Thursday, March 30, 2006

Cargo–Ergo Sum:

I Shop, Therefore I Am So Bummed!

By: Tom Scocca, Gabriel Sherman
New York Observer

In the ideal world of shopping, there are no failed products; there are only failed consumers. “My feeling is, we were ahead of our time,” said Ariel Foxman, editor of the suddenly defunct Cargo magazine.

Mr. Foxman was on the phone from his 15th-floor office at 4 Times Square on March 28, 24 hours after Condé Nast editorial director Tom Wallace called him in to terminate the two-year-old magazine.

“I was shocked,” Mr. Foxman said. “I think the first question I asked Tom was ‘What will happen to our readers?’”

Yes, the readers …. When Cargo was launched, following the success of its all-products, no-stories older sister, Lucky, the question was whether it could properly be said to have readers at all. Cargo would be the magazine distilled—debased?—to its commercial essence: pages to flip, full of products to sell, with no wordy feature hole to break the flow.

Yet Mr. Foxman, 32, believed there was something to it, something real.

“It was never a men’s shopping magazine,” Mr. Foxman said. (Each issue included a sheet of page-marking stickers reading “BUY” or “SAVE.”) “It was a magazine that helped guys figure out the things they would need.” (September 2005: “These jeans reverse from a dark blue rinse on one side to a light gray-blue on the other.”) “It never identified with metrosexuals.” (November 2005: “I would love to find a cleaner, less painful depilation process—and maybe sugaring will do the trick.”)

Cargo could never quite find its identity. Was it gay or straight? Aspirational or achievable? Should the cover have an average Joe, a woman shirtless under a vest, a man shirtless under a vest, or Jeremy Piven? Should the readers wear their collars “not flipped up please” (May ’05) or so that the “collar pop gets noticed” (March ’06)?

“This is a lifestyle magazine, and we looked at the world through the prism of product and services,” Mr. Foxman said. “I know there are 400,000-plus readers out there whose life is organized around ways they spend their money and time. That’s modern. What’s modern is ahead of its time.”

Cargo in certain ways was ahead of its time: It reported the absinthe revival, for instance, nine months before The New Yorker did. Mr. Foxman’s “prism of products and services” has become, for the magazine-reading and -writing population, the dominant point of view: an unselfconscious materialism—not in the old popular sense of greedy acquisitiveness, but in the sense of acquisitiveness as a state of being. One’s existence is constituted in commercial objects. New York magazine constructs a sociology around the phenomenon of grown adults wearing $250 jeans; Cargo simply profiled the jeans.

When the iPod Nano came out, Cargo commemorated the event by printing a list of 1,000 download-available songs—a complete Nano’s worth, pre-selected for readers’ purchase, in alphabetical order by title. “0702 Round and Round—Ratt, 0703 ’Round Midnight—Miles Davis, 0704 Roxanne—The Police.” Stuff to buy is stuff to buy.

Some of the stuff was weird enough or disturbing enough to linger: a plywood laptop bag, a bamboo ski helmet. A March 2006 page of men’s briefs—$225 totem-printed short-shorts, filmy $80 Pradas—was a sort of shock object that could cause viewers to flinch or giggle uncontrollably.

And the Cargo argot had a way of sticking in the mind’s ear. In attempting to revive the double-breasted jacket for everyday wear, the magazine insistently dubbed it the “DB.”

Advertisers were less entranced. According to the most recent Publishers Information Bureau figures, ad pages declined in February by 32 percent compared to the same period the last year. The magazine got notably skinnier.

But at the magazine, staffers said business had seemed to remain as usual. As late as last week, Cargo had extended job offers to a new Web editor and a senior editor. It was scheduled to relocate from its 15th-floor space, split with Bon Appétit, to the eighth floor.

And last spring, in a seeming vote of confidence in Mr. Foxman, Condé Nast secured the loan for him to buy a West Village apartment, according to city records.

But on March 27, Mr. Wallace summoned the staff to the conference room and told them that the market did not support publishing the magazine. The May issue, with Jonathan Rhys Meyers on the cover, will make it to newsstands; the June edition, a week from closing, will not be published. The 40-person staff will be out of work by March 31.

Qualified staffers are eligible to apply for open positions within the company. According to a source with knowledge of the proceedings, staffers will get three weeks’ pay for each full year of service, and will get three months of continued health insurance.

Condé Nast had already closed another shopping title, Vitals, back in September. And with the successful launch of Men’s Vogue, Cargo’s niche in the men’s market appeared to get even tighter.

“The decision about Cargo was not made based on Men’s Vogue,” Condé Nast spokesperson Maurie Perl said. “They were made independent of each other.”

In some ways, Cargo operated very much like a Condé Nast book. According to current and former staffers, the magazine shared the profligate sensibilities of its brethren, in the spirit of the late editorial director Alexander Liberman.

“There was no feeling you would reach a bottom with the budget,” a former staffer said. “Some people treated it like a blank check.”

For a spread on ski gear, then, the magazine did a photo shoot in the mountains of New Zealand. A casual-wear spread was photographed on the streets of Shanghai. One former staffer recalled a last-minute decision to add more plasma TV models to a spread for aesthetic reasons at the request of then Condé Nast editorial director James Truman—requiring Cargo to buy them retail and review them on deadline.

But in other respects, Cargo was out of sync with Condé Nast’s sensibilities. It could never find a cover strategy, and when it settled on the tried-and-true celebrity cover, the subjects were more B-list than usual Condé fare: Matchbox 20 front man Rob Thomas (November 2005), Olympic skier Jeremy Bloom (February 2006) and Mr. Piven (March 2006).

“The celebrity focus has to do with attracting new readers to the magazine,” Mr. Foxman said. But, he said, “the business plan is a lot more sophisticated than that.”

Mr. Foxman said he hasn’t made plans yet for his post-Cargo life, and is sifting through fan letters and preparing for a family vacation in Florida.

“As an editor, you are the reader’s advocate,” Mr. Foxman said. “We remained an advocate for our readers, and what the readers wanted. Today I’m getting e-mails from perfect strangers from across the country saying that they read in the newspaper that Cargo is closing and how disappointed they are.”

Condé Nast has announced that Cargo subscribers will receive GQ for the remainder of their subscriptions. Through a spokesperson, GQ editor in chief Jim Nelson welcomed Cargo’s bereft readers.

“We’ll work hard to earn the loyalty of those new readers, and hopefully we’ll be able to give them something of what they looked for and came to respect in Cargo,” he said.

The March edition of GQ features an item urging men to consider wearing “subtle pleats on slim cut-pants” such as a $425 pair from Miu Miu. Another page instructs readers “How to Pull Off Workwear (Without Looking Like a Tool)”: “If you buy one of Carhartt’s iconic zip-front jackets, get it a size smaller than you normally would—it’ll be trim and snug, the way you want it.”

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