O: Part of the Oprah Mission

Apr 19, 2004  •  Post A Comment

There are plenty of one-name wonders out there-Cher, Madonna, Beyonce, Prince. But the individuals who can be identified by a single initial make up a short list indeed.
Welcome to O, the big eye-catching letter on the cover of Oprah Winfrey’s 4-year-old monthly magazine. The full title is O, The Oprah Magazine, but either way you slice it, it doesn’t require a “Winfrey” to achieve its current guaranteed advertising rate base of 2.15 million subscribers. (Other titles originally considered: Aura and Spirit.)
When it debuted as bimonthly in April 2000 with an initial rate base of 500,000, it instantly made magazine history. It was Hearst Magazines’ most successful launch ever and winner of Adweek’s Start-Up of the Year 2001. Good Housekeeping, Hearst’s largest magazine, has a 4.5 million circulation.
“From day one we knew we had a huge success because of who she is and what she stands for,” said Hearst Magazines President Cathleen Black.
In print, Ms. Winfrey stands for a mix of health, fashion tips, book recommendations, personal movie star chats and her own “values and presence: positive, empowering, fun, substantive, heartfelt,” said O Editor in Chief Amy Gross. “Choose Happiness” is a headline you won’t find in Vogue, though you might come across something like “Can New Shoes Make You Happy?” a recent O story. (“Yes, of course they can,” is the O answer.)
“Oprah has a mission,” Ms. Black said. “She really wants to help women live better lives, yet she loves beautiful homes, beautiful clothes, girlie things.”
The magazine’s editorial offices are in New York, away from Ms. Winfrey’s Chicago base, but she stays actively involved. “I probably set the theme for 10 or 11 out of 12 issues,” said Ms. Gross, “but then the staff contributes a barrage of ideas. We come up with a lineup, assign them, edit them, send pages off to Oprah every night as they’re complete, [and] send her stories, text when I’ve signed off on them.”
Ms. Winfrey poses for every cover and gives important input to the design director on cover choices. Gayle King, a former television news anchor and Ms. Winfrey’s closest friend, is editor at large.
A special issue of the magazine called O at Home, which started in October 2003 as a 48-page advertising supplement for subscribers, will be sold on newsstands only in May and October. “We’re kind of testing the water,” Ms. Black said.
“Oprah has a Pied Piper effect [on] her audience,” said Steven Cohn, editor in chief of Media Industry Newsletter, of her magazine’s success. “They follow her. They believe her. If Oprah endorsed Kerry or Bush for president, either one would win.”
Personality-driven magazines have their perils. After Martha Stewart’s conviction last month for lying to government investigators, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia is considering removing her name from the title of the Martha Stewart Living magazine. Rosie O’Donnell’s Rosie folded after a short time, primarily because she and publisher Gruner + Jahr had “quote, creative differences,” Mr. Cohn said.
“There’s a danger when egos are involved,” he said. “To say this could never happen between Oprah and Hearst-I’m not saying it will-but suppose she wants to make herself less visible and drops her TV show, like Johnny Carson. What happens to the magazine? These are risks. If something happens to Ellen Levine (editor in chief of Good Housekeeping), the magazine continues. It’s got its benefits, but its risks too.”
“We hope O will have a long and healthy next half of a century. We are thrilled to work with her. We will keep our fingers crossed,” Ms. Black said.