Glossy in search of new sheen
Boston magazine hoping change at top will bring lift
By Megan Woolhouse, Globe Staff
Larry Platt, the top editor of Boston magazine, is from Philadelphia and it shows. During a breakfast interview last week, his description of an upcoming story about recently indicted former House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi hit a pronunciation snag. “Is it Di-May-si or Di-Mah-si?’’ he asked with a hint of uncharacteristic bashfulness.
Platt – who is also editor of Philadelphia magazine, both owned by Philadelphia-based Metrocorp Inc. – is unfamiliar with the scene in the Massachusetts capital and unapologetic about it. But he intends to make Boston magazine a “must read’’ that “gets the movers and shakers in Boston shaking.’’
In the process, he also hopes to halt a sales slump that has caused the glossy monthly to lose money this year for the first time in its nearly 40-year history.
“I think an outsider can bring fresh perspective that can challenge the parochialism,’’ Platt said.
But the Philadelphia native, who became editorial director of both magazines in February, faces a daunting challenge.
Like magazines nationwide, Boston is struggling because of the recession and the migration of readers to online publications. Overall circulation has dropped 24 percent since 2005 to about 100,000. Newsstand sales – driven by customers who make an impulsive decision to pay full price – are off 35 percent since 1999, according to Metrocorp, which is privately held.
The magazine is noticeably lighter because of fewer advertisements and thinner content: The May issue was 152 pages, down from 282 last year.
In addition, city and regional magazines like Boston have faced increased competition from a flurry of niche products. In recent years, The Improper Bostonian has grown into a slick biweekly angling to be the city’s “premier entertainment and lifestyle guide.’’ Boston Common, as well as specialty publications like FB, Lola, and Design New England – all three published by Boston Globe Media – also target a high-end demographic.
Last month, Platt made his first major moves by firing four staffers, including editor James Burnett. Platt replaced him with Andrew Putz of Minnesota Monthly, who will start July 22 and report to Platt.
The move stunned surviving staffers, who had just started assembling the annual “Best of Boston’’ issue.
“The biggest shock was the timing,’’ said Jolyon Helterman, the features editor who resigned in protest the same day. Helterman, 39, said the firings showed a lack of confidence in the content and unfairly condemned the staff for the magazine’s financial woes.
It was as though they were saying “editorial is broken,’’ Helterman said, when the real problem is “people aren’t buying ads because no one has any money.’’
Platt said economics made the layoffs necessary. As for the decision to cut jobs now, he said, “There is no good time to do this kind of thing. The longer you wait, the more of an economic hole you dig yourself into.’’
Samir Husni, director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, said profits at city and regional magazines nationwide have dropped, causing them to cut employees and pages. Their lifeblood – ads for luxury services, restaurants, and jewelry stores – has dried up.
“When the economic collapse happened, it took the entire business model with it,’’ Husni said. “So everybody is trying to reinvent’’ themselves. For example, he said, some are charging more for subscriptions to offset losses in ad revenue.
Mark Jurkowitz, the Globe’s former media critic, now an associate editor at the nonprofit Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington, D.C., said industry changes and the dour economy mean Boston will have a “rough go’’ this year. But masthead churn at the monthly is nothing new, he said.
“Philadelphia magazine was always seen as the star’’ by Metrocorp, said Jurkowitz, who had a brief stint at Boston. “Philly was always the big brother.’’
Stories about turmoil at Boston magazine almost always invoke the name of its owner, D. Herbert Lipson, who is a looming presence on the Philadelphia scene, and well known for trumpeting his conservative politics. Even at 80 years old, Lipson remains in charge of Metrocorp and does not hesitate to voice his opinion about the magazines.
He bought Boston magazine in 1970 from the Boston Chamber of Commerce, which produced it, sparking controversy from the start. Chamber members wanted to buy it themselves, so when Lipson outbid them, they promptly walked out.
Lipson, whose father purchased Greater Philadelphia Magazine from that city’s Chamber of Commerce in 1951, was hardly deterred by the exodus.
