Ulf Poschardt is "very happy." Or so he says. Everything is great: the print run, ad sales and the structure of those magazine issues he has produced so far as editor-in-chief of the German edition of Vanity Fair.
It's all going great, he says. "More or less," he adds, in English. He likes to use English expressions. They often sound better than their German equivalent. He used to wax eloquent about Germany's "movers and shakers." But he's doing a lot less of that these days -- he was getting ridiculed too often.
Then he yanks open the windows of his Berlin office in the sweltering heat. Two minutes later he closes them again because of the noisy traffic outside. It's too hot around him one moment and too loud the next -- more or less.
Somehow everything is going well, more or less. Keeping it vague makes it easier to feel jubilant. Nor does it seem to matter that the claim of having a sold print run of 120,000 makes other publishers raise their eyebrows, that recent issues featured few ads and that people in the business are whispering that the Condé Nast publishing house's showcase project is devouring about half a million euros ($670,000) a week.
Questions about the print run should be directed at the publishing house, an annoyed Poschardt eventually says. He adds that an extraordinary number of ads has been booked for the fall. More or less.
The conference room next to Poschardt's office features a large mosaic of the most successful cover images of German magazines from recent years. Stern and SPIEGEL covers are displayed there, but so are those of the lifestyle magazines Bunte and Gala. These are the classic paragons, and this is the league Poschardt originally wanted to play in, as an editor of one of Germany's well-established magazines. But his prospects for success aren't too promising.
Poschardt has heard the talk. He's familiar with the judgements passed by his colleagues, which tend to be merciless. "This is a marathon," he says. "I think it's a mistake to reach a final judgement on us after only the first leg of the race."
In Search of an Identity
All the numbers being hawked are not his main concern as editor-in-chief anyway, he says. Other things are more important, like putting together the magazine. Or giving it a "journalistic corporate identity." That, unfortunately, is where the problem truly begins. After all, Vanity Fair is a magazine that already has a corporate identity. But it's quite different from the one Poschardt outlined in an editorial in the magazine's debut issue.
Indeed, the magazine has yet to gain any clout in Germany. No one talks about it. It fails to deliver the glamorous fair it was named after. At best, it presents its readers with a flea market of niceties. Criticism in the industry has been harsh.
"Vanity Fair has shown it's possible to drown in shallow water," backbites Paul Sahner of the rival Bunte magazine. The advertisers are skeptical too. "Everyone had great expectations, especially with regard to the target audience of elite achievers. If the editors continue to opt for covers such as the one featuring Knut, the polar bear, then the disappointment will be considerable. That sort of thing is more appropriate for readers of a weekly tabloid," says Tim Draut of Germany's OMD media agency. Christian Rademacher of the Carat media agency at least gives the project "a chance in the long term as a society magazine for younger people, but not in the upper league."
The basic problem faced by this German offshoot of the American magazine consists neither in the sometimes flamboyant arrogance of its editor-in-chief nor in the already visible burn-out syndrome of his still junior staff. The problem is the magazine's point of view.
While popular magazines Bunte and Gala describe celebrities as people who love and cheat and steal and marry and suffer like everyone else, except that they also happen to be beautiful or rich or absurdly famous, Vanity Fair often prefers to shut itself off from its readers by associating itself with the world's rich and powerful. It demands to be worshipped. It's a circus that doesn't attract much of an audience in Germany, where people tend to envy their stars rather than worship them.
This slightly duplicitous manner of the Germans was already a challenge for Park Avenue -- the magazine that Vanity Fair's current "special correspondent" Alexander von Schönburg once edited. Schönburg's brand of journalism, largely based on his network of friends, was insufficient even there. Park Avenue received substantial attention only once -- when Gabriele Pauli, one of the more prominent political rivals of Bavarian Governor Edmund Stoiber, appeared in a photo spread clad in snake-skin leather and latex.
A Magazine with an Identity Crisis
And what about Vanity Fair? The magazine can't decide. Should it opt for trashy tabloid journalism? Should it aim for a staid and respectable image? Poschardt doesn't want to lose face in front of his high-society friends, but he doesn't want to put off the masses either. The danger in the strategy of trying to please both, though, is that you either win everyone's heart or none at all. In any case,Vanity Fair's milking of clichés doesn't increase the experiment's chances of success.
"Art is the high society's new must-have accessory," special correspondent Schönburg writes in a feature about the Biennale art fair in Venice in one recent issue. And editor-in-chief Poschardt has this to say about Kate Moss: "I was at a party celebrating the 40th birthday of Kate's agent and chatted with her. A guest came over to us and handed each of us a glass of champagne. It was Diddy -- that is, back then he still called himself Puff Daddy."
Things get thoroughly ridiculous when the magazine spills its celebrity sauce over the German backwoods: "We love (the eastern German state of) Saxony because Dresden has a high society again." To prove it, 12 people -- from the commissioner for foreigners to German opera singer and entertainer Gunther Emmerlich -- were searched out and assembled for a group portrait, pluckily commented on by the editors as follows: "The photo shoot in the vestibule of the Semper Opera House was a joyful reunion." The desperate search for glamour, it seems, is also the new must-have accessory of the editors.
And then it's merry old uncle Poschi's turn again: "The global economic boom is curing Germans of their depression. And that's pleasant to watch. Even global warming, a horrific development, makes a contribution in the form of plentiful sunshine."
