Operating a magazine in Utah is a risky business. Just ask anyone connected with the two most successful magazines in the state - Utah Holiday and This People.
Both have experienced in the past year a change in ownership and a significant shake-up in staff, meaning that their very survival was at stake. Both seem to have weathered the crisis, but the future remains uncertain.Utah Holiday, a city-regional magazine, has from its inception in 1971 been dedicated to what the current editor and associate publisher, Robert Coles, calls "hard-nosed journalism," meaning that at least one major story every month is the result of investigative journalism, or at least it is issue-oriented.
According to Paul Swenson, Utah Holiday's former controversial and charismatic editor, this presented a dichotomy. Sometimes the same people they were investigating were asked to advertise in the magazine. Nevertheless, that advertising has always represented the life blood, resulting in necessary revenues to keep publishing on schedule.
Coles remembers that on the 15th anniversary of the magazine, the staff considered the possibility of changing the name, because "Utah Holiday" has always implied tourism, clearly not an accurate impression of the editorial stance. However, they decided that history had invested too much in the name and that a change would distress longtime readers.
Sheri Dew, former editor of This People, which has been in existence only seven years, laments the fact that in spite of a consistently larger circulation than Utah Holiday, the latter has always retained a corner on advertising.
According to Dew, now an editor at Deseret Book, Utah Holiday attracts an up-scale readership, highly literate, liberal and affluent, comprising the upper 12 percent of the reading public. Based on that estimate, the average number of people who subscribe has been about 13,000, with another 5,000 to 6,000 who pick it up at the newsstand.
Paul Swenson jokes that the readership is so upscale that the Utah Holiday staff could never afford to live the lifestyle of the magazine.
A demographic study of Utah Holiday's readers completed in July 1985 supports Dew's contention. Eighty-two percent have attended college, while 56 percent have received a degree and 23 percent have earned a graduate degree. Sixty-seven percent are professional people with a median income of $50,240. Eighty-five percent own their own house or condo, and 20 percent have a security system of some kind.
Perhaps the most revealing piece of data to support the upscale image is that 48 percent of the readers have at least one member of the household who holds a current passport.
There is not very much overlap of readers from Utah Holiday to This People either, because the survey notes that only 6.5 percent of Utah Holiday readers also subscribe to This People.
Although This People is a much younger publication, its circulation has been as high as 35,000 and appeals to what Dew calls the 40 percent of the reading public comprising the "Mormon mainstream." These are usually average, middle-income people, but unfortunately for advertising purposes, over half are out of state. Many clearly subscribe to the magazine for sentimental reasons, to keep contact with their home state or culture.
Even if these two groups of readers are different, Dew maintains that magazine readers as a group are more educated and more affluent than the TV watcher. "Magazine reading is more discretionary," she says.
This People's emphasis from the beginning was to present the Mormon lifestyle, mostly through profiles, in an upbeat, positive manner. There was always a difference of opinion on the extent of the religiosity. Dew always saw it as a lifestyle magazine, but nearly 20,000 out-of-state subscribers apparently needed to "feel a bond with members of the church" wherever they were. "It's a whole different thing to live in Lincoln, Neb., than in Salt Lake City."
Paul Swenson recalls that Utah Holiday was "never a self-sustaining enterprise." Bob Coles as owner and publisher had to sweat out the bad times. Finally, says Coles, he got tired. There was the "buck stops" problem, meaning that if the work was not done and the bills not paid, he had to stay at the office until they were. "It wore me down," he says. It was "an accumulated fatigue, and the challenges seemed to get steadily more exhausting."
As a result, he decided that if an acceptable offer to buy the magazine did come, he would be interested. So when Jeff Jonas, former University of Utah basketball player and president of Golden Wood Inc., called, Coles agreed to talk. The result was an agreement that put Utah Holiday under new ownership and left Coles as publisher. Quickly, Jonas announced an intention to establish "a broader appeal to the magazine." He said they would continue to do investigative reporting and deal with issues, but "we hope to stress the positive, not the negative."
