Magazine Dreams

Will San Francisco finally get the city magazine it deserves?

Standing in the grocery store checkout line, which magazine cover story would compel you to pick up a copy?
"New Age Jews: Welcome to the new -- not strictly kosher -- world of Judaism."
"20 Best and Worst New Buildings."
"Have Gun, Will Party."
"15 Best Pizzas."
"Divas With Dish."
"Top 100 Cheap Eats."

At a D'Agastino market in Manhattan, New York magazine would have you reading about Jews, guns, and divas. But in a Bay Area Safeway, to push your cart past a rack of San Francisco magazines (best this, cheap that) is to keep on going.

A typical city magazine could be called "cheery." Just look at any of those glossy, glorified Chamber of Commerce journals often found in posh hotels, where everyone pictured in the ads is white and living the good life on golf courses and cruise ships. There are some exceptions: "New York is smarter and more sophisticated than most," says John Burks, a veteran magazine editor who runs the journalism school at San Francisco State University. "But ours is one of the weakest of city magazines. If you ask 1,000 literate, sophisticated readers what is the go-to magazine, San Francisco doesn't leap to the front of their consciousness."

A.J. Garces
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The creators of Detroit's successful city magazine, Hour, are coming to San Francisco.
Paul Trapani
The creators of Detroit's successful city magazine, Hour, are coming to San Francisco.
Detroit native Tom Hartle and his wife, Heather, plan to launch 7x7 here this fall.
Paul Trapani
Detroit native Tom Hartle and his wife, Heather, plan to launch 7x7 here this fall.
San Francisco magazine Editor Bruce Kelley says he's ready for the competition.
Paul Trapani
San Francisco magazine Editor Bruce Kelley says he's ready for the competition.

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Even San Francisco's editor knows as much. In this month's issue, Bruce Kelley uses his column to publicly broach the touchy subject: "People have said this isn't a great magazine town."

The big admission, naturally, comes with the promise of "proving them wrong." But Kelley, who has been at the helm of San Francisco for just seven months, is not the only one with aspirations of giving this city a magazine worth reading. Some local entrepreneurs are eagerly laying the groundwork for a new publication -- one that won't proclaim the "top 10" this or "best" that on every cover; one that won't be called "cheery."

Kelley talks up a new San Francisco that will emphasize storytelling in addition to good cheer, and for good reason. The formula that has worked for other, successful city magazine titles like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia isn't incessant cheerleading. Instead, it's solid journalism with insightful, witty, and oftentimes sassy writing. It is a formula the new editor at Los Angeles has pledged to implement this year. And a formula that worked for upstart Hour magazine when Detroit's traditional city rag went belly up. Hour's success is, in part, why Kelley is trumpeting his magazine's newfound moxie: The folks from Detroit are coming to town. But San Francisco's tough economy -- and its impossible-to-categorize population -- could run them out.

One would think this would be a perfect place to launch a highbrow city magazine. A greater percentage of people who live here have college degrees and six-figure incomes (or nearly that) than in almost any other city -- an upscale advertiser's dream. There are readers here, too. In book-buying per capita, San Francisco is second only to New York City. The town is also full of great restaurants, boutique shops, and a vibrant arts community, all of which might contribute (in advertising and subject matter) to a thriving publication. And there seems to be little competition: Among the all-important young and affluent demographic, the free weekly papers command almost three times the readership of San Francisco, our supposed city magazine. Indeed, at 54, the age of the average San Francisco subscriber skews far above the coveted range of most advertisers.

For Tom Hartle, who peddled Hour to the wealthy suburbs of Detroit, that means an ideal market of city magazine readers is going unserved. But what might look like uniform demographics on paper may not translate at the newsrack. In a city whose residents by no means think alike, creating a product that speaks to everyone is no simple task. If success depends on knowing what kind of city magazine the people want, San Francisco's beautifully diverse yet maddeningly fractured populace could stump even the best focus-group study. This conundrum is why publishing experts agree that city rags have a better chance in more predictable and profitable magazine towns like Indianapolis or St. Paul.

Still, Hartle is undeterred. Several months settled into his Marina apartment, the Detroit native is certain his city magazine formula will work in the fabled Baghdad by the Bay. He's even hired two local editors -- whom he refers to as his "insiders" -- to explain to him what makes this city tick. Having finished their prototype, Hartle and his charges continue to secure investors and gear up for a fall launch. They hope the first issue of 7x7 (named for the city's 7-by-7-mile limits) will, as they so boldly claim, "save San Francisco from its media-retarded self."

Hartle looks like any number of transplants to San Francisco during the dot-com boom: young, white, ubiquitous black suit and dark blue shirt -- open collar, no tie -- ordering coffee in a South of Market cafe. Yet he brashly dismisses this group, which one might think would include his most important customers.

"I say "So-fucking-long' to the dot-commers," Hartle bristles in response to the suggestion that this may not be the best time to start a business, especially one that is reliant on the affluent twenty- and thirtysomethings now losing their jobs and disposable incomes at increasingly defunct Web sites. "Maybe it's a blessing in disguise, which will preserve the diversity of this city."

Hartle says he'd rather 7x7 covered San Francisco's independently vibrant art, political, and gay communities (just to name a few) in the absence of what was an all-encompassing Internet mania.

"Why do you think I moved here? This is a great city, and the things that make it great are not going away even if the Internet economy does," he says, confident there will always be plenty of wealth in San Francisco -- both real and aspiring -- to cater to. "Besides, you don't have to be rich to read my magazine. Most people with lots of money don't have a lot of taste, anyway."

