Her life, in print

Newspapers, magazines and now a book -- Cathie Black tells how it's done

STEVE BARNES SENIOR WRITER
Section: Life-Today,  Page: G1

Date: Sunday, October 21, 2007

In the early 1970s, when Cathie Black was a young sales assistant for Ms. magazine, she called on an executive at a major ad agency. Bored by her presentation, hostile to the feminist magazine and evidently under the influence of a multiple-martini lunch, the man made a theatrical, phlegm-clearing sound in his throat, as if he intended to spit on the materials she'd given him, before tossing the papers to the floor.


Humiliated, insulted and barely containing tears of outrage, she fled and sought the advice of Pat Carbine, Ms. magazine's publisher. Carbine used the incident as a teaching moment, one that, even after decades, remains vivid to Black, who as president of Hearst Magazines is today one of the most powerful women in publishing. ``Even if he was completely at fault,'' Black writes in ``Basic Black,'' (Crown Business; 290 pages; $24.95) her new business-advice book, ``I'd only make things harder on myself by refusing to let go of the incident.'' She crystallizes the lesson into one of the 70-plus personal and professional rules that appear throughout the book, set off by red type and red-bordered boxes: ``Make your life a grudge-free zone.''


Among all the wise sentences that have ever been uttered or written, this neither dazzles with originality nor sparkles with wit, Black freely acknowledges, but it wasn't meant to. Instead, the grudge advice, along with practical tips on resumes (use good paper), wielding power (don't rule by fear) and behavior at office parties (don't get drunk), were designed to be clear, succinct sentences that communicate decades' worth of accumulated wisdom.


The subtitle of the book, due out Tuesday, is ``The Essential Guide for Getting Ahead at Work (and in Life).'' Black says she uses the lessons daily as a wife and mother and as she oversees 19 U.S. magazines and nearly 200 international editions of titles including Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Esquire and O, The Oprah Magazine. (Hearst Corp. also owns the Times Union.)


``I've worked for a long time and have a lot to pass on. With (a book), I could be a coach and mentor in printed form,'' says Black, now 63. The intended audience for the book, she says, is ambitious young women in their 20s. Now at the beginning of their careers, she thought, they might benefit from a package of advice from someone who didn't start with the advantages of today's generation.


Famous names


Black says, ``People told me, `You're at a point in your career in which you have so much to share in terms of lessons learned, strategies and tips, but you can tell it through these juicy media stories with prominent names.'


Such as media baron Rupert Murdoch, who hired Black to run New York magazine in 1979, making her the nation's first female publisher of a weekly consumer magazine. Murdoch liked short meetings, often conducted standing up, so Black condensed an hourlong presentation to four minutes, yet still convinced Murdoch to spend a bunch of money on a new initiative.


And Al Neuharth, the founder of USA Today, whose mercurial behavior taught her how to manage -- and how not to -- when she was president and later publisher of the national newspaper during its fledgling years. Lesson: No matter how mediocre a promotional mailing is, don't crumple it up and literally throw it in the face of the person responsible while a roomful of others are watching.


Black offers negative lessons from the career of bullying Bonnie Fuller, who edited Cosmopolitan under Black as well as other companies' magazines including YM, Marie Claire, Glamour and Us Weekly. Among Fuller's faux pas: Angling within Hearst, a company that values loyalty, for the top slot at another Hearst magazine while that publication's editor was losing a battle with cancer. Black also explains her side of the flop that was the Tina Brown-edited Talk magazine, the only title Hearst ever bankrolled without having any say in editorial content. Black pulled out Hearst's stake, which killed the hyped but money-losing magazine, after two years.


Be prepared


Black also highlights the sunnier example of O, The Oprah Magazine. The TV titan had turned down numerous magazine offers, including five in the months before Black made her successful pitch.


``It probably will go down as the most successful magazine publishing venture ever,'' says Black, during an interview in her corner office high in the Hearst Tower in Manhattan. She reiterates in person what she writes in the book: ``There's a lesson there, and it's another simple one: Be prepared.''


Black wooed Winfrey with the help of Ellen Levine, then editor of Good Housekeeping and now editorial director of all Hearst's magazines. The two showed Winfrey a video of fans urging her to start a magazine and gave her mock issues on a variety of paper stocks to let Winfrey see how her magazine might feel.


