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.''

 

Out has seen plenty of upheaval. Goff left in 1996 after a disagreement with the principal owner, and Pettit succeeded him as editor. Scott, who'd once been Out's general manager, was brought back from The New York Times, where he'd been working in new-media development. According to Scott, the magazine lost $3 million in 1995 and was in danger of going under. He says he stabilized the situation by securing a line of credit, renegotiating ad contracts, and installing financial controls. ''There is a natural progression a new business faces when it moves from the entrepreneurial phase--'Hey kids, let's start a magazine!'--to being a professionally managed business with millions of dollars in revenues,'' says Scott. Within the year, he'd dismantled the old regime and installed a publisher of his own. (Five of the 10 people on the January 1997 advertising masthead have left this year.)

 

Now Scott is preparing to put his stamp on editorial content. He says Out under Pettit had evolved into a general-interest magazine, along the lines of Vanity Fair. But ''what lesbian and gay people need today is some help in figuring how to live our lives,'' he says. Scott wants the magazine to address questions like: How do you shape a nonmarital relationship, plan for your financial future, or fit into a big corporation? ''If Out could offer more of that service journalism, then I think we've got something that's quite compelling to our readers.''

 

 

 

The shift toward service editorial may have broader implications. Goff and Pettit founded Out with a political agenda, one carried over from Outweek and the crucible of the AIDS crisis: to treat gay men and women as a single audience with a common cause. Lesbians and gay men may not always buy the same things, but they do have shared civil rights interests. ''You can't write about culture and not write about lesbians,'' says writer David France. ''Lesbians are the ones coming out left and right.''

 

For the business side, combining gay men and lesbians into a single sales pitch has never been easy. Out's readership is 70 per cent male, and the women tend to get overlooked. ''It's the disposable-income thing,'' says one advertising executive. ''Women earn less money, hence two women represent a surprisingly disadvantaged group. The playing field is way uphill.'' (As proof of that, one need only look at the two largest lesbian glossies, Curve and Girlfriends, which have almost no national ads.)

 

Pettit argues that when it comes to Out readers, at least, ''the women tend to be competitive,'' with $68,100 a year in household income, as compared with $81,400 for the men. ''Sarah's contention was we should have had more advertising aimed at women,'' says Scott. But he argues that anyone targeting lesbians in Out wastes 70 cents of each advertising dollar-- and he points out that the percentage of women readers didn't grow when Pettit took over from Goff. There's a catch-22: advertisers don't focus on lesbians because they're a minority, and lesbians tend to glance at Out's pec-heavy ads and decide the magazine isn't really for them.

 

For Out's business people, who tend to be men, linking gay men and lesbians in one consumer pool has sometimes seemed like a decision motivated by political ideals, regardless of financial consequences--and Out, after all, has a bottom line and an investor who will eventually seek a return. As a result, Scott concedes, the female factor is under constant discussion. Should Out spin off the lesbian content into its own magazine? Should it eliminate lesbian editorial content entirely and market Out as a GQ or Details openly aimed at gay men?

 

 

 

In this context, it's easy to see why James Collard's flashy Attitude appealed to Scott. The monthly has a circulation of about 50,000, mainly from newsstand sales. ''The intention originally was like a gayer Details,'' Collard says. ''It's a men's style magazine aimed primarily but not exclusively at gay men.'' As Scott and Collard have explained, the magazine embraces a ''postgay'' ideology. It doesn't cover just gay issues or gay movies or gay books, or use exclusively gay writers. ''The end of liberation is not a lesbian and gay only space, is it?'' asks Collard. As he elaborated in an article that circulated through the Out offices, ''Just because I'm gay doesn't mean I want to read all about that ghetto stuff, dull community politics, boring gay clubs, and tedious lesbian novels.''

 

Throughout its history, Out has been bedeviled by its covers: covers featuring activists rarely sell well, while covers with straight stars like Mick Jagger or Mark Wahlberg may fly off the stands even as they irk many gay readers. Postgay thinking offers a convenient justification for what Out already does, which is to try to boost readership and revenues by tapping into the mainstream. In the long run, the strategy could backfire. In The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture, critic Daniel Harris, writing about magazines like Out, argues that ''it is also very possible that assimilation will have the exact opposite effect and undermine the very need for such a publication.''

 

Scott is clearly willing to take the risk. ''This will be the year of circulation for us,'' he says. His goal is 250,000 readers--nearly double Out's total now, but only about half the 485,000 Details has. He's looking to increase ad revenues from companies in financial services, pharmaceuticals, and especially fashion. And fashion coverage is something Collard is ideally suited to provide. Again, that editorial is likely to tilt toward men--there are relatively few ad campaigns aimed at lesbian style mavens.

 

The impending changes have caused considerable anxiety at Out. Two contributing writers, Daniel Mendelsohn and Sue Carswell, have already quit, and other staffers are mulling over their options. Collard used Brantley to relay a reassuring message to the lesbians who feared they might be fired, but trepidation persists that service and ''fun'' will inevitably diminish Out's serious journalism. ''People are trying to figure out what's best for a magazine that everyone is very, very dedicated to,'' says one staffer. They could quit in protest, but then ''suddenly he's got what he wanted--all the girls and the people who are doing serious stuff have left, so let's just make it a men's magazine.''

 

Earlier this year, some Out staffers were happy to participate when Scott made himself open to critiques of Pettit's behavior. They now suspect they played into Scott's hands by giving him an excuse to fire his editor and implement a new vision for Out he knew they wouldn't like. ''There's a relief that we lost Sarah's mean side,'' says one, ''but we're afraid we also lost the magazine.''

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