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Simon Dumenco: 'The Web Has Created Little Original Media Value'
The media observer and editor of the newly relaunched Colors magazine says that a negligent press has allowed U.S. leaders to "deceive and distort," and blogs are "generally overrated" but "do make a difference."

By Patrick Phillips
I Want Media, 04/28/04


Simon Dumenco, the longtime "The Glossies" columnist for Folio:, the magazine-industry trade publication, is now editing a magazine himself. Dumenco is the new editor of Colors, the newly revamped culture magazine published by the Italian apparel company Benetton, appearing on newsstands this week. Colors, which previously was edited in Italy and recently relocated to New York, has been known for its innovative design and international perspective since its debut in 1991.

Dumenco was hired by Kurt Andersen, the magazine's editorial director, with whom he worked a few years back at Inside.com. Dumenco has contributed for many years to New York magazine, where he once edited its former media columnist, Michael Wolff. He has consulted on magazines such as O, The Oprah Magazine and served as a top editor at Seventeen.

In a chat with I Want Media, Dumenco discusses a wide range of media topics -- TiVo, "The Apprentice," the magazine business, Internet content, celebrity journalism, and more.



I Want Media: Why is Benetton publishing a magazine?

Simon Dumenco: Benetton's decision to support Colors is in character with its other cultural endeavors. Benetton has funded very interesting music projects, books, documentaries and art exhibitions. Some companies pour money into supporting, say, ballet companies or symphonies; Benetton has a tradition of supporting provocative, experimental media -- none of which promote Benetton clothing.

IWM: Does Colors carry ads from marketers other than Benetton?

Dumenco: The majority of the advertising in Colors is actually from non-Benetton advertisers. In the relaunch issue, the advertisers include Bombay Sapphire gin and Diesel.

IWM: How is Colors distributed?

Dumenco: Colors is primarily sold on newsstands in more than 30 countries. In the U.S., we have a new distribution deal with Curtis, one of the biggest national magazine distributors. You can find us at Barnes & Noble, Borders, Tower Records and a ton of other newsstands. And you can subscribe online at colorsmagazine.com.

IWM: Benetton's advertising once featured "shocking" images, such as a priest kissing a nun on the mouth. Will the new Colors aim to be controversial?

Dumenco: All we want is for Colors to be interesting and provocative. Sometimes interesting and provocative things are controversial, but shock is not our primary goal. Doing great journalism is.

IWM: Will Colors continue to publish each issue with a theme, such as "energy," "status" and "prayer"?

Dumenco: Yeah, we're continuing with a thematic approach. The first theme is "fans" -- the issue is about fans around the world. We wanted to examine, in depth, the universal human propensity for adoration, and how that propensity can be both life-affirming and very scary, sometimes simultaneously.

IWM: What are some of the editorial highlights of your first issue?

Dumenco: We've got a terrific essay by the novelist Pico Iyer about Japan as the spiritual home of fandom. A great essay by Aleksandar Hemon about the psychology of soccer hooliganism. A piece by Rick Stengel, the ghostwriter of Nelson Mandela's autobiography, about what it's like to be with Mandela among his admirers around the world. A really frank, poignant interview with the international literary sensation JT LeRoy about being a fan -- of artists and writers and musicians who he's often befriended -- and having sometimes really creepy fans himself. Overall, the issue offers a fascinating deconstruction of fandom around the world.

IWM: How does Colors differ from other custom publications, such as the one published by Bloomingdale's?

Dumenco: We're not a custom-published magazine. There's no commerce element to Colors -- the only presence Benetton has in the magazine is in the form of a handful of paid advertisements. We're a culture magazine that happens to be substantially supported by one corporate benefactor, but the magazine also receives major support from non-Benetton advertisers as well as newsstand and subscription revenues.

Saying that Colors is custom-published is like saying that the New York Daily News and U.S. News & World Report are custom-published because owner Mort Zuckerman happens to be a real-estate mogul, not just a media mogul. Benetton makes clothes, but it also happens to publish a culture magazine.