When Barbara Bannon, the respected managing editor, was fired by Jonas on the grounds that she was "not a team player," the red flag went up throughout the staff. In short order, Paul Swenson resigned as editor, and John Sillito as book editor.
Only three weeks after Swenson resigned, the new owners themselves walked away. Inexperienced in the magazine field, they quickly became discouraged.
As Swenson puts it, "For a magazine to succeed, there must be some kind of vision!"
As it happened, "two guys from south-ern Utah," as Swenson calls them, stepped into the void. In June, Bruce Lee and Jeff Ray (bringing to the magazine four first names) of Tuesday Publications bought the magazine. Although relatively new to the publishing world, they had successfully published an inflight magazine for Skywest Airlines, a magazine for the Shakespearean Festival in Cedar City, and a tourist magazine for Iron County, covering a period of six years. Lee also had a background in English and journalism.
The biggest problem, recalls Coles, was the immediate loss in advertising. "A period of three weeks was almost devastating for us." Advertisers, watching the magazine change hands twice, became highly skeptical about its future. Bruce Lee agrees, saying that rumors were a major problem. He says that the creditors are now satisfied, but lower advertising revenues must still be remedied. Coles adds that a healthy recovery is in process, and that the magazine is becoming "more energized with every passing week."
Paul Swenson, who many regard as an institution, is now in the process of starting a new magazine with similar interests and approach to Utah Holiday. If all his plans come together in the next few months, he will be competing head to head with the magazine he edited for 17 years.
Swenson has always been interested, he says, in "getting underneath the surface of the important issues." One of the main purposes a magazine like Utah Holiday should serve, he says, is to keep the reader on his toes. "I want to pick up a magazine and be surprised," says Swenson, and he believes that readers want "something new and fresh along with the stuff that is always there."
Although Coles and Swenson got along very well personally and reasonably well professionally during their long association, there were some disagreements. Coles says, "Paul was always interested in publishing the story that readers NEEDED, while I was more interested in knowing what the readers WANTED. There was always that potential fight."
Swenson's penchant for investigative reporting is obvious. As Coles puts it, "There is still a lot of the newspaper left in Paul." Swenson worked as a reporter for the Deseret News prior to his tenure at Utah Holiday.
In spite of Swenson's formidable reputation as an editor and critic, Coles is optimistic about Utah Holiday's survival without him, although the magazine "has and will feel his loss."
"There have always been," he says,"those journalists and intellectuals who have strongly attached Paul's personna to the magazine. Beyond that - the rest of the readers seem amazingly unaware of Paul or whether he was here or not."
For his part, Swenson remains confident, upbeat and good humored. He thought that when Golden Wood pulled out that he still might return to the magazine and do a story - an investigative, hard-nosed one - about "How Utah Holiday Survived the Dark Night of the Corporate Soul." That is, he is convinced, the kind of story that must continue to be done. It is more likely now that such a story will be done by his new magazine.
***IN THE MEANTIME, both Coles and Lee say that they are dedicated to maintaining the same standard of journalism that has been a longtime tradition at Utah Holiday. Coles concedes that the July issue may have been a little soft, due to problems surrounding the ownership shake-up, but that will not be true in the future.
Lee was attracted, he says, to the magazine in the first place by its reputation as the best in the state. In an attempt to widen readership through heavy promotion, he has no intention of softening the magazine's approach or "lowering its standards."
The owners of This People actually closed down the magazine due to financial difficulties before prominent Utah businessman Keith Whisenant stepped in and bought it. He was confident it was still a workable idea, that a magazine targeting the Mormon population was needed.
Whisenant successfully recruited William B. Smart, retired and highly respected editor of the Deseret News, to be the new editor and to outline a new direction. Smart was interested in moving away from the soft profiles familiar to This People and taking on important LDS issues.
