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Nothing But "people"

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Editing a magazine is a bit like managing a venture capital portfolio There are certain skills that are required, to be sure, but neither is an enterprise that can be easily taught. Choosing the right story to publish -- much like identifying a promising young company for investment -- is largely a matter of intuition tempered by experience. One becomes good at it by doing it.

Perhaps this is one reason why few first-rate books about the business of publishing have ever been written. One notable exception, however, is a first-person account of the creation of a new men's fashion magazine. Launched back in 1933, in the midst of the Depression, the magazine sold for 50 cents at a time when most publications carried a cover price of a nickel. Its first issue contained contributions by Ernest Hemingway, Ring Lardner Jr., John Dos Passos, Erskine Caldwell, and Dashiell Hammett, and was named Esquire: The Quarterly for Men.

The book, written by Arnold Gingrich, founder of Esquire and the magazine's editor for more than 30 years, is a spirited account of the first three decades of a publication that went on to become a dominant presence in American publishing. Moreover, it is an informed, passionate explication of how a magazine -- a most fragile form of business enterprise -- functions The book is entitled, appropriately enough, Nothing But People.

Shortly before his death in 1976, I had the good fortune to meet Arnold Gingrich for the first, and only, time. Mostly, we talked about those things he had a lifelong passion for: good fishing and well-designed cars, the craft of writing and the business of magazine publishing. In this conversation Gingrich returned to the theme of his book, namely, that "a magazine in a very real sense is made up of nothing but people," that because the real product of a magazine is intelligence and imagination, it is one of the few businesses of which it can be said that when its people change, the very nature of the product changes as well.

Gingrich expressed disappointment that sensitivity to this principle was more the exception than the rule, both in publishing and in business in general. And he went on to say that he saw a day coming, born as much of necessity as "enlightenment," when unleashing the creative energies of people would become as respected a business endeavor as creative finance or imaginative marketing. This observation, I should quickly point out, was offered before words like excellence and culture were part of the vernacular.

At a company called People Express Airlines, that day has already arrived. From any perspective, this is a most remarkable enterprise. Not yet four years old, People Express reported revenues of more than $198 million for the first nine months of 1983, making it the fastest-growing airline in the history of American aviation. What is more, productivity levels within the company are so high that if competing airlines were to try to match People's fares, most would lose money even if they were flying their planes at 100% of capacity.

Don Burr, founder and president of People Express, attributes the company's remarkable productivity only secondarily to specific operating tactics like innovative scheduling, increased seating capacity, and the elimination of free services. "Without the wholehearted, personal commitment of everyone involved," explains Burr, "you could do all of those things and still fall flat on your face. That's why we thought longer and harder about building our people structure here than we did anything else."

As Lucien Rhodes's article "That Daring Young Man and His Flying Machines" (see page 42) makes clear, the result of that thinking is an approach to organizing and managing human resources that may well be without precedent in American business.

From that perspective, People Express is a vivid reminder that any business -- be it an airline or a magazine -- is, finally, nothing but people.

Last updated: Jan 1, 1984




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