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Pop Culture Asian American Magazine Falters

After 10 years of struggling to find the right formula, Yolk will have a new home on the Web.

December 08, 2003|William Wan | Times Staff Writer

The scantily clad women were supposed to save the magazine, but in the end, even they couldn't do it.

Yolk, a pop culture magazine for Asian Americans, has folded after 10 years of scrambling to stay alive. The editors tried everything during the magazine's 31-issue run. They tried humorous articles and serious pieces. And finally, hearing the death rattle, they tried sex, adopting the photo-laden formula of racy men's magazines such as Maxim and FHM.

But the periodical never turned a profit, and now the Alhambra-based Yolk is the latest in a line of Asian American publications to fold. Like others before it, the magazine, which reached a circulation high of 50,000 in 2000, had trouble convincing advertisers about the worth of its readers: English-fluent, college-educated Asian Americans coming from vastly different cultures.

Jade, one of the first Asian American magazines, started in 1974 and lasted 13 years until a dearth of advertising killed it. New York-based A magazine lived 12 years and finally turned a profit in its 10th year with a circulation high of 200,000, said founder Jeff Yang. It went under in 2001 as the economy hit the skids.

Yolk was supposed to be different. Its focus was on young Asian Americans, a generation often ignored by the mainstream media and by Asian-language publications that targeted new immigrants. Its writers covered controversial issues affecting the Asian community as well as its rising stars, and they were unafraid to poke fun at Asian stereotypes.

But in some ways, Yolk's goal was its undoing.

"Yolk simply stands for the color of our skin," wrote then-Editor Larry Tazuma in the first issue. "If you think about it, our skin color is really the only thing that connects Asians...."

That connection wasn't enough to keep the magazine afloat, and it may have been the very thing keeping major advertisers away.

"It's hard to say, 'Let's target Asians,' " said Liming Dai of Muse Cordero Chen & Partners, an Asian-focused ad agency. "Even just culturally, Chinese is very different than Filipino."

Advertisers, Dai said, are increasingly eager to tap into the Asian market because it tends to be a high-education and high-income demographic. But the majority of their ads run in Asian-language media, as opposed to English publications.

According to Dai, the advertisers' rationale is this: "If an Asian American can consume English-language media, why spend dollars creating specific ad vehicles for them?"

For Yolk, advertisers such as General Motors Corp. and Asahi Beer came and went, testing the waters but never entering into long-term contracts, said former publisher Tommy Tam.

Yolk debuted in 1994, created by five partners -- many fresh out of college, all in their 20s and all idealistic. Among them, they had little more than $55,000 in starting capital and two credit cards, said Amy Tu, who, 22 at the time and a stock market prodigy, provided most of the money.

"We sunk over $100,000 into the magazine during the first year and a half.... I'm still waiting for my cut," she joked.

Yolk kept publishing, some years as a quarterly, other years as a bimonthly, all the while racking up losses.

Then came issue No. 9. On the cover was Playboy model Sung Hi Lee posing in a tight white bikini and fluffy angel wings on her back.

It was one of the bestselling issues. Earlier covers with fully clothed women and male actors sold 20% of the issues on magazine stands. The Sung Hi Lee issue sold more than 80%.

Yet, the staff resisted what the marketplace was saying and stayed focused instead on issues affecting the community such as discrimination against Asians in Hollywood.

That changed when current Publisher Stanley Lim came along. A former director of the Miss Korea pageant, Lim had made his mark selling calendars of Asian women. Now he was ready to infuse Yolk with $20,000 in fresh capital and fresh ideas. He proposed a new formula heavy on "guy stuff" -- reviews of video games and tech gadgets, interviews with models and more bikini-clad women, both on the cover and throughout Yolk's pages.

Some readers protested the change in editorial direction but Lim was unmoved.

"Today's standards and market mean showing a lot more skin and giving readers what they want," Lim said.

Skin or no skin, the magazine still sank, and in September, editors said that month's issue would be their last.

Just as they closed their doors, Honda Motor Co., a corporate account Yolk had chased for more than three years, offered a four-month contract with possible long-term prospects.

So Lim and the editorial staff decided to make a last-ditch effort to save the periodical by putting it on the Web. They persuaded Honda to change its contract from print ads to online banners, and later this month, Yolk is expected to be reborn as an e-zine at www.chopblock.com.

The free online magazine will follow Yolk's formula for featuring lots of "guy stuff," and Lim believes the Web site will attract more advertisers.

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