IWM: Does Benetton give you guidance regarding what the editorial of Colors should and shouldn't cover?

Dumenco: None whatsoever. And from the start, dating back to the first issues edited by the late Tibor Kalman, the magazine has always been completely independent.

IWM: Colors has a cover price of $7.95. Ouch. Why so pricey?

Dumenco: Up until this relaunch issue, Colors was actually priced at $8.60 in the U.S. -- already lower than most import titles at the newsstand, which are often priced at $12.95 and up. Though the magazine is now edited in New York, it is still printed in Italy. Since we're a photo-driven magazine, color reproduction is crucial.

As a point of comparison, Aperture, the photographic arts magazine published in New York by the Aperture Foundation, is $14.95 a copy. I guess you could say Aperture is a "competitive title," in that Colors, like Aperture, reaches readers who are interested in a provocative, visually-driven take on modern life. Colors, of course, takes a more pointedly international approach to its coverage, and toward that end we have photographers and correspondents on every continent, and in just about every country you could name.

IWM: In both your Folio: and New York magazine columns, you have been critical of the shopping-focused magazines Lucky, InStyle and Cargo, referring to them as the "soul death of our culture." Now that you're editing a magazine for a clothing retailer, have you become a contributor to our culture's "soul death"?

Dumenco: As I said, there's absolutely no shopping component to Colors -- no spreads of handbags favored by celebrities, or advice about which cellphones to buy, or anything like that. I don't mind when magazine do cover those things; I'm just disturbed by the rise of magazines that only cover those things.

But for those conglomerates that do wish to push their products in magazine form, I'm not sure there's any need to prove legitimacy, because sometimes catalogs and magalogs are appropriate. As long as they're not pretending to be something that they're not, it's fine.

IWM: Some industry experts say that the new magazine venture between Wal-Mart and Time Inc. could spawn a new generation of magazines sold exclusively at specific stores. Is this the next big thing for magazines?

Dumenco: I don't think so. I think in the case of its partnership with Wal-Mart, Time Inc. is simply seeking a safe launching pad and a particular demographic. As big as Wal-Mart is in terms of magazine sales, the rest of the newsstand market is simply too huge to ignore. If their new women's magazine does well at Wal-Mart, I fully expect Time Inc. will decide to sell it outside of Wal-Mart as well.

In the case of Colors, the magazine has not always been available at Benetton stores. Some stores have elected not to carry it, though it's always been available on newsstands and by subscription. Today, as I said, our distribution is primarily through traditional newsstands and bookstores around the world.

IWM: You've blasted a lot of magazines in your Folio: column, criticizing the blurring of the "church-and-state" line of editorial and advertising, the Photoshopping celebrity photos, cover-line clichés, and more. Now that you're the editor of your own magazine, will the knives be out for you?

Dumenco: I hope so.

IWM: What's your beef with American Media editorial chief Bonnie Fuller? A few years ago you called her an "evil genius." You recently told the Associated Press that she has "distinguished herself by being pretty vulgar" and that "a lot of what she does is not journalism." Why don't you like her?

Dumenco: I don't know Bonnie personally, but I know plenty of people who have worked for her and who have written for her magazines, and she consistently earns less-than-glowing reviews for her management skills and her respect for traditional journalistic values. I suppose I've said some memorably negative things about Bonnie and her effect on magazine culture, but I'm hardly a voice in the wilderness.

IWM: A gossip column recently revealed that you are in a relationship with actor Randy Harrison of Showtime's "Queer as Folk." Has your personal relationship given you any insights into celebrity journalism?

Dumenco: I've discovered that a surprising number of "celebrity journalists" are unable to distinguish between an actor and the character he plays on television. Randy has literally had interviewers ask him how he felt when his character experienced something on the show. They'll ask him how it felt to have "gone through" a fictional circumstance -- as if Randy personally experienced his character's storyline.

