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Mirror Image : Orange Coast Magazine Reflects a County’s Good Life

When Orange Coast magazine first hit the newsstands 13 years ago this month, it was a scrawny, 64-page social sheet. Today, much like the county it serves, the publication has grown dramatically, with a recent edition weighing in at a phone book-size 418 pages.

Through a circulation drive now under way, Orange Coast Publisher Ruth Ko hopes to boost circulation from 35,000 to 60,000 in the next 18 months.

In advertising and editorial content, the magazine tends to mirror the area’s stereotypically vibrant, wealthy life style and thus “the typical reader . . . is basically the yuppie,” said Ko, who is also part owner of the publication.

Average readers are college-educated professionals in their late 30s or early 40s who haul $66,000 a year each back to their $200,000 houses, according to the magazine’s marketing studies. Mr. Orange Coast Reader (56.4% are male) has two children, several credit cards, dines out at least once a week, buys more domestic wine than any other alcoholic beverage and travels four times a year.

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However, conceding that the magazine has been considered fluffy and light in its subject matter, Ko and Editor Janet Eastman say they are trying to embark on a more serious course than consumerism for the magazine.

Hot Category

City and regional magazines such as Orange Coast have been a hot category in journalism in the last decade, ranging from “serious to bubble-headed,” said Ben Bagdikian, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley.

“Metropolitan magazines have been a pretty impressive growth area in recent years,” said Jim Goss, an analyst with Duff & Phelps Inc. in Chicago. And Goss said the outlook for such publications is good.

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With their bright color covers and ads, regional magazines have found a niche between newspapers and television, said Art Garcia, co-founder and editor of the Bulldog Reporter, a San Francisco-based media relations newsletter. “The key to city magazines has been reader service,” he said, pointing out the dining and shopping guides featured in most city and regional magazines.

But Garcia faults many city magazines for their preponderance of “cotton candy journalism. They are sort of . . . like in-flight magazines without wings,” he said. “As they get successful, they can get some good writers to give some meat to their publication.”

Orange Coast Editor Eastman hopes that half of the magazine’s monthly dozen or so stories will be exercises in serious journalism, which could mean fewer stories on topics such as recent examinations of shyness, procrastination and blind dates.

Recent harder-edged pieces have included a retrospective look at a bizarre murder case in Laguna Niguel and the growing trade between Orange County and China. Upcoming issues will include articles on “Being Black in Orange County” and “Blue-Collar Men Married to White-Collar Women.”

Although the typical Orange Coast reader apparently does not tremble at either the $2.95 cover price or the $18 annual subscription tab, Ko says the business is not a publishing cash machine. “We may look prosperous, but we’re operating on a shoestring,” she said.

The shoestring is getting longer, however.

In June, 1976, when Toni Tuso bought a majority interest in the magazine from Ron Guccione, brother of Penthouse Publisher Bob Guccione, advertising billings totaled $9,000 for the month. Ko won’t disclose the billings today, but the staff has grown from four to 30 and the magazine has moved four times since its birth, each time to larger quarters. Its current home in Costa Mesa near John Wayne Airport has balcony offices for its art and editorial departments overlooking its main office floor, which sports enough plants to qualify as a botanic garden.

Even Janitorial Work But the early days are an enduring memory for Ko, who joined the magazine as an ad saleswoman the day Tuso bought the magazine. She recalled hurrying to collect from advertisers for one issue so there would be funds for the next. In those days, Ko and Tuso sold advertising, pasted up the pages, dashed around to make collections and did the janitorial work.

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“There were some real lean years,” said Ko, a professional hula dancer and actress who became publisher two years ago when Tuso sold her majority stake in the magazine to Orange County builder J. Wayne Stewart.

In addition to articles, the magazine’s monthly staples include a calendar of events, music and film reviews, a dining guide, travel pieces and consumer advice.

But it is in the normal complement of 500 ads in each average 250-page edition that the portrait of upscale Orange County emerges. In addition to pages of advertising for expensive clothes, cars and home furnishings, there are numerous ads for decorator bathroom hardware, expensive stereo gear and photographers who promise to make their subjects look exotic. If advertising is any reflection, folks in Orange County are also greatly concerned about face wrinkles and excess fat. At least eight medical groups in this month’s issue offer such bodily improvements as “facial sculpting” or processes that vacuum out fat.

Advertisers pay from $250 for a 1/12-page ad to $2,600 for a full-page color ad.

Cover Subjects

Although urban magazines are often faulted for “regional chauvinism,” Orange Coast doesn’t seem to worry about reflecting the county that lends the magazine its name. Since 1979, the only Orange County resident who has appeared on an Orange Coast cover has been O.J. Simpson.

The magazine covers featured Orange County celebrities until the supply began to dwindle. Then in the summer of 1977, editors decided to put movie and football star Joe Namath on the cover. Namath was training with the Rams at the time. With Namath beaming from the cover, newsstand sales of the September, 1977, magazine leaped 55%, Ko said, and Hollywood celebrities have been on the covers ever since.

A completed Orange Coast cover is the result of a $4,000 effort that typically takes all day and involves careful planning of backdrops, wardrobes and the culinary needs of the subject.

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Orange Coast often tries to match its cover subjects with larger themes within the magazine. Thus, actor James Brolin, famed as the hotel owner on the television series “Hotel,” will grin from the March cover, which has a special feature on dining and entertainment.

Throughout its growth, the magazine’s staff has tried to maintain a sense of humor, which they shared with readers in the 10-year anniversary issue of February, 1984.

Readers relived the day in 1975 when then-Publisher Tuso waded into a dumpster to retrieve ads that had been inadvertently thrown away and shared the staff’s embarrassment when singer Toni Tennille’s name was misspelled on the cover of the January, 1977, magazine.

But in those days, Eastman said, “nobody read Orange Coast. I could have put my laundry list in the magazine.”


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