What sort of man surfs Esquire?

How do you turn a floundering, passé print magazine into an au courant Web “property”?

How high do you have to aim online to be a success?

The under-30 crowd may not believe this, but there was a time when “men’s magazine” meant either (a) Playboy or (b) a fashion/high-living magazine à la GQ, Details (subtitled “for men”), or Esquire. It was a time of upward mobility symbolized by quadraphonic sound systems (as skewered in The People vs. Larry Flynt: “Gentlemen, they are mocking you”), when “men’s magazine” did not equate with “babe in swimsuit on the cover, laddish articles inside.” It was a time when “laddish” had no meaning in the Americas, except in earnest colour commentary beamed in from the former empire on the topic of British soccer hooliganism.

Call us old-fashioned: We liked the old way better. But who wants anything old? The Internet is next, new, now, man!

Details lost its hotshot editor and is being reborn as some kind of butched-up W manqué. GQ is trying mightily to prop up the high midrange, resisting the lure of the cover bosom. The lad magazines are interchangeable. Arena of England is to its early housemate The Face as early Bryan Ferry is to his later self: A grown-up, sophisticated successor that Americans can’t quite figure out.

And then there’s Esquire. It’s hard to see where the mag stands in a post-silicone-implant-and-Photoshop-retouching newsscape, though at least one commentator sees some life in it. We do, too, but largely due to early visual brainwashing. Roger Black, the famed, dapper magazine designer who would make Harry Connick Jr. feel underdressed, took a form of demotion to become Esquire’s art director in the ’90s (part of a long, friendly affiliation between Black and the Hearsts, who enjoy regular lunches).

The magazine still, to this day, benefits from a richness of typography and design that you see nowhere else. Absolutely nowhere – because Roger Black also co-owns a custom-typeface consultancy and goes way back in typography, knowing that Fairfield is really a hot-metal face and preferring his headline fonts with 1970s-style, Lubalinesque, King Kong–-sized x-heights.

A page in Esquire has more happening, as seen through the eyes of the seasoned old-school designer, than any page of Ray Gun ever had as seen through the eyes of a kid who never knew that fonts used to come without bitmapped versions. And the photography remains crème-de-la-crème.

So who would ever bother looking at Esquire.com?

They’re trying something smart, the Hearst New Media politburo. They’re “leveraging” the Esquire “core competency” of literature – for electronic distribution, for free. (Actually, not quite for free, after you buy a customized viewer that will be out of date faster than a furry cowboy hat.) You can download four articles, fiction and non-fiction (including an impressive piece about the crash of Swissair 111), and read them in the comfort and privacy of your home/office/bedroom/subway car/coffee-bar franchise.

For some people, the experiment is a surprising success. Some lessons to learn:

  1. As we’ve already stated ad nauseam, people will read something worth reading irrespective of visual interference. There’s certainly a novelty value at work (“Wow! I downloaded Esquire!” cries the Baby Boomer), but people will read literature on an LCD. Even a crappy LCD.
  2. ”Old-media” properties may overlook the transferability of some of their traditional strengths. Through a very complicated and somewhat inaccessible use of tables and graphics, accompanied by a beautiful teal background, Esquire.com manages to evoke the graphical sophistication of its print parent. If we assume people visiting the site aren’t there for T&A but for good content, isn’t it a value-adding feature to market the site with “The best writing. The best design”? (Yes, the design recalls print. It’s a print publication.)
  3. Even otherwise-well-executed plans suffer form lacunæ. Just a couple we notice:
    1. We’re really quite tired of the Esquire penchant for rhapsodizing about “Women We Love,” complete with airbrushed photos of youngish women that reinforce the self-image of thirtysomething arrivistes. (“I find her sexy, in a sophisticated, high-income, 300-ab-crunches-a-day way, unlike those vulgarians slobbering over Maxim.”) Not all Esquire readers “love women.” We can coexist peacefully with those who do, as long as it’s not shoved down our throats. (Next they’re going to want an entire “Women We Love” parade, and special rights for their outré desires.) We find this overzealousness doubly ironic because Roger Black is gay. We suppose this recapitulates the irony of gay fashion designers, maquilleurs, and photographers making women look good, but there’s only so much irony we can take while reading a magazine subtitled Man at His Best.
    2. The Web site reuses URLs from month to month, meaning that if you link to the thumbnail of the print version’s cover, eventually your URL will continue to work even though the content changed. Poor content management, that. (Asset management, you could call it.)
    3. The site is slow to be updated. One can spend a week reading a newly-released print issue before seeing any acknowledgement on the Web site that the magazine has turned over. Web sites are supposed to work in advance of print.
    4. Esquire could be publishing vastly more coverage, and literature, online. (Wow – what original advice!) We do not refer to the useless piddling style updates served up daily. We’re talking about online-exclusive materials, including photos, cartoons, and illustrations. The marginal cost is negligible. Weekly updates would do fine. (Yes, weekly updates on a Web site. A non-obvious solution.) The print magazine is as thin as it is for reasons of advertising. Acquisition costs for online-only articles are small compared to the entrained costs of design, printing, and distribution. It’s not enough to give away content for E-books; you have to give everyone more than what they can get in the print magazine, or at least do better than giving them the same content tied to some new gizmo.

For yesterday’s men’s magazine, Esquire isn’t doing badly. All their sins are venial, not mortal, and there’s no likelihood of burning through millions in cash and taking the entire ship to the bottom of the ocean. Sometimes slow and steady finishes the race. Winning may be overrated.

Posted on 2000-07-11