Girlie Mags and serious journalism


Mnookin had quite a

scoop yesterday: it looks like Penthouse is about to go under. Apparently

Friday’s paychecks were slashed by 75%, and the parent company’s long-precarious

finances have never looked worse. The latest issue of Penthouse could be the

last ever: something even owner and editor-in-chief Bob Guccione is not blind

to. He told the New York Times over a year ago that there is “no future

for adult business in mass market magazines.”

Mnookin says that

For years, Penthouse has been squeezed from both directions by the Scylla

and Charybdis of men’s entertainment. On the one side, the monster growth

of hard-core pornography on the Internet has meant that consumers no longer

need to suffer the embarrassment of receiving their mail in plain brown wrappers.

On the other side, the rise of laddie publications like Maxim and FHM has

meant there are publications that show a lot of skin without the stigma of

being pornographers.

He’s undoubtedly right, but I think he misses something. Playboy and Penthouse

are unique among magazines in that they attempt to deliver everything a man

might want: smut, yes, but also (gasp!) interesting articles. The death of Penthouse

might not mean much by itself: it will rank quite a ways down the list of what

Matthew Rose calls

the "little scandals" of magazine closings, well below Talk

and Rosie. It is, however, symptomatic of a broader phenomenon: that of the

ghettoisation of intelligent journalism. If you want smut, you can still get

it; you’ll just get nothing else. If you want to read something smart, you’ll

have to work your way through the dry pages of the Atlantic, the New Yorker,

or Harper’s.

I went out yesterday afternoon and picked up the latest issues of Playboy and

Penthouse, as well as the smuttiest lad mag I could find: the UK’s Loaded. I

didn’t pick up Maxim or FHM, partly because I’ve already

written about Maxim, and partly because I really don’t think that Playboy

and Penthouse actually compete with the lad mags. The venerable duo live (or

lived) largely on subscriptions, while the hot newcomers are newsstand giants,

spending most of their effort on their cover lines. As Mnookin says, pornography

carries a stigma, not only with advertisers but also with the general public:

I can’t recall ever seeing someone reading Playboy or Penthouse at the local

coffee shop or on the subway.

And indeed, for all that Loaded probably features more bare breasts than Playboy

and Penthouse combined, it does so in a fun, relaxed way. Look at the covers

above: even though Playboy has poached James Kaminsky from Maxim to give it

some of the Felix Dennis magic, it still boasts astonishingly dull cover lines

like "New Millennium Sports Awards: Tyson’s Tattoo to Bush’s Pretzel".

(That’s not a story which would have appeared in the old Playboy, to be sure,

but it’s also not a story which is going to make anybody buy the magazine.)

Loaded, by contrast, has cover lines like "Win £1,000 Jeans"

to pique your interest, along with the promise of "27 clothes-free foreign


What Loaded doesn’t have is any long-form articles. The Playboy Interview is

famous, but the magazine also devotes five pages to Charles Rangel, the New

York congressman; it also has ten pages of fiction by T Coraghessan Boyle. To

top it all off, there’s another nine pages of proper narrative investigative

journalism about a drugs sting at a high school in Pennsylvania. It’s illustrated

with a full-page photo of a hot babe, but the story itself is not lascivious:

it’s easy to imagine it in the New Yorker.

Playboy, in other words, is keeping up its traditions: while the age-old story

about "I read it for the articles" might be as much of a fib as ever,

the idea is obviously still to keep the subscription renewals coming by giving

men some protein along with their dessert. After all, if all you want to do

is ogle babes, you don’t need to shell out cash any more: scantily-clad women

are everywhere these days, from the internet to the TV.

Playboy’s high-mindedness has meant that it’s kept its advertisers. There are

the booze and fags, of course, but also people like Toyota and Pioneer who would

never buy space in Penthouse. Why? Because where Loaded has breasts and Playboy has a small

amount of oh-so-tasteful full-frontal nudity, Penthouse is hard-core. Mnookin’s

choice of language is revealing:

Penthouse has gone ultra hard-core. These days, the extreme close-ups of

Penthouse’s pictorials seem more appropriate for a medical manual, and

the live-action sex scenes are as graphic as anything available.

The fact is, hard-core pornography – where you show sex acts –

is hard-core pornography. You might not like it, but Penthouse isn’t "ultra"

hard-core: it’s just made the decision that if it’s to compete with what’s available

for free on the internet, this is the stuff which it has to publish. Or maybe

the logic was a bit different: Playboy made lots of money by showing things

which other magazines wouldn’t, and then Hustler made lots of money by showing

things which Playboy wouldn’t, and now Penthouse is positioning itself at the

hardest end of the market, as the magazine which shows things all other household-name

magazines shy away from.

