In America to see someone as a consumer is to see him as a human being. Not the smallest virtue of the new magazine Plus is that it presents Americans with HIV as a demographic group attractive to advertisers.
Plus is blazing a trail, but it's far from the first exercise in disease-specific journalism. Founder Brett Grodeck rattled off a few other titles: "There's Arthritis Today, there's Coping With Cancer, there's Diabetes Forecast. Arthritis Today is a perfect example. It's a huge circulation--I think half a million."
Now consider the market for Plus. The figure Grodeck cites is 1.1 million Americans--minimum--with HIV, plus their families and doctors and nurses and counselors and everyone else whose lives are altered by the virus. In December Grodeck intends to launch Plus in Chicago as a bimonthly, but he'd like to roll it out nationally within a year. And even though he'll give it away in doctors' offices and other treatment centers, he hopes that eventually advertising will cover all his costs.
"The HIV community is comprised of some of the most powerful and fastest growing consumer groups," advises Plus's "readership profile." Consider "Group 1" for starters:
Extensive and well-documented research attests to the impressive buying power of gay men.
Gay men's average household income exceeds $50,000.
Four-year college degrees are earned by 73% of gay men.
Ninety percent of gay men travel domestically, with an average of 7.78 trips per year.
Gay men dine out for an average of 15.56 meals per month.
And that's all gay men.
"What we find among people who test positively is a very active life-style," says Joe Crump, Grodeck's friend and part-time publisher. "Basically they're squeezing a full adult life into a foreshortened time. What you see if you look at some of the statistics, studies, is that people travel a lot, spend a lot, because they realize it's sort of eat, drink, and be merry. The people I know who are positive make me feel ashamed for my sedentary life-style. They're out doing stuff and making a difference.
"Brett, for instance, he took it as a mission from God--his diagnosis. He's been positive for six years, and he's healthy as a horse. Never had a symptom."
The idea for Plus came to Grodeck last year at what he calls "a single crisp, clear moment." As a friend talked about starting a music zine, it hit Grodeck that he wanted to create a magazine about HIV. "Not a newsletter. Not a treatment journal. A true magazine in every respect."
Grodeck recognized the void. "You can categorize what's out there available to the reader," he explained. "The first category is sort of called the Hallmark-card syndrome. It's the sort of melodramatic 'ain't that a shame' attitude, very third-person and very distant. It's always an HIV-negative reporter who drops in on the lives of HIV-positive people and writes, 'Isn't that sad!' My life isn't like that. It's really great, and I want to talk about it. I want to talk about the lives of people with HIV.
"The next category I see is sort of medical jargon. Immunological markers and prophylaxes and theoretical vaccine debates. You know what? I needed to live my life. I needed to know today whether I should refinance my student loans. I needed to know how to tell my sister I was HIV-positive. I needed to know how to get health insurance.
"And then the last category is sort of political diatribes. Moral debates. What's right? What's wrong? Let's all get out there and protest and throw rocks and scream. And while that's important, I still needed to get on with my life. There was nothing out there that told me how to stop people from cracking AIDS jokes, that told me how to go on a date."
We saw the 16-page prototype the other day. It's informative, it's chatty. Like other specialty magazines we pick up when we visit doctors and accountants and body shops, it makes us feel like outsiders looking in. But in this case outside is just beyond a very fragile pane of glass. "Everyone wants to feel there's a great distance between themselves and HIV, but I don't think there's that great a distance," Grodeck said. "I think at some level it's close to all of us, whether they know it or deny it or understand it."
He went on, "I can give you a couple of examples of how Plus is different. I think I read something in the Wall Street Journal about humor in the AIDS community. The difference in Plus is--the Wall Street Journal talked about the phenomenon of people making light of their situation. Plus makes light of their situation. It invites people to laugh instead of reading about laughing.
"Another good example--the column for women. Do we talk about HIV-positive women who already have children or HIV-positive women who want children? We've all probably read about women who have kids to take care of and isn't it sad! But we're going to talk about choice, and freedom, and the range of options HIV-positive women have. We're talking about the options, not the limitations.
