Teaching an old dog new tricks

Literary magazine for fans of Fido has a remarkable start-up, leaves the industry panting.

April 30, 2000|By San Jose Mercury News

First it was the Berkeley Barb, a counterculture newspaper that bit the establishment in the late 1960s. But the times and the political climate in Berkeley have changed, and so have the publications: now there's Bark, a cultural arts magazine for dog-lovers.

A tongue-in-cheek homage to the Barb, Bark is one of the country's hottest new publications -- described by the New York Times as "the New Yorker of dog magazines."

The Berkeley, Calif. quarterly, the creation of Claudia Kawczynska and Cameron Woo, has blossomed from an eight-page newsletter to a 64-page glossy magazine with 60,000 subscribers. And it's growing. Reflecting the increasing consciousness and politicization of animal rights of the past decade, Bark is crammed with dog book and movie reviews, holistic veterinary care, canine cuisine, dog-park politics, nonfiction and mystery fiction about dogs (an emerging genre) -- not the usual fare for pet magazines.

"It's a magazine for people who are in partnership with dogs," said Woo, the magazine's creative designer, "there's nothing else like us out there."

Even Bark's motto, "Dog is my co-pilot," has become well-known. It was popularized recently by the TV show "Dharma and Greg," where it was prominently displayed on a refrigerator door. The show's star, Jenna Elfman, happens to be a big Bark fan.

It all started in 1997 with a campaign to establish an off-leash park for dogs in Berkeley. The Bark began as a newsletter for supporters of that campaign. By the second issue, Bark had caught on with dog-loving readers and writers from all over the country.

"The magazine is very well done," said Dr. Samir Husni, a University of Mississippi journalism professor who specializes in start-up publications. "It's visually appealing; the writing is marvelous, and once you start reading it, it's hard to put down," he said.

Husni named Bark one of the country's 30 most notable magazine launches of 1999, along with Tina Brown's Talk and Cosmo Girl. "It's unique and the first time that we've seen the treatment of a dog other than [as] man's best friend. This is not about dogs; it's about our relationship with dogs through culture, art and politics," Husni said.

Bark is riding on the crest of a booming magazine market, according to Husni. There are about 5,200 magazines, more than double the number in 1990 and triple the amount published in the 1980s. Yet only about 15 percent of the 800 to 1,000 magazines launched each year survive, Husni said. As for Bark, Husni thinks its prospects are excellent because it has a specialized niche of literary dog-aficionados.

While major publishers reportedly spend $50 million to $100 million to launch a title, Woo and Kawczynska estimate they've spent about $50,000 and "three years of Claudia's sweat equity." They publish Bark and its Web site (www.thebark.com) on a shoestring budget, with "a few credit cards and a lot of good will and hard work."

"We're in the age of dog ascendancy," Kawczynska said. "Dogs have become a central fact in people's lives. Dogs go to the workplace; people plan their lives around their dogs. People are ready for something that took their relationship with dogs seriously," she said.

Writers and artists have been clamoring to write for the magazine, mostly for free, because of their passion for dogs. The most recent issue features a wicked interview with author Amy Tan, excerpts from books by Paul Auster and Anne Lamott, cartoons from Lynda Barry, photos by William Wegman and cover paintings by New Yorker regulars Mark Ulriksen and Art Spiegelman.

With advertising beginning to roll in and a steady stream of new readers, Bark is succeeding beyond the couple's most outlandish dreams.

Having stumbled across a potential canine gold mine, the editors of Bark see the magazine as a springboard for other possibilities. "There are so many people who have dogs and who spend money, yet no one has come in to offer a one-stop experience online," Woo said. "We want to be that resource."

They may well be -- and not just for dogs. Not only have they staked the Web address www.thebark. com, the couple has also reserved www.themeow.com as well.

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