Collier's: Bringing a Classic Magazine Back From the Dead

Collier's magazine - Public Domain image from Toronto Public Library, circa 1904
Collier's magazine - Public Domain image from Toronto Public Library, circa 1904

Can famous brand names come back long after they've been abandoned? In December, Brands USA Holdings, a New York-based company, offered an interesting answer to the question when it auctioned off 170 retired trademarks, including long-dead companies like Victrola and MeisterBrau beer. As dozens of these old favorites struggle for a second shot at the American dream, one magazine publisher is exploring ways to breathe new life into a trusted name from the past.

When Collier's magazine went bankrupt in 1957, U.S. newsstands lost one of their shining stars. In business for almost 70 years, the weekly was known for its combination of strong investigative journalism and top-notch short fiction. In fact, the list of its contributors reads like a who's who of the 20th century's greatest writers: Ernest Hemingway wrote for it, as did Rudyard Kipling, Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis, J.D. Salinger and Kurt Vonnegut. It published Winston Churchill's reminiscences of the First World War and Upton Sinclair's railings against the Chicago meat companies.

It was also a treasure trove of some of America's most popular illustrators. Charles Dana Gibson's "Gibson Girls" graced its pages, as did the creepy cartoons of Charles "Addams Family" Addams. Respected artists like Frederick Remington and James Montgomery Flagg drew for it. On the other end of the spectrum, so did "Hanna Barbera" artist Joseph Barbera and Berenstain Bears creators Stan and Jan Berenstain.

High Hopes

Collier's magazine circa 1940 by Getty Images
Collier's magazine circa 1940 by Getty Images

John T. Elduff, managing director of JTE Multimedia, a Philadelphia-based magazine company, remembers Collier's fondly, noting that it was "a great title with a strong audience." Elduff is so convinced about the strength of the name that he paid $2,000 for the rights to the Collier's trademark at the Brands USA auction -- and he plans to resurrect the brand.

The key to Elduff's strategy lies in the name recognition that Collier's still enjoys among older readers. His reboot, which will contain a familiar (to those readers) mix of investigative journalism and short fiction, is aimed at the 55- to 90-year-old demographic, a group with some fond memories of the original magazine and a strong investment in print culture.

While the magazine has been dead for over half a century, its once-prominent spot in American culture continues to cast a long shadow. Elduff asserts that he has already gotten a lot of attention from prominent writers who want to be part of the new magazine: "I get between five and 10 unsolicited offers per day from authors who want to write for the new Collier's." And with Collier's redux aiming for the caliber of its namesake, he emphasizes that "It will not be a novelty to be published in Collier's. It will be an honor."

A Tough Market

It's a hard time to keep a magazine open, much less raise one from the dead, but Elduff knows quite a bit about the business. His company publishes a trio of successful medical journals: Postgraduate Medicine, The Physician and Sportsmedicine and Hospital Practice. He notes that his target demographic includes the nation's largest cadre of prescription drug users, which would put Collier's in a prime position to draw from a steady stream of prescription drug ad revenues.

For that matter, he's also working with well-known venture capitalist Warren "Pete" Musser, founder and former CEO of Safeguard Scientifics. Musser, who helped launch QVC, Comcast, Novell, and other Fortune 500 companies, is "enthusiastic" about Elduff's offer of a seat on the Collier's board of directors.

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Samir Husni is a little less optimistic about the magazine's future. Founder and director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi, he notes that Collier's hit the height of its popularity in the early 1940s, which means the readers who remember it most fondly would now be at least in their 80s. While he agrees that this audience would be very open to prescription advertising, he also notes that Elduff's target readers would now be "years older than the average American lifespan."

Another problem, Husni points out, is that magazine rehabilitations rarely succeed. In fact, despite attempts to bring Look, Life, and The Saturday Evening Post back from the dead, the only resurrected magazine to really regain its former strength was Vanity Fair, which, he notes, was "launched as a brand new magazine."

Magazine Publisher or Miracle Worker?

On the bright side, Husni notes, Vanity Fair could offer a successful model for Elduff. If the publisher "creates a magazine that follows in the footsteps of Collier's and tries to recapture its crusading spirit," he might be able to develop an audience for the new version. However, he wonders if Elduff's current 55- to 90-year-old target is the best bet for the new magazine: "Are those people really interested in investigative journalism?"

Regardless of how it turns out, Husni offers his best wishes for Elduff's venture: "I definitely applaud his efforts. Anyone who is willing to venture into bringing a magazine back to life is amazing. I call those people miracle workers."