Boston tries to keep a token presence in the magazine publishing industry

Jeremy Brosowsky, age 28 but already a publishing success, thought he had the formula. His Washington Business Forward was 18 months old and going strong. He could imagine Business Forward magazines in two dozen markets, including fast-growing cities like Atlanta and San Antonio. Why not Boston, for a start?

Before long, Brosowsky had a downtown office, a staff of veteran editors, and a stable of freelancers. Unfortunately, the year was 2001.

“In retrospect, the timing could not have been worse,” he says. “We ran into a buzz saw. If it had been launched a year or two earlier, it might have been a different story. But we just didn’t have time to get our legs out from under us.”

Trapped in an economic slump that worsened after the terrorist attacks of September 11, Boston Business Forward died at the end of that year, after just four issues.

You can’t fault Brosowsky for picking Boston as a target. For years, Boston-based Inc. had been a service-journalism bible to small-business owners across the country. And start-up Fast Company was growing fat on the stories of free-agent high flyers who imbibed the New Economy’s electric Kool-Aid. A lifestyle publication, P.O.V., encouraged the moneyed readers of the other two magazines to “Live Large.” Those magazines combined with the intellectual heft of Harvard Business Review and MIT’s Technology Review to give the Boston-Cambridge tandem, for a brief moment, the leader’s yellow jersey for New Economy journalism.

Of course, when the race gets called because the promoters have run out of money, that yellow jersey turns into just another shirt. So, instead of leading a charge to a new business journalism based in Boston, Brosowsky led a charge out of town, folding Boston Business Forward. (The Washington Business Forward closed up shop a year later, following its November 2002 issue.)

The last few years have been hard on magazines in Boston, not only for those in the New Economy sector but also for intellectual darlings like Doubletake and The American Prospect. Last year, Inc. and Fast Company left town, called to New York by new owners Gruner + Jahr USA, who had paid more than $500 million for the pair of titles. P.O.V. left town before it folded, in January 2000. Doubletake, despite a pair of benefit concerts by rock god Bruce Springsteen last February, hasn’t put out an issue in more than a year, and the bulk of the Prospect‘s editorial staff moved from Boston to Washington, DC, in an attempt to root the left-wing intellectual-journal-turned-political-magazine in the center of national politics. In the niche magazine market, the new owner of local stalwart Natural Health fired the entire staff and relaunched the title from Los Angeles, while Walking was finally hobbled–permanently–by its new owner, Reader’s Digest, in 2001.

Has the Boston magazine scene died a tragic death? That depends on whether you thought there was a magazine scene here to begin with. Boston “hasn’t historically been a magazine town,” says Jon Marcus, editor of Boston magazine. “I don’t think things have changed in Boston, but in the magazine industry [as a whole].”

A town of readers, not publishers

The magazine business has always been concentrated in New York. But still, industry analysts, including those who slave away here, say it’s getting harder to escape the Big Apple’s gravitational pull. The recent recession, in particular, has made it more important than ever to be a known quantity among the advertising shops on Madison Avenue. And that’s tough to do out here in the provinces. When the New Economy money started to drain away, the city was left with what it had before: a few franchises, a few struggling niche publications, and a pair of strong technology-oriented trade magazine groups in the suburbs, as well as the decidedly noncommercial academic and scientific journals produced by the area’s powerhouse universities.

Boston editor Jon Marcus says the entire
magazine industry has changed.

“There was great potential,” for a while, says Sarah Noble, a veteran journalist who has spent the past several years working as a media industry recruiter. “We have a lot of intellectual horsepower here. But the downturn in the magazine industry overall, the consolidation, left everyone so obsessed with advertising dollars [that] they felt they needed to be in the hot spot for those dollars, which is New York.”

Still, Boston seems like fertile ground for journalistic experiments. “There’s a high density of scholars and intellectuals,” says Robert Kuttner, one of the founders of The American Prospect. “It’s a very good place for what they call ‘thought-leader magazines.'”

