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From AJR,   November 2002  issue

Finding a Niche   

From ferrets to tattoos: Specialization is the name of the game in today's crowded magazine world.


By Jill Rosen
Jill Rosen is AJR's assistant managing editor     

At Yale University's law school, in a campus recruiting center, staring at a job board busy with postings for corporate law gigs, none distinguishable from the last, Steven Brill had something of a career epiphany. These firms weren't identical, he thought, and the jobs hardly were--but how was anyone to figure that out? There was no place to just look that stuff up, word of mouth wasn't exactly reliable, and magazines, the few that had anything to do with law, weren't any help--they "just weren't speaking" to any of my classmates, Brill says. "They wanted to know which firms offered the most opportunities, which firms offered the most money, which firms offered the most exciting work."

And it wasn't just students. Any corporate lawyer, he figured, would love to know the deal on these places. They might even pay to know the deal. Could he provide the deal?

Two years later, in 1978, Brill unveiled The American Lawyer, an irreverent, hard-nosed magazine dedicated to giving attorneys from big firms that very deal, or, as the magazine's own material boasts, giving subscribers what they "want, and need, to know."

Nearly 25 years later, The American Lawyer is still speaking to its once unspoken-to audience. That audience, from day one, was the magazine's bread and butter. Brill knew that and knows now that the title didn't make it because it targeted lawyers. It made it because it targeted corporate lawyers. Just a niche of the law world. A fragment. Readers of The American Lawyer, Brill says, feel like they're part of a community, even part of the magazine. "The way to do it," he matter-of-factly adds, "is to talk to people about something they're interested in."

In the swinging '70s, as Brill was starting that talk with attorneys, across the country similarly embryonic magazines were striking up intimate conversations with eager audiences. In 1977, Entrepreneur made overtures to those who wanted to be their own boss. That same year a pub called Mix reached out to recording industry sound aficionados, and, not long before that, Offshore invited Northeastern boating enthusiasts to drop anchor and subscribe.

These magazines and hundreds like them were coming into the world not long after such stalwart titles as Life, Look and the Saturday Evening Post took their deathbed gasps. But none of the new pipsqueaks had designs on the grandeur and scope of those granddaddies; they weren't shooting for staggering mass appeal. The newbies aimed lower, circulationwise, yet much, much truer. They had no need to talk to all of America. Just corporate lawyers or audio junkies.

"Magazines became like cable, serving a specific audience willing to pay for that product," says Samir Husni, a University of Mississippi journalism professor known in the trade as "Mr. Magazine." "For every mass audience magazine to die, we saw the birth of five or six little specialty titles. In 1978 we had a magazine about pets. Now we have cats, dogs, horses, ferrets, goldfish. We took areas of interest and dissected them further."

Publishers were clearly turning from titles meant to be all things to all people to a more clubby approach, but it wasn't as if they had a choice--a magazine in the 1970s couldn't have carried out a national conversation if it tried. TV, which bullied its way onto the scene in 1947, had sucker punched the general interest titles, taking not only their mass appeal but their advertising. By the 1960s, TV lured twice as many ad dollars as magazines. And there was no going back. Come the '70s, the only way for a magazine to get the attention of the so-called Me Generation was to appeal to them personally and individually.

That need for niching only intensified through the cable '80s and Internet '90s, as media choices multiplied faster than you can say Home & Garden Television, everything pushing and crowding for a little face time with the public. It's harder to be a magazine now than it was in 1977, says Steve Cohn, editor in chief of Media Industry Newsletter. "The number of media is infinite, but the number of ads are finite. Then the biggest fear was TV. Now it's competing with everything."

And with each other. Last fall there were more than 17,690 titles. In 1975 it was a mere 9,657. And the new-magazine death rate could rival that of a Quentin Tarantino movie--for every success, every Maxim or Oprah's O, 100 or 200 go down in slick paper flames.

Back when Life and Look reigned, says David Abrahamson, an associate professor of journalism specializing in magazines at Northwestern University, we were a conformist society, and relatively poor. But by the '60s, Americans were feeling flush, more financially secure than their parents ever were and ready to kick back and spend some quality time on, well, themselves. As magazine titles flowered during the 1970s, plenty focused on things to do with that newfound time and money--skiing, boating, photography.

To look at magazines over the last 25 years reveals much about America's changing vibe--a story that wouldn't crystallize quite so clearly by studying other media. Magazines mirror, and the most vital ones dictate, the signs of the times, Abrahamson says.

Like, in the late 1970s the counterculture could compare its excesses with Hunter S. Thompson's in Rolling Stone, and empowered women venturing into the workplace could stuff Savvy into their briefcases. A decade later it was boomers artfully arranging Architectural Digest in their mauve living rooms, and by the 1990s, Maxim and Men's Health affirmed for men that it was OK to spend as much time in front of the mirror as their girlfriends did.

And as 24-hour cable and the high-speed Information Highway taught us that information seems better the faster it comes, magazines reflected that, too, by becoming less newsy--why read it a week or a month later when it's online two minutes after it happens?--more graphic and increasingly individualized. "There are fewer and fewer words in each issue," says Peter Carlson, who writes about magazines for the Washington Post. "Attention spans are shorter; there's just more media around. People don't want to nestle in and read a 10,000-word magazine piece."

But while TV grew to dominate, there was an Achilles' heel, one that magazines quickly learned to nip at. "TV became the No. 1 information source," says Clay Felker, who founded New York magazine in 1968 and now directs the Felker Magazine Center at the University of California, Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. But "the one thing [TV] couldn't do was give you the specialized information."