Supermodels, super Saxony, sunshine. Those are the success stories by which the editor-in-chief wants to revive the spirit of last year's World Cup in Germany. More or less, as one finds out every Thursday. That's when the magazine hits the stand and Poschardt calls together his editors to critique the new issue. And it's also the time when things stop being so super. His motto: Criticism is a gift. And it's one he sure likes giving. He regularly lectures his staff on the great stories featured in Stern and the weekly Die Zeit, stories printed while his editors and reporters were asleep at the wheel.
Plenty of Sunshine
A few editors have already given up in exasperation. Some of them were disappointed by the magazine's lack of political relvance and journalistic seriousness. One mockingly complains Poschardt hasn't had the courage to feature a single socially relevant cover story. Instead of a thoroughly researched and well-written piece on the new elite of German citizens of Turkish descent, he chose to slap a piece about Liz Hurley ("Help, I'm Turning Into A Housewife") on the cover.
Poschardt blames overblown expectations as a result of the magazine's association with the legendary US edition of Vanity Fair for disappointment over his project among editors and others in the magazine business. "We didn't foster all the expectations ourselves." But of course he too wants to create something great, something new. "The standard we ourselves aim for is very high," he says. "We always ask ourselves: What is the most we can achieve journalistically?"
And so the pope made it onto the cover, accompanied by the headline: "A Pop Star Turns 80." Claudia Schiffer confessed: "I want even more children." Angela Merkel was "at the summit," Prince William was the "prince of dreams" and Angelina Jolie was "happier than ever before." That's the magazine of top standards? In a league of its own? Something new? Rather less than more, it seems.
German pop star and would-be savior of the planet Herbert Grönemeyer was guest editor-in-chief during the G-8 summit in Heiligendamm -- just the way German entertainer Thomas Gottschalk was invited to produce the tabloid Bild for one day, or the way left-wing daily Die Tageszeitung allowed its "enemies" to take over the editorial department for one issue. It was an original idea -- the first time.
Lots of Ideas, not All of them New
In any case, Poschardt generously provided plenty of space for Grönemeyer's campaign "Your Voice Against Poverty" and had pretty pictures taken of the singer and other do-goodish celebrities practicing their "I'm concerned about the world" pose. The line "The Stars' Appeal: Act Now!" was slapped onto the cover.
In the end, though, Vanity Fair gave much and received little in return. Guest editor-in-chief Grönemeyer didn't even show up at the editorial offices when the issue was produced. But he had been contacted, Poschardt assures: "He was traveling, on tour. We met him repeatedly. We spoke on the telephone daily, exchanged faxes and e-mails." And, anyway, the pictures were great, he adds.
And so the magazine sucks up to celebrities without being able to report anything interesting about them. Soap opera starlet Alexandra Neldel made it onto the cover of Vanity Fair just because her lawyer was able to ensure that a picture of her could be printed only if she also appeared on the front page.
Eight weeks after his resignation as head of Siemens's board of directors following a corruption scandal, Vanity Fair interviewed Heinrich von Pierer. "How are you?" the journalists asked him. "Are you playing more tennis again?" And then they segued pluckily: "So, the headlines from the last few weeks and months hasn't affected your serve?"
Half a year ago, German editors and journalists were still very jittery over Vanity Fair's launch here -- worried about whether or not the new magazine would succeed in doing what no one has been able to do for a long time: create a major stir on the German magazine market. Staffs at glossies like Bunte and Gala, which devote themselves to reporting on the lives of celebrities, were nervous. The staff at Stern was also tinkering with defensive measures and expecting the worst. But the earthquake everyone was expecting never came.
Germany's magazine business had been expecting a major, full-frontal attack led by Condé Nast -- large and powerful internationally and publisher of not only the US edition of Vanity Fair, virtually worshipped by many journalists, but also of the New Yorker and Vogue. But so far at least, there hasn't even been a faint tremor.
Instead, Condé Nast's German publisher, Bernd Runge, is now having a hard time convincing people that Vanity Fair actually has the circulation of 120,000, "on average, from issue to issue," that he claims. The number of subscribers is above 20,000 he says, but he provides no other figures.
He has, however, announced that the magazine will publish its circulation figures during the third quarter. But circulation will be difficult to verify. The calculations provided by the wholesalers who distribute the magazine via newsstands are known. Wholesalers have calculated that most of the recent issues of Vanity Fair sold less than 50,000 copies there. In addition, there are the subscribers. The remaining issues would have to be sold mainly at train stations or airports. The figures that have been circulated are all wrong, Runge claims, before adding that he doesn't obsess about circulation. "We're in the process of building a major brand. That's more important than the question of whether the print run is 10,000 more or less."
Still, it doesn't say much for Vanity Fair that neither the editor-in-chief nor the publisher are very interested in circulation. Or the fact that the magazine's editors are noted mainly for their pompous white offices on Berlin's elegant boulevard Unter den Linden, dubbed "white hell" by some who work in the giant space. Poschardt also once reflected on the "search for meaning in a white desert." But that wasn't in Vanity Fair; it was in his book "Cool." He was refering there to the phenomenon known as "whiteout," which afflicts scientists exploring arctic regions. During their wanderings through ancient landscapes of ice, they lose their sense of orientation as the snow and the whiteness of the sky flicker in front of their eyes.
"During the whiteout of what never changes, arctic ice evokes closeness to nirvana," wrote Poschardt, who has a Ph.D. in philosophy and doesn't mind it when people notice that fact.
Somehow the magazine is threatening to disappear in the nirvana of what never changes -- more rather than less, so far. And the road to becoming a must-have accessory is still a long one.