Magazine Dreams

Will San Francisco finally get the city magazine it deserves?

"Hour was surprising. It caught everyone's attention and changed the city magazine landscape," says Deborah Paul, editorial director of Emmis Communications, the nation's largest publisher of city magazines. (Emmis includes five titles that generate nearly $60 million in annual revenue.) "Hour was a real trend-setter, and not just because it was oversized, flashy-looking, and lavish. It was a witty and clever magazine."

One part Vanity Fair, two parts Martha Stewart Living, Hartle's creation would put a beautiful photo of a bundt cake overflowing with sugarplums and flowers on the cover, then report inside that entrance exams at Ford Motor Co. discriminated against learning-disabled applicants applying for assembly-line jobs. Features covered the water conservation wars over the Great Lakes and high school kids getting high on Ritalin; a design spread highlighted the transformation of an old Buick service garage into Detroit's version of a downtown live-work loft. In the same issue Hour would profile black civil rights icon Rosa Parks and white rap star Kid Rock. "A funny leap of faith, but it works," Hartle says.

As the venerable Detroit Monthly headed to the grave, the city's newspapers and business journals lauded Hour's early success. Ad pages increased nearly 50 percent from one year to the next, and its circulation of 40,000 (all of whom became paying subscribers) rivaled other city magazines in Cleveland and Atlanta. By the time Hartle sold his share in Hour last year, the magazine had annual ad sales of $5 million. Yet what played so well in Detroit is not necessarily the answer for San Francisco, where the stakes are higher (not to mention the cost of everything, from office space to energy to staffing) -- and the competition still in business.

A.J. Garces
A.J. Garces

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"Hour did a bunch of innovative things. They were very creative and young in their appeal, by way of design and edginess. And their editorial content was well-regarded," says Jim Dowden, the executive director of the City and Regional Magazine Association, which represents 90 publications around the country. "But the biggest thing going for them was Detroit Monthly closing down. I don't know if they would have been so fortuitous with real head-to-head competition. There are not many markets that can support two glossy lifestyle magazines. In fact, there is no good example I can point to. So it won't be as easy for Hartle this time. The folks at San Francisco are a good, class act, and they will compete well."

Bruce Kelley, San Francisco's new editor, needs no introduction to Tom Hartle or Hour magazine. He is well aware that Hartle is in town. In fact, Hartle and his wife Heather spent several months in Walnut Creek consulting for San Francisco's parent company, Diablo Publications, before deciding to start their own city magazine here.

Kelley, a veteran of Health magazine, came to San Francisco last year to improve editorial content in conjunction with a complete design overhaul. Diablo understood that the magazine needed great improvements, and Kelley was eager to do the job. Now, realizing he may not be alone in seeking to improve the local magazine fare, Kelley is keeping tabs on the competition. "I hear they are going to call it 7x7,and go young and affluent," he says. "I suppose they'll come in, throw a bunch of magazines off the back of a truck, and make lots of noise trying to convince advertisers that people read it."

Hartle is certainly not the first to come along with grand plans for a quality city magazine, but he is the first to be taken seriously for some time. For example, Kelley dismisses the quixotic quest of another young entrepreneur, Aaron Poirier, who has relentlessly peddled his SF magazine business plan around town for nearly two years. "Last time I checked, his Web site was still under construction."

To his credit, the 29-year-old Poirier, a Stanford English graduate with some magazine ad sales experience in New York, has collected and digested reams of market research on the Bay Area to state his case that a new, better city publication can succeed here. "My plan is to reinvent the city magazine as an intelligent, coffee table magazine that is shamelessly chic, with content that is by no means predictable or staid," Poirier says. Though he concedes that Hour already did as much in Detroit, Poirier claims Hartle hasn't been around long enough to fully "get" San Francisco and make his product fit here. "I know what San Francisco needs and deserves. Am I player? Yes, of the most serious kind. This is not a whim, but a passion."

There have been plenty of passionate attempts in the long history of failed city magazines in this town. John Burks, chairman of San Francisco State University's journalism school, has edited four such publications over the years. "The problem," he says, "is that "city magazine' is not a precision term. It is difficult to try to capture the character, personality, or spirit of an entire city or region, especially in this city."

Gary Thoe, in charge of acquiring titles for city magazine giant Emmis Communications, agrees. Last year he added Los Angeles to his stable of publications, which also includes Cincinnati, Atlanta, Indianapolis Monthly, and Texas Monthly. Thoe acknowledges it'll be a challenge to make his newest acquisition fly, since Los Angeles is a patchwork of contradictory communities like San Francisco. But he still shies away from the Bay Area. "In a market that fractured and diverse -- where you're dealing with wine people, Chinatown, and techies -- you've got nothing cohesive to work with. It's hard to speak to different people differently, and find the advertisers willing to go along," he says. "At least in a Bible Belt market like Indianapolis, people are generally thinking the same. And in Texas, it doesn't matter if you're a monk or an oil tycoon: Everyone has "Big Texas' and all it symbolizes in common."

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