"I went to the newsstand the other day and counted 22 tattoo magazines," Husni says. "Tattoo magazines for men, for women, skin and ink--you name it, it's out there. If you're an Asian American gay male between the ages of 18 and 30, there's a magazine for you.... Name a specific part of the human body. There are at least three titles devoted to that part."

When a magazine falls behind in this ceaseless cultural morphing, or misses society's beat, readers seldom tolerate it, Felker says. "Rolling Stone is an example of a magazine that had an enormous impact because Jann Wenner had a particular view that a broad audience shared: He said the music will set you free at a time that was important," Felker says, adding that when that message grew stale, so did Rolling Stone's icon status. "Now the kids don't want that. They want music you get for free, they want Napster.

"You have a generation of young people, who I teach, who grew up reading Spy magazine, or Mad, and watch 'The Simpsons' and 'South Park.' They get news from Jon Stewart. Magazines that don't understand that can't appeal to young people today."

What appeals anymore? What do people now want out of a magazine that they didn't want back in the '70s? For one, says Stephen Koepp, deputy managing editor of Time, a magazine that has undergone big-time adaptations in the last 25 years, they want it easy. The days of struggling through a rambling piece, patiently awaiting the point, are history. Readers, Koepp says, want their information useful, and they want it delivered in an easily digestible, yet stylish and compelling, form made even more enticing with splashy photography and helpful graphics. And, oh yeah, they also want stories they haven't read elsewhere and pieces about what's on their mind.

It's a quest that Koepp says the magazine can't forget for a second. He uses the phrase "respect for a reader's time." When Koepp joined Time's business desk in 1981, "We used to say, 'What should people read?' " he says. "Now we spend more time thinking about...satisfying the reader." Then readers came easy. "It was an oil well then," he says. "Now we need to keep it steadily pumping. Nowadays you have to earn the readers' attention week after week."

In the 1970s, people bought a newsweekly for news, to find out what happened last week. Time traded in its news roundups for, among other things, photo essays that run 14 pages, with photos that play across two pages, intricate graphics and health and fitness pieces that boomers lap up like reduced-fat cheese curls.

As Husni says, "Anyone who refers to Time, Newsweek, U.S. News as newsmagazines is out of their mind.... The term 'news' has expanded from what's happening in D.C. or in Tel Aviv to this is what's happening in your home."

Ben Fong-Torres, a former Rolling Stone editor immortalized in the movie "Almost Famous," says magazines were always designed to sell, with covers as sensational and provocative as a publisher allowed. Yet, never as much as now, he says. "It's more flagrant in the sell, sell, sell approach," he says. "Back then, things were more straightforward."

Or, as Felker says about the early New York magazine days, "We didn't have enough money for a focus group. We sat around and thought of stories about our lives. We were the people who wanted to live in Manhattan; we put our enthusiasm and passion for living in New York City in the magazine. That's all we had in mind. And that resonated with our audience."

That attitude made a big difference in what a magazine decided to cover--or not cover, Fong-Torres says. "We didn't have the same kind of pressures to focus on what makes a magazine sell. We had the luxury to pretty much build a magazine off the cuff. In a story meeting, if you had a notion and other editors nodded their head, and Jann nodded, you had a story. Now magazines are driven by other priorities," mainly which stars have handlers willing to let you have a piece of them. "That leads to looking at a newsstand and seeing Tom Cruise on five covers, and it leads to an entire category of women's magazines having the same headlines, styles and promises...314 fat-busting secrets, 107 vacation spots, 3,000 money-saving tips."

Fong-Torres remembers suggesting Ray Charles as a story subject. At the time he didn't have a hit record or a major tour on the horizon. He wasn't even particularly hip. "I just raised my hand and said Ray Charles. They asked why. And I said because he helped set the foundation for all the stuff we're covering at Rolling Stone. They said sure, so we followed him around, he told us things about his times with drugs ? the story was a triumph for me personally and for Rolling Stone.... Just sticking your hand up and just suggesting something, that wouldn't be done that way today. It's usually only the hottest subject available."

Despite laments that magazines ain't what they used to be, like just about anything that's moved on from what it once was, the changes aren't necessarily for the worse. In a Darwinian way, magazines over the last 25 years have become what they need to be to survive. And it's not as if the industry is merely hanging on by a thread--it's rather hearty. Sure, total circulation is dropping now after years of steady rise, mainly because of dramatic declines at industry leviathans like TV Guide and Reader's Digest. Yet, readership is up overall, thanks to the continual swell of new titles and red-hot ones like Maxim, O and Real Simple.

"Americans still want magazines," Felker says. "They're not going to be replaced with information technology or Web magazines. They'll just be part of the menu. They're too convenient and brilliantly designed for a modern, fast-paced life." Despite the competition, and in a way, because of it, magazines have a pretty secure foothold heading into the 2000s. "They provide something that other places don't --a point of view, a version of the world," Felker says. "As the country grows, there will be more and more subcultures, more and more opportunities to segment audiences. It's just a matter of figuring out what an audience wants."

Steven Brill, back in the late '70s, figured that an audience would want the real deal on the country's biggest law firms. Fortuitous figuring. Less on the money was Brill's 1998 stab at a title on the media, Brill's Content. That one had just a three-year ride. But if he had to start a magazine today, Brill has an idea on the tip of his tongue: homeland security. "For people in the business of doing corporate security or domestic security," he says. In post-9/11 times, it's not only a topic on people's minds, but something companies and government agencies will be spending a lot of money on in coming years. In other words, a niche waiting to be exploited.

He's been beaten to the punch.

Just hours after Brill threw out the security concept, professor Abrahamson in Illinois noticed the first issue of a magazine that had just landed on his desk, a title that struck him as a rather savvy way to tap into one of the country's current fetishes.

Its name? Homeland Protection Professional.