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The Battle for L.A.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

From the West L.A. window of Mark Smelzer’s office at Buzz magazine, the working city shimmers in a thicket of tall buildings. But there’s only one that Smelzer would like to leap in a single bound.

“That’s L.A. magazine,” says the boyish publisher. “It keeps us on our toes.”

For the record:

12:00 a.m. May 9, 1997 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 9, 1997 Home Edition Life & Style Part E Page 2 View Desk 1 inches; 18 words Type of Material: Correction
City magazines--The name of Los Angeles magazine Editor Spencer Beck was incorrect in a photo caption in Thursday’s Life & Style.

Buzz has been practicing its releves by appealing to its little patch of the universe--that redundancy known as hip Hollywood. Smelzer himself looks like the picture of the target Buzz reader--he’s a smooth-faced 34 and dressed in black from his Elvis Costello glasses to his toes.

Across town, Los Angeles magazine is aiming at recapturing a somewhat older, but equally well-heeled crowd. At 35, the mother of all city magazines is planning yet another face lift with the imminent arrival of new Editor Spencer Beck, W magazine’s features editor who was named last month--the third doyen in two years.

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You’d think the city’s maw for tasty things to read would be wide enough to consume both publications, given L.A.'s mantle as the nation’s No. 1 book market. But both Buzz and Los Angeles magazine have been grappling with turmoil lately.

After several decades of being fat and happy, L.A. magazine was knocked over by the recession eight years ago. Circulation took a dive and the magazine has been searching for a fresh identity and a toehold in stability ever since. Upstart Buzz hasn’t been immune to the game of magazine musical chairs: Only one of three founding partners has remained--Buzz Enterprises CEO Eden Collinsworth--after power shifted to new funding sources. And the recent buzz on Buzz until last month was that its very existence was on the line.

Of course, turmoil is nothing new for L.A.'s magazine world, and asking industry folk about its treacherous landscape is like asking blind men to describe an elephant. Is this a city of literary heathens or sloppy business practices? Have magazines been too slight to brave the waves of recession, which drowned half a dozen publications since the 1990 birth of Buzz? Is the rambling city too geographically and culturally diverse for any one magazine to wrap its arms around? Or is it just a matter of time before something clicks--and then is there enough clicking room for two?

“The cliche that you can’t support a decent city magazine in Los Angeles is something I’ve always thought was untrue and libelous,” says Scott Kaufer, a TV writer-producer and former editor of the now-defunct California magazine. “But with every failure and every marginal success or marginal holding action, you’re tempted to think that maybe there’s a germ of truth in it. I still don’t because I’m fighting the fight.”

Signs of Trouble

And now, the dueling contenders both seem to be enrolling in the school of magazine-lite journalism, raising the question of whether the city will buy publications that show its darker and deeper face.

Prior attempts to publish a magazine with any hard-hitting perspective on Los Angeles have run aground. In March, Michael Caruso, whose tenure at the helm of Los Angeles won awards and circulation gains, was fired in one of the first moves by new overlord Fairchild Publications.

Fairchild took over L.A. magazine’s reins at the behest of the Walt Disney Co., which gained control of both when it purchased Capital Cities / ABC in 1995. Disney had considered shopping around L.A. and Fairchild but then decided to fold the hometown magazine into the New York-based group of fashion publications.

Los Angeles was reportedly bleeding $4 million a year and advertising was way off. But some magazine insiders argued that Caruso may have been able to staunch the flow given more time.

“I thought it was the best I’d ever remembered it,” says Philadelphia magazine Editor Eliot Kaplan. “At their core, city magazines are service magazines. In the last six to eight months, he was starting to incorporate more of that. There wasn’t a ton of heavy-duty reporting. I think it could have used more.”

During Caruso’s 14-month regime, circulation slipped 5,000 during his first six months. But it quickly edged up from 140,000 to 155,000. He was credited with improving the editorial content with such imaginative features as gays in sitcoms before “Ellen” came out and “L.A. to Z,” which explored such arcane L.A.-iana as the legendary tunnels under Chinatown.

Caruso’s downfall, some speculated, stemmed from another enterprising piece--on L.A.'s most overpaid executives, which happened to name Disney Chairman Michael Eisner. A Disney spokesman denied that, saying Eisner “would never get involved at that level.”

Some on the inside blame the magazine’s woes on slack business practices under the former publisher, Joan McCraw, who left shortly after Fairchild’s takeover--L.A. had gone for a year without an advertising director, and the magazine’s lavish spending sparked industry gossip. A March fashion feature using digital computers to “clothe” Marilyn Monroe and other vintage stars in Valentino and Armani cost about $50,000 --the equivalent of editorial costs for an entire issue of Buzz, according to one source.

