Ousted at "Out"

What Does Sarah Pettit's Firing Mean for the Nation's Largest Gay Magazine?

One week before Thanksgiving, Out magazine threw a big party at Barneys for its year-end issue. Out's editor, Sarah Pettit, and its president, Henry Scott, took turns onstage. They lauded prominent guests who'd been named to the Out 100, like Andrew Sullivan, Virginia Apuzzo, and Barney Frank, and praised each other and the magazine. Five years after its founding, Out was by far the largest gay and lesbian magazine in the country, with a circulation of 132,000 and climbing. Ad revenues were up 45 per cent, and for the first time ever it was about to go into the black. ''I felt really high, I felt great about the event, and I felt it was a really amazing year,'' recalls Pettit. ''I felt like I was part of a team.''

Two days later, Pettit learned from a friend that Scott was shopping her job around. Less than two weeks after that, negotiations over a termination agreement had gone nowhere, and Pettit was unemployed. Scott called Out's staff together and hastily announced a new boss, James Collard, the 34-year-old editor of Attitude, a British, gay-oriented men's style magazine that no one seemed to know anything about. Pettit's lawyer, Roz Lichter, said she was exploring breach of contract and sex discrimination suits. And Pettit herself wondered, ''Why would you fire an editor when circulation is climbing and you're just on the verge of material success?''

To outsiders, it seemed there must be a political explanation--like maybe Out's publication of several provocative articles concerning the burgeoning gay male sex debate (see ''Sideshow,'' p. 55). In fact, the dispute had little to do with politics and a lot to do with business. Despite Out's gains, Scott had decided he wanted a new, less serious tone for the magazine, and that was ''not something Sarah could do for us.'' He also objected to Pettit's management style. He claims she had difficulties with ''collaboration'' and was responsible for ''a lot of staff turnover.'' Few at Out dispute that. After the departures of the fashion editor and an editorial production person, and what Scott calls the ''abrupt firing of a photo editor,'' one staffer nicknamed the magazine ''Oust.''

Scott says that when he took charge, he decided to put an end to a long legacy of intense fights, slamming doors, and employees being upbraided in public. Pettit, certainly, was responsible for some of that. ''Could she make people cry? Absolutely,'' says former advertising account manager Will Guilliams. ''But so can a lot of people.'' ''Sarah was a kind of no-nonsense boss,'' says senior writer Anne-christine d'Adesky. ''Her way of being direct and confrontational was hard for some people, but I feel she made an effort to look at herself when she was wrong.''

But Out's insiders also praise Pettit as an extremely smart and stimulating editor. Despite her apparent flaws, Pettit inspired considerable respect and loyalty. (Even as she is talking to a reporter about her dismissal, an elaborate bouquet arrives. ''They're from the Out staff!'' Pettit says, seeming surprised and moved. ''I'll have to have an emotional moment about that later.'')

Scott says his worries about Pettit and the magazine began to crystallize over the summer. He was concerned about newsstand sales, which had dipped by 15.8 per cent in the first half of the year. (Pettit says they have since rebounded.) Only 32,000 of the magazine's copies are sold on the newsstand, Scott says, but ''that's a useful barometer. Advertisers look at your newsstand sell-through as a measure of your vitality.''

Scott decided during a September vacation that things would have to be different. On his first day back, September 24, he met with his editor and ''told her I would not renew her contract unless I saw significant changes in various areas over the next few months.'' If this warning was indeed delivered, Pettit apparently didn't comprehend it as such. ''I never once received a written memo about my performance or the magazine's performance,'' she says. ''There was no formal sit-down.''

In the meantime, Scott went about interviewing candidates to replace her. In October, he called in Doug Brantley, Out's executive editor, and told him that Pettit was on shaky ground. He even set up an introductory dinner for Brantley and his future boss, James Collard. By the time Pettit herself got wind of her impending exit--and heard scuttlebutt that Out would become an exclusively gay male magazine once she left--it was nearly Thanksgiving. On December 4, when Scott presented her with a termination agreement and insisted she sign it by 4 p.m. or be fired, many staffers already knew of her demise.

This process struck many of Pettit's colleagues as an exceptionally graceless way to treat an editor who'd given her heart and soul to the magazine. ''It's a problem I guess Si Newhouse has,'' reflects Scott. ''He's always calling people in on Saturday and saying there's a new editor.''

Pettit was the last remaining original Out staffer. Out was launched on a shoestring in 1992, with $4 million from Robert Hardman, a Boston Globe copy editor with family money. The first editor in chief was Michael Goff, who'd worked with Pettit at Outweek (which folded in 1991); he hired her as Out's arts editor. Their aim was to float a glossy gay magazine that would appeal to glitzy national advertisers, and their success won both friends and foes. ''The major purpose of Out magazine was to help companies niche-market to gay consumers,'' says longtime activist and author Sarah Schulman, ''and I think that's a despicable function.''

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