The business of running publications has had some real trail blazers: The Nelson brothers, who founded Track & Field News in 1948. Browning Ross, who founded the RRCA and newsletter in 1958, Bob Anderson who started Runners World in 1968, and George Hirsch, who founder the Runner, and nearly a decade later, reinvented a combined Runner’s World and the Runner, and saved national running publications from an ignominious demise.
George Hirsch is now chairman of the New York Road Runners, a perfect job for George, who champions running with every breath. He is also publishing Cucina Italiana, an amazing Italian cooking publication.
George Hirsch ran a 2:38 marathon at Boston, I believe, in 1979. In the 1990’s George won the veteran division of the San Francisco Marathon, on the old, hard course, in 2:58. Hirsch is a life time runner, having started in 1968. Bill Rodgers told me that George Hirsch was one of the most determined and tough runners he had ever met, citing a run in Boston, in horrific conditions, where both wanted to get in ten miles, not wanting to miss a run before the hallowed Boston marathon! That tenacity has been a huge asset for a publishing professional.
I caught up with George at the London Marathon this year, and asked to interview him on his beginnings in publishing, and running, and his thoughts on the changing landscape of media. His answers are thought provoking. RBR thanks George Hirsch for taking the time, but also for what he has done for our sport!
RunBlogRun, 1: How did you get started in magazine publishing?
George Hirsch, 1: I joined Time Life International which was my first job following three years as a naval officer and two more at business school.
RBR, 2: Tell us about your time with New Times, which I believe you were founding publisher?
George Hirsch, 2: In 1967 after five years at Time Life International, I left to become the founding publisher of New York magazine which we launched in April 1968. In 1973 I started New Times as an alternative news magazine that was known for it’s investigative journalism.
RBR, 3: Many stories about how you started the Runner magazine? Can you give us the real story?
George Hirsch, 3: New Times became one of the founding sponsors of the five borough New York City Marathon in 1976. The following year we published a glossy marathon program that I intended to be the prototype for The Runner. Bob Anderson was the publisher of Runner’s World and I give him a lot of credit for launching the magazine as the running boom was taking off. He started the magazine out of his passion for running but I felt there was an opening in the market for a well designed, well written monthly that could compete with the best consumer magazines. I hired Marc Bloom as the editor and asked Bill Rodgers, Frank Shorter and Marty Liquori to become contributing editors. Needless to say, Bob Anderson was not pleased and in an interview with the Los Angeles Times he challenged me to a running race. All of a sudden our fledgling startup got a lot of free publicity. Eventually Bob decided not to go ahead with the race which was fine by me since he is a faster runner than I am.
RBR,4: I heard that you offered to help Fred Lebow with the new five boroughs marathon, very early on, can you tell us about that?
George Hirsch, 4: Fred and I were very close friends. We talked all the time and this was before speed dialing. Anything happening in the world of running was important to us. As I said, New Times became a founding sponsor of the 1976 race. We only had agreement from the city to do the race that one year as part of the Bicentennial celebration but it was such a success that the city, the runners and the sponsors all embraced it. Frank Shorter was staying with me that weekend and, as you know, he finished second to Bill Rodgers. It was a cold day and Frank was waiting for me when I finished the race. Back then there were no mylar blankets and we were both chilled to the bone. We had to hitchhike back to my house since neither of us had money for a cab!
RBR,5: Bill Rodgers told me that you were a fierce trainer. He talked once about you guys doing a ten miler in the wind and rain in Boston. How did you get into running?
George Hirsch, 5: I started running in 1968 like many people to just to get in shape. I was working six and seven days a week at New York magazine and I needed to get some exercise. One day I met another runner, Vince Chiappetta, who turned out to be the president of the New York Roadrunners. I was only running five or ten minutes a day and Vince really got me going. The following year I ran the Boston Marathon: no qualifying times, an entry fee of $2.00 and a pair of Tiger Marathon shoes with soles so thin that you could step on a dime and tell if it were heads or tails. I suppose it’s true that I trained hard but back then everyone was really dedicated. It wasn’t until the second running boom many years later that running opened up to recreational and fitness runners.
RBR, 6: Tell us about your time with the Runner? What are you most proud of? Personally, I thought you brought the level of running journalism higher in the sport. Do you agree?
