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A Magazine Mogul for the 'Affluential' Set

September 21, 2003|JANET KINOSIAN

When publisher Michael Kong launched Angeleno magazine four years ago, the general-interest magazine business was in the doldrums. But Kong's niche is "luxury lifestyle" publishing, and his strategy of hooking up L.A.'s "affluential" consumers to a glossy kaleidoscope of luxury-product ads has paid off: Angeleno is flourishing in a market that includes Los Angeles magazine and recent lifestyle start-ups such as "V Life," a spinoff of Variety. Kong, 38, who grew up in Ventura and lives in the Hollywood Hills, studied at Dartmouth and the University of Chicago. In 1994, he debuted Chicago Social, the first of his three Modern Luxury magazines. Riviera, which covers Orange County, was launched in 2001. We asked Kong for some feature commentary.

How would you answer the criticism that Angeleno isn't journalism but advertorial?

Advertorial is a dirty word meaning paid-for editorial [content]. Quid pro quo. That's not what we do. We're about lifestyle, which happens to cross the luxury-goods category that advertises. We don't write about--nor do we pretend to write about--politics, sports, news and information, the economy. If we tried to do investigative journalism, we'd stink at it. It's not our culture. We're aesthetically oriented.

What's a thumbnail sketch of your readership?

We write for people in love with being in the city. These aren't the types to live in a small town, in the country, or even necessarily in the suburbs. They choose to live in the city--and that's a key word, choice--and are willing to put up with the negatives of city living. We write for dedicated urbanites.

Yet your publication doesn't have a negative thing to say about the city, or about anything. It's feel-good, which is how advertisers want readers to react.

Well, we're not feeling good about advertisers, per se. I tell my editors: Begin with an ideal of what Los Angeles should be, in its perfection, and then find the people, resources, places, venues that come as close to that ideal as possible. We could review a restaurant and trash it, but I don't see the point. There are 10,000 L.A. restaurants that you don't want to go to. Tell readers where they should go.

If Angeleno had been launched in, say, Manhattan, how would it differ?

Unlike New York, where anything you could want is within walking distance, with L.A. you're on your own. We need editorial management. It's a city with a gigantic terrain. We distill all the great reasons why you like living in Los Angeles, so you'll say after a long, tough workweek, "L.A. is so great. I love this city." I like to think of it as urban rejuvenation.

Why is the luxury niche flush at a tight time for the magazine industry?

There are more and more media now. People are more niche in their thinking. And advertisers who support media, their product targets are getting narrower and narrower. It's not just ''we're an upscale jeweler.'' It's ''we're an upscale Italian jeweler, with a certain point of view, a certain geographic core trade-zone, maybe we're more celebrity-oriented, maybe we're more conservative.'' I wouldn't want to be a general-interest city magazine right now.

But don't general-interest city magazines write for all of Los Angeles?

I remember reading in the inaugural note by Los Angeles magazine's then new editor how expansive it was going to be: how it was going to cover the entirety of the city. I remember thinking to myself, people who live in Bel-Air don't care about what's going on in Beverly Hills, let alone Boyle Heights. And it's foolish, in my opinion, to think they do.

You've copped to the traditional celebrity cover. Why?

Because celebrities are a big part of the L.A. world. And celebrities get used for their commercial value all the time. We like to choose, however, people like Adrien Brody. Now he's gigantic but at the time we did his cover he was relatively unknown. He's a quirky, interesting actor. We don't like to do people who are so expected: Jennifer Aniston on the cover, again, Salma Hayek on the cover, again. It's very satisfying to put someone on the cover and then a couple months later they become huge.

What would a post-celebrity magazine world look like?

I think the power of celebrity is going up and up and up, not the other way around. They've become big business in terms of endorsing products, almost like sports endorsers. Jennifer Aniston wears an earring to the Oscars and it's worth a half-million in advertising. So, no, I don't see the possibility of a post-celebrity magazine world, but I do think there are smart and interesting ways to use celebrity in editorial. We try to do that by choosing people in their upswing curve. Readers start getting into that mind-set: Here's another guy I should know about. It goes along with an insider strategy, which L.A. runs on.

Which means?

You're at a dinner party and you say to your girlfriend, "I love those earrings. Where did you get them?" Or someone's talking about the great little spa retreat they've discovered, or an off-the-path downtown eatery. Everyone in L.A. listens to this stuff. In my opinion, no one really likes Los Angeles when they first come here. They don't get it. It's not great looking; it's very inconvenient, daunting and large. But after a few years, you love it because you get inside it. L.A.'s the ultimate insider's town. It's not as obvious as it pretends to be.

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