is involved in a gratifying personal economic leap forward -- except you."
Heat starts at the newsstand. A really successful magazine, reliably positioned up in the front even with special racks, sells only half the copies it puts out. So when, for instance, Wired, in 1993, sold out its first issue, then the second, then the third (although the total number of copies sold was a fraction of an established magazine's), rumors of heat began. Then there's the mail drop: the first 250,000 or so subscription offers sent to a list of names of people who have bought other similar magazines. A "soft offer," that is, "no risk, no obligation, first three issues free" (as close as it comes to "we pay you"), customarily entices 1 and 1/2 to 3 percent of recipients to return the no-postage-required card (less than half of whom will ultimately write a check), so when word began to circulate that Spy, in an early drop, was hitting 7 and 8 and 9 percent, that was hot.
But most of all, the estimate of heat lies with a group of recent college graduates employed by multinational advertising agencies who are known as media buyers. It is their taste and hankerings and inclinations and general feeling for the Zeitgeist (and sometimes what parties they have been invited to -- although the Talk party does not seem to have helped Talk) that most of all determines the temperature of a new magazine. "God, you are so ass-kicking hot!" said a young woman with a name tag that put her in the media department at a worldwide ad agency to Alan Webber, the former Harvard Business Review editor and nebbishy co-founder of Fast Company. We were sitting together on a magazine-industry panel where I was ignoring him (and what I thought, at the time of its sixth or seventh issue, was his pretty lame magazine) to talk to one of the Wired art directors. (In another instance of missing this particular next big thing, I commiserated with the father of my high-school classmate Bill Breen, who took a job as senior editor at Fast Company after his stint at the short-lived environmental magazine Garbage. I agreed with his father, a television career man, that it was almost impossible to make a career in the magazine business outside New York.)