McCraw says an interim ad director did the job for six months, and ad sales increased 8% in the year before she left. And she says spending big money is standard publishing practice for special features. “I don’t think it was quite $50,000, but that entire Hollywood issue was excessive,” she says. “The agreement was over the course of the year you’d make up for those expenses.”

The photo feature could be even more costly--Dustin Hoffman filed a $5-million suit against Cap Cities / ABC and Fairchild over a photo showing him “Tootsie"-like but garbed in Richard Tyler. The court papers charge that Hoffman was “converted into an involuntary clothing model without pay.”

And Caruso’s brash style didn’t endear him to advertisers, says his former rival, Buzz founding Editor Allen Mayer. “When you’re new, you talk big, but unless you can back it up with something to show for it, it gets obnoxious,” Mayer says. “He would talk as if he’d already won the battle when he was just starting, and that makes people annoyed. I gather he was very arrogant, but you have to be to edit a magazine.”

“Michael was quoted when he first went over to Los Angeles as saying his mandate was that he’d do the Vanity Fair for Los Angeles,” says Buzz Editor Marilyn Bethany, who left L.A. magazine for Buzz shortly after Caruso’s arrival. “I said, ‘Wait a minute. Vanity Fair is already the Vanity Fair for Los Angeles.’ I mean, this is not India.”

Even insiders acknowledge that Caruso’s Los Angeles never hit its visual stride despite a redesign. Indeed, when Fairchild’s Chairman and Editorial Director Patrick McCarthy sat down with Caruso, he said, “Your magazine doesn’t have any style,” sources say. Caruso, who is looking for work in the film industry, says he is bound by his separation agreement not to “disparage” the magazine or its new management.

McCraw says the changing of the guard boiled down to the typical scenario when a business changes hands. “They wanted people they could trust,” she says. “Everyone they brought in has a tie-in with W or Fairchild because they’re very much a family operation. They probably didn’t want pieces that were so controversial. That was what ABC wanted, but that’s not necessarily what Disney wanted.”

And while McCarthy vows that the revamped Los Angeles will still plow such familiar city magazine territory as politics and crime, his choices for the top jobs suggest Los Angeles won’t stray too far from the glam W fold when it beefs up coverage of fashion and style.

Fairchild offered the chief editor’s post to Glynis Costin, style editor of Buzz and former Milan bureau chief for W with her husband, photographer Art Streiber. The California-born Costin turned it down and accepted the No. 2 job of creative director. The editor in chief job went to New Yorker Beck, 36, an alumnus of Connoisseur, Fame and Interview magazines as well as the editor of Variety books on movie lists and show business history.

Beck says Los Angeles won’t be a West Coast version of W but a bona fide city magazine with “a slightly more sophisticated take on things. Coming from Fairchild, what I can do best is bring an insider’s perspective to the magazine. We’re going to report from the inside, be it the political scene or the entertainment scene.”

*

Some critics say Fairchild executives triggered a raft of changes before spending enough time in Los Angeles to get the pulse of it. “Patrick McCarthy wants to control everything he touches,” says one person who watched the process. “They want people they can diddle from New York.”

Some observers fret that L.A. magazine will be something of a misnomer in the sense that, once again, it will be a New Yorker’s view of the city.

“I have railed ad nauseam at people coming here from New York and trying to take over,” says Jack Feuer, formerly West Coast bureau chief for Inside Media. “You have to know the market. You have to live here. Los Angeles is not a sleepy little town. We have our own voice, and if you don’t talk to us in that voice we don’t hear.”

But McCarthy says New York won’t dictate to its two top editors, one from New York and one from Los Angeles. “We are endeavoring to hire California writers and California editors, but there will not be any onslaught of New York editors.”

Still others say Fairchild and Disney could pose a potent challenge.

“A very smart organization by the name of Fairchild is going to take over,” says Clay Felker, founding editor of the iconic New York magazine and the defunct New West. “McCarthy has had a great deal to do with making W successful. This is a magazine that has now passed Harper’s Bazaar in terms of ad pages.”

Toning It Down

Los Angeles’ retreat to softer stuff seems an attempt to parrot the good fortune of other magazines stalking that elusive creature, the L.A. magazine reader.

