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Magazine Dreams 

Will San Francisco finally get the city magazine it deserves?

Wednesday, Mar 14 2001
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."

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."

About The Author

Joel P. Engardio


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