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Chicago Life's Piggyback Ride / Sky Hooks / Daily News Trumps Sun-Times Optimism

By Michael Miner

Chicago Life's Piggyback Ride

In 1985 the publisher of a year-old magazine called Chicago Single conducted some focus groups and learned a painful lesson: far from attracting a young and affluent, if perhaps lonely, segment of local society, "single" carried a stigma that drove that market away.

So publisher Pam Berns changed the name of her magazine to Chicago Life and its focus from matching people up to the more nebulous "quality of life." A celebrity profile, a health piece, and a travel piece form the core of a typical issue. But Berns kept her magazine's personal ads. Stigma or no, people wanted dates.

Last week the personal ads disappeared from Chicago Life. Berns said her readership had gotten older, and plenty of other publications, such as the Reader, were running the same ads, only more of them and more successfully. These were reasons Berns gave herself for why she really didn't need the personals anymore. But she yanked them because the New York Times told her to.

Berns just put her magazine through its biggest change since 1985. Chicago Life remains a bimonthly giveaway distributed in hotels, high-rises, and a few big bookstores, but she's pulled it from a lot of health clubs. Their members, Berns says, don't fit the profile of her other readers: "They tend to be 30-ish rather than 40-ish." In their place she's put the thoughtful, unhurried, affluent readers who plunk down $4 or more for the Sunday Times.

Beginning two Sundays ago, half of the 62,000 copies of Chicago Life are being distributed as Times inserts. And the Times does not like personals.

"All we ask," said John Gordon, the Times's account manager in Chicago, "is that good taste be met, and the standards the New York Times tries to keep throughout the paper."

"They were very straightforward," said Berns. "They said it wouldn't fly, and I said that wasn't a problem. It was a nice service for readers, but it wasn't a moneymaker. After 11 years in the business you find your readership changes. People get married and get more career oriented. It was the easiest thing I ever did. I think I was operating more on nostalgia than business sense."

Other, subtler changes also were dictated by the Times. The masthead now lists Berns as "executive producer"--"to avoid conflicts with our own editorial department," said Gordon; the pages are marked in tiny type, "Supplement from Chicago Life Communications"; and the cover announces, "Advertising Supplement to the New York Times." Chicago Life--at least the 31,000 copies that make these concessions to their new host--now offers its readers advertising within a magazine that's become advertising within a newspaper.

Chicago Life isn't the first Chicago insert to be offered by the Sunday Times, but it's the first that perceives itself as essentially editorial. The cost to Berns is low--about $2,000 a week--and the benefit is primarily "a symbiosis," to use Gordon's language. "To us it's just a little bit of window dressing that helps add value to the reader who lives in Chicago. We don't have many opportunities to round out the local appeal of the paper."

To Chicago Life this deal isn't window dressing, it's survival. Berns, who said she founded the magazine on $1,500, has always had more ingenuity than money. "It isn't easy being undercapitalized, and there were moments it looked like we'd be merging or doing things that for reasons, good reasons, didn't work," she said. "One of the mergers that fell through was with Maxwell Communications, just before [Robert] Maxwell was found floating in the waters. My heart was broken in that one. I was absolutely sure that was going to transform my life. They were going to buy controlling interest." And she was going to keep running it. "And then at the last minute they pulled out."

More recently she distributed Chicago Life on Midway Airlines. That arrangement ended when Midway abandoned Chicago as a hub.

So piggybacking on the New York Times "is the nicest thing that's happened with our magazine in 11 years. Trying to get over the stigma of being a controlled [free to the public] book has been really hard, and this has been maybe a bridge to people's acceptance of being controlled. I thought, well, maybe six years ago when we first got our ABC [Audit Bureau of Circulations] audit, that would make the difference--we have solid numbers, and we deliver what we say. But it's still been an uphill battle. This is a way to step away from that. Now 31,000 of our 62,000 are people who pay. Granted, people aren't paying for Chicago Life. But they're saying, we're going to spend Sunday reading the New York Times."

She immediately noticed a new attitude when she went looking for advertising. "I do a lot of the selling myself. Before, you'd say, 'We have an audited circulation of over 60,000,' and nobody's nice. Most people are rude and don't have the slightest interest. Now you say 31,000 are distributed as a supplement to the New York Times, and it's, 'Oh! Send a media kit right out.' I'm pinching myself. We must have sent out 100 media kits this week."

Sky Hooks

The beast had to be fed.

"What have we got?" said the editor.

"An impassioned reminder by our columnist that tattoos, head butting, shotguns, pickup trucks, and tarts with no last name had no place in basketball as it was conceived by James Naismith for a YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1891," said the assistant.

"And high time too," said the editor. "What's the illustration?"

"An artist's rendering of the buck-naked athlete concluding his athletic career by tossing his jockstrap to a giddy 58-year-old woman who's just lost a leg to diabetes."

"Nicely capturing the ambiguities of a complex personality," the editor mused. "What else? We've got eight more pages to fill with Bulls features, and the well is dry."

