Cathleen Black loves a challenge. These days, the president of I Hearst Magazines is launching three books almost simultaneously. The third issue of Tina Brown’s Talk magazine has just hit the stands. CosmoGIRL!, Cosmopolitan‘s little sister, is being test marketed, and Oprah’s magazine is due out in the spring.
“Oh, I love what I’m doing,” laughs Black, “but I think I must have a deviant gene, because I’ve worked on so many start-ups.”
In her 30-year trail-blazing career, Black has been a tornado sweeping through the male-dominated publishing houses. After helping launch Ms. magazine in 1973, she became the first woman publisher of a weekly consumer magazine, New York, in 1979. The Gannett Company hired her in 1983 to be president and later publisher of USA Today. And in 1991, after turning the “nation’s newspaper” into the most successful launch ever, she became the first female president of the Newspaper Association of America.
Black made history again in 1996 when she was named the first female president of Hearst Magazines, the world’s largest publisher of monthly magazines.
An elegant, fine looking woman, tall in stature and trim of figure, with stylish short blonde hair, Black exudes efficiency, is quick to grasp the intended meaning of a question and answers quickly and articulately. On the morning of our interview, which takes place in her office at the Hearst building on Eighth Avenue, near New York’s Central Park, she is clad in a dark pant suit of discernible cut, with a fine silver buckle belt and wide silver bracelet on her wrist. Her rather large, capable looking hands, which she uses to gesture as she articulates her quick responses, seem comfortably out of place on the otherwise near perfect frame.
The youngest of three children, Black grew up on the South Shore of Chicago and moved to New York upon graduating from college in 1966. She wanted to work in the media, but editorial jobs were hard to come by and didn’t pay very much money. “My father had said that I couldn’t sign a lease — there were four of us just out of college — until I had a job,” she recalls. “I kept looking at all these jobs that paid sixty-five dollars a week.”
During one interview, Black inquired about the company’s executive training program and was asked, “Why would we hire a pretty young girl like you who will quit in a couple of years to get married and have babies?” Undaunted, she continued her search, and when a roommate got a job at Curtis (then a large publishing company), Black decided to interview there and accepted a job as a sales assistant at Holiday magazine.
“It’s funny to think of it now, all those years later,” recalls Black. “What directed my career was when she [the interviewer] used the word assistant, which meant I didn’t have to start as a secretary. Not [that I’m] putting down secretaries, but I felt it was a career move and I would move along faster. It also paid thirty dollars a week more than what Condé Nast was paying.”
At the time, magazines were just beginning to hire women in sales, but not letting them work on the big accounts where there was more money to be made. Black began her career by selling little ads at the back of the magazine to hotels and inns. But she liked her job and she was good at it and when her boss resigned a few years later, she was promoted to that position.
The way one moved ahead was by jumping from magazine to magazine, so when it was suggested to Black that she try for a job with a new magazine called New York, she leaped at the chance. “I interviewed there and stayed there for a year or so and we helped New York magazine to launch Ms.” At the age of 28, she became advertising manager for the fledgling Ms. It was 1972.
Ms. was a huge step forward in terms of responsibility, and Black thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to get experience on a national basis. However, she says, she had no idea what they were up against. “What we learned very quickly was that we were representing the whole women’s movement,” she remarks. Not to mention “all the negative press” attached to that movement. “But it was kind of baptism by fire,” she concedes. “We were really setting the scene for all the changes that were happening to women, and a lot of people we were calling on were men who were very threatened by the whole idea.”
Personally and professionally, however, it proved to be a great experience. “I got involved in all areas of the magazine, which wouldn’t have happened if I were at Time Inc, in that era,” she points out.
After six years, Black was ready for a change again, and in a move that would make her the first woman publisher of a weekly magazine, she once again joined New York magazine. She stayed at New York until 1983 when a recruiter came around talking about USA Today, and so began what Black calls “an eight-year extraordinary ride.”
Black’s role in turning USA Today into the “nation’s paper” is legendary. Rather modestly, she credits it to teamwork. “I’ve gotten a lot of credit,” she says, “but, believe me, everyone — from the youngest most junior person to the most senior executive — killed themselves trying to figure out how to get the newspaper distributed on a national basis, but it was great and I loved it.”
Fabulous as things were at USA Today, there came a time when Black felt ready to once again move on. “I had been there eight years and I could still be there today as publisher of the newspaper, but in terms of the corporation it was very silo-orientated. The newspaper group was separate and I really couldn’t see anywhere that I was going to go. I thought, `If I’m going to leave USA Today, magazines are probably going to be what attracts me again.'”