``We assumed we would never have a second meeting, so we thought about how she was going to respond, what was she going to want to see, every single possible reaction,'' says Black. Knowing Winfrey's attachment to the written word -- her book club, four years old at that point, was a publishing-world phenomenon -- Black and Levine also stressed that a magazine, unlike a TV talk show, was tangible, permanent, something to keep, and to keep going back to. Winfrey consented to putting her name on a magazine.


O, The Oprah Magazine, which became profitable not after five years, as is the case with most magazine start-ups, but in its first issue, launched in 2000. Today it has a monthly circulation of 2.35 million.


``(W)e'd never have gotten off the ground with Oprah if we hadn't seized our moment in that critical meeting,'' Black writes. ``More often than not, you get only one real chance to make your pitch -- so make it count.''


The road upward


A Chicago native, Black graduated from Trinity College in Washington, and started her career in ad sales at Holiday magazine before moving to Ms. She later worked for, then published, New York magazine before Neuharth lured her to USA Today, where she spent eight years as president and publisher.


After serving as president and CEO of the Newspaper Association of America, she became president of Hearst Magazines in late 1996. Her successes in the years since have earned her repeated spots on most-powerful-women lists compiled by Forbes, Fortune and the New York Post, among others, and Black's most frequently appended informal title is ``the first lady of American magazines.'' Overall, magazines she controls reach 100 million readers worldwide.


The financial guru Suze Orman writes, in a ``Basic Black'' jacket blurb, ``(W)e both believe that where you came from in no way determines where you can get to. If you can think it, you can create it.'' Five of the six book blurbs are by successful women (the sixth is from GE's chairman and CEO, Jeffrey Immelt), and Black makes a point throughout ``Basic Black'' to use female pronouns when posing hypothetical examples or referring to a generic anybody: ``There's no quicker, easier way to earn your boss's respect and gratitude than by making her look good. ... Whatever you can do to help her will pay off handsomely.''


Young reader in mind


Black intends the book for young women: ``When I thought about who this was for, ... I had a 27-, 28-year-old young woman in my mind's eye'' -- a young woman with a graduate degree, perhaps, now in her second job and on the way up, fast.


``For this next generation of young women, they assume equality with guys. They grew up with them, they competed with them, they've lost out to guys and guys have lost out to them,'' says Black. ``There's an incredible sense of forward momentum.''


While more staid, tradition-bound industries like manufacturing and banking remain male-dominated, Black believes publishing is not; among the publishers and editors-in-chief of Hearst's magazines, there are 27 women and 11 men.


``I think the media has been much more open to women succeeding,'' says Black. ``On the business side, that's partly because of sales. If you succeed, it's right there: I did the most ad pages in the magazine or in the newspaper or commercials on television.''


Although Black believes men and women can be equally skilled and savvy as managers and executives, she gets questions from women's groups that almost never come up when she speaks to an audience largely composed of men.


``Even if I talk about the digital world we're living in and business strategies and all those other things I love to talk about, if it's a group mostly of women, at the end, somebody will say, `Can I ask you, are you married? Do you have children?' These are the things that a younger generation is thinking about. I'm happy to address that.''


A whole person


Black's says her most important message is that people should strive to live what she calls ``the 360-degree life.'' It's what used to be known as ``having it all,'' but Black rejects that phrase, believing it suggests just one mold or model; her version would be ``having your all,'' or, in Winfrey's famous mandate, ``Live your best life.''


``The book is not just about making your work life successful. There's a lot of that in there, but I also want to stress the need to put an equal amount of time into becoming a whole person. That's going to make us feel fulfilled,'' says Black.


She is married to Tom Harvey, a lawyer; their children, Duffy and Alison, are 20 and 16, respectively.


``I do not want them to be me, nor should they feel they should be me or my husband. I want them to find something that is satisfying, that is rewarding intellectually, that is challenging and fun,'' Black says. ``I want them to feel successful and satisfied, but they've got to choose their own path. I can help, but they've got to make their own lives.''


Steve Barnes can be reached at 454-5489 or by e-mail at sbarnes@timesunion.com.