Boston is “one of the great readers’ cities in the country,” says Cullen Murphy, managing editor of Boston’s venerable Atlantic Monthly. “The Boston Globe‘s decision to create an Ideas section of the newspaper on Sundays surely recognizes that fact. And that section, a mini-magazine in its own right, is a welcome and successful addition.”

Boston is ‘one of the great readers’ cities.’

And a great readers’ city makes a great writers’ city. Boston is one of the few remaining places in America to support two daily newspapers, the Globe (which recently decided to overhaul and expand its Sunday magazine, in the face of an industry-wide trend toward scuttling such publications) and the Boston Herald, and it’s also home to a strong alternative weekly, the Boston Phoenix. These publications continue to produce such well-regarded writers as Charlie Pierce, formerly of GQ and Esquire (now at the Globe magazine) and Sean Flynn, now a regular contributor to GQ.

“You’ve got an extraordinary talent pool, particularly on the more creative ends–writing, editing, reporting, and design,” says George Gendron, who, in addition to editing Inc. during most of its life in Boston also edited Boston magazine in the 1970s. “Going all the way back to the period when you had the Real Paper and the Boston Phoenix competing, there was a hotbed of talent, and that’s primarily due to the extraordinary educational institutions.”

But none of this makes the Hub a great place for glossy magazines to call home. Indeed, the pull of New York is so strong that many people assume even the oldest Boston warhorses are stored in the Gotham barn.

The Atlantic‘s Toby Lester and Scott
Stossel reflect Boston’s distaste for glitz.

“People are regularly surprised to hear the Atlantic is in Boston,” says Toby Lester, a deputy managing editor at Boston’s oldest magazine, which was founded in 1857. (Lester also worked locally at Doubletake and at Country Journal, an intellectual take on small-town life that folded in 2001.) “There’s not enough of a critical mass of general-interest magazines here to create cross-pollination. There are a couple of places, and as long as those magazines have similar goals, the people from one publication or another will certainly drift over. But I don’t think there are enough to create a culture.”

Scott Stossel, another Atlantic editor, sees the Atlantic‘s serious tone as reflective of Boston’s famed distaste for nonsense and glitz. Still, there are hardly enough publications based here to define a “Boston Style.”

That is not to say that the city has never produced thought-provoking consumer magazines. In addition to the Atlantic, a National Magazine Award winner for General Excellence, Boston magazine consistently wins awards from the City and Regional Magazine Association. And a few years ago, awards were going to another regional publication, New England Monthly, which, in a memorable six-year run in the 1980s, won a pair of National Magazine Awards and lost a pile of money.

The Atlantic still struggles to make money, but it is possible for a profitable magazine to operate in the Hub. Cook’s Illustrated, headquartered in Brookline, has proven that a magazine without advertisements can be lucrative –although some scoff at it as little more than a newsletter –and will soon launch another title. In the North End, CFO has become one of the country’s largest business- to-business magazines. In the Metrowest suburbs, tech-oriented IDG runs a passel of profitable trade publications, and Reed Business Information recently purchased the healthy trade-magazine group once known as Cahners. In the downtown area, custom-publishing house Pohly Publishing puts out the Continental Airlines in-flight magazine, among other periodicals.

And if the city doesn’t have a pile of glossies, it does have lots of publications generated by its universities. In addition to the usual academic journals, there’s Technology Review, which recently went through a redesign and is positioning itself to occupy the once-crowded intersection of technology and enterprise. Both Technology Review and Harvard Business Review receive support from their parent institutions, giving them shelter from economic storms.

But the list of survivors is random and unconnected, a problem typical of regional publishing centers like Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco, each featuring a few magazines but remaining incapable of reaching what Lester terms “critical mass.”

“It’s always been the equivalent of that old saying about the Red Sox: 25 players, 25 cabs,” says area publishing veteran John Strahinich, long the number-two guy at Boston magazine and editor of the ill-fated Forward. “When I was at Boston, we’d all go to one watering hole. Everyone [at other publications] would go to their own place, with their own masthead. Part of the fun with magazines has always been ‘growing your own,’ grooming those magazine writers out there who are the next generation. But it’s always been kind of fragmented up here.”