In doing so, however, it’s lost its respectability. Its cover doesn’t feature

a hot babe or two, in the way that Loaded or Penthouse do: it features a too-young

girl, with fluffy toys in her hair, with the implicit-to-readers (and delivered

upon) promise that pretty soon we’re going to see her spread-legged, wearing

knee-high black leather boots and little else, doing something which most of

us confine to the bathroom. If I were an advertiser, even if I liked that sort

of thing I’d keep my product well away from it: there’s simply no way that I

could benefit from the association.

Yet Penthouse is still different from most porno mags. For one thing, the production

values are very high; but more importantly, the magazine still attempts to be

about more than just sex. On the cover are four headlines, the first of which

is "Security shell game: Homeland terror war is Bush’s ultimate power trip"

and only one of which is purely sexual. Once again, there’s intelligent original

reporting here. Loaded’s slogan is "For men who should know better";

Playboy’s is "Entertainment for men"; but Penthouse’s is "The

magazine of sex, politics and protest". There’s a reasonably wide mix of

men’s magazine material, from rock climbing to a profile of wrestler Chris Jericho.

But the budget obviously isn’t there, and at this point – the very end

of Penthouse’s life-cycle – it all feels a little weak.

The demise of Penthouse is, surely, no biggy. It’s one of the slowest train

crashes in history: everybody saw this one coming ages ago, and it will come

as a surprise to nobody. But I wonder if Si Newhouse and Jann Wenner ought not

to pay a certain amount of attention. Magazines like Rolling Stone and GQ still

run expensive long-form narrative journalism, despite the fact that most people

don’t read it and that even those who do would probably still buy the magazine if

it wasn’t there. As US Weekly and Lucky increasingly dominate the newsstand,

how much longer can such material last?

Maxim and FHM are the Fox News to GQ’s CNN, and are clearly winning the ratings

war. And just as CNN is going Foxier, GQ is increasing its babe quotient. Is

the next step the elimination of the long stories which few people read?

Actually, I think there’s room for optimism on that front. Penthouse wasn’t

killed by overspending on editorial, it was killed by a lack of advertising.

Felix Dennis makes money from readers, but Si Newhouse makes money from advertisers.

There aren’t all that many of them, compared to the number of magazine readers,

but they’re much more important. Advertisers love being in prestigious publications,

and running long articles by Sebastian Junger or whoever is a very good way

of impressing onto advertisers just how prestigious you are.

But even if the death of Penthouse does not mean another nail in the coffin

of general-interest magazines, it’s still indicative of which way the wind is

blowing. GQ had a wonderful headstart on FHM and Maxim, but no one could afford

to start it up now, and if they did they would almost certainly fail. Every

magazine fails eventually, and when the likes of GQ go, there will be nothing

to replace them. Talk couldn’t do it; Radar won’t. High-end advertisers will

be stuck with Vogue and Vanity Fair, and serious journalism will be all but

banished from the glossies. It’s already happened in the UK, there’s no reason

why it shouldn’t happen here as well.

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4 Responses to Girlie Mags and serious journalism

  1. Steve says:

    “It’s already happened in the UK, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t happen here as well.”

    You are probably right and even though I don’t buy these magazines any more it is too bad. The loss of intelligent (if oft unread in some of the mags) content is indicative of the ongoing dumbing of America.

  2. dan says:

    More and more I look for my serious writing and journalism online, and mostly in blogs. It’s more immediate than dead trees can ever be, and more interactive as the presence of this comment confirms. Sure, the low cost of entry (and the non-existent measure of quality) means there is a lot of crap, but the market sorts it pretty effectively, and the reference (word-of-links) mechanism works efficiently. Once you find one goot site, you will find more and more just by checking its links. Dead tree media does that a lot less efficiently (in the case of books with bibliographies, and not at all in the case of many magazines.)

    And another sorting mechanism, that of category is also more efficient. If I want criticism of politics, I don’t have to deal with full-color close ups of airbrushed genitalia to distract me from my real aim (honest!)

    Nice piece (pun intended).

  3. phil says:

    heh, i find it funny i’m reading this on a website 😉 i get plenty of intelligent reading online. also, harpers kicks ass. paper kills trees. and trees are cool.

  4. Malcolm MacDonald says:

    Please send me anything you.

Comments are closed.