To be sure, 7x7 will court the wealthy reader -- and the upscale Union Square advertisers that appeal to them -- with lavishly photographed fashion spreads and home décor sections. It will have to do so: No expensive-to-print, glossy-paged magazine can survive without them. But thrown into the mix, Hartle promises, will be a steady diet of smartly written stories -- long, expository features on compelling, relevant topics and more digestible columns that satirize, critique, and investigate San Francisco life. He says the Sunday New York Times Magazine is his favorite read, and 7x7's biggest inspiration.

"When we say "affluent' we also mean an affluence of culture," says Kerry McLaughlin, one of Hartle's Bay Area "insiders," who will serve as a senior editor. (McLaughlin earns "insider" status by virtue of the fact that her family is from San Francisco, and she hopes to cash in on the contacts she developed working for the failed Palm Pilot-like wireless city guide service Modo.) "While all our readers will not necessarily be wealthy, they will be savvy."

Indeed, Hartle says he subscribes to the decree Andy Warhol used upon founding Interview magazine: Cover only the elite and the underground. Ignore the middle, because the middle is boring and wants to be like the other two anyway.

"We want party pictures of San Francisco Opera openings next to the Money B show at the Oakland Coliseum, next to the Bruce Conner opening at the De Young," McLaughlin explains to the magazine's prospective contributors in an e-mail pitch. "Neither is more important; they all live here, they all get equal light."

Hartle's young editorial team -- he's the elder at 34 -- laments the lack of a true features publication for and about San Francisco. The daily newspapers do news. San Francisco magazine sticks mostly to service pieces (those ubiquitous "top 10" covers). And while the free weekly papers (like this one) devote some space to long-form features and personality-driven columns, much of their role is to run reviews, event listings, classifieds, and personal ads. Hartle's goal with 7x7 is to marry SF Weekly's front section -- the magazinelike content, sans listings and personals -- with San Francisco's high-quality glossy paper, which better showcases photography and design. "This is meant to be a reading magazine," Hartle says, "and something beautiful you want to leave on your coffee table."

Hartle looks around the SOMA cafe twice as he pulls out an advance copy of 7x7 -- just back from the printer -- from his black attaché case. For now, he carefully guards the prototype, though he will begin sending out multiple copies to civic leaders, community organizations, and potential advertisers by the end of the month to create appropriate buzz for the first issue planned for August. Bold photo spreads dominate the oversized, Life magazine-like pages. The look is clean and classic. There are fashion and food articles, and feature stories ranging from the untold saga of a Hillsborough heiress whose murder has gone unsolved for 60 years to a very 21st-century look at locals making online movies. In a profiles section, a Stanford professor claims to have solved California's power crisis and a SOMA nightclub owner settles old scores. The tag line on the cover reads, "San Francisco people, stories, and style."

Hartle flips through the pages quickly, not wanting too much specific information about his product to get out yet. "None of this is rocket science, I know, but if I reveal exactly what I'm doing it will be real easy for San Francisco magazine to say, "Oh, we can do that.' I mean, the special sauce is just ketchup and Thousand Island dressing, right?" Hartle says. "But I have to be careful, because there are major gaps in how people in this city are missing the market we're going after." Of course, San Francisco will see the prototype as soon as it is circulated among advertisers, so it's not much of a head start.

The best clues about what 7x7 will offer can be gleaned from what Hartle accomplished when he launched Detroit's Hour magazine. The Boston University marketing graduate grew up in a magazine family. His father managed the Detroit business office for Look magazine in the 1960s before joining Jann Wenner's start-up Rolling Stone to oversee Midwest ad sales (doing the same for all of Wenner's subsequent titles). By the time Men's Journal was launched in 1992, Hartle was working with his dad, learning the trade. In 1996, as his hometown's traditional city magazine was about to go under, the 29-year-old Hartle started his own publication in a market everyone said was dead. Using $75,000 from credit cards, he established Hour. He started small, offering the magazine for free and targeting the suburbs. He gave talented and aspiring -- but still cheap -- photographers, graphic designers, and writers the space to create what became widely regarded as a sublime product.

"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.

"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."

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."

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.

"Just getting out the door will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per issue. The printing bill is going to drive him crazy," says Jim Dowden, director of the national association of city magazines. "What he wants to do would be a lot easier on newsprint. That's why the alternative weeklies work so well."

Hartle won't discuss his investors; he'll only say he is privately funded. He understands the odds he faces, but he's still confident -- almost cocky -- about beating them. "People said the same thing about Hour. "How the hell are you going to do it?' Well, we did it. What we did in Detroit was the revolution. And based on that, what happens [here] is just evolution," he says. "San Francisco will be excited to have 7x7, and we will find the money to make it work. I can't say how, because it's magic. Elves. We're going all-elves, you know. They're bright, and mostly writers."

In contrast, San Francisco Editor Kelley boasts about all the real, quality freelancers he says the magazine is accumulating, with "the journalistic chops to do the kind of stories that will fire people up every issue."

Yet just how much San Francisco will improve its editorial content remains to be seen. Kelley continues to publicly tout the possibilities, as when he recently agreed to appear on a panel covering the Bay Area magazine market held by the Society of Professional Journalists. "I don't understand why a great city magazine hasn't just dominated the region," he says beforehand. "I'm not going to dis my predecessors, but I think my magazine is starting to feel younger and more connected to the city. My hope is that people are noticing, appreciating, and agreeing. I'm certainly trying like hell to get people to see it that way."

He needs to work fast, though, because when the 7x7 prototype is unveiled in the coming weeks, Kelley -- and his advertisers -- will get the first look at the Hartle way.

As for competition from 7x7, Kelley is ready. "No matter what, we'll still take him in fashion and lifestyle. But I say, "Bring it on.'"

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