Ulf Poschardt, editor-in-chief, considers for a moment how best to comment without giving away too much. What, his interviewer wants to know, can readers expect from the first issue of the new German Vanity Fair?
Eventually Poschardt says: "A menu lives from diversity. Right now I have the feeling that we've done a great job on the sorbets. There won't be any better sorbet. But I'm also pleased that we have a few things like sauerbraten, roast pork and rotisserie chicken. Now we just have to create a few appetizers."
The menu, in the form of a brand-new glossy magazine, hits the newsstands on Wednesday. And it sounds like a rather full plate. Especially for a weekly.
The publication has certainly found the right address for its headquarters: downtown Berlin on the city's stately boulevard Unter den Linden. On the ground floor is a Ferrari showroom -- three floors up are the editorial offices encased completely in white: a white floor, white walls, white Apple iMac computers, white shelves. And in the back, in Poschardt's office, there's even a white thermos on a white table with a white wastebasket underneath. It's as if Poschardt is the first editor-in-chief to work from inside a giant snow globe.
But he seems okay with that: "It's the right setting. Especially when you have younger people working for you. The rooms and the location say a lot. They are, of course, a statement." But stating what exactly? "That we are who we are," says Poschardt.
Exists as a statement
Poschardt is 39 years old. He was editor-in-chief of the weekend magazine of the quality German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, but he had to leave after he published -- as did others -- made-up interviews by a journalist named Tom Kummer. He was then the creative director at Welt am Sonntag and was responsible for freshening up the Sunday paper's coverage aesthetically, ideologically and content-wise. On his white shelves are eight still shrink-wrapped copies of his book "Loneliness," in which he explains why being alone isn't as bad as it's made out to be. That's to say, the book is much like Poschardt himself. It exists as a statement.
He's been developing the German edition of Vanity Fair since the summer of 2005. Now, a week before the launch there are only two ways forward. His magazine can either fail to meet the high expectations or it can be a great success. But a German edition of Vanity Fair can't simply be okay. Nobody would buy it. The German magazine market is full of simply okay titles.
It's hard to say which way Poschardt's project is currently leaning. Rainer Schmidt, the deputy editor-in-chief, only started in December. Uwe Killing, head of the "People" section, joined in January. And only weeks ago three members of the editorial staff, including the culture editor, left the publication.
This morning at the 10 a.m. editorial meeting, Poschardt bids farewell to someone from the photo department who is going to the German art and lifestyle magazine Monopol. He's standing in front of 40 staff members, all of whom are both young and good looking. It's possibly the best looking editorial staff ever assembled. But it could also be a class at a journalism school or the tired workforce of a snazzy new Web start-up.
Poschardt says everything is going according to plan. That even though the word for "man" in German has two N's, Superman should be spelled with only one. That the editorial staff masseuse is totally booked out. And those who need vitamins to combat the stress should just buy them and expense them to the company. "Let me know," says Poschardt. Then he goes back inside his snow globe and closes the door.
The Vanity Fair formula in Germany?
At the moment the editorial department is too small for a weekly magazine that wants to go straight to the top. Poschardt wants to increase his current staff from around 75 to 80. But that's still not much compared to the competition. And it's not likely big enough for a dream.
Because that's exactly what the German version of this magazine has always been -- a dream for journalists and publishers. For decades they've tried to come up with a way to transplant the Vanity Fair formula to Germany -- a country considerably different from America. A country that is smaller, narrower and quieter. In the end it always seemed as if it just wouldn't be possible. Perhaps there was a bit of awe holding things back too. Vanity Fair has long been an American cultural icon, even if its roots were founded in 1860 in England.
In 1913, the US publisher Condé Nast acquired the rights to the title and made a magazine that was perfect for the age. The 1920s in New York, a city that was just as ambitious and extravagant as Vanity Fair wanted to be. Magazine and city grew together and grew bigger. And both flopped together too. In the midst of the Great Depression in 1936, Vanity Fair disappeared.
Half a century later in 1983, the magazine was reborn. The new publication's credo was simple: Cover everything. Celebrity talk, high society, Hollywood, political reporting, commentaries, essays, photography was all mixed up next to each other in the same glossy pages. These days the US edition of Vanity Fair has a circulation of 1.2 million and a readership of around 6 million. The magazine is a huge moneymaker, bursting with massive advertisements for luxury products. That's the brand and its cachet.
It's also the Holy Grail for many publishers: a magazine that fills small gaps between Gucci, Prada and Chanel with a bit of editorial content. An entire genre of glossy coffee table mags has been spawned by that dream.
The German Vanity Fair is sure to be measured against the original, but that would be unfair. The US edition is a monthly. "It's two different journalistic categories," says Poschardt. "One is a sports car, the other is an SUV. Only the spirit is the same." Fine, but what exactly is that spirit?
"The spirit is made up of countless things like any spirit is," says Poschardt before making an example. In the TV series "Sex and the City" the character Samantha at one point says: "I always want to look like the best version of me." "And Vanity Fair presents everyone as the best version of themselves."
That's the spirit.
But beyond that, he's looking to forge a path for the German Vanity Fair somewhere between the US and Italian editions. The version of the magazine in Italy is somewhat trashy. The articles even have estimated reading time notices underneath them. And what the US edition does simply isn't possible even if the German version harvests articles and photo spreads from America. So what exactly will German readers end up with?
