When Jack Kliger took over Elle and Hachette's other US titles in 1999, he established himself as one of the magazine industry's few multimedia visionaries. The former Conde Nast publisher pushed Hachette's content onto EchoStar's interactive TV platform; Hachette's Car and Driver teamed up with the USA Network to produce a reality show spin-off of Cannonball Run, the cross-country car-race movie. And, when Hachette closed Elle Girl and Premiere magazines but kept their websites going, Kliger the charmer spun the cost-cutting exercise as an embrace of online media. So how's that going? Try utter disaster. We've been getting reports all day that the group has laid off almost its entire online staff. And here's one good reason: even Hachette's most successful online properties have the reach of a mid-sized blog, according to previously undisclosed web stats. (Oh, yes, and Hachette's Elle is about to lose its cherished role on Project Runway, the fashion-industry reality show.) If the future of magazines is some multimedia magic, as Kliger has been saying for a decade, Hachette has not much of a future; nor the Hachette boss himself.
First of all, the layoffs. There is no official word yet, but we're hearing from inside that up to 20 people have gone, including executive Matthew Rosenberg; Joyann King, fashion editor at ElleGirl.com; Holly Seigal, senior editor of Ellegirl.com; and Dei Lewison, producer of the Elle websites. (There's no word on the former store salesman boyfriend whom insiders said Elle's self-promoting creative director, Joe Zee, installed at the fashion magazine's website.) The casualties were called to a meeting at 10.30 and then left to stew for quarter of an hour before digital boss Todd Anderman breezed in to fire them.
Another casualty is Glenn Kenny, whom Kliger talked up so much when he shut down the US edition of Premiere, the entertainment magazine. When the title was shuttered, Kliger said Kenny-the magazine's "most recognizable name"-would remain as an online movie critic and blogger. Kliger told the Wall Street Journal: "We saw trend lines for both ELLEgirl.com and Premiere.com moving in very positive, healthy directions, and we didn't necessarily feel that the print versions, which were not trending in a reasonable timeline toward profitability, enhanced what the digital versions were providing." So, why the cutbacks at a division which Kliger said would provide Hachette with over 20% of its revenues and most of its advertising growth?
First of all, Hachette has always been an abortion of a magazine company. It was a rag-tag collection of also-ran titles put together by David Pecker, now busy losing money at American Media. The company is owned by a dysfunctional French conglomerate, which never gave Kliger the resources or authority he needed to make the group a significant player. Much of Kliger's talk-about grand web plans-was just designed to bamboozle credulous journalists who might otherwise see a marginal magazine group in decline. Earlier in his tenure, Kliger was said to be much loved by his French bosses. More recently, we heard the relationship had broken down. "I'd heard the French were rats," he's known to complain. "But now I know."
Second, it's experiencing the same pressure to cut costs that is affecting other print publishing groups-except more so. Lagardere, the French company which owns Hachette, recently disclosed its US revenues were flat-and that was not even counting the revenues sacrificed when Premiere folded. The firm is moving out of the 40th floor of its Manhattan headquarters to save on rent; business trips have been curtailed; and editors are forced to print stories from inventory because editorial budgets do not allow new commissions.
Third, the grand multimedia experiment has been an utter failure. The early experiments with interactive TV were dismal, predictably. But nor have Kliger's more recent investments in branded web titles such as Premiere.com fulfilled the promise he saw for them. Hachette recently allowed Quantcast, a web measurement firm, to monitor traffic. Those numbers are not protected by a password. All the Hachette website put together garner no more than 200-250,ooo unique visitors per day; one of the biggest, Elle's website, only attracts of the order of 60,000. Embarrassing.
Hachette hasn't said whether it will be replacing any of the staff let go today. "There is no stability here, no one knows what's going on or what is happening," says a tipster. Elle, Car and Driver and various other titles certainly have some sort of following, even if exaggerated by pay-for-praise public relations interns. Their economic value may be better realized in some other media group, if anyone is still buying. As for Kliger himself, the tittle-tattle is that his contract is coming up for renewal-and it won't be.