“We put together the magazine with spit and chewing gum,’’ he said in the 1987 anniversary issue of Boston. “Our first efforts were remote, with Philadelphia involved, and that led to some bad editorial choices. I wanted to address social issues, literary issues, and it took us a while to get on track.’’
Lipson, who writes a monthly “Off the Cuff’’ column for Philadelphia, lives outside Atlantic City, and has a few thin ties to Massachusetts: He spent his childhood summers on the North Shore and his father came from Worcester. Lipson declined to be interviewed for this report, but in Philadelphia magazine last year he talked about what inspired his publishing career five-plus decades ago.
“There was nothing worse than being ignored,’’ he said. “We were driven.’’
Over the years, Boston has published a wide range of stories, from an article on the 1970s busing crisis to a recent cover piece on Red Sox owner John Henry’s engagement, as told by a friend of the bride. But its staples include features on pricey restaurants, fashion boutiques, and luxury real estate. The magazine also pioneered the “best and worst’’ model, eventually dropping the “worst’’ in what was viewed as a concession to advertisers.
Both Metrocorp magazines, and several ancillary publications, have won a host of awards over the years and generated a steady stream of advertising dollars, making Lipson wealthy. At a company Christmas party five years ago at the Charles Hotel, Lipson proclaimed he was “backstroking in green,’’ according to someone who was there.
David Rosenbaum, editor of Boston from 1986 to 1991, said Lipson did not care much for editors, but tolerated them when profits were robust. “When the economy turns and it [the magazine] gets skinny, he figures the editor is an idiot,’’ he said.
And they often paid a price: A dozen editors came and went between 1975 and 2000.
Rosenbaum said Lipson frequently pushed him to be irreverent, “going after poor people, Democrats, the handicapped, minorities,’’ he said. “He’s to the right of Attila the Hun. At least he was. I haven’t spoken to him since the day he fired me.’’
John Wolfson, a former senior editor who left Boston last year, said he often cringed when Lipson spoke, but that his advice was sought after in industry circles. “Lipson’s a tough customer,’’ Wolfson said. “But he knows what he wants and puts out a good magazine.’’
Metrocorp’s 2009 revenues have fallen 10 percent to 15 percent from last year, according to David Lipson Jr., president of Metrocorp and Herb Lipson’s son.
Platt said he has a plan for reinvigorating Boston magazine: There are 250 influential people who compose any city’s power structure, he said, and the key is to write vivid stories about them. But sorting out the city and its workings might be tougher for Platt now that some staffers with deep local roots are gone, and his editor, Putz, is from Minnesota.
Marketing director Dawn Curtis Hanley, daughter of Boston newscasters Chet Curtis and Natalie Jacobson, was among those fired. So was Rockport resident and creative director Patrick Mitchell. And former publisher Dan Scully, a Boston native, retired last year after 24 years.
“I still have a few people I care about there, so I’d like to see the whole thing succeed for their benefit,’’ Scully said. “I wish them the best with these changes.’’
Burnett, the latest editor to be dumped, said his severance agreement prevents him from saying much publicly about his tenure. “I understood going in that the editor of Boston magazine could have a limited shelf life,’’ he said. “But what I tried to do is not let that inhibit us.’’
Platt began courting Putz, 35, about two months ago. Putz wrote “buzzworthy’’ stories for Minnesota Monthly, Platt said, including pieces on Al Franken’s senatorial bid and the massive I-35W bridge collapse. While city and regional magazine sales dropped 14 percent nationally in the last year, Minnesota Monthly’s sales grew 3 percent under Putz, according to Platt.
Putz acknowledged Boston editors often have a short tenure. “I’m going to be there as long Larry Platt and Herb Lipson want me,’’ he said.
Jim Bandera, a former sales director at Boston magazine who left the company last fall, said Putz will probably bring a fresh sensibility to the job and hire writers who understand Boston.
Putz said it is too early to say what changes he will make at the magazine. “I’m not going to pretend to have some knowledge that I don’t have,’’ he said. “I’m like a well-informed tourist.’’
Johnny Diaz of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Megan Woolhouse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.