I guess it's a testament to his acting talent that people confuse him with the character he plays -- a character, incidentally, with whom he has almost nothing in common. But it's disappointing when journalists make that same idiotic mistake. I suppose the conceptual confusion has to do with the blurring of the boundaries between dramas and reality television, and what's made up and what's real in "celebrity journalism." Fiction is passed off as fact so often these days that fiction is often automatically presumed to be fact.

IWM: Now that you're editing Colors, will you continue to write for New York magazine?

Dumenco: I'm currently on a sort of self-imposed sabbatical from New York because Colors has been such a huge undertaking. But I'm excited about [new editor] Adam Moss's New York, and I do hope to be able to contribute occasionally. I remain a contributing editor there, and in fact have an upcoming feature story in its pages.

IWM: How is Adam Moss's New York magazine different from previous editor Caroline Miller's?

Dumenco: We'll have to wait and see -- and let the magazine speak for itself.

IWM: What's the biggest story in media right now? TiVo? Blogs? "The Apprentice"? Colors magazine?

Dumenco: TiVo is essential, and is certainly changing television viewing habits, but it remains a niche phenomenon for now; five years from now, though, TiVo and TiVo-like technologies will have totally transformed television. With a very few exceptions, blogs are generally overrated. "The Apprentice" was great television.

I think the real media story right now is just how negligent the media have been -- and I'm not talking about revelations about rogue journalists at the New York Times and USA Today and elsewhere. I'm talking about run-of-the-mill, everyday laxness that has allowed Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld, in particular, to deceive and distort, often with impunity. But that, of course, seems to be changing lately.

IWM: When I Want Media posed this question to your colleague Kurt Andersen a few years ago, he said the biggest media story was "the decline of print magazines both as businesses and cultural epicenters." Are magazines in bad shape?

Dumenco: Yes and no. I obviously believe that it is possible to do great work in print. And there are many magazines that I still consider to be essential reads. But the evidence is incontrovertible that magazines have been losing ground -- hemorrhaging readers -- at the expense of cable television and the Internet.

IWM: Michael Wolff, the former media columnist of New York magazine whose work you once edited, once told I Want Media that "the Internet as media has failed." Would you agree?

Dumenco: I think the Web has clearly emerged as an extremely useful advertising vehicle, but much of the content that the Googles and Yahoos of the world sell advertising against is editorial or creative matter that has been repurposed from other media -- or is about cultural phenomena that already predominate in other media.

I just looked at the Google Zeitgeist, and the top recent search is for "The Apprentice." Watch the Google Zeitgeist from week to week, and the most popular searches are invariably about TV shows, movies and pop stars. With the arguable exception of certain porn stars -- and Paris Hilton -- the Web has created very little original media value with long-term traction.

IWM: You have written articles about blogs, and bloggers have written about you. Have blogs helped heighten your profile?

Dumenco: Well, first I'll say that I find the majority of my readers in the U.S. still seem to find me in print first. But bloggers do make a difference. And sites like I Want Media really do matter. When you link to one of my media columns, you're immediately putting me on the radar screens of a perfect, targeted audience of media-minded readers. Which is wonderful.

I'll also note that bloggers certainly seem to have brought me many readers in foreign countries, and non-U.S. readers have been particularly supportive -- perhaps because I have a rather sour take on the absurdities of American media and pop culture. I routinely get e-mail from English-speaking readers in the U.K., Australia, Canada, Spain, Italy and France.

IWM: How will Colors magazine use the Web? Any special plans for colorsmagazine.com?

Dumenco: There's a Web team for Colors, based in Treviso, Italy, headed up by a brilliant Internet guru named Andy Cameron. And Andy's team has some terrific plans for not only putting up content from the magazine, but original companion content as well.

IWM: Does Benetton give you a store discount? Can you get me some shirts?

Dumenco: I'm not technically a Benetton employee, so I don't get a discount. Sorry. But I can get you a good deal on a subscription to Colors.



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