It’s Not the New Yorker, but . . . : Magazines: There are no Honda ads, no Chanel ads. That’s not what City Family is about. It’s for people who struggle with English and want a better life.
It’s hard to describe City Family magazines to anybody who knows anything about magazines without having them laugh out loud.
(“Ha, ha, ha,” responded a magazine consultant upon hearing that City Family’s advertisers are targeting the poor. “Talk about your non-market.”)
The people who seem to appreciate City Family and its sister publication, La Familia De La Ciudad, are hardly typical magazine readers. Typically, they own cars and houses and have credit cards. Typically, they want bigger cars, better houses and higher credit limits. They want a more perfumed existence and advertisers clamor for their attention in slick magazines.
These are exactly the people that City Family doesn’t want.
Rather, its audience includes Manuela Inez, 32, mother of a toddler she supports on public assistance. Inez is a new immigrant, learning English and American culture at the same time she tries to earn extra cash cleaning houses. She is pregnant and kills whole days in clinic waiting rooms.
She can’t read Ladies’ Home Journal and has never heard of Vanity Fair. “The words are too hard. Too rich,” said Inez, wearing a worn sweater as she waited at a free Manhattan health clinic to see an obstetrician.
But City Family never fails her--and she reads it in English and Spanish.
“I like the article on hats. How to buy them and which ones for $5,” she said.
And like Inez, a Cuban immigrant who dreams of having an electric stove instead of a hot plate in her apartment, City Family readers have different aspirations from the Ladies’ Home Journal crowd with their average family income of $40,000.
“Our readers have a tremendous drive to be middle class,” said City Family Publisher Arthur Schiff, referring to his target readers: the 686,312 New York City families with incomes less than $25,000.
Schiff has been publishing City Family quarterly since 1992; it is written at a third-grade level, illustrated in full color, and distributed free in waiting rooms in public clinics and hospitals all over New York as well as in libraries and community centers. In two years, circulation has grown from 10,000 to 200,000, with half the magazine written in English and half in Spanish.
In May, Library Journal named City Family, along with glossies such as Wired and Men’s Journal, one of the 10 best new magazines of 1993. Here’s how the magazine for librarians described City Family: “Edited and written as a literacy tool for the borderline poor, the magazine aims to recognize them as valuable individuals while introducing them to the marketplace as a valuable, if often ignored, category.”
After climbing four flights to Arthur Schiff’s Upper West Side apartment, which also serves as City Family offices, it becomes evident why the fainthearted could never be associated with this upstart magazine: There is almost no paid staff--most contributors are volunteers. Schiff’s apartment is a maze of tiny “offices” with desks and computers and piles of papers and boxes. There are also two loft beds, two couches and a cat.
Schiff, former head of New York City’s food stamp program, is City Family’s chief wizard, an aging (54) liberal with a shock of gray hair, old pizza boxes in his kitchen and the courage to mention Marxism as a positive ideal. In the first 15 minutes of an interview, he busily sums up his 25 years fighting poverty and explains how disillusionment led him to start a magazine:
“What have we really done?” he kept asking himself of his generation. “We created programs and nonprofit organizations that did nothing but serve themselves and create paper work. And we have failed to change human behavior.”
Starting City Family, he said, was his last realistic opportunity to connect with his ideals. He realized what poor people needed was information and there was nothing out there for them. Nothing dealt with them as a class characterized by lower reading skills, lower income and, often, unfamiliarity with this country. Mainstream newspapers and magazines, which are usually written at a high school level, were not accessible.
Schiff would like to change America’s outlook: Instead of a client state, poor people would be viewed as a market category; instead of focusing on the poor as a burden to society, he wants to focus on their dream of not being one. “I had no experience, no money and no knowledge, but I decided to die trying,” said Schiff of his first efforts at publishing.
He went to every source in this, the capital of publishing, and wasn’t just turned down: He was laughed at. No one would advertise in his magazine, the Establishment publishers repeatedly told him. His readers represented the bottom of the demographic food chain, not the top that is usually sought after by advertisers. His readers couldn’t buy Hondas nor Chanel, and while they could buy alcohol and tobacco, early on Schiff decided not to accept those ads.
“There was zero interest and in most cases a consistent cultural hostility toward poor people,” Schiff said. “Most of this wasn’t racist, it was classist.”
Schiff finally turned to two friends at do-good foundations and begged for $40,000 to get started. They gave in and he found a printer in Texas and an out-of-work editor in Manhattan and produced his first issue, running the first ads for free. Later a friend established a $20,000 line of credit for City Family and Schiff started charging for ads, with a full-page color ad going for $5,400--about a quarter of the cost of an ad targeted at more affluent readers.
Nine issues later, Schiff said every new issue brings new volunteers and calls from supporters.
For example, a 32-year-old Orthodox Jewish woman with six children who read the magazine called Schiff and asked if she could help out. “I can’t shake her hand,” Schiff said, “but she shows up religiously and does the fashion sections for us.”
Schiff’s journalistic instincts leave something to be desired. For a story about Natalie Cole--every issue has two inspirational features to help readers learn from role models--Cole’s press agent said she would be available by phone. Schiff declined. “I guess I should have, but it didn’t seem necessary,” he said, laughing at how busy and disorganized he gets.
The current issue includes features on food, fashion, advice, beauty, home furnishing and “special people.” There are articles on how to buy a winter coat; how to make a Jamaican feast; how to work out at home with no equipment; advice about dentists; instructions for making picture frames for gifts, and “personal stories” about an Iranian immigrant and Felipe Lopez, a star college basketball player.
Like the Seven Sister magazines (McCall’s, Ladies’ Home Journal, Family Circle, Redbook, Woman’s Day, Better Homes and Gardens, and Good Housekeeping), City Family sticks to non-controversial subjects and never dwells on race as an issue. If color is mentioned, it’s in the context of hair and beauty: how black, Asian, white and Latino women use makeup.
“We just made a decision from the start this would not be an advocacy magazine, taking on causes,” Schiff said. “It would be too easy to attack the welfare department. So we write about people, not programs.”
But is it a success?
Schiff’s evidence is mostly anecdotal--readers calling in; clinic directors demanding more copies; librarians from around the country asking for subscriptions to help bilingual readers; advertisers such as NYNEX committing to a year of ads.
“The clients take the magazine home and I see them reading it during their long waits,” said Dale Joseph, who works at a city-run community center in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. “But I have to tell you: The staff here really likes the articles and the size of the print. It’s easy to read.”
So far, City Family has not turned a profit. With a $200,000 annual budget, Schiff said he is parsimonious and expects soon to be in the black.
But City Family’s ability to attract consumer advertisers other than banks, utilities and health-maintenance organizations for Medicaid clients is still unproven.
“If nobody is going to buy a consumer magazine as a subscriber, then advertisers like Met Life or Pepsi Cola are going to have to support it,” said Jim Kobak, a national magazine consultant, who has been involved with the launching of about 1,000 magazines since 1946. “Very few of them made it.”
But City Family Advertising Manager Rosemary Valentin returned quite hopeful the other day from a trip to Connecticut to pitch a language school to buy ads. “It’s slow and painful, but we’ll get there,” she said.
“We have to keep at it,” said Schiff, adding that he hopes to start City Family in other big cities, including Los Angeles, if it works in New York. But first he’ll give himself the three to five years it takes the average magazine to make a profit.
“The fact that we’re here two years later puts us in a rare spot, and every day I’m more optimistic,” Schiff said.
And Manuela Inez said he should be.
“I might even buy it if I had to,” Inez said. “But I’m glad it’s free.”