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Friday, February 1, 2013


In the beauty salon business I learned that thioglycolic acid is used both for permanent waves and hair straightening. Its chemical reaction breaks down the follicles. With a perm, stylists set the hair with rollers and then neutralize the reaction. Straightening requires combing the curl out and then  neutralized. In the paper industry I learned that titanium dioxide is used to whiten the paper, and the stink of most paper mills is caused by the sulfur used to create pulp. But I did not need to learn about printing and graphic arts industry. I had visited print shops since I was a teenager. I knew the difference between letterpress and offset. In fact I had been involved with one of the first industry magazines to be printed web offset. The new process offered faster and less expensive printing, but it took nearly two years to work the kinks out of the  process. At the time web offset caused ad agencies considerable grief. In the early sixties, agencies sent stereotypes, a metal plate mounted on a block of wood. A four color ad required four of those heavy objects. The publisher then had to convert the ads to"brite types", a process in which the metal  plate was covered with black gooey stuff and then photographed with a huge camera to produce sheets of film. The process was perfected, and eventually advertisers sent film to the publisher. In 1974, I was one of the first publishers to find a service bureau and use cold type, saving thousands of dollars in composition costs on a weekly basis.

When I arrived at my new office, I found the big desk was devoid of any remnants of the former publisher. There was only one item on the desk, the September, 1979 issue, in which Graphic Arts Monthly celebrated its 50th anniversary. It was the largest issue ever, with 179 ad pages a 280 page folio. What was I getting myself into, I wondered. At that point Fern Virdo, the same human resources manager I had met 23 years ago, walked into my office. "There's a problem with the application you filled out," she explained. Fern continued, "Your original one had the name Mervin, and your date of birth was a year earlier." I admitted that I had made myself a year older than I  actually was. And please don't tell anybody that's my given name.  A couple of months later my staff was calling me "Merv". I told Fern she had a big mouth, and she said she hadn't told a soul. When I queried the others, I was told,"You sign all your memos MRV".

The former publisher, Bob Braun, asked me to lunch, and began giving me a rundown of GAM's history.The magazine was founded in 1929 by the Lewis brothers in Chicago. A cousin later started Harrie Lewis & Company, a New York firm, which published printing industry directories and maintained GAM's  circulation list. In the early 1050's, Harrie sold the list to another company, which used it to produce a new publication, Printing Impressions, a tabloid competitor. A third created in the late 1800's, was Inland Printer, which eventually was renamed American Printer, and in 1979 owned by a Canadian company.  Braun's history lesson worsened. There were a total of 38 regional and local printing publications, including several which were edited for the 11 various printing segments. There was a great deal of competition out there.

Braun told me that Dun & Bradstreet had acquired GAM in 1974, and later merged its magazine division with Technical Publishing, located in Barrinington, Illinois. Graphic Arts Monthly remained in Chicago for the next two years. As publisher, Braun shuttled between offices, working with Associate Publisher Dick Lewis, the son of one of the founders. In 1977 GAM was relocated to New York, making several staff members very unhappy. One of those was its editor, Bert Chapman, a man of many watches. He had spent 25 years at Time Magazine, retiring with his first watch, and earned another one after 20 years with Newsweek. "He'll be on of your biggest problems," he warned. I asked a number of question about editorial content and promotion and Braun's eyes glazed over. It appeared his main focus was its distribution to nearly 100,000 printing firms. Braun boasted about GAM's growth since it was acquired, as revenues rose about 20% in the four years to nearly $4 million with a bottom line of $750,000. I wasn't that impressed. He seemed like a smart guy with a laissez faire management style, and he couldn't answer my questions about production or printing which disturbed me slightly.  But he did know the profit and loss numbers. Before we returned to the office, he sternly gave me some advice. It's a cash cow, milk it and don't screw it up."

I spent the rest of  the afternoon interviewing and getting to know staff members. Braun's last statement lingered in my mind as the hours passed. I decided he was not my model of a professional publisher. (I settle in at the new job and find major surgery is needed in Monday's blog.)