Conscious Choice Publications: the Latest Victims of Changing Media Landscape
Last week I received word via a long-winded mass-email missive by a former co-worker that CE Media, the parent company of Conscious Choice (Chicago & Seattle), Common Ground (SF) and Whole Life Times (LA), had finally shut their doors, making them the latest victims of the tumultuously shifting media and publishing landscape. The company had been struggling for years ever since these unique, pioneering publications were bought up and corporatized in the middle part of the decade.
It was, for me, a deeply personal and ambivalent revelation. This was my former employer. I was for one brief, vainglorious year, the Editorial Director of the company and the Editor-in-Chief of Conscious Choice. I was let go under very hanky circumstances after CE Media was sold to Gaiam, Inc in July of 2007.
At the risk of appearing to engage in a little schadenfreude, the truth of the matter is that I was not at all surprised at CE's demise. Yet I was quite saddened. These magazines had persisted in the face of great adversity for over 20 and 30 years. And now all that time had been washed away in an instant, the victims of corporate greed and managerial incompetence. It was the end of an era, and a further reflection of just how bad things had gotten out there in the world of print media.
Of course the trouble in the industry had been brewing for quite some time, beginning years ago with the dot.com bubble (and what a quaint little bubble it is now in hindsight). But the real precipitous slide began with the collapse of the American economy. Then came "Black Wednesday" in December, three months after the stock market crashed. On this infamous day scores of editors from major houses were perp-walked out the door in a series of massive layoffs.
The contagion spread fast and infected newspapers, magazines internet sites, and retail booksellers. Book returns hit 90%, scores of major city newspapers either went into bankruptcy or folded. Foundation endowments collapsed, and the steady stream of subscriptions and donations made to the teaming mass of not-for-profit publications dried up. The death toll was astounding. (You can view some of the body counts in a trio of really good pieces, one by longtime editor Tom Englehardt and a companion piece by Jill Fraser of the Nation Institute, and a departing editor's missive from Colin Robinson in the London Review of Books)
The story behind CE Media's demise, however, is a bit more arcane.
Each magazine (Seattle's Conscious Choice began as Evergreen Monthly) began as an independent publication founded in the 1970s and 80s by ex-hippies and new agers. Their content was varied, but it mostly focused on the emerging markets of "environmentalism and natural living." As they grew over time, each publication found its own specific voice. Conscious Choice had a distinct green flavor with stories about conservation and food policy. Whole Life Times was more New Age, with astrology and personal growth columns. Common Ground had been around since 1971 as a popular listings circular.
These were essentially Mom & Pop operations, driven by ad revenue from other Mom & Pop operations--holistic doctors, New Age bookstores, yoga and meditation centers, organic produce markets--and at the time, they were some of the only places you could find these types of stories or businesses.
Then in 2001 Ron Williams, the founder of the Detroit Metro-Times, bought Conscious Choice from founders Jim Slama and Ross Thompson with the idea that it would become the model publication for a media company that would expand to more magazines over time. Their plan was to buy one publication a year for four years. Williams named his creation Dragonfly Media.
By 2004 Dragonfly had acquired Whole Life Times, Common Ground, and Evergreen Monthly, and launched as one of the first of its kind, a big, multi-market progressive media company built on progressive values. The socially just, eco-friendly, locally sourced content was produced in socially just, eco-friendly local offices and printed by socially just, eco-friendly local printers. Williams brought in a few publishing veterans to help manage the company. The eight editors had autonomy in their markets and collaborated on shared content. Each magazine had its own look.
Despite this noble vision, the expansion was more than they could support in the long run and Dragonfly hemorrhaged money. Williams blew through an estimated $5 million in 3 years, mostly on a payroll that was dominated by the lavish salaries of his upper management and those of the individual publishers of each magazine. On November 15th, 2005 the company was to shut its doors forever.
And then, seemingly out of nowhere, appeared a man named Christopher Miglino, to ostensibly save the day.
In his mid-thirties at the time, short and pug-nosed, with long hair and a SoCal surfer patois, Miglino might have, at first glance, appeared a likely savior for a bunch of greenies and new agers. He's a yoga fanatic with a penchant for Osho and Eckhart Tolle, follows the every whim of at least two Indian gurus, and employs the use of "dude" and "aggro" in disproportionate quantities. And he owned a piece of the Golden Bridge Yoga Studio in Hollywood to boot.