"What about a piece on the white players?"

"They're all lucky to be in the league. What about them?"

"I mean, do they score with chicks? Do they hit the clubs? When the team's on the road do the black players tuck them into bed and then go out?"

"Along those lines," said the editor. "I've been toying with a piece on Gallipoli."


"A bloodbath," said the editor. "Might have changed the course of history, though I don't know that it did."

"Even so, not the Brits' finest hour," said the assistant.

"The pride of the empire butchered by the Turks."

"But what of it?"

"Kukoc is from those parts."


"Whatever. The details can be blurred with skillful writing. What's significant here is the history he shares with the Bulls' commonwealth contingent, Wennington and Longley."

"I suppose they all studied Gallipoli in school," said the assistant. "Or at least saw the movie."

"Which unfolded for them with a special resonance! If there's ancient bad blood they've had to deal with, we could have the makings of a touching yarn."

"Our beat man has yet to mention Gallipoli fouling the locker-room bonhomie."

"We might have to jog some memories," said the editor. "With skillful writing it won't seem forced. I just don't know what the hell else there is."

"We could ask our TV critic to draw comparisons between the leading Bulls and the cast of Friends."

"Better yet, the Apostles. The religion writer could handle that one."

"I like it," said the assistant. "Eleven Bulls. Eleven Apostles. We probably should leave Judas out."

"Supporting-cast status might offend Michael Jordan," the editor mused.

"I think he'd be a good sport," said the assistant. "But thousands of readers would accuse us of dissing him."

"Then scratch that," said the editor. "But the cupboard's empty."

"We can never go wrong with Rodman."

"The last piece I saw was sheer desperation--a profile of kids he gave his jerseys to!"

"I thought it touched the heartstrings," the assistant argued. "And if you read it carefully--"

"Which I didn't," the editor admitted.

"--it raises more questions than it answers."

"Such as?"

"They wear the stinking things to school."

"Major classroom distractions," said the editor, catching on. "Jealous friends. Recess pandemonium. Interviews with the struggling teachers of the lucky kids Rodman gave his jerseys to would make compelling reading. Skillfully written, it would cut to the heart of the state funding debate."

"Interviews with the spouses of the struggling teachers of the lucky kids Rodman gave his jerseys to would shed a unique light on a thankless profession," the assistant added.

"If we could find some jealous spouses of the teachers of the kids Rodman gave his jerseys to who'll admit they've been asking said teachers to confiscate the jerseys and bring them home to hang on the wall of the den, we'll have a riveting look at the shocking way big-time sports have distorted traditional American values. It could win this paper a Pulitzer."

"Well, that's tomorrow's story," said the assistant, penciling it in. "What about the day after?"

"The obvious follow-up. Find out if Rodman's jerseys are made in Honduran sweatshops."

"And then we need a major think piece for Sunday."

"I don't remember nixing Gallipoli," said the editor.

Daily News Trumps Sun-Times Optimism

Holding its own in a volatile marketplace, the Chicago Daily News vaulted into the top ten among legendary metropolitan dailies in fending off dramatic circulation declines, according to the latest figures released by the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

While the New York Times reported a loss of 13,213 in daily circulation, the Los Angeles Times a whopping loss of 37,377, and Newsday a humongous 113,536, the Daily News kept its circulation on an even keel. "In today's exacting business climate that can be regarded as an extraordinary accomplishment," said a spokesman.

The success was duplicated by the Daily News's equally popular weekend edition, as once again circulation was evenly balanced between city and suburban readers. "At a time when other papers prefer to carve the metropolitan audience into distinct demographic segments, we continue to appeal equally to every neighborhood and social class," said the spokesman. "'One Chicago' is our motto, and we're pleased to see this enlightened strategy so enthusiastically affirmed. Afternoon papers continue to struggle in other parts of the country, but at the Daily News those troubles are behind us."

Significantly, the Daily News, which began publishing in 1875 and has won 15 Pulitzer Prizes, didn't have to resort to the fancy statistical footwork for which some other newspapers are notorious to find good news to report. At the Chicago Sun-Times, for example, a circulation of 501,115 was reported as "the Sun-Times' best daily circulation in three years," even though three years earlier, in 1993, daily circulation was 553,355. Asked how a 52,000-copy decline could be construed as an improvement, a Sun-Times official pointed to circulation a year ago, which was 591 copies fewer than today. The recent ABC figures represent a three-year "best" only in the narrow technical sense that for the first time in three years the Sun-Times wasn't reporting additional losses.

Furthermore, while the daily circulation of the Sun-Times was reported everywhere else as tenth among the nation's leading newspapers, the Sun-Times ranked itself eighth. The Sun-Times accomplished this sleight of hand by limiting its list to "metropolitan newspapers" and not counting the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, both of which are sold nationally.

"We don't play those kinds of games here," said the Daily News spokesman. "Our numbers speak for themselves." Circulation at the Daily News has been rock steady since the paper went out of business in 1978.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.

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