Monday, February 02, 2004

Shooting the elephant blog.

In the mid-80s, I worked as a subeditor for a magazine publisher in Nashville, a small shop that had three or four titles, mostly local, though the only real money-maker most of the time was a trade magazine for nursing home management. At one point, Mr. H, a man of distinguished gray in his 50s, was brought in to be the publisher of the company's lifestyle magazines.

In the magazine world, a publisher's job is to annoy both the editors and the ad sales staff. That is, he's supposed to be the boss of both, but both sides are notoriously hard to manage -- the editors because we create the product, dammit, and the sales staff because we generate the income, dammit. It's hard to be a good publisher, but possible. The key seems to be to let both the editors and salespeople run the place day-to-day as much as possible.

Also, in many cases, the publisher has to come up with new products, lest he be considered a slacker. At the time Mr. H joined, the company published a city magazine plus a few annual city guides under the lifestyle banner, hardly enough to satisfy an ambitious publisher. It wasn't long before he hatched a plan to publish a new quarterly magazine.

It was to be an imitation of Playbill, but for the local market, distributed at concert halls, theaters and so on. Slick, small in size, focusing on performance-oriented editorial, heavy on upper-end advertising. It wasn't an altogether bad idea, since for a city its size, Nashville is thick with live-entertainment, especially music, venues. And I believe the actual Playbill wasn't in the market at the time, perhaps (just a guess) because its Eastern publishers didn't see any great shakes in a hillbilly town.

The sales staff challenged Mr. H on one essentially point. "Isn't this going to take ads away from Nashville?" said W, the sharpest of the ad salesmen. That is, it would cannibalize existing ad sales.

"No, it won’t," answered Mr. H. "It certainly won't. That's not the intention. It's going to create enthusiasm, and we'll get some new advertisers coming in."

Of course, Mr. H has his way, and the magazine -- I've forgotten the name now -- started up a few months later, ran a few issues, and folded in a pool of red ink. Not enough advertisers had been interested, but worse still, it had cannibalized many of them from the city magazine, just as the ad staff thought it would.

Later, I heard from reliable sources that Mr. H's experiment cost the company about $300,000 that year. I also heard that the company essentially broke even that year. In other words, Mr. H prevented the company from making a profit. Was he fired? No. He was a friend of the CEO's. As far as I know, he stayed with the company till it went bankrupt a few years later.

When I was younger, I attributed this incident to Mr. H's thick-headedness. He wasn't stupid; in fact, he was articulate and knew a lot about a lot. But he seemed to be one of those people who knows too much to listen to anyone or learn anything. (We've all had professors like that.)

With a little more my life behind me, I believe that that pigheadedness was only one factor in the debacle. Once Mr. H had invested his time and energy in this project, backing out at the behest of the sales staff would have caused him to lose face. It makes me think of Orwell's essay, "Shooting an Elephant" (1936). In it, he tells a story from when he was a colonial policeman in Burma, and is obliged to chase down an elephant that had killed a man, but when he finds it, followed by a crowd of Burmese, the elephant clearly isn't a danger anymore. In the end, however, Orwell shoots the elephant, but not for any of the obvious reasons.

This is the last paragraph: "Afterwards, of course, there were endless discussions about the shooting of the elephant. The owner was furious, but he was only an Indian and could do nothing. Besides, legally I had done the right thing, for a mad elephant has to be killed, like a mad dog, if its owner fails to control it. Among the Europeans opinion was divided. The older men said I was right, the younger men said it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie, because an elephant was worth more than any damn Coringhee coolie. And afterwards I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant. I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool."


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