"We are by no stretch a didactic publication," Grodeck said. "We aren't asking how you got HIV. We don't really care how you got it. We care, are you happy? Are you living a good life? And we'll present options. I am first a human being who goes out to dinner and goes on vacations and takes vitamins and drinks beer, and then I have some special needs. I probably take more vitamins and exercise more often and seek out emotional support and buy greeting cards for my mother probably more often."
Grievances . . .
What does a newspaper owe the hometowners? Coverage if they're a ball team, otherwise apparently nothing. Chicago's Noble Press wonders if the Tribune will ever review one of its books. Jill Nelson's Volunteer Slavery is about to enter a fourth printing. Last year there was Barbara D'Amato's The Doctor, the Murder, the Mystery, a fastidious examination of one of the more fascinating criminal cases in recent Chicago history--the 1967 murder of Donna Branion and the conviction of her prominent husband. Dr. John Branion didn't do it, D'Amato concluded.
The Sun-Times reviewed both books. The Tribune neither.
"I don't know if we have a beef with them, but we're sort of curious," says Doug Seibold, Noble Press's executive editor. "I'm just surprised and puzzled and confused."
We asked Larry Kart, editor of the Tribune's Books section, what obligation a paper should feel to local publishers. "I think reasonably it has to be very limited," Kart said. "Obviously, living in this city, we would want people publishing worthwhile material to survive and flourish if their work deserves it. On the other hand, there's a downside to what might be called quote provincialism."
Could be. This month D'Amato's book received an Anthony Award as the nation's best true crime book of 1992. This week it comes out in paper. Only paperback editor Clarence Petersen stands between the Tribune and the shame of provincialism.
What does a newspaper owe concerned citizens? An alliance of prison-reform groups recently proposed that the state drop plans to build a $60 million "supermax" prison and spend the money on education instead.
The Tribune didn't cover the press conference. Sun-Times reporter Ray Long was there. Afterward he asked Michael Mahoney, president of the John Howard Association, where Mahoney thought the supermax was headed. Southern Illinois, said Mahoney.
That became Long's story: "Tough New Prison Seen Going Downstate." It was a quickie, buried on page 20. No mention that there even was a press conference, let alone that Mahoney (or anyone else) spoke against building the prison at all.
"This is an issue some of us have been against for some time," Mahoney told us. "The problem is, most people have made the assumption that this is a done deal and it's too late to stop it." And the Chicago papers don't want to stop it. Both support the new prison.
What does a newspaper owe a favored congressman? A prompt, fawning apology, it seems. On October 3 the Tribune's Perspective section carried an article from the Orlando Sentinel on the "batting averages" of the nation's congressmen--that is, their ability to get legislation passed.
"Rep. Harris Fawell (D-Ill.), author of more than 100 rejected bills, holds the last spot in the House batting roster," said the article. "Fawell, now in his fifth term, is the weakest batter in the House, having failed to win passage of any of the 107 measures he introduced."
Fawell, who in fact is a Republican from Naperville, felt cut to the quick. He called Jack Fuller, president of the Tribune, and justice swiftly prevailed. "He said, "My gosh, we're going to have to make a retraction on that,"' Fawell told us. Last Sunday's Tribune carried a long, conspicuous letter from Citizens Against Government Waste titled "Rep. Fawell is a taxpayer's friend," and there was a clarification on page three.
"Rep. Fawell says his records show he sponsored 23 bills that were passed," said the clarification. "The story was not intended to totally evaluate individual congressional efficiency or reflect in any negative way on Rep. Fawell's performance."
In short, "weakest batter in the house" shouldn't be construed as negative. This is too much even for Fawell. "I would have hoped they would have said, "Look, it was obviously a mistake. We regret the inference.' But what the heck! They've always been very decent to me."
What does a basketball team owe the public? Sportswriters drove Michael Jordan nuts asking him a handful of questions a dozen different ways at his retirement press conference. Why didn't one of them ask Jerry Reinsdorf, "Jerry, you said Michael told you he was quitting back on September 18. So why did the Bulls go ahead and sell 100,000 single-game tickets last Sunday?"
The Bulls cleared a few million dollars in one day. They aren't giving refunds.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.