Three weeks ago, he drunkenly told a reporter from The Times of London that he once pushed a man off a cliff (which he later retracted). Last Thursday, Felix Dennis, chairman of The Week, appeared (sober, I think) at the Columbia Journalism School to by far the largest turnout for our weekly Delacorte magazine lecture series. Occasionally, the lectures draw some outside reporters in.
Dennis alerted his audience right off the bat that he knew a few reporters were there purely for a scoop on the scandal. The brash British magazine exec, however, disappointed them, steering clear from the subject for the rest of the evening. Dennis, dressed in a black suit with white shirt under a red and white tie, a blood red handkerchief tucked into his breast pocket, and his brown glasses hanging low on his nose, did not hold back on blasting other frank opinions, possibly to the dismay of his American staff/entourage in the front two or three rows of the audience. His key point on the future of magazines: Don’t change them.
“Readers on the whole don’t want innovation,” Dennis said frankly. “What they want in their magazines is the same for any in the world. They want to be informed, and they wanted to be entertained simultaneously.”
The founder and former publisher of the men’s magazine, Maxim, advised the professors, students and reporters in the audience to “relax” about the explosion of new media and the possible end of newspapers. While we might be in the “autumn of the glory days called paper,” Dennis said in a haunting voice reminiscent of a narrator on Masterpiece Theatre, the web only requires “a change of mindset, and the young are pretty good at that.”
“During the infancy of the web, my company made two crucial decisions: we refused to throw money at this new media,” Dennis recalled, “Instead we would grew our web presence as the web grew. That was a brave decision at the time. Editors were running around like chickens with their heads chopped off throwing money at the web.”
Despite his now-kicked cocaine habit and a reputation for being a loose cannon, Dennis has had an enviable career. He’s worth over a billion dollars, one of the 100 richest people in Britain, and has bought and sold hundreds of magazines since he was in his thirties. Some of his journalistic firsts include being the first reviewer of the debut Led Zeppelin album, first biographer of both Bruce Lee and Muhammad Ali, and even the founder of a “poverty-cooking column.” Sadly, it was probably born before the web and didn’t show up on Google.
Being the businessman he is, Dennis took the opportunity to share his new “anti-self-help” book, How to Get Rich, which he described as “how to be richer than the chump sitting next to you.” My neighbor and I glanced at each other suspiciously and giggled. Speaking to a crowd of journalists in a time when much of the media is doing nothing but losing money, the title was a bit laughable. But since its advice coming from a self-made billionaire, it couldn’t hurt to peruse the book.