BILL THOMAS WASN'T EXACTLY TWIDDLING HIS THUMBS IN September 1996. He was relatively happy as marketing director at Roll Call, a biweekly newspaper that covers Congress. But to those who know him, the fit didn't seem quite right. He's an idea guy, a writer, a stand-up comic, an English professor, a man who writes books with titles such as "Club Fed: Power, Money, Sex and Violence on Capitol Hill."
Bill Thomas had done it all, or at least a lot of it: reporting at home and from Moscow and London for, among others, the Baltimore Sun, doing commentary for NPR, serving a stint at Congressional Quarterly, editing for the glitzy (and now defunct) Dossier Magazine, writing articles for Vanity Fair, Spy and the New York Times Magazine, churning out four books.
So what was left? Marketing director for Roll Call, circulation 17,500, must have felt awfully confining. But then the phone rang, and at the other end was his next adventure.
It was Laurie Battaglia, Roll Call's publisher. Battaglia also was itching for a new challenge. She'd been with the Capitol Hill newspaper for nine years, publisher the last four. She was toying with the notion of putting out some kind of guide to Capitol Hill. "We wanted to start something different," she recalls. "But I honestly couldn't find a way to make money."
Frustrated, she called Thomas, who was sitting at his desk one floor above. "Why don't we think about doing a magazine?" she asked. "Don't move," said Thomas.
"I thought there had to be a fire pole," says Battaglia. "I'd never seen him here so fast."
Thomas had long pondered the possibility of starting a magazine chronicling power, personalities, politicians, pundits and plutocrats in Washington. He envisioned a magazine not somuch about policy as about the political lifestyle and the culture of power in Washington, D.C.
Battaglia liked what she heard. For two hours, they brainstormed. Then they began putting ideas on paper. "I always wanted to do something like this," says Thomas, 54. "Washington is a show business town. But it's not treated that way. It is by the politicians. They are all looking for the disease of the week. There are 535 lounge acts out there."
What Thomas had in mind was "a political lifestyle magazine with lots of investigative anthropology in it." He had never had the opportunity to make it happen.
But you need more than a good idea and burning desire to successfully launch a magazine. You need serious money: a strong financial commitment up front and backing for the long haul. It's not for the fainthearted: Many of the 933 magazines launched in 1996 are no longer around.
Battaglia and Thomas knew they had a better chance than most-if they could enlist their employer's support. They worked, after all, for Roll Call, whose parent is the London-based Economist Group, publisher of The Economist. And top brass in London were in an expansion mode.
But there was an obstacle. The Economist Group had never put out a consumer magazine. It proudly publishes such read-me titles as Traffic World, CFO, Air Cargo World, the Journal of Commerce, Information Strategy. It was up to Battaglia, who has a finance background, to convince the people at the top that there was a niche for another consumer magazine, that despite the 10,000 magazines already being published in the United States, there was room for one more to make money.
"We wanted to come out with something broader than Roll Call," says Battaglia, "something you would want to take home and lay on the couch to read. There's the Washingtonian and a bazillion policy magazines.... What there wasn't is any information about the people who make this town, their lifestyles. I thought along the lines of Vanity Fair on a smaller scale."
Thomas wanted to model it after the late Manhattan Inc. He wanted it broader than the local business-oriented Regardies (a now-defunct Washington magazine) and not as service oriented as he sees Washingtonian, with its popular features such as "Best Divorce Lawyers" and "Cheapest Eats." Thomas wanted to create a "thinking man's" version of George, the splashy, star-studded New York-based monthly started two years ago by John F. Kennedy Jr.
("You take John F. Kennedy Jr. out of George, and there's nothing there," remarks Jack Limpert, the editor of Washingtonian. "And Bill Thomas is no JFK Jr. Bill says he wants to be the thinking man's George. Well, that's not much to aim for.")
