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An Embarrassment of Magazines

June

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June is the month the new, improved Chicago magazine made its debut. Looks a little like the old, familiar New York magazine, don't you think? We're sure it's just a silly coincidence, but Chicago's new editor, Hillel Levin, did work as a staff writer for New York a few years back. That was before he was editor of Metropolitan Detroit and one of the guys who plunked down $17 million to buy our magazine from WTTW. He's a sentimental guy, we figure. Picks up the old book for strength and inspiration now and then.

He may be needing some of each before long; we hear things are not going too swimmingly over there. Circulation has ebbed from its guarantee of a few years back, and the magazine is down nearly 20 percent in number of pages for the year, according to a December 1987 Media Industry Newsletter. Moreover, industry scuttlebutt has it that the Audit Bureau of Circulation is about to change the way it figures paid circulation, disallowing all those subscriptions Chicago sends to WTTW contributors. If the gossip is right (ABC won't comment), the magazine could take a major circulation hit. So, although we can't imagine it's likely to seduce another hungry buyer in the near future, rumors continue to circulate that it's up for sale again.

Whatever its problems might be, Chicago is clearly the biggest game in town. It's the only one of the city mags that can back up its circulation figures with a respectable audit, and even if you believe the circulation claims of all the competing magazines, (want to buy some land in Florida?), Chicago's numbers beat the rest of them put together. The magazine is still plenty fat, thanks to megabucks advertisers like Marshall Field's, which can pad it with ads that are partially paid for by such "co-op" ad buyers as Ralph Lauren, Fila, Movado, and enough perfume mongers to make your mailbox smell like a high-priced whorehouse on a Friday night. Finally--let's face it--Chicago's editorial has improved under Hillel Levin. He isn't exactly beloved by all the writers in town; gone are the days of 6,000-word articles and fat fees, and one freelancer says Levin has developed a reputation of riding roughshod over writers: "He knows exactly what he wants and how to get it." Still, what he seems to want is a snappier, less reverent book than its predecessor, and even if he gets carried away once in a while, there can't be too many readers in town who want to argue with that.

While WTTW was trying to scare up a buyer for Chicago, entrepreneur Gershon Bassman thought he saw an opportunity. So he dumped his blue collar singles magazine, Chicagoland, in order to start a more upscale bimonthly that he hoped would compete with the troubled Chicago. He hired Deborah Loeser, a young and ambitious editor who had formerly written for People and Women's Wear Daily. With visions of grandeur dancing in his head, Bassman gave her approximately two months to turn out the first issue.

Inside Chicago hit the newsstands in January--its bright, bold, oversized cover a welcome addition to the usually drab and dour fare dished out by the other locals. It looked promising. Loeser managed to attract some good writers who looked forward to a new publication that seemed to combine the impossible: solid financial backing and a lively if not stimulating format.

Six issues later, the magazine has gone through four art directors and developed a solid reputation among writers for slow payment. Howard Treshansky, who's listed as the magazine's publisher and is the chief operating officer of the parent company that owns Inside Chicago, has explained that it's a matter of cash flow. The magazine's finances seem to be connected with those of a string of nursing homes that Gershon Bassman owns in Illinois; "in effect, writers end up being paid by the state and are put on the same 90-day schedule along with hospital suppliers," cracks one former insider.

(Two weeks ago, the Illinois Department of Public Health moved to revoke the license of one of Bassman's nursing homes, part of an attempt to improve what officials called the worst facilities in the state.)

In October, Bassman hired former Lerner executive editor Charles Mouratides as associate publisher. Deborah Loeser resigned in December citing "major philosophical differences." The main issues seem to have been the limited staff (Loeser says she was promised more but got none) and the targeted audience. Loeser preferred directing Inside Chicago's editorial to those who live in Lincoln Park and its environs. "I saw our audience as the same people who read the Reader," she says. On the other hand, Bassman, who claims to be distributing 60,000 copies currently, wants to establish greater mass-market appeal.

"Start looking for stories on nightlife in Schaumburg," predicts an insider.

Another new bimonthly is Chicago Times, which premiered in September. It seems to have a more secure future, backed by lots of cashish from Rob Small, president and CEO of the Small Newspaper Group, Inc., in Kankakee.

It is smart and well written. It's also dry as a bone. Judging by the large number of ads from financial institutions, publisher Todd Fandell seems to be going after the old-boy market and targeting a largely whitebread North Shore audience.

Chicago Times, which claims a circulation of 50,000, does without listings and service pieces--the inevitable mainstays of many other city publications. With lots of first person and gee-isn't-this-the-world's-greatest-city stories, editor Timothy Jacobson, a trained historian, hopes to stimulate the couch-potato intelligentsia who ordinarily disdain articles on where to find the best burrito. He's aiming for a hybrid of the New Yorker and the Atlantic, but so far seems closer to Ladies Home Journal.

"I think Fandell and Jacobson are trying to appeal to the same people who read Crain's Chicago Business as well as those who are considered 'old money,'" says another Chicago magazine publisher. "They're only interested in a select demographic. Essentially, it's an old farts' magazine and will probably be around for years because of all the money behind it."

Chicago has at least one city magazine that didn't debut this year: Chicago Life. Few people seem to know about it, but it's been chugging along now for over three years. Publisher Pam Berns claims a circulation of 50,000, a figure that could be substantiated, she says, if she had the bucks to pay for the $3,000 audit.

Berns refers to Chicago Life as "a Psychology Today for baby boomers." She's right. It's chock full of advice for the beleaguered urban professional whose three main concerns are AIDS, liposuction, and good restaurants. The bimonthly is produced entirely by Berns (she says she puts in 120 hours a week), which may help to explain its wildly uneven editorial quality. It has run a bizarre spectrum of articles, ranging from a superb piece on pornography and Illinois law to such drivel as how your car reflects your love life.

But it's Chicago Life's personals that light the fire under its often soporific covers. They work, says the publisher, because her readers take them very seriously. So does the publisher, who takes on the role of Mother Superior by wading through the ads "in order to ensure there aren't any weirdos out there soliciting dating services through the mail." She also screens the responses--they all go to the magazine and most arrive unsealed. If a personal ad garners no response on the first round, Berns will run it again for free.

As a self-help magazine directed to college-educated, health-oriented readers who eat out a lot, Chicago Life may very well be creating a niche for itself. It's a niche bent on overeducating readers about sexually transmitted diseases, imparting an attitude of "if you're gonna play, you're gonna pay," but industry trends suggest that Berns may be on a profitable track, if not a very deep one. Many stories touch on self-improvement and embrace a trendy New Age philosophy. In these times of self-glorification and neopuritanism, it just may be the colonic the doctor ordered.

Anybody out there seen the first two issues of photographer Stan Malinowski's vanity mag Metro? It's apparently dedicated to all the photographers, writers, artists, designers, and models who feel forced to fly off to Milan and New York to show their stuff. In some cases, we wish they would.

Metro is supposedly Chicago's version of Interview magazine. (Thank God, Sugar Rautbord has a local publication to write for now!) It's both beautiful and a little dumb, not unlike many of the pneumatic lovelies Malinowski photographed over the years for Playboy and Penthouse.

Chicago needs this magazine. Where else can you read a caption like, "I wonder if they'll drop the bomb today?" Or find an in-depth interview with Seka, the patron saint of porno queens?

Come to think of it, several places.

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