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The Battle for L.A.

Internal turmoil has left both Buzz and Los Angeles magazines searching for the pulse of the city. But, so far, neither seems to have found a toehold in . . .

May 08, 1997|IRENE LACHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

From the West L.A. window of Mark Smelzer's office at Buzz magazine, the working city shimmers in a thicket of tall buildings. But there's only one that Smelzer would like to leap in a single bound.

"That's L.A. magazine," says the boyish publisher. "It keeps us on our toes."

Buzz has been practicing its releves by appealing to its little patch of the universe--that redundancy known as hip Hollywood. Smelzer himself looks like the picture of the target Buzz reader--he's a smooth-faced 34 and dressed in black from his Elvis Costello glasses to his toes.

Across town, Los Angeles magazine is aiming at recapturing a somewhat older, but equally well-heeled crowd. At 35, the mother of all city magazines is planning yet another face lift with the imminent arrival of new Editor Spencer Beck, W magazine's features editor who was named last month--the third doyen in two years.

You'd think the city's maw for tasty things to read would be wide enough to consume both publications, given L.A.'s mantle as the nation's No. 1 book market. But both Buzz and Los Angeles magazine have been grappling with turmoil lately.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 9, 1997 Home Edition Life & Style Part E Page 2 View Desk 1 inches; 18 words Type of Material: Correction
City magazines--The name of Los Angeles magazine Editor Spencer Beck was incorrect in a photo caption in Thursday's Life & Style.

After several decades of being fat and happy, L.A. magazine was knocked over by the recession eight years ago. Circulation took a dive and the magazine has been searching for a fresh identity and a toehold in stability ever since. Upstart Buzz hasn't been immune to the game of magazine musical chairs: Only one of three founding partners has remained--Buzz Enterprises CEO Eden Collinsworth--after power shifted to new funding sources. And the recent buzz on Buzz until last month was that its very existence was on the line.

Of course, turmoil is nothing new for L.A.'s magazine world, and asking industry folk about its treacherous landscape is like asking blind men to describe an elephant. Is this a city of literary heathens or sloppy business practices? Have magazines been too slight to brave the waves of recession, which drowned half a dozen publications since the 1990 birth of Buzz? Is the rambling city too geographically and culturally diverse for any one magazine to wrap its arms around? Or is it just a matter of time before something clicks--and then is there enough clicking room for two?

"The cliche that you can't support a decent city magazine in Los Angeles is something I've always thought was untrue and libelous," says Scott Kaufer, a TV writer-producer and former editor of the now-defunct California magazine. "But with every failure and every marginal success or marginal holding action, you're tempted to think that maybe there's a germ of truth in it. I still don't because I'm fighting the fight."

Signs of Trouble

And now, the dueling contenders both seem to be enrolling in the school of magazine-lite journalism, raising the question of whether the city will buy publications that show its darker and deeper face.

Prior attempts to publish a magazine with any hard-hitting perspective on Los Angeles have run aground. In March, Michael Caruso, whose tenure at the helm of Los Angeles won awards and circulation gains, was fired in one of the first moves by new overlord Fairchild Publications.

Fairchild took over L.A. magazine's reins at the behest of the Walt Disney Co., which gained control of both when it purchased Capital Cities / ABC in 1995. Disney had considered shopping around L.A. and Fairchild but then decided to fold the hometown magazine into the New York-based group of fashion publications.

Los Angeles was reportedly bleeding $4 million a year and advertising was way off. But some magazine insiders argued that Caruso may have been able to staunch the flow given more time.

"I thought it was the best I'd ever remembered it," says Philadelphia magazine Editor Eliot Kaplan. "At their core, city magazines are service magazines. In the last six to eight months, he was starting to incorporate more of that. There wasn't a ton of heavy-duty reporting. I think it could have used more."

During Caruso's 14-month regime, circulation slipped 5,000 during his first six months. But it quickly edged up from 140,000 to 155,000. He was credited with improving the editorial content with such imaginative features as gays in sitcoms before "Ellen" came out and "L.A. to Z," which explored such arcane L.A.-iana as the legendary tunnels under Chinatown.

Caruso's downfall, some speculated, stemmed from another enterprising piece--on L.A.'s most overpaid executives, which happened to name Disney Chairman Michael Eisner. A Disney spokesman denied that, saying Eisner "would never get involved at that level."

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