Part II: Is There Enough Glamour in Germany for Vanity Fair?
"A mixture of glamorous stories, hard news, as well as facts and figures," says Poschardt. More or less everything, in other words.
Condé Nast is spending a pretty penny to realize the project in Germany. It's the publishing house's biggest ever investment outside America -- up to €50 million ($65 million). Some say it's costing €80 million, others estimated as much as €200 million. Bernd Runge, Condé Nast manager in Germany, calls it the last grand adventure on the German magazine market. The company wants to sell at least 120,000 copies, but Runge is hoping for 300,000 -- comparable to the Italian edition.
At first Poschardt wanted to make a monthly magazine. He flew to New York in the summer of 2005 and stayed for four weeks to see what made the US publication tick. But the plan changed in 2006 after the Italian edition's weekly format proved so successful. Poschardt and Condé Nast decided to develop a new concept.
From a monthly to a weekly
But the German editorial staff wasn't informed. Poschardt only began to speak more frequently about covering weekly events. He hired a few more people for a monthly that he knew would never make it to newsstands. The new concept was made official last autumn. "A few people were shocked after it was announced, but most thought it was great. Most were euphoric about it," he says.
On the magazine's Web site Poschardt wrote: "Our goal is clear: exclusive and current, modern and elegant, humorous and pragmatic, clever and sexy, to become the voice of the new Germany." He explained that Vanity Fair aimed to "frame and define the aesthetic of the Berlin Republic." The publisher Condé Nast talks of a "new magazine for a new Germany." Ambitious indeed.
The last German magazine that was so ambitious was probably Tango. That was the name of the "illustrated-info" mag from Hamburg-based publisher Gruner + Jahr. Editor-in-Chief Hans-Hermann Tiedje spoke in 1994 of "printed television." Nobody had any idea what that was, but it sounded like you had to be onboard. Tango lasted all of three quarters of a year and Tiedje, once editor-in-chief of Germany's biggest daily paper Bild, became a PR consultant.
Sitting a while in Poschardts office and listening to him is a bit like traveling back in time. Speaking of the new Berlin Republic, the zeitgeist, the voice of a new Germany, using empty labels, it all comes from that era when Gerhard Schröder became chancellor in 1998 and when the so-called New Economy was about to make some people a lot of money. Berlin was on its way to become New York. Or Moscow. The winds changed daily. Everyone in Germany talked about the political New Middle (Neue Mitte), but nobody knew where that middle was. It was merely an idea, or perhaps only a slogan.
But these days Germany is governed by a so-called grand coalition spanning the left-right divide. There is no middle. Perhaps Vanity Fair will be a society magazine that covers a society that no longer exists.
At what price?
However, the most astonishing thing about the magazine's launch is the pure paranoia that it has created. Ask Condé Nast about the cover price and the publishing house reacts as if Tehran's mullahs are being questioned about Iran's nuclear weapons program. It's enough to make one want to shout: It's only a magazine! It'll probably cost €1.50 to start. At least that's what the seemingly concerned competition says.
Editors at established German magazines like Bunte, Gala, and Max, are all a bit afraid ahead of the new launch. Gruner + Jahr has started a huge advertising campaign for both Stern and Park Avenue.
Andreas Petzold, who is joint editor-in-chief with Thomas Osterkorn at Stern, has temporarily taken over the helm of Park Avenue, the lifestyle publication started only in 2005. Stern is also supposedly planning to run more celebrity coverage. There were also accusations that one journalist spied on what Vanity Fair was planning. And rumors abound that Gruner + Jahr is already working on a magazine in case Vanity Fair is successful. The working title sounds like something Poschardt would come up with: Neues Deutschland or New Germany.
But times are good for journalists. Rainer Schmidt, Poschardt's deputy at Vanity Fair, used to have the same job at Park Avenue. Alexander von Schönburg, the unsuccessful former editor-in-chief at Park Avenue will also soon join the magazine's staff. That even Michel Friedman, a controversial and once publicly disgraced German television personality, is onboard isn't particularly encouraging. He's supposed to report and write. Suddenly, anything seems possible.
Sorbet and appetizers
Poschardt would like to have plenty of glamour in his magazine. But glamour is a limited commodity in Germany. America has Hollywood. The German film industry just doesn't have the same star power. Poschardt would also like to mix politics and glamour. The Berlin Republic is become more glamorous all the time, he believes. The way German politicians are packaged can be improved upon.
There's already a story on the glamour of Germany's often downright dowdy Social Democratic Party (SPD) in the works. Poschardt has spoken with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and a few days ago Berlin's Mayor Klaus Wowereit, known in the German capital for his love of the spotlight, came by his office. Perhaps they'll do something together. Perhaps a photo spread.
In the current issue of the US Vanity Fair, Washington's powerbrokers are stylized in photos. Poschardt could do the same with Berlin's powerbrokers. Glamour for Germany's rather drab government ministers and party leaders. "Theoretically, glamour is simply another concept of reality. But the Germans believe it's a type of anti-reality," says Poschardt.
Outside the window, in the new Berlin, in the new Germany, it starts to snow. The publisher says Vanity Fair is meant to become the magazine of choice for the "new achieving elites." Poschardt explains his target group so: "It's about movers and shakers."
The first cover on Thursday will show a man. Presumably a mover and shaker. Sorbet will be served. And appetizers.