George Hirsch, 6: Thank you for that. The Runner was a success right from the beginning. The quality of writing and reporting was very high. There were lengthy pieces on runners and major events that runners had just not seen before. Soon some of the top writers from Runner’s World like George Sheehan and Hal Higdon joined us while Marc Bloom sought out new talent including Don Kardong and Eric Olsen. Like in a marathon, or life itself, it’s nice to have a tailwind so with running gaining popularity, advertising and circulation grew quickly. Yes, I’m very proud of The Runner since it was both a critical and financial success.
RBR, 7: How did you transform Runners World? You made it, in my mind, a magazine must read for the sport? You made RW relevant again. Comment?
George Hirsch, 7: As you know Rodale bought Runner’s World and Bob Teufel, the president of Rodale, and I talked about Rodale acquiring The Runner and merging the two magazines. Much of the sizzle was going out of the running boom and we both felt that running could support one truly successful magazine. After serious consideration, I agreed to take over the new Runner’s World. I had known and admired Amby Burfoot for many years. In fact I had even tried to hire him at one point. Marc Bloom joined us as a senior writer. I would be kidding you if I told you that the merger was pain free for all involved. As we know change never comes easy. The old Runner’s World had a dated, amateurish look and the design needed a major makeover. We had the luxury of picking the best writers from both magazines which raised he level of the game but inevitably left some unhappy people on the sidelines. I projected that with so much change many readers, particularly those of The Runner, would not renew but that never happened. My intention was to create a new magazine but many people told us that the new Runner’s World was closer to The Runner. It did not take long to create a new culture, a strong and close team and a very profitable magazine. We now owned the market and my goal was to take the magazine into other countries in the language of the country. At the time Rodale had no international editions so it was important to pick the right people in each country. Our first venture was in South Africa where we were the first magazine to enter the country after the fall of apartheid. Then came the UK, Germany and on and on. We created a strong international brand.
RBR, 8: You are now publishing a new venture? Tell us about that?
George Hirsch, 8: Yes, it is the U.S. edition of La Cucina Italiana. It’s Italy’s oldest and largest food/cooking magazine which was founded in 1929. Two years ago I hired a small staff, opened an office and began a complete relaunch of the title. In a short period of time, we have been able to buck the trends in publishing and the recession. Our circulation has grown from 70,000 to 125,000 and advertising revenue is up more than 50% this year. The magazine is authentic and beautifully designed. I’m really enjoying this venture even thougn I have to go to Italy a couple of times a year!
RBR, 9: Where do you see print media going? Would you recommend a young person get involved in this business again? Will print be around in twenty years?
George Hirsch, 9: Clearly we are in a transformative period for print media. Print will be around in twenty tears but there will be fewer newspapers and magazines. Every media company is trying to figure out out the long term business model and it’s not easy. I’m on the board of Salon Media, an established on line daily magazine/newspaper. We have good solid reporting, no paper and printing costs and yet our on line advertising is not enough to cover all of our costs. We have tried charging the reader for certain premium content but with only mixed success.
The magazine industry will be much more consolidated and the survivors will be leaders in their field, niche publishers that are aimed at distinct audiences. Magazines such as Runner’s World and La Cucina Italiana will be with us but many others will not. I do speak with young people and my advice is that journalism is important and there will always be a need and an audience for it. But don’t expect to get rich by doing it and be open to blogging and all new media developments. A friend of mine told me that as long as there is sex, pets and Italian food, we will still have magazines.
RBR, 10: As the Chairman of the Board of the NYRR, where do you see the sport of running going? How do we make the sport more relevant on the global stage?
George Hirsch, 10: Running is booming even during the recession. I would contend that there has never been a time when more people are running. Our job ahead is to encourage children to get fit as we are doing through our New York Roadrunners programs. Also we are in the early stages of developing running and fitness for seniors, those with mental health problems and other groups who have not yet had the opportunities to get moving. Of course, these activities are different than running as an elite sport. We need more champions whom people can relate to.
RBR, 11: Finally, which elite athlete has made the biggest personal impression?
George Hirsch, 11: Since I’ve been a runner for many years, I would say three runners have made a huge impact on the sport: Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers and Joan Benoit Samuelson. For the record they are all close friends of mine.
(In the efforts of full disclosure, I worked for Runners World from 1981-1987. I first worked in Mountian View, CA for Bob Anderson (1981-1985) and then for Rodale (1985-1987). During my last eighteen months, I was fortunate enough to work with
George Hirsch, as he took the helm of Runners World in early 1986. I was very impressed by his creativity, knowledge of the sport and most of all, knowledge of
the publishing business. )
Special thanks to George Hirsch, for his time and insights.
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