Seth Bauer, the former editor of Walking–“one of our big contributions to the community was our interns,” he says–took over the helm of niche survivor Body and Soul (née New Age Journal) earlier this year and is doing his part to combat that fragmentation. Bauer knows a bit about developing a group spirit, having served as the coxswain for crews of Olympic rowers.

“I’d like to have it happen more than it does,” Bauer says in his Watertown office. “Toby Lester at the Atlantic and I have become friends. We go to lunch. They were completely isolated from the magazine community. Someone’s applying for a job here who interned there… but we’re a ways away from being able to make Boston a strong magazine culture.”

It will take a lot more than a few lunches, says Nate Nickerson, Fast Company‘s former managing editor, who is currently freelancing as both a writer and editor.

“How many of us are there, anyway?” Nickerson says of established magazines and their staffs. “You can count them on one hand. And Cook’s Illustrated really doesn’t have much in common with Fast Company.”

“There is real cross-pollination in New York,” says veteran journalist Craig Unger, who worked at New York magazine and edited Boston magazine in the 1990s. “But it just doesn’t exist like that in Boston. It’s hard to have a major media career there. When I left Boston magazine, what would have been the next job for me?”

A city for startups

So should Bostonians be concerned that a place famous for its literary traditions can’t seem to sustain more than a sprinkling of credible publications? Not really, according to Alan Webber, one of the co-founders of Fast Company.

“You might as well ask, is Boston a failure as a national film center?” Webber suggests. “The city ought to be very proud of the fact that it has several magazines that continue to function here. It has spawned several already, but there’s no presumption of a right or a need to be a headquarters of a nationally prominent magazine to be a great city. There are very few cities in America that think their viability is maintained by their ability to sustain a great magazine.”

And yet, while having thriving magazines might not indicate that there is a powerful magazine business, exactly, it can indicate that there is a kind of buzz coming from a city, in some thriving sector. And in a city where a lot of industries have been beaten up since 2000, where many homegrown businesses are rapidly being aggregated into larger conglomerates, some local buzz might be nice.

Ex-Inc. editor George Gendron: More than
New York, Boston is “driven by innovation.”

“Having a Fast Company sent a message to the world that interesting things were happening in high tech, and in that respect, it was nice to have it,” Marcus says. “I don’t think it sent a message that there is a burgeoning magazine community.”

But that first message might be as important as the second.

“Out of a kind of richness in culture come these magazines,” says Lindy Hess, the founder of the Columbia Publishing Course. (Sign of the times: Hess founded the Radcliffe Publishing Course, a Cambridge camp that annually sent dozens of college graduates into the magazine and book publishing industries. It moved to New York in 2001 and recently changed its name.) “I think the two business magazines that grew up in Boston are emblematic of that. When Jan Wenner started Rolling Stone, he was sitting in a certain place at a certain time. So was Louis Rosetto, when he started Wired.” Both Rolling Stone and Wired were born in San Francisco (in 1967 and 1993, respectively), but Rolling Stone shifted to New York in 1976.

In fact, while Inc. and Fast Company came out of different generations, they did reflect a measure of something that, if not limited to Boston, has always been active in the area: the idea that business could be done in a way different from how it is done on Wall Street.

“I don’t think we could have started the magazine in New York,” says Webber. “In some cases, it’s harder to do something new when you’re in the headquarters of the old. We were close enough to New York to get advice and direction and professional input, but without having to listen to the steady drumbeat and inevitable discouragement of people saying ‘you can’t do it that way’ that comes from being in the headquarters of the old regime. We were doing a business magazine about ideas and new ways of thinking about business, and Boston is a great place for that kind of talent.”

Inc. came from similar origins, according to Gendron, who notes that the magazine’s founder, the late Bernie Goldhirsch, thought his how-to guide for small-business owners should be aimed at startups that could exist anywhere, rather than those simply interested in Wall Street-centered financial journalism.