“Believe me, I do not think that I have the Holy Grail here, I don’t know what the L.A. market wants,” says Bethany, Buzz’s editor for the past six months. “Esquire sells 58,500 copies here in Los Angeles, Sunset sells 245,000, Vanity Fair half that. This suggests to me that the only one who’s winning in this market is Sunset, which says something about this market that scares me.”

Bethany is hoping the right stuff turns out to be her out-of-the-mouths-of-recovering-New-Yorkers way of looking at the city’s bright side.

“I’m putting out a magazine that interests me,” says former style editor Bethany, the picture of androgynous chic in short hair and a beige-striped pantsuit. “I’ve been here for about four years now, and when I hear other people categorize Los Angeles I think I don’t live here. The New York press is particularly fond of this characterization, as the city of grotesques. And I find it kind of hokey, this sort of hung-up-on-'The-Day-of-the-Locust’ notion of L.A.

“L.A. reminds me of my daughters. It’s not what it used to be. It’s not what it’s going to be. It’s in this awkward in-between stage. It’s like a teenage girl. You have to put it in a dress and stick it in front of a mirror and say, ‘This is great.’ ”

The new, well, happy Buzz differs in tone from the tart voice favored by Mayer.

“It still has an edge and a wit,” Publisher Smelzer says. “There’s a real fine line between witty and edgy, and smug and snide, but I think we’ve crossed that line.”

In fallout from Buzz’s recent shifts at the top, several people have left. Editor-at-Large Cathy Seipp was forced out, and the Los Angeles Weekly snipped that Seipp, who had written a column on the Los Angeles Times under a pen name, was too edgy for the new magazine. But Bethany insists she wants to keep the bite in Buzz.

In other changes from Mayer’s grand plan, Collinsworth dropped columns by Holly Palance, Jack’s daughter, and Lise Hilboldt, an actress and Mayer’s ex-wife, on Beverly Hills and the film world. Valley columnist Sandra Tsing Loh left the magazine in support of Mayer. And a new column about California by Deanne Stillman will be launched in the August issue.

“I’m not that keen on the first-person feminine,” Bethany says. “We had an awful lot of female columnists who sounded all alike, and my feeling was, why should I care about their lives? . . . Deanne’s column is going to be about stuff, not the view from her kitchen counter.”

Despite Bethany’s taste for teeth along with her glamour, some in the industry fault her for her relative inexperience editing a general-interest magazine. She came to Los Angeles magazine two years ago as executive editor and replaced former Los Angeles Editor Robert Sam Anson on an interim basis in the fall of ’95. Before that, Bethany had spent 15 years as a style editor for New York magazine and the New York Times Magazine.

But some industry observers say the magazine is improving. “The Buzz concept as executed is superb,” Feuer says. “But it was starting to annoy even me. It has a better voice now. Buzz captures the tone of Los Angeles extraordinarily well.”

*

Buzz says its gentler incarnation is going over well with advertisers. The magazine’s advertising revenue has increased 40% over last year, and about 70% comes from coveted national advertisers, Smelzer claims. Audited circulation at the end of last year was 123,000, up 8%; and Buzz has since raised its rate base to 135,000.

And Buzz is spreading its entrepreneurial wings to transcend mere magazinedom to become a brand name: publishing Buzz Weekly with entertainment listings; Buzz Books, an imprint of a dozen titles a year by L.A. writers published in conjunction with St. Martin’s Press; and operating an interactive Web site that will lure users to input their own restaurant reviews.

Buzz executives are pounding the optimistic drum with projections that the magazine will be profitable by the end of the year. If it is, Buzz will have been snatched from the jaws of death. Rumors were rife late last year that Buzz was breathing its last because the magazine’s majority investor, Thai media magnate Sondhi Limthongkul, had turned off the financial tap after sinking from $13 million to $15 million into Buzz. Collinsworth says the magazine has received a fresh infusion from investors who have vowed to see Buzz through to profitability. They want to remain anonymous, she says.

A source says the new investors are a Pacific Palisades couple active in the computer industry who are friends of Bethany’s. “I’ve been told they’ll put in a maximum of $1 million to $2 million,” a well-placed source says. “That will keep Buzz alive through the summer. Then where will they get money from, God knows.”

And some miffed writers are having a tough time getting paid despite the recent cash boost. Collinsworth says they’ll get their money soon. “I’m the first to admit we’ve been under terrible cash flow problems over the past six months.”

Collinsworth insists her optimism is founded on reality. “The reality is that the magazine has never looked better, and for the first time there is enormous managerial stability. I’m the only remaining founding partner. It’s been like the Peloponnesian Wars around here.”