But as a media CEO, he was definitely cast against type. Aside from an unsuccessful stab as a film producer, he had no media or publishing experience, and certainly didn't have the slightest clue what journalism was. He didn't read, and was largely unaware that a world existed east of the San Bernardino Mountains.
Miglino had heard that Dragonfly was folding and he wanted to buy Whole Life Times and turn it into a yoga-and eastern-spirituality magazine to compete with Yogi Times, a fluffy high-gloss West Coast monthly, the kind with meditating waif models on the cover that primarily served as a vehicle to hock high-end spas and yoga products.
Dragonfly wouldn't sell just the one magazine, so Miglino ended up having to take on the entire company (he essentially assumed Dragonfly's debt, and was handed the keys to the operation). His initial plan, at least in spirit, bore some similarity to Ron Williams'. He wanted to eventually turn all four magazines into one magazine, Conscious Choice, albeit with a radically different look and content. The design would be overhauled to be full color, slick, "sexy," and commercial. The content would focus mainly on yoga, eastern spirituality, and all the lifestyle products connected to each, complete with shameless editorial plugs of advertisers products and content heavy "Special Advertising Sections."
Of course, this was not what he told the former Dragonfly employees. They were promised business as usual, and no interference in Editorial.
Miglino then set about the task of retooling the company. He pulled together some private investor-friends, got some venture capital from LA-based IBS Capital Holdings, hired an overpriced graphic designer with shocking prima donna tendencies, and a lawyer straight out of the velvet mafia, and set up shop in an office tower on Sunset Boulevard as Conscious Enlightenment, Inc. (CE).
Despite the patois, the vibe was pure corporate, with huge overhead right out of the gate and rules and regs galore. Emanating from the LA command center, the budding Conscious Enlightenment "empire" consisted of the four former Dragonfly magazines, each with their own local office, a social-networking site for yogis called (fittingly) Yogamates.com, a graphic design studio, Organic Media Design, an in-house film production studio that released DVD's about Miglino's favorite gurus and yoga teachers, and his crowning glory, the "Enlightenment Card," a Visa card emblazoned with Ohm symbols that promised that the more you spent, the more spiritual peace (and spiritual reward points) you would attain. Nope, that's not a typo.
As Miglino cleaned house and centralized operations in LA, very soon things began to change. Out went the Dragonfly management team and each of the individual publishers. So too a number of production staff and all but one of the associate editors. In their place, everyone had doubled and tripled workloads. Good-bye socially just workplace. Miglino also centralized the printing in order to cut a few bucks. Away went the environmentally safe paper and ink and local production, and in its place was a carbon footprint that quadrupled, as the magazines had to be trucked over 2000 miles to reach the West Coast.
In June of 2006, CE rolled out their new look. To be fair, it was one of the few real accomplishments of the Miglino era, because the magazines looked great. But the new aesthetic was not without its problems. Roughly 75-80% of the readership (and a good portion of each market's advertisers) were woman age 40-55, mostly hippie-types, who reviled the succession of Cosmo-like waif models Miglino demanded be put on the covers. Miglino also ignored the cultural differences of the Chicago market and their readership, who were expecting green living and hard-hitting local politics, not pontificating gurus in flowing robes (Chicagoans leave their pontifications to their politicians).
And you probably could surmise that the Enlightenment Card was an unmitigated disaster, the laughing stock of a thousand conferences and happy hours. Not a day went by where I wouldn't hear about it from somebody, somewhere. It was so awful it was parodied in Adbusters; Miglino thought it was a compliment, and sent the clipping around to the whole company and all his friends.
I was hired in August of 2006 to take over Conscious Choice following the bitter and acrimonious departure/firing/job abandonment of my predecessor, Marla Donato, who, along with Common Ground editor Carl Nagin, defied Miglio's attempts to take over editorial. So they were moved out. By the time I came aboard, the editorial team that once had eight or ten editors now had five. A month later Seattle's Bob Condor quietly left. Three months after that the last of the Dragonfly Chiefs, Abigail Lewis, the co-founder of Whole Life Times, was fired.
By May of 2007, the company was again in crisis. Miglino had been cutting cutting cutting everywhere he could, but none of it worked. He fired Common Ground's new editor and their production manager, who was on maternity leave, and cut budgets and salaries by 15% company-wide, replacing the lost salary with worthless CE shares. He drove his sales reps like it was a Wall St. boiler room yet despite record sales numbers in April 2007 the situation was far graver than anyone knew.
