W, the hefty fashion bible known for publishing the adventurous work of top-tier photographers, had long been one of the magazine industry’s most august titles. While it costs less to run than Vogue, it is nevertheless expensive.
Now, it appears to be in serious trouble.
“The bottom has dropped out of the luxury market,” Marc Lotenberg, the chief executive of W’s parent company, Future Media Group, said on Wednesday evening. This, he said, has put the title in “survival” mode.
On Monday, the magazine’s editor, Sara Moonves, called her staff to tell them that many were being furloughed. Those who work on online content are staying on at reduced salaries.
Mr. Lotenberg blamed the economic upheaval caused by the new coronavirus pandemic for much of the magazine’s troubles, though he did not deny that payments to vendors have been late since January, acknowledging that numerous independent contractors have not been paid for their services. (He blamed this in part on the launch of a Chinese edition of W, which was scheduled for January and has now been moved to September.)
The magazine’s next print issue, previously scheduled for publication in the beginning of May, is being postponed indefinitely. Future Media Group’s most recent chief financial officer, Sam Recenello, just departed the company.
Many of the people on the editorial team remain hopeful that another buyer might emerge to take the title, founded in 1972, off Mr. Lotenberg’s hands. Even he seems to be open to this.
“All options are on the table,” he said.
But it’s not a good time for nonessential commerce of any sort. And there are other issues Mr. Lotenberg is facing.
It was June of last year when Condé Nast, struggling with enormous overhead and declining ad revenue, unloaded the long-suffering oversize fashion monthly to Future Media Group, a small publishing company that puts out Surface magazine, a design quarterly.
How well this would turn out was much gossiped about from the get-go. Mr. Lotenberg has a previous history of not paying bills on time.
According to a Future Media Group employee and others at Condé Nast briefed on the terms of the sale, Mr. Lotenberg was given a yearlong grace period for installment payments on the purchase of W. The period was extended from June to September, as his company’s payments had fallen behind. (Mr. Lotenberg said he could not discuss terms of the sale.)
The magazine had appeared to be off to a good start under Ms. Moonves, who became its editor after the acquisition by Future Media.
W’s Best Performances issue, released shortly before the Oscars and featuring actors from the year’s most prestigious films, had more ad pages than ever before. The main portfolio was shot by Juergen Teller, whose underprocessed shots, mostly free of retouching, have influenced a generation of photographers.
Work like this was helping to reestablish the magazine as a laboratory for photographers to do the kind of editorial work that Vogue and Elle don’t regularly publish.
First published as a broadsheet by Fairchild Publications as an offshoot of Women’s Wear Daily, the magazine became a glossy in the nineties and regularly published photographers like Tim Walker, Steven Klein, Mr. Teller, and Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott.
All of those men shot for Vogue, but Vogue was not known for featuring pictures of Brad Pitt on the floor with his pants down and bottom exposed. Vogue did not cast Madonna as a modern-day Mrs. Robinson surrounded by a harem of Brazilian male models who were barely old enough to drink.
But W, which did, nevertheless became a runaway success with advertisers.
It was sold to Condé Nast in 1999 as the centerpiece of a $650 million deal that also brought WWD, Jane magazine and a number of other retail trade titles under its wing. Over the next two decades, W won numerous American Society of Magazine Editors awards.
Things began to go awry around the time of the most previous financial crisis. Its longtime editorial director, Patrick McCarthy, was eased into retirement in 2009 (he died last year). Stefano Tonchi (a former editor of T, The New York Times’s fashion and lifestyle magazine) was hired to replace him.
As celebrities began using Instagram as their primary promotional vehicle and the advertising market became dominated by Google and Facebook, Condé Nast began to show signs of stress. Many of the company’s magazines went digital-only or shut down entirely. Editors at GQ, Glamour, and Vanity Fair departed.
Attempts to sell W went badly. Numerous potential buyers flirted with purchasing it, only to pull out. That gave Mr. Lotenberg an opening, even as numerous vendors of Surface Media were complaining of missed payments.
“We wound up being a little overleveraged,” Mr. Lotenberg said. He added that everyone was paid back, some with restitution.
When the sale was ironed out — WWD reported that Condé Nast was seeking $7 million to $8 million for W — Mr. Tonchi was dismissed. He now has a wrongful termination lawsuit pending against Condé Nast.
Mr. Lotenberg believes the future looks bright for W, despite the current economic situation. “I believe in the brand,” he said.