Prospects for a Shaken-Up 'Baltimore Magazine'

PETER A. JAY

May 24, 1992|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- In theory, the recent sale of Baltimore Magazine to an odd collection of deep-pockets investors could be good news for readers. In publishing, the shake-ups that go with a change of ownership are often stimulating -- when they're not disasters.

The last shake-up at Baltimore Magazine was a good one. When Annapolis publisher Phil Merrill bought the monthly from the Chamber of Commerce 16 years ago, it was a pretty dowdy old thing. Then Mr. Merrill made Stan Heuisler the editor and turned him loose, and soon there was steady and sometimes spectacular progress. When it was sold, the magazine had a circulation of 50,000, and most years it made money, though never a vast amount.

Editorially, it tended to be interesting without being bizarre. The achievement of Mr. Heuisler was to create an up-to-date city magazine and give it a tone and personality that Baltimore could live with. That included a certain predictability -- which, as most readers if not most editors know, is not necessarily a bad thing.

The magazine of course provided the obligatory lists of such things as the Ten Best Cheeseburgers and the Seven Sexiest hTC Dermatologists, but it mixed in some good writing and perceptive reporting about more substantive subjects as well. In the best independent city-magazine tradition, it wasn't especially deferential to local icons and institutions, and it always enjoyed the chance to spit in the eye of The Sun.

If Susan Souders Obrecht, the new publisher, can improve on what Mr. Merrill and Mr. Heuisler have done with Baltimore Magazine, it'll be good for the city as well as for her credit rating. And if she fails? Well, these things happen. In the graveyard of deceased magazines lie some once-splendid publications that lost their grip on readers, revenues or both.

In earlier days, Ms. Obrecht published the Towson Times and other free-circulation weekly newspapers in the Baltimore suburbs. These papers were flashy, in their way, and tightly edited, with colorful modern graphics; their former editor, Jonathan Witty, has been named the new editor of Baltimore Magazine.

The Obrecht papers eventually collided with Columbia-based Patuxent Publishing. The ensuing battle over Baltimore County was fierce, and very expensive to both companies. When it was over, Ms. Obrecht had sold out to Patuxent. She departed financially intact, or so it was reported, but a loser nevertheless.

She is currently the publisher of Mid-Atlantic Country, a cheerful package of lightweight drivel apparently directed at those who spend their weekends searching the quaint but not-too-distant exurbs in search of the perfect bed-and-breakfast. It has been reported that this venture, which she purchased from The Sun, is not especially profitable.

And profit, not editors' instincts or publishers' egos, is ultimately what makes magazines succeed. For that reason, Mr. Merrill wouldn't be a bad model for Ms. Obrecht. He didn't interfere with Mr. Heuisler, he didn't use his magazine to promote himself or his favorite causes -- and he made a modest amount of money.

A very few good magazines, including National Review and The New Republic, have generous underwriters who make it possible for them to operate in the red, but in publishing as in automaking, profits are generally essential for survival. Mr. Merrill understood that. Savvy publishing people I respect tell me that Baltimore Magazine was averaging 300 to 400 pages of advertising a year, with revenues of about $3,000 a page. In a good year it probably had a 15 percent net profit. In a bad year, like most recent ones, it tried to break even.

Ms. Obrecht wants to increase the magazine's staff, I hear. But if the reported purchase price of around $4 million is accurate, the new owners presumably have a considerable debt to retire, which Mr. Merrill didn't. Just to pay that debt will require more ad pages, and increasing pages requires still more revenue, because it also increases editorial and production costs. The lady has her work cut out for her.

Those problems won't matter if the magazine, under its new ownership, does a job that matches or improves upon its performance under Mr. Heuisler and Mr. Merrill. But readers and advertisers are notoriously tough. They know what they want, and if they don't get it, they'll soon be looking for reasons to take their business elsewhere.

There are two major reasons for the success of most high-quality city and regional magazines. Editorially, they regularly do stories the local newspapers don't. And in so doing, they attract and hold an affluent and reasonably sophisticated readership that advertisers want to reach.

Three magazines which have done this are Chicago Magazine, New York and Texas Monthly, all of which Ms. Obrecht says she admires. If she can put out a financially successful magazine in Baltimore that's as good as those, she'll be a real wizard. If she puts out one as good as did Mr. Merrill and Mr. Heuisler, she'll merit respect.

On the other hand, if she puts out something the likes of Mid-Atlantic Country, we can expect that there will soon be another little tombstone in the great magazine graveyard, or another little transaction in which ownership changes once again.

Peter Jay, whose column appears here each week, is former publisher of The Record in Havre de Grace.

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