It's Publish and Perish in L.A.


She liquidated her retirement accounts, sold her condo and got rid of everything else she owned of value on EBay, but it wasn't enough to hold Glue together. Last month , Laurie Pike, the magazine's independent publisher, called it quits, and Glue joined a long list of other also-folded Los Angeles alternative magazines.

Pike's concept was simple and ambitious: publish a lifestyle magazine about Los Angeles east of La Brea Avenue that would prove there's more to the city than premieres and plastic surgery. And she ran a penny-wise operation--basing the magazine in her Koreatown apartment instead of renting office space, and steaming off uncanceled stamps to save on office supplies. She spent $300,000 of her own money to keep Glue going, but it fell apart before it earned a profit.

"I thought Glue would be so successful," said Pike, a high-energy 38-year-old with a retro fashion sensibility. She is not the first--nor likely the last--counterculture publisher to gamble everything and ultimately lose.

In the last five years, a number of other alternative L.A.-based magazines have also gone under, including Raygun, Bikini, Flipside, Grand Royal, Ben Is Dead, Option and UHF. Though each had an L.A. flavor, all were competing on a national level for readers and advertisers.

Increasingly, it seems, "to live and die in L.A." is a phrase applicable to the independent magazine scene. But, like lambs to the slaughter, there are always newcomers who think they have the right formula to make it work. In the last few years, several new L.A.-based magazines have been launched--Flaunt and Mean among them. Next year, L.A. Confidential will enter the fray.

But if history is any indication, it is unlikely they will live long and prosper. Most of them will have been driven out of business and off newsstand shelves through a lethal combination of any or all of the following: inadequate ad sales, editorial inexperience, media competition, poor visibility, novice writing, a lack of vision or--most commonly--insufficient funding.

It takes about $1million to launch and sustain an upstart magazine for its first year of business, according to Samir Husni, who heads the magazine program at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Presuming a magazine even makes it through its first year, he said, it takes an average of four years for it to turn a profit.

And those who live by trends usually die by them.

Detour Stays on Track

Detour is the longest-running independent alternative magazine published in L.A. A thick glossy that is heavy on Hollywood and fashion, it has been in business 14 years. The magazine is owned by Detour Media--Andrew Left is president and CEO--and has a national circulation of 125,000.

Newer on the market are two magazines launched in November 1998: Flaunt, with a circulation of 90,000, was started by former Detour editor Luis Barajas; Mean, a bimonthly with a circulation of 65,000, is published and owned by Kashy Khaledi.

Also based in L.A. are a number of niche magazines that home in on very specific interests, including Giant Robot (about Asian American pop culture); Urb (a dance music and culture magazine with a July/August cover feature on "The War Against Ecstasy"); Alternative Press (specializing in alternative music); and others.

With the exception of niche publications, increasingly, the only thing that defines an "alternative" magazine is that it isn't printed by a major publishing house. Content that used to be considered alternative--sexual deviance, risque fashion, left-of-center bands--is being co-opted by bigger magazines--such as New York-based Maxim and Spin.

"In the last couple of years especially, a lot of the mainstream titles have begun to try to ape the look and attitude of the edgier independent magazines," said Detour editor-in-chief Andrew Berg.

Meanwhile, each magazine fights to be distinctive in readers' eyes.

The July "Cherry Issue" of Detour features actress Kirsten Dunst decked out in '80s chic. Inside are profiles of actors Tom Green and "The Center of the World" star Carla Gugino, as well as fashion photo spreads with Rose McGowan, Don Cheadle and Ted Demme. Though Detour considers itself an "alternative" magazine, the edgiest item in its 128 pages is a sex column on thong underwear.

In the July issue of Flaunt, Tim Roth in full "Planet of the Apes" face makeup growls from the cover, and inside a fashion spread features girl boxers.

Mean, though a little less predictable, also falls back on celebrity coverage. In its July game-show issue, "Jackass" Johnny Knoxville of MTV graces the cover. Inside are interviews with hosts from "The Price Is Right" (Bob Barker), "The Gong Show" (Chuck Barris) and "Blind Date" (Roger Lodge).