A Tough Market

Certainly there are those who still think this town is big enough for two glossy magazines. Smelzer says Buzz considers the turf it’s selling advertisers to be “Hollywood at home. The reason this book works so well is it’s for that 35-year-old producer who lives in Los Feliz who just bought a $400,000 house and drives a BMW Z3 convertible, wears Hugo Boss and has a production deal at Raleigh Studios. Buzz talks about his or her Los Angeles.”

Los Angeles magazine’s new publisher, Liz Miller, agrees there’s room for two, having scrutinized the market in a dozen years as an L.A.-based business-side executive for W, Vogue and Elle. “This is a market of 8 million,” she says. “There’s room for two successful restaurants in this city and there’s definitely room for two successful magazines.”

Chanel says each monthly brings something useful to the table. The fashion and beauty aristocrat advertises in both magazines and is eyeing Fairchild’s takeover carefully.

“For me, it’s not so much Buzz versus L.A.,” says Steve Caputo, Chanel’s vice president, marketing services. “For me, they both serve a purpose and that is to generate as much reach as I can in the upscale community.”

But after six years in the magazine trenches, Mayer doesn’t believe the L.A. magazine world is fecund with opportunity. “There is not room in this market for both Buzz and Los Angeles magazine. When we started I believed there was room. There were eight different magazines but three competing for the same advertisers--L.A. magazine, L.A. Style and Buzz. I believed the audiences would be different enough that the advertisers would go for different books. That was naive.”

Mayer, 47, a veteran of Newsweek’s London bureau, lays some of the limitations at Los Angeles’ feet. “The thing that L.A. lacks most is not advertisers and not readers but publishing expertise. Finding good editors is hard. People who know magazines are in New York, and when people come out here they go into movies and TV. It scared the hell out of me that I was probably the most experienced publishing person at Buzz.”

*

Meanwhile, city magazines, basically a creature of the ‘70s and ‘80s, are facing more competition from beefed-up newspaper lifestyle sections and alternative weeklies. In Los Angeles, the left-leaning L.A. Weekly has been joined by the more mainstream New Times, although both could face a fight for the advertising dollar if Microsoft’s new online city guide, Sidewalk, comes to town.

City magazines are less likely to be affected because their economic health depends more on color advertising.

“We know the market is clearly there” for a city magazine, Felker says. “We know there’s an audience big enough for L.A. magazine to be supported in terms of advertising because it has been in the past. The question is, really, is there enough audience for the Buzz target audience to support it? I don’t know the answer to that.

“Los Angeles magazine has one extraordinarily strong thing, which is the name Los Angeles and that gives it the franchise. Buzz is a wonderful name too, but it also tells you it’s about the entertainment business and it’s aimed at young people. There’s an awful lot of other things in Los Angeles and L.A. magazine taps a bigger audience because of that.”

Bigger is a relative term, of course. L.A. monthlies’ view of the world tends to spring from the affluent Westside, although Felker says that’s the narrow nature of the city magazine beast.

“Their view of the L.A. universe excludes much of L.A. They only talk about communities of color as an outsider looking in, never offering much insight to people who live there,” says L.A. Weekly writer Sandra Hernandez.

For his part, Smelzer says it’s not the job of his magazine to “speak to all communities. You either have success being a targeted niche publication or you do what the L.A. Times does and become a mass publication. We’re not selling advertisers the city of Los Angeles.”

Despite their moneyed audience, many are hard put to thrive outside the Northeast, which is, perhaps not coincidentally, rife with public transportation. Car-bound Angelenos spend their traveling time listening to the radio, which was, by the way, one of Buzz’s media for its advertising campaign.

Kaufer grappled with some of these issues and more as one of the editors of California magazine before it folded six years ago. He says local magazines often don’t spend enough on time and talent the way national books do.

But Kaufer also frets about readers’ limited attention spans. “Sometimes I worry that people don’t want to read,” says Kaufer, who wrote about attorney Leslie Abramson for Bethany’s Buzz. “They want coverage, the Hollywood term meaning someone reads a script and gives a one-page summary. I don’t think it has anything to do with L.A. I think it has to do with the increasing televisation of American culture.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Dueling Magazines:

Los Angeles

Circulation: 155,000

Founded: 1962

Editor: Spencer Beck

Owner: Fairchild Publications, unit of Walt Disney Co.

*

Buzz

Circulation: 123,000

Founded: 1990

Editor: Marilyn Bethany

Owner: Privately owned; major investor is Sondhi Limthongkul


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