“Early on, there was pressure to move it to New York, but Bernie really felt passionate about Boston being the appropriate home,” Gendron says. “Here you have a different environment, and it’s driven by innovation and entrepreneurship. He just felt that if he were sitting in Peoria looking for the best strategic location to start a magazine that does what Inc. does, Boston was the place to be. New York is a big-company town.”

At Cook’s Illustrated, one of the few profitable consumer magazines left in the Boston area, uber-Yankee founder and editor Chris Kimball says that he wanted to innovate, and the Gotham magazine culture sometimes doesn’t allow for that. Nobody would have bought into his idea for a subscription-only, no-ad model, he says.

“From our perspective, we couldn’t be in New York,” Kimball says. “As an independent, you’ve really got to find a new way.”

And the Cook’s Illustrated serious approach to food–a typical article will describe, in step-by-step, adjective-free prose, repeated attempts to fry up the perfect cheese omelette–fits the reputation of its surroundings.

“Boston’s never been a source of those penny-dreadfuls,” Kimball says, referring to the celebrity journalism practiced at Us magazine and its kin. “It’s always been thought of as a little small, studious, and intellectual.”

Proof of life

“There are a lot of stories about how magazines begin,” Hess adds. “Sometimes it’s the passion of a single person who will do anything. Sometimes the culture of a place can make a group of people come together and believe in a magazine.”

Of course, that’s not always the case, particularly in a magazine economy that saw a three-year drop in ad pages from 2000 to 2002, the mothballing of several major titles, and a heavier focus on niche publications.

“I don’t think the Atlantic would have ever emerged in Boston in a modern day,” says Toby Lester. “It was born when Boston was considered the intellectual capital of the country in many ways, but it would be hard to believe a similar magazine could emerge out of the blue and really make it without the support of a big, New York-style media company.”

Nate Nickerson left New York for
outsider-friendly Boston.

As bleak as things are in Boston, however, Gendron sees signs of life. Now retired from Inc., he regularly gets calls for advice from people thinking about magazine startups.

“I can’t tell you the number of magazines that are on the drawing boards in every possible category,” he says. “Will all of them succeed? No. But there are more than a handful of new Inc.‘s out there.”

Publishing’s morgues are littered with well-regarded periodicals, beloved by their readers, that landed with an economic thud. Spy and the Oxford American, Lingua Franca and Might, not to mention New England Monthly and Doubletake, all fall into that category.

Magazines fail at an astounding rate. Four out of 10 make it through their first year, and only one in 10 survives a decade, according to Samir Husni, a journalism professor at the University of Mississippi who carefully follows the industry.

“My magazine in Washington is legitimately considered a success by most publishing people, and it’s not around anymore,” Brosowsky says. “I published for two and a half years, and no one would call it a failure. It’s like a noble pursuit. There’s something about publishing a magazine that insulates it from reality. But financially, these things fail.”

In fact, what might be to Boston’s credit is the fact that Inc. and Fast Company are still alive, even if they have been forced, Napoleon-like, into an island exile.

“You could almost say that it’s salutary that they were able to sell out for as much as they did,” says Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam, who has written extensively about local magazines. “At the time, they were both over-mature. You could almost chalk that up to some kind of Bostonian shrewdness.”

Nate Nickerson, for one, hasn’t given up the hope that that shrewdness will strike again. He was part of that “magazine culture” in New York, leaping from one magazine to another, before he came to Boston after getting married. Once in the Hub, he worked at Cook’s Illustrated, then at Fast Company, and believes in the possibilities of an outsider’s market.

Meet the Author
“Professionally, the big irony for me, careerwise, was, when I left New York, I was pretty sure I was leaving big-time publishing,” Nickerson says. “But then, call it good luck, I got to work for two of the most interesting magazines in the country. Who would have figured that?”

Jeffrey Klineman is a freelance writer in Cambridge.