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Lunch at the Tribeca Grill with: Steve LeGrice

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-07-27

Steve LeGrice is a Fleet Street guy - which is to say that he knows how to tell and sell stories.

"The key to those stories is to be able to listen carefully to people," Mr. LeGrice said. "Oftentimes, there's a better story underneath what people are saying. What I learned in British journalism was to pick up that moment underneath. And good stories sell publications - a truth that's never too old to repeat."

Some would argue, of course, that Fleet Street's tradition of truth telling - dating back to Dickensenian times - was often a form of yarn spinning, something that Mr. LeGrice, who's widely known for his rectitude and probity, disputes in his trademark quiet, mid Atlantic accent.

In any case, he's been long gone from the noisy London thoroughfare that occupies a hallowed spot in newspaper mythology.

With the gritty pluck historically shown by many of his countrymen in overseas adventuring - geopolitical mostly, but in journalism as well - he journeyed to Australia, and then to America in 1981. He ran the weekly Star, where Mr. LeGrice - pronounced luh-gruh-ice - revealed Bill Clinton's affair with chanteuse Gennifer Flowers. He then launched the enormously successful In Touch magazine.

And just recently, in what many in America's highly cut throat magazine industry viewed as professional hara-kiri, Mr. LeGrice stepped out of In Touch to start Inside TV, a weekly publication that challenges his former employers.

It's been a good run these past 14 weeks since the launch: Inside TV already has a target rate base of 400,000.

Still, that's nowhere near the weekly 9 million circulation of its 52-year-old sibling, TV Guide, which is considered a "mature brand" in the trade. But Mr. LeGrice is aiming for a different audience - young contemporary women who're looking for information about celebrities and personalities, and for news about fashion and trends on today's television shows. Inside TV offers listings in an unusual way: program favorites are organized by genre.
So was Inside TV's successful debut behind TV Guide's decision yesterday to reformat itself as a full-size magazine - like Inside TV - from its current mini-size? After all, the parent magazine's circulation was 20 million a decade ago. Will the two publications compete for advertising? Will they chase the same audience?

"The TV Guide Publishing Group recognizes that there's more than one audience for those who like the television medium," Mr. LeGrice said. "TV Guide has a more stable audience. Inside TV is aimed at young women. Perhaps there will be other magazines from our group."

If there are, then those publications most certainly would tap into the public fascination with celebrity. It is a world that Mr. LeGrice knows well. His stewardship of the Star lifted circulation and caught the attention of The National Enquirer, which bought out its rival. By the time Mr. LeGrice was invited to start In Touch, he'd already consolidated a reputation as a deft editor who was also canny about the business of selling magazines.

"If there's been a formula to my work in America, it's been to maintain the gossipy sense of the tabloid with a better look, better design - and not-meanness," he said. "But of course, you're always pushing the envelope."

Pushing the envelope doesn't mean producing stories out of whole cloth, Mr. LeGrice said. That's where his early journalistic training still comes in handy: Britain, he said, has stricter libel laws than America, so racy writing wasn't encouraged at the expense of factual verification.

"What most people outside the publishing business don't realize is that celebrity journalism is a very disciplined environment," Mr. LeGrice said. 'Scoops count, but so does the bottom line."

So what's it been like, this crossover from British journalism to the frenzy of New York's media world, with its brutal emphasis on sales and profits?

"You're aware of the fact that you aren't an American by birth," Mr. LeGrice said, with a soft smile. "But the big danger in Manhattan publishing is that of people just talking to each other. I'm more interested in what our audiences have to say, what they want. And, of course, there's the fact that American magazine headlines, like newspaper ones, are somewhat staid. In Britain, they use lot more humor and wit, the headlines are far catchier."

Once a Fleet Street guy, always a Fleet Street guy: At the end of the day - week? - a story well sold is a story well told.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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