Recent Casualties: One Stillborn.../One Cut Down in Its Prime.../...And One Sputtering Out at a Ripe Old Age/Open Mouth Policy | Media | Chicago Reader

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Recent Casualties: One Stillborn.../One Cut Down in Its Prime.../...And One Sputtering Out at a Ripe Old Age/Open Mouth Policy

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By Michael Miner

Recent Casualties: One Stillborn . . .

Clout was a dangerous idea from the get-go, a magazine that would be driven by substance instead of a niche. The other day Clout died just before it was born, and I asked the two founders what happened.

James Ylisela, the editor, said, "My investor, George Ball, decided not to go forward. I'd very much like to go forward, and I'm still trying to do so. But George isn't able to at this time, and it's a damn shame. George owns the Burpee seed company, and he's somebody I've known quite a few years. This is something we were taking a look at together. He was very enthusiastic and, sadly, still is very enthusiastic about Clout. He just wasn't able to make the commitment right now because of the pull of his other businesses.

"We were approaching this very conservatively, very carefully, very slowly. It wasn't a dot-com operation. We started talking about it in January of '99, and we've been working on it off and on for the last two years. What we wanted to do was fill a need we saw in journalism in Chicago by providing in-depth stories--readable, compelling stories about urban life--both journalistically and in fiction and essays. There are a lot of good stories that don't get told or told well enough. There are things that make the evening news and you never hear of them again. We took a little bit of Harper's and a little bit of Mother Jones and a little bit of the New Yorker, all with sort of a Chicago feel to it. Our emphasis was going to be very, very local. We felt there's a lot of information out there but not a lot of comprehension."

I asked him how long he'd had this idea.

"Oh, just about all my life," he said. "A lot of what the Reader does is incorporated into this idea. A lot of what I did at the Chicago Reporter [where he was a contributing editor from 1990 to 2000] is a part of this. The problem we all faced at the Reporter was we had a very small audience, and we never had enough money to get a larger one. The Reporter was very good to me, but we were all frustrated to a certain extent because these young reporters work extremely hard on these stories and wonder if anybody's reading them."

Now Ylisela needs to find five to seven million somewhere else. He's looking, but without much optimism. His staff's been laid off, though the Clout offices at 311 W. Superior are still open.

"I had a four-person editorial staff and an office manager," he told me. "I was getting ready to hire a publisher and an advertising director. I had some circulation folks lined up. We were about to go into design and start up in late spring or early summer. We were going to start slow, as a bimonthly with a circulation of about 10 or 15 thousand, highly targeted, and build. We were not shoveling buckets of money at this thing. If I learned anything at the Reporter it's how to operate on a shoestring. We had given ourselves three years to build it.

"It's sad. I think it's a good idea, and I feel like I've been preparing most of my professional life to do it. I would like the opportunity to try it and see if people would want this kind of magazine. If it didn't work out financially, so be it. But now I'm still wondering if it would work, so it's sort of like a death in the family."

George Ball told me, "The reason I hired Jim is because he's one of the best editors in the country, a guy who knows how to develop talent like I've never seen. I wanted to have Clout be a school for talent, a farm team not only for our own senior reporter and editor staff but a place where things would happen. But I kept doing business plans, and from all the projections, I would have had to provide the sort of equity--I couldn't do it. It was awful. I've never wanted to do something so badly.

"I had a staff that was really very solid and pure at heart. This was a vision we shared, perhaps somewhat idealistically, to rejuvenate and in a sense recall both an attitude and a content of journalism as it was practiced in Chicago and New York particularly in the late 19th century and early 20th. We were as modern as the next guy, but we wanted to get away from ephemera on the one hand and puffery on the other. We wanted a magazine that would bowl right down the center and hit strikes every time.

"The most poignant moment was when I was flipping through the Nation at the local newsstand and I thought, maybe I can do it on this comic-book kind of paper and comic-book kind of cover. And I had a vision of the staff looking at me like, are you crazy? This was not what the city wanted or needed. And to do what the city wanted and needed I would have needed a multiple of the funds I had available. The trajectory kept becoming less and less feasible. Possibility is really what it's all about, and if you can't do it well you can't do it at all. Fortunately the staff understood that, and everybody's moving on."

One Cut Down in Its Prime . . .

Business hotshots get labeled reclusive if they never talk to you or me and not that often to anyone else. Steve Harris, founder and publisher of the niche magazine Online Investor, fits the bill. "Steve wouldn't even return calls to people who wanted to give him something--like, 'We want to put your magazine on our Web site and offer free subscriptions,'" says Jan Parr, who was Harris's editor. She tells me her own face time with the boss was complicated by his unwillingness ever to take off his sunglasses.

Five years ago Dennis Rodkin began a Reader profile of Harris like this: "Everybody went to high school with Steve Harris. Remember? Skinny kid. Long greasy hair. And a perpetually manic look in his eyes that was hard to read." When he grew up, Harris went into the business of conceiving, publishing, and then selling off niche magazines, the first of them being Electronic Gaming Monthly, which was for video-game freaks like himself. Harris did well. As someone who used to work for him told Rodkin, "Steve's living the dream of every nerd. As a kid he was awkward and probably didn't socialize much, but now he's a multimillionaire who drives a Lamborghini and has a beautiful girlfriend with major breasts."

Having tried and failed several times to reach him, I can only guess what he was thinking two months ago when he shut down Oak Brook-based Online Investor. I'm guessing he saw that these were getting to be hard times for magazines, and he didn't want the hassle. "From the beginning," says Parr, "he ran it on the model of his old gaming magazines, which was newsstand based. He never invested in subscriptions, though most personal-finance magazines have the bulk of their total circulation in subscriptions, not newsstand."

