A People With Passion series
September 30, 2011: Christie Hefner
Though she originally planned on a career in journalism, politics, or law, Christie Hefner joined her father’s Playboy Magazine in 1975 after graduating from Brandeis and quickly found her place at the iconic magazine company. She was instrumental in pushing the company into the internet, and was also the founder of the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Awards. “In 1979 I was head of promotion for the company. Part of my job was to develop a plan for how to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the magazine. And I felt that rather than doing the obvious, which would be to just have a series of parties, quite frankly, it would be more impactful to use the anniversary platform to do things that were tied to core interests and values that Playboy represented. So I launched the Playboy jazz festival, which then became an annual event. I launched the touring of the art collection and published a catalogue which continued. And I launched the First Amendment Awards in conjunction with buying at auction the papers of the trial of John Peter Zenger and donating them to the Chicago Library.
“It was a way to move from the kind of grant-making that the Playboy Foundation had done to the ACLU, the Student Press Law Center, and other organizations that worked on First Amendment-related issues, and the kind of journalism the magazine did in advocating for First Amendment values to honoring people who were kind of in the trenches. A librarian, or the editor of the student newspaper that was under pressure from the administration, or the editor of a small paper in a town that was trying to expose corruption – those kinds of individuals.”
After working as CEO for 20 years, Hefner stepped down in 2008 to pursue a new path. Now building a portfolio with the Center for American Progress, the Columbia Journalism Review, and the Canyon Ranch initiative, Hefner is out of the magazine business, but her 33 years at Playboy along with her background in journalism gives her a fascinating perspective on the world of journalism in 2011. Here in the tenth installment of Jack M Silverstein’s Chicago journalism People With Passion interview series, Hefner discusses her introduction to journalism, the value of Barnes & Noble, and the state of print journalism.
My mother is an avid reader, so I grew up with great magazines in the house. The New Yorker, and Playboy, and Time, and the New York Times, and I’m sure the Chicago papers. I don’t have any specific memory of reading some seminal piece or something like that. I do remember when I was in I think high school getting a letter to the editor published in one of the Chicago papers opposing capital punishment. I do remember that.
I did write for my college paper on a freelance basis, mostly reviewing films. At the time there was a series where great plays were filmed and shown on movie screens, and I reviewed that series. When I left Brandeis, I actually worked for the Boston Phoenix reviewing films. My film editor was Janet Maslin, who went on to become the film editor at the New York Times and is now the book editor at the New York Times.
What I wanted to do was to become Ellen Goodman. I thought the idea of being able to write a column in your own voice that would talk about big subjects – whether they were small ‘p’ political or capital ‘P’ political – in a very personal way and in a way that might influence how people thought about subjects seemed to me like a very appealing career. That was my vision.
But in ’75 you went to work at Playboy. At this point, Playboy had been around since 1953. What was Playboy’s journalistic issue, let’s say, from 1953 to 1974?
I don’t know how they would have thought about a journalistic mission. Their mission was to publish the best possible men’s magazine that was giving equal weight to high-quality journalism, lifestyle and service – although the word ‘lifestyle’ and the way that we use it wasn’t in the vernacular in the 1950s, but that was certainly what it was – and entertainment and pop culture. The vision was that it would reflect all the passions and interests of young men, and that you could put in one magazine travel and fashion and cars and celebrities and sex and humor and sports, and also great serious journalism, whether it was in the form of a Q&A interview or an investigative piece.
I don’t think I ever felt I had to push the magazine or the company in any way. From the beginning, when A.C. Spectorsky was the editorial director, and then Arthur Kretchmer for many years, I think the editors at the magazine were all passionate about publishing great writing, both fiction and non-fiction. One of the legacies of Playboy in Chicago is the chance for really great editors to work on the national stage. It was the one big circulation national magazine that came out of Chicago. So for all those years, whether it was Chicago writers like a Mike Royko or New York writers like a David Halberstam, they were working with the editors who were in the main here, which was kind of special.
One of the big themes that keeps coming up in these interviews are the changes in journalism – how it’s presented, and really the cross between print and digital. I know that you’re very proud of the way that Playboy pushed itself to the digital world. What do you think the Tribune and the Sun-Times and other print publications could learn from the way that Playboy has approached that?
I think part of it is the classic question in business of understanding and then executing the implications of that understanding: What business are you in? If you think you’re a newspaper company and then you have these ancillary businesses, that’s going to lead to a certain set of decisions from how you organize people to how you measure success. Magazines are brands and content that live beyond their pages. We tried to think of ourselves as a multimedia content company and a lifestyle company, both of them driven by a brand. And if you think that way, you look for the intersection between your brand and your style of content and each new medium.
It isn’t the same as re-purposing or porting content from one format to another, which was a mistake that a lot of people made going back pre-internet to the early days of cable television. Many magazines talked about having a channel, because now all of a sudden there were fifty channels instead of three. We were not the only people that thought, “Gee, that might create an opportunity for branded channels that people would turn to as opposed to what historically people did,” which was tuning in to individual TV shows. It wasn’t like you said, “I’m going to watch CBS.” You said, “I’m going to watch The Defenders,” or whatever the show was.
Lots of magazines saw this as an opportunity, and no other magazine was able to build a television network other than Playboy. I think one of the big reasons for that – many companies had far more resources than Playboy had, so it wasn’t about money or people – was that they got locked into a way of thinking about what that meant that narrowed their focus of what it could mean if you thought about the brand and the style of content as opposed to literally what you were publishing and how to put that onto television.