Soon after the first brainstorming session, Roll Call Advertising Director Karen Whitman was brought into the conversation. Could such a magazine grab high-end advertisers? Or was the market saturated? Whitman only got the pair more jazzed. Her research indicated high-end advertisers were desperate for a new venue. "I love it. I can sell that," Whitman told them.
But it didn't matter how excited Thomas, Battaglia and Whitman were if they couldn't get the Economist Group on board. Their first task was to make a believer of David J. Laird, development director of the Economist Group, North America. His day job is publisher of CFO magazine, but he's also charged with developing new projects for the company. In October Battaglia faxed Laird's Boston office a rough, three-page description of Capital Style.
She found a receptive audience. Although The Economist has a bit of a reputation as a stodgy, somewhat dry opinion magazine, it's also praised for its witty, well-written pieces on business and politics. The kind of magazine Thomas and Battaglia were talking about, says Laird, "fit that side of our personality, which as a company exists, but that we've never been able to replicate in any other publication. When you ask people what they like about The Economist, they always say its dry sense of humor."
So as he thought about Battaglia and Thomas' vision, Laird recalls, "I was a sucker for the idea from the start."
NOVEMBER-DECEMBER 1996: Battaglia hops a shuttle to Boston to see Laird. Instead of roadblocks, she gets, "Have you thought about this?" "What about trying that?" She returns from Massachusetts "really fired up." The folks in Boston love the idea.
Only a tight circle knows of the project. Mitchelle Stephenson, Roll Call's manager of new media, has picked up on the buzz because she shares an office with Thomas. "As December came along," she recalls, "I got more involved with helping advertising understand what the format would be, and we started interviewing printers."
At the time Stephenson knows nothing about magazine production. But like everyone involved with starting Capital Style, she's thrilled to have a new challenge. Three printers are interviewed, and R.R. Donnelly in Mendota, Illinois, is selected to handle the prototype.
But the magazine still needs the approval of top management in London. Laird gives a hard sell and gets a tepid go-ahead. "The feedback was positive enough for them to say, 'It seems others feel this will fly. Let's go to the next level and get a business plan.' "
Budgeting season is at hand. If any money is going to be spent on a launch in the next fiscal year, it has to be in the Economist Group's budget by January 1997. A pre-launch budget "in the vicinity of a half million," according to Laird, is established.
JANUARY-FEBRUARY 1997:"We realized we didn't have to set the world on fire to make this profitable," Laird says. "We looked at what we needed to do to make this profitable and decided it was doable."
They need a prototype so potential advertisers can see what the magazine would look like. Since the concept has only tentative approval, everyone has to tend to their duties at Roll Call while devoting huge amounts of time and energy to the launch. The planners had decided in October that Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) would grace the prototype cover. Whitman begins offering free ads for the prototype to upscale advertisers like Tiffany's, Virgin Atlantic and Neiman-Marcus. (Whitman later manages to snag Neiman-Marcus for the magazine's first issue.)
FEBRUARY 14: The planners have purchased D.C. area-based names from subscriber lists of such publications as George, Harper's, People, The Weekly Standard and The Economist. Roughly 68,000 people will receive a test mailing sent today to see if they'll subscribe. The mailing will attract a 4.25 percent positive response, which in the consumer magazine world, says Circulation Director Kate Talbot, "is tremendous. We had expected 3 to 3.5 percent."
FEBRUARY 18: It's one of those "the future rests on this meeting" meetings. Bill Emmott, editor of The Economist, huddles with Thomas, Laird and Battaglia in Washington. Emmott is also a member of the company's GMC, or Group Management Committee.
"They ultimately approve any kind of launch or acquisition," says Laird. "We thought it important that Bill Emmott should be comfortable with the editorial concept." Emmott is. "The fact that the editor of The Economist felt warmly disposed toward the project carried a lot of weight," says Laird.