Kashy Khaledi, Mean's 24-year-old publisher, says his overarching theme is "unity in diversity." His vision for Mean: "Older people with younger people. Bring them together and show that they're all going for the same thing." Mean is targeted toward 18-to 24-year-olds. But, like so many other independent publications, Mean may have a hard time growing its readership.

Not only is it competing with other locally produced but nationally distributed magazines, it's also up against everyone else in the crowded national market. Among those are dozens published in New York, including Interview, Paper, Index, Arude and Nylon. Most offer variations on the same themes: movies, music and fashion. But some do it better than others.

The alternative magazines coming out of L.A. may be eye-catching, but "most are just not very good," said Eric Gladstone, former editor of the now-defunct Grand Royal and former managing editor of Raygun, a music and fashion magazine that folded last year. "They're not so unique and interesting a read that many people feel the need to include them in their already busy lives."

Simon Dumenco, a magazine critic at media watchdog Inside magazine, says that what distinguishes independent New York magazines from their West Coast counterparts is better writing--and better writing keeps readers.

"Good writers in L.A. quickly realize they could do more lucrative things. The allure of Hollywood really causes a sort of talent drain in the very small magazine industry there," Dumenco said. "If you don't have a critical mass of magazine people and magazine culture and people who hang out and talk about magazines obsessively and work with them, it's sort of hard to attract people into that not incredibly lucrative lifestyle."

It's so not-incredibly-lucrative that often writers and photographers are paid nominally and sometimes, not at all.

Battling Swings

in the Economy

Like many industries, magazine publishing is sensitive to swings in the economy. With magazines $4 to $6 a pop, customers have to have a few bucks to spare to pick up a copy. And when businesses are cutting back, belts are often tightened on advertising budgets.

Magazine advertising spending dropped 9.4% in May alone, according to Publishers Information Bureau. Through April, consumer advertising pages were down 7.4% from the previous year.

Small, start-up publications will always feel market whims more acutely than those backed by bigger firms with cash reserves to weather a storm. Even a modest shift in the economy is often enough to take an independent alternative magazine out of the game.

That's what happened to Scott Becker, who until 1998 published Santa Monica-based Option (an alternative music magazine) and UHF (an independent lifestyle and fashion magazine). When paper prices skyrocketed in the mid-'90s, Becker said it was "pretty much a lethal blow. We couldn't just say, 'We'll print on newsprint this week because that's all we can afford."'

Those who are attracted to alternative publishing are usually creative types--members of the culture the magazines are about. Though that provides insight into the community, it can also mean a lack of business experience.

"There are a lot of well-intentioned people trying to do these magazines, and the vast majority of them have little or no experience in the real, pragmatic world of magazine publishing," said Gladstone, now a writer for Us Weekly.

Khaledi, for example, never finished college and worked for one year as an editorial assistant at Grand Royal before starting Mean.

Pike was a freelancer for British Elle and British Vogue and a television fashion reporter before she started Glue. She had no prior business experience and lacked a nuts-and-bolts understanding of the publishing world. "I'm not a business person. When I started the magazine, I had a really good grip on editorial. I had to learn how to get ads and how to print it," said Pike, who built Glue's circulation to 10,000 before folding.

"The biggest challenge is visibility," said Annie Flanders, who founded New York-based Details, one of the few rags-to-riches stories in independent alternative magazines. "Unless you can afford to really promote it, who knows you exist?" asks Flanders, who in addition to being Conde Nast's West Coast editor, served as creative advisor to Glue when it launched.

Flanders began publishing Details out of her Manhattan apartment in 1982. It was 44 pages on newsprint. By 1988, when she sold the magazine to an investor who sold it to Conde Nast, Details had grown to a 300-page glossy.

In recent years, Details has gone through a chain of editors as it's worked to keep its place in the market, proof that even if a magazine becomes successful, there's no guarantee it will stay on top.

FOR THE RECORD Los Angeles Times Thursday July 19, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction Flipside--An article in Southern California Living on July 3 included Flipside in a list of alternative L.A.-based magazines that have folded. Although Flipside has not published in 10 months and it is not known when the next issue will be printed, its publisher, Pat DiPuccio, says it has not gone out of business.
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