And that even became true in the internet. When you think about it, a lot of the sites that are in areas that historically magazines had big success in were developed by startup internet companies, not by magazines. It was The Knot, not Brides Magazine. It was TMZ, not People. That kept repeating itself. So I think part of the answer to your question is that the hardest thing to do in any business, especially if you’ve been successful in something, is to be disruptive about it.
The other part, which is true, is that magazines and I think even moreso newspapers have suffered from unhealthy business models in this country for a long time, and they’ve been very slow to acknowledge that. On average, magazines in the U.S. get 60, 65% of their revenues from advertising, maybe a third from circulation. For newspapers maybe it was 80, 90% of the revenues from advertising and maybe 10 to 20% from circulation. Having built magazines around the world, it was very interesting to me to see that almost no other country has that model. In almost every other country, the majority of revenues come from circulation. That’s because the trap of deep-discounting subscriptions is not a trap other countries have fallen into. Whereas in this country, if you look at the way we promote magazine subscriptions or newspaper subscriptions, you’re paying pennies for each copy.
(in announcer voice) “Get on board now, and you’ll receive – !”
Yeah! And you’ll also get a cell phone! (Laughs.) It’s sort of like, “And take my magazine, please!” What does that say about the value of what you think you’re creating if you’re charging pennies for it because your primary business model is predicated on selling the audience to advertisers? And of course, when advertising doesn’t go up by double digits and allows you to raise your CPMs significantly every year, which for a long time it did, when big chunks of advertising like classifieds go away because they migrate online, then you’re really in trouble. So I think newspapers are scrambling today to figure out both what’s the right business model and what business they’re in.
I think it’s critical to have quality journalism. I’m more agnostic on the format of it. I read the FT online and I read the New York Times on paper, just by way of example. I read some books on my Kindle and I read some books that are bound on paper. I understand that I’m of a generation that grew up with only paper, and that there could come a point in the future where very little is distributed on paper. That’s okay in my opinion, as long as what we haven’t lost is independent journalism.
From my perspective, I think the Tribune is trying some very interesting things in not just other media but in leveraging its writers and its editors and its brand in things like ChicagoLive! and programs. I was a speaker at a Chicago Tribune event on the economy a few months ago. I think the notion of trying to do what the New York Times is doing, what the New Yorker has done, to become kind of a convener around important subjects in addition to what you publish is an idea worth developing. I think it’s wise of them to try and develop that. Not surprisingly, I’d like to see us keep two newspapers just because I think there are, at the very least, two points of view on most subjects, the more democratic populous perspective, and the more business, conservative, elite perspective as represented most of the time in their lives by the Sun-Times and the Tribune. I’m rooting for both of them.
I think it’s disconcerting that such a large percentage of people – I think the last time I looked at the numbers, it was close to 40 – say that they don’t think it would matter if they didn’t have a local newspaper, which suggests that newspaper people need to do some thinking on how to increase and promote the relevance of what they do. But I also think there will be different business models. I think the News Coop that has this output relationship with the New York Times and is funded right now by foundation money but is trying to build a business model that is self-sustaining, I think that’s interesting. I think Pro Publica is fascinating in terms of the quality of what it does in a not-for-profit model.
I don’t think there’s a sliver bullet for newspaper companies. I think there will be fewer newspapers, and they’ll have lower circulation, but if they can figure out the business model side and focus on their role on the local news end of things – because in a world of the internet, I can go read the Jerusalem Post online. I don’t necessarily need the Tribune to have a Jerusalem bureau. In a perfect world, yes, I would like that. But it’s not necessarily a terrible world in which I can get international news from international sources. One can argue actually that that broadens my horizon, not narrows it.
But what I can’t get from anything but my local news sources is coverage of the city and the county and the state, and all the implications of that.
I still like the physical paper. I used to have this argument with Nick Negroponte years ago when he was running the MIT Media Lab. He was thinking about a customized daily newspaper that you would get from searches of either satellite news or online news that would then be packaged and delivered to your TV or your computer or whatever. You would tell it, you know, “I’m interested in the White Sox, and I’m interested in fashion,” or whatever, and what I worry about as people bookmark and use Flipboard and other wonderful tools is that people lose the ability to encounter what they didn’t know they might be interested in. That’s the thing I love most about reading a newspaper, holding it in my hands, is to come across an article in the science section of the New York Times that I would never have thought of searching for that’s fascinating and expands my mind and my knowledge.
That’s the thing that worries me about the fact that Barnes & Noble is gone. Not that it’s not great to buy a book from Amazon, whether it’s an ebook or a physical book, but it’s not the same as wandering in a bookstore and that moment where you look at a cover and you think, “That’s sort of an interesting subject,” and you pick it up and you read the book jacket or the book blurb or the first two sentences, and you’re hooked. I don’t want us to lose track of that.
Check back every Wednesday at Eye on Chi for more of Jack M Silverstein’s People with Passion interviews with Chicago journalists. Coming up next week: Chris Cascarano of the Chicago News Cooperative.
PREVIOUSLY IN THE SERIES:
(NOTE: The dates below refer to the date of the interview. The order is the date they were run.)
December 12, 2008: Alex Kotlowitz (re-edited August 15, 2011)
 Financial Times.