FEBRUARY 24: Stephenson, who has evolved into Capital Style's production manager, flies to Illinois to do a press check for the prototype. The press run is set for 6 a.m. the next day, and she has booked a flight home that evening. Things don't work as planned. The printers are late starting, and they have trouble getting the color right. Fred Thompson is looking more and more jaundiced. Stephenson misses her flight and instead returns the following morning. The 3,000 prototypes, targeted largely at advertisers, feature splashy headlines, photos, glossy ads and sexy opening paragraphs followed by text literally written in Latin.
MARCH: The effort to win over the Economist Group is stepped up. A more formal business plan is submitted. Typically, the Economist Group budgets its magazines to break even within three years. By five years, the magazine should be profitable and have covered all development costs.
The group estimates it needs to guarantee advertisers a circulation base between 60,000 and 65,000. It targets upscale readers with incomes in the $100,000 range. Research indicates 17,000 people, reached by direct mail marketing, will be willing to fork over $16.95 for a year's subscription. Another 14,000 copies will go on newsstands for $2.95 each.
Direct mail is the most effective way to get new subscribers, but it's expensive. Talbot, ad director Whitman and Publisher Battaglia try other ways to attract readers: They place 3,000 free copies on club cars on Amtrak's Metroliner route between Washington and New York, the same amount on Northeast airline shuttles and another 7,000 in Washington hotel rooms.
Controlled (free) circulation will be used to make up the difference to reach the rate base.
"The goal is to be ultimately into the 200,000 range," says Talbot. Washingtonian began in 1965 with a circulation of 18,000; today it's 160,000, all paid.
Thomas begins putting together a staff-even though he doesn't have the Economist Group's final approval. He turns to Lynda Robinson, a Baltimore Sun features editor. She has been at the paper 10 years, and with two children, she's not sure the pace of daily journalism fits her life anymore. Thomas has occasionally written freelance articles for Robinson, and both worked at Roll Call. During one phone conversation, he mentions Capital Style.
"I was immediately intrigued," recalls Robinson, a former Sun deputy Washington bureau chief. "I thought it was a fabulous idea, and it also combined my features background with my Washington experience." She and Thomas continue talking.
APRIL: Thomas continues to proceed as though Capital Style were a done deal. He calls William Triplett, a professional friend for the last dozen years. The previous October, Thomas "started making noises," says Triplett. "He said he'd like me to be involved. But he couldn't go into any details." In January, more noises. In April, Thomas tells Triplett he expects to have a staff of six to eight. "Would you be interested?"
After 12 years of freelancing, Triplett decides, "There really was nothing to lose." Triplett becomes the first of Capital Style's two full time staff writers.
MAY: Nearly half a million direct mail packages go out on May 27. Things are looking up. Advertisers want to be in the debut issue. Craig Winneker, 30, former managing editor of Roll Call, officially starts as senior editor.
Thomas and Winneker begin assigning stories, setting mid-June as a goal to have pieces in hand for the first issue, scheduled for October. First issues tend to be particularly good because editors have so much time to shape them and because so much is riding on them. "We wanted to make a splash," Winneker says.
Winneker will write the cover story on actor Jimmy Smits and other Hollywood types who lobby on Capitol Hill. It's the kind of story, say Thomas and Winneker, that epitomizes just what they hope to do in Capital Style.
"The Smits story deals with a serious issue but in an entertaining way," says Winneker. "It looks at the issue of celebrity political activism. The idea of my story is Hollywood actors are learning how to play the game."
JUNE: "We've got enough advertising," Battaglia proclaims. "We're comfortable with ideas that editorial has come up with. Okay. Let's try it."
AUGUST: The ad people have already sold out the October debut issue. Robinson and Susan Crabtree, the other full time writer, join the staff. Crabtree, 25, spent the last two years writing for Insight magazine, a sister publication of the Washington Times. In April, she found an invitation to subscribe to "Capital Style" in her mailbox. She didn't mail it in. But she did send a resumÄ and some story ideas to Laurie Battaglia. She talks to Thomas twice in late June, and by late July he has offered her a job.
