David Granger: Esquire Innovator

Editor Granger championing his craft

During a time when many business leaders are rushing to innovate and invest in the new media revolution, David Granger, Editor-in-Chief of Esquire, still believes in the sanctity and possibilities of print. Perfectly selected to deliver  the closing address of the magazine program at  NYU’s  Summer Publishing Institute, Granger affirmed: “Magazines are capable of magic. That’s what I wanted to show.” Demonstrating Esquire’s playfully imaginative print innovations, he did just that to a riveted audience of aspiring publishing professionals—myself included.

Together, we marveled at Esquire’s  fiction-writing experiment,  the Napkin Project (250 fiction writers were invited to write a short story on a cocktail napkin); at the daring obfuscation of the cover lines behind bold images of stars like Daniel Craig (a tactic later copied by other magazines); at the magazine’s commemorative 75th anniversary experiment in electronic ink; and especially at its mind-bending “Augmented Reality” issue. We marveled at how rich with possibility Granger proved the magazine medium still to be.

Such innovations grew out of what Granger confessed was a moment of despair and dejection. Bored one month with the first-bound edition of Esquire, Granger invited his top editors to an alcohol-fueled dinner where he got to thinking about ketchup bottles: the traditional glass one and the newer squeeze bottle with the flip top on the bottom. Granger called the latter “the greatest consumer product innovation in the history of man.” Reaching into his briefcase, he dramatically waved around a traditional bottle and the newer bottom-opening version for the audience to see and consider.

As surprising and funny as it was to witness Granger pull ketchup bottles out of his briefcase, his message was a serious one: the content was the same, but the form had undergone a radical re-imagining. At that now-famous dinner, he asked himself and his staff: “What can we do with this medium we have that nobody’s ever done before? Why is it that nobody has essentially changed it?” Lively discussion followed these questions about the form and future of the magazine.

Granger addresses SPI students

Granger walked us through a presentation of the changes he and his talented crew enacted, starting with small innovations and moving into Esquire’s work at the digital vanguard. The magazine’s innovations included a dramatically different table of contents, featuring associate art director Erin Jang’s striking Rubik’s cubes and  sculptures (http://theindigobunting.blogspot.com/search/label/esquire). In addition to the Napkin Project, the magazine started running short stories and illustrations in its margins, which greatly altered the reading experience.

 

For the 75th Anniversary issue, Granger and Deputy Editor Peter Griffin decided not to celebrate the brand’s illustrious past, but to look forward. Esquire went to E Ink Corporation to create an impressive display of moving cover lines. Granger described this experiment as the culmination of the ketchup bottle dinner idea. “For the last ten years, people get excited when they talk about new media. But what they’re excited about is not so much the creation of exciting new forms of writing or video or any creation of a new aesthetic. What they’re excited about is the pipes.” So Esquire focused on using technology to make the magazine itself more essential and exciting.

 

For a closing address to a room of hopefuls in a changing industry, this was no rallying cry to the future of publishing. The lesson we took from Granger’s visit wasn’t shouted loudly or even grunted (as he affectionately joked his male readership often does in letters), but stated once and implied throughout: “Despair and despondency are the things out of which all good things grow.”

In the June/July 2010 “How to Be a Man” issue of Esquire, Granger’s Letter from the Editor reads: “There are no guides to manhood. Not really. We try on selves—constantly. We see traits exhibited by other men and we emulate them. We learn by example and trial. We keep trying.”

As I looked around the room largely filled with females, it was clear that magazine publishing is no boys’ club. But the advice still holds. We’ll try, learn, and keep trying. We’ll look forward.

by Katelyn MacKenzie

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