There’s a talent to capturing the zeitgeist of a moment.
Both Charles Laufer, the founder of Tiger Beat, and Sidney Harman, executive chairman of Newsweek, possessed the bravado – and intuition – to know what would sell to the masses and turn a profit.
This week, Laufer and Harman were memorialized in obituaries. Laufer died April 5 in California at age 87. Harman died Tuesday at age 92 in Washington. The pair was linked in death by a coincidence of timing, but their lives paralleled each other’s in part because of their interests in music and media.
It was 1955 when Laufer realized that he could capitalize on the emerging teeny bopper culture and its obsession with rock and roll. As a high school teacher who taught journalism, English and history, Laufer, a University of Southern California journalism graduate, was keenly attuned to his students and their interests. He also wanted to encourage them to read.
According to a New York Times obituary on Laufer, he first created a magazine called Teen in 1955 and sold it in 1957. As Beatlemania swept America in 1965, Laufer seized upon the British Invasion and printed a one-off magazine chock full of Beatles pictures. It sold 750,000 copies in two days.
That same year, he harnessed teenage girls’ obsession with cute boys who play music or star in movies and launched Tiger Beat with his brother, Ira. That magazine set the stage for all teen entertainment magazines that have followed.
The first issue featured the Righteous Brothers (hardly eye candy to most) on its cover and manic typeset headlines that read “Fab Comeback Jan and Dean” and “Beatles on Peyton Place A Go-Go.”
Many of the stars featured on the collage-cluttered covers over the decades were not household names, but they held a special place in enough girls’ hearts to guarantee sales.
As the New York Times reported, Laufer was one of the first people to see the heartthrob potential in the Monkees, a manufactured pop band. He placed them on Tiger Beat’s cover. “That put the still-struggling publication in the black, and he signed an exclusive deal for special Monkee magazines, Monkee picture books and Monkee love beads, which added to the bonanza,” Douglas Martin wrote in the Times.
The 1970s proved incredibly lucrative for Laufer as the shaggy-haired David Cassidy captured teen girls’ imaginations. Laufer helped stars like John Travolta and Leif Garrett shine by plastering their pictures on covers and offering glossy pull-out posters of the shirtless male stars.
While Laufer was studying the market on teen lust, Harman was tuned into the emerging market of Baby Boomers who loved music.
A traditional entrepreneur, Harman bought recent editions of magazines and sold them at a discount in order to put himself through college, according to The Daily Beast. But it was in emerging technology where he saw the future of sound.
Jonathan Alter wrote in a Daily Beast tribute to Harman, “In 1953 he founded Harman Kardon Inc., where he and his partner invented the concept of ‘hi-fi’ — high fidelity sound that had previously been available only in studios.”
Harman’s invention of the world’s first stereo receiver allowed teens to hear the music of pin-ups that Laufer featured in his magazines.
Harman later sold his business to Beatrice Foods, bought it back and sold it again. Laufer, too, sold his company, Laufer Media Inc., to Sterling’s Magazines for a reported $15 million in 1978. His son, Scott, who created Bop magazine along with his three sisters, bought back his father’s company in 2003. Tiger Beat remains a staple in tweenage girls bedrooms, thanks to a new generation of stars like Justin Bieber.
Last August, Harman, a multimillionaire, decided to buy the struggling Newsweek from the Washington Post Company. The New York Times reported that Harman bought the magazine for “a token $1 and some $47 million in liabilities.”
Harman saw the purchase as a business move – not a solely journalistic one – and brought in Barry Diller’s IAC Corp. and its website The Daily Beast edited by Tina Brown.
Men like Harman and Laufer didn’t make their fortunes by sheer luck. They felt the pulse of the moment. With such keen insight into business and technology, Harman must have seen a successful future in the wedding of Newsweek with its deep journalism roots and The Daily Beast, a website still trying to define itself.
Will Harman’s heirs continue Newsweek on its current path, as Laufer’s family has with its magazines? Harman family attorney Robert Barnett told the Times on Wednesday: “The Harman family is totally committed to Newsweek and its future. They will continue to be active and supportive as Sidney would have wished and in Sidney’s memory.”