Since he had taken over the company, Miglino had steadily and secretly been reducing the monthly circulation in each market without reporting it to the auditor (a Federal offense), so advertisers who, for example, thought they were buying into 50,000 magazines in San Francisco were actually getting substantially less.
Despite all of these cuts, the company still lost money every month. It all came to a head in July of 2007 when the printers informed us that they were owed $650,000, and would not ship our August issue until the bills were paid. For the second time in 18 months the company was facing total bankruptcy.
In the background, Miglino had furtively been negotiating a deal to have Gaiam, Inc., a publicly traded company that sold yoga products, buy a controlling share of CE--essentially, for Miglino's debt. Gaiam had just acquired the green-themed Lime Network, and Zaadz, a social networking site focusing on "spirituality and consciousness." Their plan was to add in the four CE magazines, and try to corner the emerging LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) media market.
At the eleventh hour, Miglino swooped in with another savior-type deal that would "ensure CE's long-term financial security." All it took for the deal to go through, Miglino told us in an "emergency conference call", was for each of the employees holding worthless CE shares to sign over to him the option rights to their new somewhat valuable shares of Gaiam common stock. This meant that only Miglino could sell the Gaiam stock, whenever he deemed it appropriate.
We signed the documents and collectively let out what we thought was a huge sigh of relief. A month later I went on vacation after wrapping up the September 2007 issues, and was fired while I was away (not by Miglino, by the way, he never did his own firing). Sadly, I had been the lone voice fighting for content that mattered, but with the Gaiam acquisition, daring and edgy content was the last thing a publicly traded company wanted. There were only two editors left--the only two not to challenge Miglino's authority--who remained until the company folded. Two editors for four magazines. But by this time, of course, there was very little local content in any of them. Predictably, the quality of the content took the expected nosedive into fluff, and out came the "Special Advertising Sections" in force.
Yet despite the dumbing-down there was for a brief instant some faith that the venture might succeed. But that was mostly because no one knew what was afoot at Gaiam HQ.
Eighteen months after Gaiam rescued CE they folded the company. As described by the former CE manager who circulated the farewell missive, it was never really about making the company successful in the LOHAS market:
Let's say you are a large company with plenty of cash in the bank, and you want to keep that cash safe, and at the same time appear to your shareholders that you are expanding into new markets. A good way to do that is to buy a smaller company that has a similar, or remotely similar, mission (note: it is good to find a smaller company in distress because you can buy it cheap). You take this smaller company, and you fire a bunch of multi-tasking upper management because, after all, you are loaded with upper management already, even though they have no experience with what the new purchase does. Once you get that part out of the way, you can fire some of the other employees and cut some of the other operational overhead. Wow, it really looks like you know what you are doing, right? Expenses have dropped like a rock. I wonder why productivity is lack-luster? This has suddenly become a difficult and annoying acquisition. Oh, yeah, that is right, we need a million dollar write off in the first quarter to protect our cash assets... let's do that by giving these pain-in-the-asses the boot and filing Chapter 7 on them! Great idea - now we can all have a bonus. Welcome to America.
CE Media closed its doors on March 31, 2009. Gaiam representatives were on hand to shut down each local office and take possession of all the assets. And that was that.
I am proud of the work I did for CE, and I am honored to say I once helmed a publication as important as Conscious Choice. I know my work was original and took risks, and it stands up on its own. I loved my job, and I know my firing was not performance related. But that's life in corporate America, when you have to work for people like Chris Miglino. I'm just glad I retained a shred of dignity and had the last word.
I received an email from Miglino in December of 2007 offering to buy back my shares of Gaiam stock when the market was at its high and Gaiam stock was hovering around $27.00 a share. I had read Roubini and John Petersen, I knew the economy was going to hit the skids in 2008, so I gladly sold, even if it was also to wash away the bad karma. He even paid me three dollars more than market value, so I got around $30 a share. The money gave me a year to do nothing but write. Today, Gaiam stock is worth around $3, and he's left holding all of it.
As a nice coda, I was pleased to learn that a small committed core of former editors, managers, and contributors are attempting to keep Conscious Choice magazine alive in Chicago by returning it to its independently owned roots and focusing on the needs of the community. You couldn't pick a worse time to try, and it may be that the damage done by corporate America and the demise of print media cannot be repaired. Only time will tell, but I salute them and wish them all the best. They deserve better.