Harris launched Online Investor as a bimonthly in the summer of 1998 and a year later went monthly. "He was used to fan magazines, and he saw Online Investor as a fan magazine for people who were fans of the market," Parr says. "He came out at a time before all the E-trade ads got on the Super Bowl. He didn't do test groups and all the things publishers can do to stymie themselves. It started fast--and it ended fast."

Online Investor claimed a circulation of 150,000 and turned a profit of $450,000 last year, according to Parr. Last November was huge. But then business went south--just as it did everywhere else--and January and February lost money. "He imagined it as a magazine for traders flipping stocks," says Parr, which is to say as a magazine perched on the bursting bubble of the dot-com industry. In fact, it was something more staid and solid. "We're a personal-finance magazine about a form of investment that's not going away," she says. "It's still valid, no matter what the market is and no matter what the technical stocks are doing. It was about all aspects of managing your money on-line--identifying good stocks to managing your IRA to doing your taxes and paying your bills on-line."

Did he get that? "At times I did wonder," says Parr.

She says Harris made fitful attempts to sell the magazine and then pulled the plug, canceling this month's issue. Parr says her writers, photographers, and illustrators were owed some $50,000 to $60,000 and have been offered 50 cents on the dollar.

Last November Harris sold off Cinescape, a company that owned a magazine and Web site devoted to SF, horror, and action movies and TV shows as well as some licensed fan clubs and fan magazines. Parr says he now has nothing left but the Web site NFLScoop.com. Harris is a passionate Kansas City Chiefs fan.

. . . And One Sputtering Out at a Ripe Old Age

Over the years I've written less about Arnie Matanky and his Near North News than I might have. A sentimental journey back through the files came across nary a mention since 1995, which was when Matanky wondered why President Clinton had bothered to speak to the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. "Why was he there?" asked the editorial. "He cannot possibly believe that homosexuals in any serious number are going to support his reelection. After all, they were the mainstay of the SS and the SA in Nazi Germany."

Matanky's views, clearly held and strongly stated, made his weekly something special among neighborhood papers, and his 6,000 to 7,000 readers were a loyal bunch. Unfortunately, the extremes of personality that serve an editor well can be disastrous to a publisher, who has to deal with, among others, advertisers. Matanky didn't suffer fools gladly, and he had an expansive opinion of who the fools were. "People who have the title of editor and publisher are usually publishers who became editors out of necessity," he told me last weekend. "A few of us did it the other way around. It's a mistake. I'm an editor, not a businessman."

Matanky became seriously ill a couple of years ago, and his business started to fall apart. Several months ago he borrowed $9,000 from Michael Segal, chairman of Near North Insurance Brokerage, putting up enough stock as collateral to give Segal control of the newspaper. For a time Segal thought about stepping in to set things right, and when he decided that all he wanted was his money back Matanky faced a financial crisis. A month ago, after 45 years of stormy journalism, Matanky stopped publishing the Near North News, and though he refuses to say uncle we must face the possibility that the Near North News will not be seen again.

What he needs, Matanky told me, is a good ad salesman. But he has a reputation for bringing salesmen in and driving them out. "Either they're no good," he said, "or they become good and join the Tribune right away."

Open Mouth Policy

Last week's Hot Type discussion of Chicago's new Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was a little too informative for some readers. I went into cases, and when the column was posted on Jim Romenesko's Media News site, it promptly drew these reactions:

"I'm stunned, stunned, stunned to read that the contents of the phone calls to the ethics line were reported openly."

"I have some unsolicited advice....

They should keep information about their clients' queries confidential or they risk spooking potential callers."

Casey Bukro, the ethics chair of the Chicago Headline Club who came up with the idea for the advice line, was pretty open with me about the calls that came in once it was up and running. He felt he could tell me everything about one call, the one from Le Templar, president of the Society of Professional Journalists in Phoenix.

But Templar also wrote Romenesko to protest. "It never occurred to me that my phone call to the ethics hot line could be the subject of a news story. Just goes to show what little I have learned in this business."

Templar went on, "I don't have any qualms about my conversation being reported....But I have to agree that the ethics advisors should pledge confidentiality, or at least warn callers their issue could enter the public domain."

Bukro E-mailed Romenesko a five-paragraph response. "I don't want the Ethics AdviceLine to become an enterprise dealing in secrets," it concluded. "From what I've seen so far, callers say they're glad we are there to help them. Let's keep it out in the open where it belongs. That's part of our modern journalistic tradition. The undercover stuff is from another era when we thought journalism was a game. We'll give confidentiality to anyone who asks for it, but it should be for a good reason."

Much as I benefited last week from Bukro's sunshine policy, his defense of it flirts with dogma. Language is rolling over reason when privacy is likened to "secrets," the presumption of confidentiality to "undercover stuff," and the granting of it to a "game."

There were things that Bukro and David Ozar--director of Loyola University's Center for Ethics, which operates the AdviceLine with the Headline Club --did refuse to tell me about the early calls. It's clear they want to draw a line somewhere, though where it should be might take time to figure out. But I wouldn't assume that advice-line callers who don't request confidentiality without being asked therefore don't care whether they get it and, what's more, don't deserve it.

News Bite

Chicago in the Year 2000 cleaned up in the annual judging of American photojournalists by the National Press Photographers Association and the University of Missouri school of journalism. Jon Lowenstein was named magazine photographer of the year for a portfolio of pictures taken for CITY 2000 and Scott Strazzante newspaper photographer of the year for pictures taken either for CITY 2000 or his former newspaper, Joliet's Herald News. Lowenstein and Strazzante also won several lesser awards, and CITY 2000's Yvette Dostatni took third place in the magazine sports feature category.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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