'Letting the Air In'

Presents a revisionist history of 'Psychology Today.' Started by Nicholas Charney 25 years ago; Background; 'Psychology Today' today.

By O.L. Freeman, published January 1, 1992 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Nearly 25 years ago today, Nicholas Charney started a magazine called PSYCHOLOGY TODAY. "Bored by psychologists who waste their time philosophizing about questions which have empirical answers and...their pompous and unnecessary vocabularies," he nevertheless deigned to create a magazine "to let the air in on this fascinating and alive subject." His governing premise: the question "What is psychology?".

Besides his meager financing, he was armed (only) with a Ph.D., high-octane guts, and boundless confidence and curiosity. His fortress a beach house in Del Mar, California, on the opposite end of the world from the New York publishing establishment. His army—a rogues' gallery of counterculture ex-college kids and self-described publishing geniuses. Most of them would go on to leave their mark in magazines, influencing any number of the next generation with what they learned on the beaches of Del Mar.

[Ominous background music.]

So Charney and his kids set out to answer his question, and found they weren't the only ones curious. He had not only caught a wave, but to his relief he was, well, a goddamn surfer. And what a ride. And what a time.

PSYCHOLOGY TODAY was more than just out there, for the issues of the day became the issues of the magazine. Police and violence. TV and children. The trial of William Calley. Body image. Left brain/right brain research. Manson. Music. Presidential character. What have you. More than covering the current events (others did that, though Charney's question permitted-demanded—different answers), the magazine, under the irascible George Harris, gradually developed a kind of lock on the voice of the time. At least for awhile.

Out of the mainstream but at the center of the issues—like a long-running popular song—it became a cult hit and a commercial success. Which under the loving care of Charney it might, have stayed, had he, in the rich tradition of entrepreneurs. both blessed and cursed with early success, not expanded into other less-promising ventures.

So like a vagrant, precocious gypsy child who no one quite wanted fully (or at least understood), PT was then sold and resold, with each of its new, powerful owners trying in vain to recapture that early magic that Charney and his gang had achieved, seemingly with so little effort and so much fun.

First in line was a large paper company; then a soon-to-be billionaire publisher of special-interest magazines; then came the mother of all clubs—a psychological association. And on it went. Each new buyer, in search of the magazine's former glory, concluding the ownership experience exhausted psychically and financially. Each sale entailing the transfer of approximately the same amount of debt and bloated subscription liability, so that nothing was reduced. Just passed on. And so on.

The last at-bat was The Entrepreneur. Flush with the success of founding "the" health magazine of the '80s, he—with a little help from his friends—borrowed up to the gills at almost precisely the wrong time in the market. In due course the magazine went belly-up, as did he, becoming in the process and among his industry peers a kind of market leader in the personal-ruin arena. Of course breaking a pick on PT was nothing new, but The Entrepreneur set a precedent by not being able to pass the hot potato.

But by finally crashing and burning, something was accomplished that none of the old owners had achieved. Call it, if you will, creative destruction (or, put another way, like tripping a dizzy camel and holding on as he stumbles)—but when this present company bought the magazine out of foreclosure, it assumed a fraction of the original debt and the bloated circulation. So you see, PSYCHOLOGY TODAY, moribund or so it seemed, finally has its fresh start.

So here we are, starting over, mindful of the tremendous hurt to the subscribers, staff, and friends of the magazine, and what the cost of this new beginning has meant. But we are mercifully free of traditional magazine overhead, putting out this issue with a fraction of the old costs and with new computer applications. Being on the outside looking in is a natural place for us, allowing us to be respectful of the past but no longer held captive emotionally or financially by it.

Someone once said that editing a good magazine was like holding a hose that had too much pressure. So much that you could barely hold on; at best just controlling the direction of the flow. If the resilience of this magazine has taught us anything, it's about the power of ideas and the intensity of this subject: There's not a whole lot of things more interesting than what makes people tick.

"In my beginning is my end...in my end is my beginning"-T S. Eliot. So you see, Charney's question has survived just about everything(see p.36). That in itself is kind of trendy. We hope the current issue begins to let some air in--again.