Saturday, August 16, 2008

Twilight of the Rods

For publishers in the halcyon days of the late 1990s—those days before the Internet was blamed for robbing media moguls of their precious ad revenues—there existed a magical recipe that could build you a glossy magazine empire almost overnight. The concoction was simply named The Formula.

The Formula's ingredients were as follows:

3 scantily clad B-list starlets
1 two-hundred word sex advice feature
1 personal benefit/service feature
1 "gritty read"(legitimately researched, well written, and at the back of the magazine)
1 humor piece whose punch line might include the term "pierced taco"

These were the ingredients of Maxim, FHM, and Stuff, the so-called "lad-mags." In 1999, the lads came and conquered. They blew off their humorless women's lib oppressors, sneered at the campy "high-brow" men's mags like GQ and Esquire and enjoyed explosive circulation. With their markets threatened, the tanned cheesecake men's magazines had to defend themselves against these young Turks. In no time, the "high-brows" started slashing column space and defiling their articles with words like "dude" and "bro." Even Playboy, the Grand Pooh-Bah of classy girlie mags, began watering down its genuinely rich literary tradition, pumping out pea-sized articles like artillery shells.

By 2002, the most successful of the bawdy bro-rags peaked at an impressive 2.5 million copies in paid circulation. "And let me tell you, I have never found that statistic more dispiriting than I do today," lamented former Maxim editor David Itzkoff, in a 2004 tell-all piece in the New York Press.

Itzkoff bemoaned Maxim's abuse of The Formula, its abysmal content, and eventual decline into a cynical ad revenue machine. Itzkoff indulged in his share of hand-wringing. But, like a true lad, he refused to man up and punted much of the blame to the greedy suits.

Itzkoff pulled out of Maxim right as the porn-lite kingdom started to collapse. While moving 2.5 million copies was no small feat, circulation has been stagnant since. Ad revenues plunged 34 percent in 2007 (in a single year!) and the New York Post estimated that the magazine devoured over $110 million of its publisher's money in its eight years of existence. If Maxim merely went limp, its cruder little brothers, FHM and Stuff, went into a full-on revenue death spiral. In 2007, both shut down print production and settled into the seedy world of online-only content.

(Photo: Getty Images)
Maxim continues to milk The Formula for all its worth while the other more "sophisticated" men's magazines grasp for their identity, stuck somewhere between adolescent towel-snapping and enlightened conversations about manhood. So it is that American men are left with soulless sex advice, perfunctory fashion spreads, toothless journalism, and a couple buxom bodies from reality TV squished in between the ads.

Some ascribe the failure of men's magazines to the Internet. Others blame feminism. Still others blame Girls Gone Wild auteur Joe Francis for polluting the field. But it's really about the purgatory between Lad and Dad, which leaves the males of our generation scratching their heads and asking: are we not MEN?

No need to renew your subscription. Click through the flaccid catalog of misfires after the jump!

Original here

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