The Biz: 'Outside' goes it alone and thrives

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For the last 25 years, Outside has chronicled the lives of those who have taken unusual, often individualistic, paths in their quest for success. Much the same can be said about the magazine itself.

Instead of a congested big-city headquarters, magazine staffers work in the mountains of Santa Fe, New Mexico. And in the ever-expanding world of media conglomerates, Mariah Media's Outside remains one of the few independent titles.

"I don't understand how a magazine can stay private and stay competitive," says Felicia Ferber, VP-print group director at Grey Global Group's MediaCom.

But that's exactly what Outside has done. After early years of scrimping in a windowless Chicago warehouse, the publication first turned a profit in the early `80s and has been in the black since, according to Larry Burke, chairman and editor in chief.

In January, the company will boost its rate base to 650,000 from 625,000, a confident move, given that circulation for the first half of the year was just 649,420, down 8% compared with the same period the year before, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Single-copy sales were up 14.8% to 64,772. The magazine doesn't disclose revenues, however Advertising Age's most recent Magazine 300 report estimated revenues were $64 million for 2001.

But as Outside celebrates its silver anniversary, questions swell about its future. In the perfect storm of media consolidation, increasingly demanding advertisers and an economic downturn, can it keep pace?

In recent years, the Outside brand expanded into books, TV productions, special events, trade shows and Internet ventures (some successful, some not, such as Outside Kids and Women Outside). In April, media adviser Cue Ball was hired to explore international opportunities, most likely with German and South American publishers.

As Outside uncoils its brand tentacles, some question if it can compete against goliaths such as Conde Nast Publications, Hearst Magazines and Time Inc. Ad pages are down 8% to 529.4 for January through August this year, according to Publishers Information Bureau.

"The issue comes down to how they stack up when you get to value-added situations," Ferber says. If advertisers buying 200 titles need to trim, she says, Outside will most likely feel the pain.

While Publisher Scott Parmelee concedes it can't offer certain amenities, he quickly adds that Outside's independence makes it more nimble than most. "It's easier to react to change," he says. That flexibility is what attracted Julie Miller, a media supervisor at Omnicom Group's GSD&M who has bought space for client Land Rover: "They're more willing to listen to our ideas."

alluring audience

The magazine's demographics are also enticing, Miller says. The reader profile skews toward educated males who earn more than $70,000 annually. The title finds itself competing head on with National Geographic Adventure and Wenner Media's Men's Journal, as well as niche titles like Rodale's Backpacker and Time4Media's Ski.

Outside's position and high-end statistics also appeal to other publishers. "Outside magazine is one of the companies most frequently mentioned as a company other publishers would be interested in acquiring," says Reed Phillips, managing partner at media investment firm DeSilva & Phillips.

And all have been turned down, for now.

When asked about remaining independent, Burke hedges his bets. He says he can't imagine selling, but a moment later, the 59-year-old brings up getting older and estate planning. "I would want to make sure Outside finds the right home," he says.

But even as he contemplates where Outside might fit elsewhere, many industry observers-and Burke himself-say they can't envision the man and the magazine separating. The publication is his baby, born after Burke spent five years on his own adventure sailing around the world. Twenty-five years later, his active lifestyle still embodies the brand.

"Everything I do in my personal life is about Outside," he says. In 1995 Burke moved the publication to tranquil Santa Fe from downtown Chicago because he wanted a change of pace. "I have no interest in any other business endeavor," he says. "Outside is the whole picture for me personally."

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