The only bad news is Art Director John Isely decides he can't make the necessary commitment. "John gave notice a couple weeks before we were supposed to go to press on the launch," says Mitchelle Stephenson. "It was kind of a little scary."
SEPTEMBER 8: Peggy Robertson, a freelance art director for the past seven years, joins the team. Although she hasn't been looking for a full time job, Thomas wins her over. "Start-ups are a lot of fun," says Robertson, who helped launch Governing magazine in 1987. "Bill's energy and enthusiasm are really contagious."
SEPTEMBER 10: Crabtree wanders into Managing Editor Robinson's office, searching for a D.C. telephone book. "We're still short of every kind of reference thing you take for granted when you come to work for an existing organization," says Robinson, somewhat apologetically. The office is that of a classic start-up. Nondescript decor. Blank walls. One telephone book. No microwave. A fax machine that receives but won't send.
SEPTEMBER 10-12: Here's the plan the printer has in mind: The inside of the magazine will be printed on the 11th, the cover on the 12th; the magazine will be bound on the 16th, then trucked to D.C. to arrive on the 17th or 18th. Copies are to be mailed on the 18th, and the newsstand debut is set for the 22nd. When they learn of the schedule, Stephenson and Assistant Art Director Adrienne Blomquist freak. They won't have any copies for advertisers. Ads for November close September 18. "It was very bad," recalls Stephenson. "Advertisers wanted to see the October issue to make sure they wanted to appear in the November issue. It's a big leap of faith to go into a magazine you've never seen and you're not sure how it will be received."
The pair fly in as planned. But rather than arrive for the scheduled 2 p.m. press run on the 11th, they show up at 8 a.m. They lean on their customer service rep. The presses roll at 10:30 a.m. The cover goes on press at 12:30 p.m.
The first 32-page signature of the magazine is printed without a hitch. The pair go out for lunch. The second signature goes on press. Catastrophe. There's a glaring mistake in the cover story. A last-minute correction has resulted in a big time problem. "Not only did the page look hideous," says Stephenson, "but it pushed the story over by four lines so that the text jumped unintelligibly to the next page."
Clearly the story can't run. They run to the press room and actually yell, "STOP THE PRESSES." Both women are shaking.
"Are you sure you want to do it?" asks a printing firm representative. It could cost $7,000 to $8,000, and the magazine may well lose its place on press.
"We were so scared," says Stephenson. "But I just knew we couldn't run the press. What was going through my head was: Just fix it. We'd figure out who to blame when we got back."
The page is corrected. And they aren't thrown off the press. They leave the plant at 8:30 p.m. with 40 bound copies. They drive like madwomen to Chicago. They just miss the 11:15 p.m. flight. They check into a hotel and have a drink. The next morning, they catch a 10 a.m. flight. At 4 p.m., on Friday, September 12, like victorious soldiers, they stride into Roll Call's office with the coveted copies.
"Basically," Stephenson says, "there was a stampede for copies. We got run over, and they left us splayed out on the floor. But we felt great. The magazine looked fantastic. If that page had gone to press that way, that's all anybody would have remembered about our premier issue."
SEPTEMBER 16: Big news. Thomas will appear tonight on "Entertainment Tonight." The producers want to ask Thomas to evaluate how much John Travolta resembles President Clinton, whom Travolta plays in the movie "Primary Colors." Notes Triplett, "We're not even officially out and we're getting attention."
SEPTEMBER 17: "That sucks," says Senior Editor Winneker. He jumps up to look at the October issue of New Woman that I have in my hand. On the cover is Smits, the actor/activist Winneker has profiled for Capital Style's debut issue. Winneker grabs New Woman and skims the story, which is about Smits as sex symbol. "It's really a lot about nothing," he decides. Obviously relieved, he returns the magazine.
Meanwhile, Crabtree is sitting at her desk, madly addressing invitations to the Big Party scheduled for September 30.