Magazines were definitely looming in Black’s future, but not before a stint as president of the Newspaper Association — the first woman to hold the position. It was, Black says, “intellectually challenging to think and be involved on a more macro level about the issues in front of the newspaper industry,” but she missed the operating world of publishing.
When Hearst came calling in 1996, she was ready. What attracted her to the corporation, she says, was the fact that not only had it a significant media division but it had other interests as well, including television. (Hearst is part owner of ESPN, A&E, Biography channel, and Lifetime). And not only would she be president and CEO of the magazine division, she would also serve on the board of the corporation, as she did at USA Today.
“I feel very, very good at Hearst,” she says. “I have a great team of people here on the editorial side and in our general management and publishers. And I think that I have been able to bring a new spirit and a new sense of forward thrust to the company.
“Having a woman in the job has given a lot of women in this company, and in the industry, a great shot in the arm. I want guys to think that they are going to do equally well in the company but to realize that they are competing on equal levels with a lot of terrific women too.”
Black has pushed hard within the company for greater innovation in developing new magazines, and she is fearless in defending her titles. On the morning of our recent interview there’s an item in the New York Post about trouble in Tina Brown’ s Talk camp, but the piece doesn’t faze her in the slightest. “People expect a lot from Tina,” she points out reasonably. “The bar is very high and I don’t doubt that there’s going to be a little shake-out — you bring in one team and you think they are gong to be the exact right mix and some people can’t live up to that.”
Oprah’s yet unnamed magazine is a joint venture, as is Talk, which partners Hearst with movie giant Miramax. “The good thing about joint ventures is that you share the risk but you also share the rewards,” remarks Black. “CosmoGIRL! is all ours. I would love it if there were four more CosmoGIRL!s. It’s a very strong brand. Big Cosmo is in thirty-nine countries. Our UK sub is dying to introduce CosmoGIRL! in the UK.”
Black is clearly excited about CosmoGIRL!, “which targets girls between the ages of twelve and seventeen, and talks about everything that is going on in their lives – from boys and school and parents to advice about fashion. We sold more than half a million copies for the first issue and sold probably a bit more than that with the second issue.”
The new publication is billed as Cosmopolitan‘s little sister, and Black says she would have no trouble with her own daughter reading it. “Our goal here is to want every mother to think that this is really right for my daughter,” she says. “Cosmo is obviously sexy, but CosmoGIRL! is not at all. We are very careful on that. If anything it’s probably on this side of what some girls want in terms of talking about relationships. We are putting it much more in the context of health and fitness and the right information.”
And, hopefully, some advice on how to succeed in the workplace will be included too. Black is a rare story of corporate success: 30 years after Ms. hit the stands only 11 percent of the top CEOs in the U.S. are women.
“I think part of it is just that the system didn’t allow it to happen,” she muses. “Too many men surrounded themselves with people they were comfortable with, and the people you are comfortable with look like you, and live where you do, and so I think it was self-perpetuating.”
But on the other hand, she points out, if you pick up Fortune magazine’s latest issue, with its list of the 50 most powerful women (Black included), “You say, `Wow, we have really come a long way.’ Now a lot of those are technology companies, and a lot of those women are in finance. But finally there are so many able and qualified and capable women in the pipeline that they are just starting to break through. When you think about how hard it is to get talented people there is simply no way you can ignore fifty-one percent of your employee population.”
Patricia Sellers, who did the recent Fortune cover story, noted that most of the women profiled had strong mothers, but in Black’s case it was her father who was the greater influence. “My mother was a traditional homemaker,” she says. “I think she was proud of my career but I think she was conflicted by it and she wondered how I would do it all.
“My father, who unfortunately died when I was twenty-two, taught me a lot. He was an independent food broker and I loved talking to him about business, even as a teenager, and going down to his office. I think that he would have been very, very pleased at my success.”
Black’s father’ s family came from the North of Ireland, her mother’s hailed from the South, and her husband, Tom Harvey, a lawyer, also has Irish roots.
“Our children are adopted but our son, who is twelve, is dying to go to Ireland to meet his relatives,” she smiles, “which is rather funny because they are not blood relatives, but for him his Irish heritage is very real to him. So we are actually going at the end of next summer.
“It’ s not the family’s first trip either.
“My husband’s great-grandfather, Daniel O’Leary, was kind of an Olympic-caliber fast walker and a guy in Dublin decided that there should be a monument in his town in Clonakilty [Co. Cork]. And so we went over two summers ago for this wonderful ceremony. All the town came out and there was a party all night long and it was just wonderful.”
Does she think her Irish heritage has influenced her in any way? “Oh, I think my Irish heritage is very important,” she says, “and I think it gives [me] a feeling of roots and history and hopefully all the good traits that come with that — a sense of humor and not taking things too seriously and realizing that life is short: enjoy it.”