In the writers guidelines he sent out, Smart said the goal of the magazine was "to enrich the lives of its readers in a manner consistent with LDS values and unique from other media." Then he encouraged potential writers to "stimulate, uplift, inform, and/or entertain the reader."
Editorially, Smart sees This People as "somewhere between Sunstone-Dialogue on the one hand and the Ensign on the other." In his first two issues, he has tried to bring a spirit that is "more adventuresome and challenging, but in a constructive way."
The next issue will treat families, always a concern to Mormons, with an emphasis on "raising kids in an X-rated world," says Smart. But it will be done, he says, "in a positive way, in an effort to offer solutions."
Whisenant says that when Smart outlined his progressive ideas for the magazine, "I knew that he was the right one for the job." Whisenant hopes that as the magazine rebuilds its reputation, it can go from its current four issues per year to six issues. This People formerly published eight issues a year.
This People's staff has gone from 12 to 15 full-time people to one full-time marketing director and five or six part-time people, including the editor. It is a careful, slow approach to profitability. There were 24,500 subscribers before the sellout, and 35,000 total circulation.
In spite of the shutdown, Whisenant has already been able to build it up to 11,000 subscribers, with the hope of another 3,000 to 5,000 during the holidays. That progress is consistent with Whisenant's belief that 16,500 subscribers are needed to reach profitable status, a position shared by Bob Coles at Utah Holiday.
Smart will continue to work for a balance between "substance and personality," but without any interest in competing with Utah Holiday's emphasis on investigative reporting. Concludes Smart, "People will read what is well-written. Good writing is the secret."
***WHEN BOTH MAGAZINES SUFFERED INSTABILITY, some analysts suggested that, with Smart going for issues and Utah Holiday being tempted toward softer journalism, they might meet somewhere in the middle and become "Utah People." It is true that This People is gravitating toward a more substantive approach, but Coles vehemently denies that Utah Holiday is going soft.
It may have been that Golden Wood Inc. was interested in becoming softer, but the new owners have no such intention. "That is somebody's pipe dream," says Coles. "We have no intention of becoming like This People. The new owners are dedicated to the same editorial tradition established by Paul and me from the beginning."
It is obvious that whatever the fortunes of these two publications, the future of magazine publishing in Utah remains tenuous. Dew believes that the problems of the past should not be reasons for undue pessimism. It is her conviction that no magazine in Utah has yet targeted the right audience. "There is a certain kind of magazine," she says,"that will sell like hotcakes in Utah." She declines to specify further in an effort to keep her own options open. "There is a kind of pride in Utah that is not yet tapped."
In spite of an alleged non-reading reputation in Utah, Dew says that one survey at This People during her tenure concluded that 76 percent of the subscribers actually read the entire magazine. Sixty percent said that they kept the magazines and referred back to them periodically. Nevertheless, she says, magazines are "cash-intensive," and therefore financially draining.
Coles and Swenson are upbeat in spite of their past difficulties. Coles notes that Utah is "not promotion oriented." Business people, he says, tend to be conservative and have a natural reluctance to advertise. Another hurdle is that the dominant church publishes magazines of its own that its members feel an obligation to support.
***SURVEYS HAVE DEMONSTRATED, Coles says, that the potential number of readers for Utah Holiday is "equal to the combined circulation of U.S. News and World Report, Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated, which is 60,000 to 70,000 in Utah." That is "mitigated somewhat," he says, by the presence of the LDS Church magazines. So a realistic goal for Utah Holiday is between 40,000 and 50,000 circulation.
Swenson agrees. "I'm an optimist. People can be educated to like something that is good." It is always possible to get good material, because "journalists are used to starving, and writers write because they HAVE to." Swenson also believes that to increase circulation, it is necessary to spend the money on promotion. "You have to get them to say, `Hey, I can't afford to be without that!' "
That is the test, as these and other magazines continue to fight the uphill battle of publishing in Utah. Even a respectable reputation and a tradition of excellence does not ensure financial security. Clearly, there is an abundance of talented editors and writers who simply will not give up.