SEPTEMBER 22: The premier 96-page issue hits newsstands. "Mr. Smits Goes To Washington," the cover type declares. "That's not such a bad thing," says Battaglia of the dueling Smits covers. "The people reading New Woman aren't the people we are after."
SEPTEMBER 26: I drop by the magazine's Capitol Hill offices. "Bill just went up to New York to talk to the advertising people at The Economist," says Robinson. "They were gaga about the magazine. Bill came back high as a kite."
SEPTEMBER 30: The Washington Post contains some unwelcome reading for the Capital Style staff in a Style section feature, "The Magazine Reader." Under the subhead, "The Blandwagon," Peter Carlson takes a swat at the new Beltway monthly. To Carlson, the Smits lobbying story is a "pretty good" piece but no different, he later tells AJR, than the "8,127 other stories I've read about the uneasy relationship between Hollywood and Washington. The rest of Capital Style has the same tepid feel."
Carlson seldom reviews first issues, but he did in this case because so many people had been asking about the new Washington glossy. "The first issue of any magazine is usually really, really good because you have a lot of time to put into the first one," he says. "I don't like to strangle babies in their cribs, but I felt I had to review it, and I didn't think it was very great."
Two of the debut stories, in his view, were thinly reported, especially a bitchy one about Lally Weymouth, the daughter of his employer, Katharine Graham. "They didn't even interview her [Weymouth]," says Carlson. "It's not like I'm jumping to the defense of my close personal friend Lally. I've never met her, nor have I met her mother."
But Carlson's review doesn't ruin the mood. "We were sort of expecting that from the Post...," says Robinson. "It's hard to feel anything but really pumped up."
LATER THAT DAY: This is the party to say "We did it," says Battaglia. It's also the kind of party glitzy advertisers such as Neiman-Marcus expect. And it's some party. The Four Seasons' hotel ballroom is packed with Washington celebrities, lobbyists and media types. The free booze flows. The food is awesome: gulf shrimp with roasted pepper cocktail and mustard sauces, Alaskan king salmon caviar, lobster ravioli in cream sauce, Peking duck.
After the party, word spreads that the elite should high-tail it over to a downtown, members-only cigar bar. To get in, revelers must know the password: "Capital Style."
NOVEMBER 12: The November issue is out. It is far superior to its predecessor. Even Jack Limpert, the Washingtonian editor, concurs. "I have to say I was sort of amazed at how bad the first issue was," says Limpert. "The second is a lot better. This city deserves more good magazines."
The November issue brims with meatier, better sourced stories: about author and onetime Washington Post Style section diva Sally Quinn (aka Mrs. Ben Bradlee) as Washington hostess ("Martha Stewart Meets Machiavelli," says the cover blurb), NBC's Tim Russert, the changing of the guard at the New York Times Washington bureau, the trials of being Al Gore.
At the weekly editorial meeting there is much kidding about how thin-skinned Russert is. Thomas had asked Russert at a social event what he thought of the piece about him. You'd have thought, based on the magazine tease, that Russert, impressario of the resurgent "Meet the Press," would have loved it: "Tim Russert has a notoriously big ego, asks unflinching questions and inhales network airtime. So why does everybody still worship him? Because he's good."
But Russert wasn't pleased. He told Thomas he didn't like the quote by ABC's Sam Donaldson about him-"As a friend of mine once said, [Russert would] go to the opening of an envelope." Not true, Russert said: "Your writer should have checked with my datebook. I am normally home helping [son] Luke with his homework."
After Thomas tells the tale at the meeting, someone notes that Russert will be appearing on Jay Leno that very night. "What?" asks Thomas, feigning indignation. "Shouldn't he be home helping Luke with his homework?"
Thomas, it appears, is a happy man. He's got his magazine. The Economist Group is committed for at least five years. And while the prospects of any magazine start-up are chancy, there's this reassuring thought: For as long as Capital Style publishes, regardless of who wins and who loses any election, there will always be 535 lounge acts to chronicle and no shortage of thin-skinned celebrity journalists to chide.