Her professional success she attributes to a combination “of dogged determination and persevering and liking what I do.” Growing up in Chicago, she says, imbued her with “strong roots and a solid foundation.” She adds: “I work very hard, anyone in this job would, but it’s always been interesting, it’s always been fun. For ninety-nine point nine percent of my career I’ve enjoyed getting up in the morning and going to work.”
And when she hits a bump in the road?
“I’ve always believed that no matter what level one is on, if you can survey the scene and if you really believe that for whatever reason you’ve hit a roadblock, you can either hunker down and complain or just pick yourself up and you choose other avenues. I have certainly not been risk averse. A lot of people get complacent where they are and begin to just accept the status quo.”
Her greatest business concern, when she looks down the road, is to try to figure how to continue to create magazines, how to continue to attract the talent, and the impact of the Internet on publishing.
“I spend, in one way or another, two hours every day thinking [about] or talking [about] or dealing with the Internet,” she remarks. “Two of our businesses are Internet companies: Woman.com and a new company called Good Home. All our magazines have websites and I think it’s a very exciting opportunity for editors who can think multi-dimensionally — [just] another way to connect with the reader.”
As to whether the Internet is going to be a threat to magazines or not, Black says that “women go to the `Net with a very specific motive — they need information or something. Generally, a magazine is a sort of serendipitous happening, it’s an enjoyable respite, and I don’t think those are the attributes of the Internet. I think they are mutually synergistic and I think we will all morph and we will figure out different ways to do it. Potentially I think the viewership of TV is more impacted by the Internet, or I could be dead wrong.”
As to any concerns on a personal level, Black shrugs. “I’m one of the first who tried to have it all,” she says. “I have a great husband and two kids and a nanny who keeps it all together.”
She knows she’s one of the lucky ones. The feminist ideals she honed in the ’70s are not lost to her now that she’s in such an exalted position of power and she’ s forever encouraging other women to go for it.
Each year, Black hosts what she calls a “Mind, Body and Soul Conference” in a place that’s off the beaten track, such as Arizona. “I take all our female editors and publishers and our advertising clients and we try and mix in a little business and it has been an amazing experience,” she enthuses. “The letters from this year are so unbelievable. What [these women] are saying is that this opportunity to be themselves is often the only opportunity they have.” She believes that women in business have had to have “a certain kind of persona — although I think we are beginning to get over that — where you have to check your personality at the door when you walk into a room. This conference allows them to let their soul come out.”
She points out that many women who have attended the conference have gone on to quit their jobs, or change jobs, with some even starting their own companies. “It’s given them a sort of `can do’ spirit,” she notes. “Finally we are at a time when there is enough critical mass — some women are going to be outstanding, some are going to be pretty good, some are going to be okay, and some women, for whatever reason, are not going to make it — but we are at a point where a male CEO is no longer going to be able to say, `Well, I tried one and she didn’t work out,’ which I think was a fairly common refrain ten or fifteen years ago. Now all these women who never before allowed themselves the freedom are saying, `This is how I am and this is how I’m going to be.'”
She cites the example of a woman she worked for years ago (“a very smart Ph.D.”) who once asked Black how she could walk into a room full of people and be so comfortable. Black’s response? “I said, `Well, I’m not always comfortable, but over the years I’ve learned that it’s really pretty simple to stick out your hand and say, `Hi, I’m Cathy Black,’ and you start a conversation and generally people are nice and they’ll introduce themselves and off you go.’
“One of the things that I learned as a woman going to conventions years ago was that if you think that someone is going to say, `Come join us for dinner’ on the way out of the cocktail party, it isn’t going to happen. More women end up having room service because they expected to be asked to join someone else’s party and it didn’t happen. I learned a long time ago that you have to plan in advance because a lot of people don’t think about a woman being by herself. They don’t do it consciously, they just don’t think about it. The older you get, the more you realize it’s not to exclude you, it’s just that someone is not thinking, so you need to have the oomph to be the one to call and say, `Let’s have dinner or go out.’
“Years ago at Gannett, on the opening night of a management meeting, each of the different divisions had a party, and since there was no USA Today party, I just went home. I remember thinking, `This is nuts, the management of the other divisions have their own thing going and we don’t.’ So the next year we started our own.
“You have to think about what didn’t go right and what you can do to make it better the next time.”
With all this good advice to offer, would she ever consider writing a book?
“I probably will someday,” she muses. “I just had a note from a literary agency and I thought, `You know, maybe I should start thinking about that again.'” In the meantime, there’s all that reading she has to do. “If I can get through all of our magazines, I want to read Frank McCourt’s new book, `Tis,” she states. “He gave a lecture and he was just brilliant.” It’s a word which describes her equally well.♦