Steve Cohn: 9/11 Is the Closest Magazine Media Crisis Precedent to COVID-19, But It Does Not Compare

April 27, 2020

A Mr. Magazine™ Guest Blog

Steve Cohn, Editor-in-Chief, Media Industry Newsletter, 1986 – 2016

As editor-in-chief of Media Industry Newsletter from 1986 through 2016, I witnessed the business ups and downs in the magazine industry.  Although the aftermath from the September 11, 2001, attacks proved not to be the low industry point during my career (the economic effects from the 2008-2009 “great recession” were more damaging), the common denominator with the COVID-19 crisis was that the enemy was external.  Back then, it was a man: Osama bin Laden; now, it is a virulent germ.

Like today, it seemed as if everything stopped after 9/11. The literal “fear of flying” (air travel was actually banned for about a week) impacted sales calls and advertising, which was already hurting from the “dot.com” crash, plummeted further.  Many of the events that fall (important to establish  rapports with advertisers for 2002) were cancelled.

But that did not damage the spirit.  September 19, 2001, was supposed to be Condé Nast’s “welcome” to new Glamour editor-in-chief Cindi Leive with a reception celebrating the release of the November issue. Instead, Leive and her staff worked late that night overhauling the issue to add a section honoring female “heroes from 9/11.”  It would be the first of many hallmarks in her 16-year career.

Leive’s optimism was matched by the many editors’ notes that min ran weekly through Thanksgiving.  The inspiration was the first one, from 1993-2014 Travel + Leisure editor-in-chief Nancy Novogrod, who capped her reasoning for the necessity of travel by quoting a post-9/11 French newspaper headline: Nous Sommes Les Americains (“We are all Americans”).

And 2000-2011 Bon Appétit  editor-in-chief Barbara Fairchild was so moved by the widow of a fallen New York firefighter telling The New York Times of his love of cooking and BA that she gave her a free subscription “in perpetuity.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is worse because of the enormity of the deaths, the restrictions to our “normal” way of life and the devastation to the economy, Were min publishing and I being editor, I would have again reached out.  But the editors’ notes will be more challenging at a time when most group publishers are furloughing and cutting staff and salaries. The uncertainty after 9/11 was comparatively mild to what we face today.

If the 2020 “Fortune 500″ follows its 65-year pattern by rating companies based on 2019 revenues when the issue is released later this spring, the data for many will be outdated because of the poor, COVID-19-affected performances since March.

Physicians, nurses and other health-care professions are now getting the recognition that firefighters and police officers received after 9/11. Included in an unlikely place: Vogue, where four female “health professionals in scrubs” are saluted in the June/July 2020 issue.  In an April 24 Washington Post feature, Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion correspondent Robin Givhan wrote that “the pandemic’s first responders have been ‘Vogue‘-i-fied. They haven’t been glamorized.”

Givhan also reported that the June/July issue was Vogue‘s first combined release in its 128-year history. That encompassed wars, recessions and an earlier pandemic: the 1918 “Spanish Flu” outbreak.

Technology now allows editors and staff members to produce print and digital editions from home as well as publishers and their staffs having teleconferences with advertisers. “Invention is the mother of necessity,” they say, and maybe these will be the new norms.

On 9/11, “We are all in this together” was best exemplified by members of Congress from both parties singing God Bless America on the Capitol steps. Today, with Washington and America in so much discord, perhaps magazine media can lead the way.

If editors with large and small readerships can rally the country as they did after 9/11, this would, in the words of Sir Winston Churchill, be “their finest hour.”


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