Magazine Dreams

Will San Francisco finally get the city magazine it deserves?

Thoe wonders why Hartle doesn't introduce his successful Hour formula into one of the many high-growth second-tier markets, such as Denver or Albuquerque, where an upscale city magazine would have an easier time forging an identity -- and be cheaper to produce. "You have to anticipate losing a million dollars the first year, and if you lose two or three more million until you make anything, you're doing OK. It's that big of a game," Thoe says, noting that only five out of every 300 new magazines survive beyond five years. "The big question is why do people do this? Well, why do people gamble in Vegas?"

From Burks' standpoint, Hartle's 7x7 would be wise to go the same direction as the new Los Angeles, where the editorial focus will be less on fluff and more on engaging storytelling. "You can either pimp lots of pictures of rich people cooking food so the advertisers can imagine such a readership -- and San Francisco is already doing a good job of that -- or do some provocative, honest-to-god journalism everyone will talk about. If there is a devoted readership, advertisers will be more than pleased," Burks says. Though noting that San Francisco has become better written in recent months under its new editor, Burks continues, "It has been a very weak magazine for quite some time, to the point of just being insipid. So that leaves 7x7 a wonderful opportunity to make some headway. It's not like they are starting against a New York magazine. They're not up against much here."

A.J. Garces
A.J. Garces

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While city magazines are definitely lucrative, growing ventures -- based on audit reports, their ad pages have increased on average almost 50 percent since 1997 and their overall circulation has risen more than 30 percent in the past decade -- San Francisco and 7x7 both face unique obstacles. Though San Francisco appears to have a healthy circulation of 135,000, more than 80 percent of its readers do not pay for the magazine. Instead, they receive it as a bonus for pledging a certain amount of money to KQED, the local PBS television and radio station. Worse, the average age of a San Francisco reader is five years beyond the 18-49 range advertisers vie for.

"That should tell you something right there; it's incredible," Hartle says, citing his rationale for entering the San Francisco market.

San Francisco's publisher, Steven Dinkelspiel, defends the KQED association. A PBS viewer -- typically well educated and wealthy -- is the ideal demographic for an upscale magazine and its advertisers, he claims. And as he points out, the publication is not sent to every KQED member, but only to those who choose it as their bonus. Therefore, Dinkelspiel contends, those readers count. Yet Hartle isn't the only one to wonder how many would pay to subscribe if they weren't already supporting public television and radio. As for the average reader age, Dinkelspiel admits it's high and says he is working on lowering it -- but not too much. "We are going to remain sophisticated and not try to be smartass," he says, encouraged by reports that monthly newsstand sales have risen more than 40 percent since the redesign and new editorial leadership. (It should be noted that this rise is not a huge leap, since newsstand sales were previously negligible and even now account for only about 8 percent of the magazine's total circulation.) "People are starting to pick it up and read it on their own these days, which shows we have a vitality that includes, yet goes beyond, KQED. We have a strong product now, and I wouldn't have said that two years ago."

Still, in this month's issue -- where the editor's column alludes to a city known for mediocre daily papers and magazines -- the cover story is a list of the Bay Area's "Top 100 Cheap Eats." Editor Kelley defends that decision, too, explaining that most of his covers will continue to be service-oriented while the more compelling stories will be on the inside pages. "Service is what gets people to buy it off the newsstand. What keeps people coming back as loyal readers is journalistic excellence," Kelley says. "And service doesn't have to be hackneyed. It should be well written, well conceived, and delightful."

Hartle swears off running any lists or service pieces in 7x7, but good stories alone won't keep him afloat. He will need money, and lots of it -- to pay for the astronomical cost of glossy, four-color pages, to hire talented and proven writers and photographers, and to cover the guaranteed losses of handing out the magazine for free to build a readership. The money will have to come from investors and advertisers. But only a select few businesses, usually of Union Square caliber, can afford the rates a high-design city magazine needs to charge. For example, a one-time, full-page ad in San Francisco costs nearly $15,000, vs. less than a third of that in one of the black-and-white, newsprint weeklies. Hartle maintains that there are plenty of trendy, locally owned bars, restaurants, and clothiers currently advertising in the weeklies that would pay a little more for the cachet of a glossy city magazine free of sex ads. He lured them to Hour magazine, where Detroit-area hair salons, stationery stores, and chophouses often share ad space with major brands like Absolut, Gucci, and Neiman Marcus. How low he can realistically make his rates in San Francisco, however, is another question.

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