Musical chairs at US began a new go-round as Jann Wenner announced he’s taking Wenner Media’s monthly US magazine weekly on March 17.
“I wanted both Terry (McDonell) and Charlie (Leerhsen) on it,” Wenner told Daily Variety the day of the USWeekly announcement Monday, which put McDonell in the editor-in-chief position and left Leerhsen below him on the masthead as editor.
“Terry’s set of skills are more appropriate to that job,” Wenner explained. “This is Charlie’s first job as a top editor, and Terry has had the experience of running the whole show on a number of magazines (Esquire, Field & Stream, Smart). He has that set of skills bigger, better and deeper.”
Under Wenner’s publishing umbrella, which also includes Rolling Stone and Men’s Journal, the top editor position at US has come to define revolving-door employment.
Over his 15-year ownership of the entertainment magazine, Wenner has, on and off, kept the editor-in-chief title for himself, which he has retained under Leerhsen’s stewardship.
In recent memory, only the lofty slot at Conde Nast’s Details magazine comes close to spawning as many former top editors.
The front door at US started spinning in 1988 when Anthea Disney transformed US from a pale People clone, dropping treacly human-interest stories in favor of full movie and TV celeb coverage.
Disney soon left to work for Rupert Murdoch and is now an exec VP at News Corp. Following her in rapid succession were Carol Wallace, now at People; Ian Birch, now at Emap in the U.K.; James Meigs, now at Premiere; and Barbara O’Dair, very recently ensconced at Harper’s Bazaar.
In May 1998, Wenner added People deputy managing editor Leerhsen to this long line of magazine notables, few of whom ever signed a second two-year contract with the publisher. Next year, when US goes weekly, Leerhson will no longer report to Wenner but rather McDonell, editor of Men’s Journal and a VP of the company.
Has lightening struck half a dozen times at 1290 Ave. of Americas?
“It doesn’t feel weird at all,” Leerhsen said. “Terry outranked me from the day I walked into the door.” McDonell will continue as editor of Men’s Journal, and his title at USWeekly is editor-in-chief.
Wenner said it was “too huge a proposition editorially” for him to continue as editor-in-chief of the new magazine. “I don’t have the time to do that, being chairman of the company.”
Regardless of his No. 1 editor, USWeekly is Wenner’s biggest gamble. With revenues estimated at $270 million, Wenner Media is no Time Warner, with deep pockets.
McDonell said that Wenner Media did not view the creation of USWeekly as a launch. “It’s already a household name,” he said. Wenner Media is self-financing the venture, and according to Wenner, the company expects to turn a profit after spending $50 million.
As for the newsstand competition, McDonell said USWeekly’s editorial content would not resemble Entertainment Weekly: “It’s full of charts and graphs and grosses, (which) are not riveting to those who are interested in the business as entertainment.”
Then again, it won’t be People either, although no one ruled out doing nonentertainment-related human-interest stories. But there’s a difference there, too, said McDonell: “I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of surgeons tossing Frisbees to cocker spaniels on expansive lawns in USWeekly.”