Trendsetting Titles Often Generate Buzz But Not Stable Audiences

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NEW YORK ( -- In these days of buzz and viral marketing, being on the cutting edge is great for attracting marketers who want to be seen as cool enough to ride along. But keeping hold of the hip crowd is harder.

In many ways, indie titles can quickly become victims of their own success.

Niche trendsetting magazines have attracted advertisers at least as far back as the halcyon days of Paper, Andy Warhol’s Interview and the original independent and very downtown incarnation of Details. Today’s leading crop -- including disparate titles like The Royal, Surface, Nylon, Vice and BlackBook -- does quite well too, thank you, with ads for everyone from Camel to Hummer to Samsung.

Measured by the curve
But their mainstream competitors can justify ad sales and rates with reams of audited metrics and syndicated research. For magazines of the moment, whose main measure is their distance ahead of the curve, every new moment presents another test.

Interview has expanded its audience in its 35 years but lost its old cultural punch; Advance Publications has transformed Details into something else entirely; and just this month, younger heat-seeker Index said it would close.

The biggest challenge, some said, has been the mainstreaming of the margins.

Co-opting the vibe
“What’s happened since the mid-'80s is that the downtown vibe, which essentially is what Paper represented, has been co-opted by everything,” said Aaron Hicklin, editor in chief of BlackBook, which is now assembling a February/March issue with the theme “The Next Next Big Thing.”

“From mainstream magazines to the entertainment industry, they’ve recognized that downtown is a state of mind,” Mr. Hicklin said. “They play to the gallery.”

As they combat co-optation, bleeding-edge books can only fight for position at the front and keep their eyes forward, editors and ad buyers said.

“Warhol to me was a genius and a visionary and he invented the greatest idea for a magazine,” said Ingrid Sischy, Interview’s editor in chief of 16 years. “We tried to take the ball he threw us and run with it. They key is to not sit on the good old days but make your magazine about the present.”

Interview now has an audited circulation above 200,000 copies, and the 6-year-old Nylon has also surpassed the 200,000 mark. But today’s hip crowd mostly hovers at lower levels. The fashion, architecture and design book called Surface has paid circulation of 128,750, for example, while Blackbook, a magazine about “progressive culture,” has 150,000.

Purposefully small
The Royal, a quarterly digest that dwells on culture and marketing, even positions its diminutive size and distribution as an advertiser’s asset. “Each limited-edition issue is regarded as a collector's item and is religiously coveted,” its Web site claims. “This, along with our small, intimate size creates an unusually high pass-along rate, adding extra value to your marketing dollar.”

Numbers aside, smaller titles must find ways to impress agency gatekeepers. “There’s a leap of faith for some of these alternative publications,” said Christopher O’Connor, senior VP-group account director, MPG. One near-prerequisite is visibility, Mr. O’Connor said. “One key for these guys who are producing these books in the first place is getting some exposure and distribution out in the marketplace and getting us aware of it.”

To that end, even in the early days, Interview threw big bashes at clubs like Studio 54. Most of the niche titles today host regular parties that unite designers and artists with advertisers and agencies.

Influencing the trends
But the real coin of this realm is influence. Surface angles not for trend reporting or trend forecasting, but trend formation, said Shailesh Rao, managing editor. “We are at this kind of nexus of all these inputs from advertisers and the design world and the creative world and emerging talent and people with funding,” he said. “We sit amidst that having the know-how to put it together and make advertisers happy, the creative community happy and readers happy.”

But getting through those obstacles still can lead to one terrible trap: finally finding the spotlight.

New financial backers at Blackbook, for example, changed the locks earlier this year to keep out the founder, Evan Schindler, whom they accused of asking advertisers to pull out. “It’s the same old story,” Mr. Schindler told The New York Post in May, strenuously denying any interference with advertisers. “I started a small, indie mag and made it into something great. It got big and successful, and we took in partners who said they could do amazing things. And then …”

Last year, Emap shut down The Face, a 24-year-old British book of youth culture, style and music that had attracted a relatively small but absolutely fervent audience in the U.S. It had lived concretely ahead of the masses, as demonstrated by its use of a 14-year-old Kate Moss before she was a fashion staple.

“What happened to The Face -- and it’s a real danger to most magazines -- is that it became a victim of its success,” Mr. Hicklin said. “As magazines grow, you want to sustain the illusion that you serve a very small hip group of tastemakers that have an inside track on something.”

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CORRECTION: The original version of this story incorrectly reported that Tokion magazine was closing. The title is not closing and will continue to publish under a new owner, Larry Rosenblum's Downtown Media Group, which acquired the magazine this month and plans to build a niche company around the brand name.

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