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Pittsburgh's Lifestyle Magazines Might Herald the Future of Journalism. Or a Deepening Narcissism. Or Both.

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As if my evening couldn't get any stranger. After hanging out at my favorite Strip District bar, downing a half-dozen mojitos, I found myself caught up in the throbbing dance music of a nearby club, dancing to primal rhythms I couldn't hear but only feel in my ribcage. Hours later, I was in someone's living room, preparing to snort a line of cocaine off the taut stomach of a 21-year-old blonde. But then April Hubal, publisher of MANIAC magazine, called me on my cell.

"It's time for our interview!" she yelled. In the background I could hear someone screaming, and the distinctive sound of a bare human torso being struck with dollops of egg foo yung. I was on my way out the door, preparing to be swept into a world of high fashion, low morals and a disco-ball sky.

Actually, none of this happened. When I met with Hubal, it was in a totally bare Downtown office. The only decoration was a dead potted plant. But according to editor Jennifer Petrini, who like Hubal is only 26, if I want to live out my fantasies, I might want to hire on as a MANIAC staffer: "We live our content. You never know where the night's going to take you." In its 18 months of publishing fashion spreads and lifestyle features, says Hubal, MANIAC has sought to establish itself as "a brand, an identity, a lifestyle" ... for professionals who are mild-mannered by day, and raging partiers by night.

MANIAC columnist Christy Lane, for example, recently described a romantic tryst with a member of the Backstreet Boys; Lane's candor extended to identifying the size of his progenitive organ as "nine quarters in a row." (Lane never identified the Backstreet Boy, but a City Paper investigation reveals that she was once romantically linked to Nick Carter. And that nine quarters laid end-to-end measures just shy of eight-and-a-half inches.)

But I don't need to work for MANIAC to be swept into that disco-ball sky. All I need to do is read it ... or any of the other "lifestyle" or "consumer lifestyle" magazines that are cropping up in town.

Since 2001, Pittsburgh has also been served by Whirl, the society magazine that offers countless photos of socialites at the latest charity ball, and tips for shopping, eating and dressing just like they do. Last year saw the introduction of Pittsburgh Metropolitan, a glossy fashion magazine that mixes feature stories with fashion spreads filled with full-page images of $180 shirts. And just this month, the Post-Gazette began offering a magazine version of its weekly "Seen" social column, complete with profiles of interior designers.

This fare isn't exactly new: Venerable Pittsburgh Magazine has always run consumer and lifestyle features, and magazines like Shady Avenue have offered their own vision of the affluent life. But in Pittsburgh and across the country, says industry observer Mike Bustell, cities are seeing an explosion in such publications. Lifestyle publications offer "mostly eye-candy and shallow editorial," he says, but they may yet transform the media. "What USA Today was to daily journalism, these things might be to magazines."

Where did all these magazines come from, and can they all stay in business? Do they betoken an increasing materialism or narcissism in Pittsburgh? Will we all start dressing better now?

And why is a smart, assertive businesswoman like April Hubal publishing a magazine whose February/March cover features a woman in lace stockings, holding a lollipop in front of her crotch? Is she trying to appeal to the degenerates who read, well, City Paper?

Hubal shrugs. While she and her two female full-time staffers "have a voice and aren't afraid to use it," she says, "I don't consider us feminists." She and Petrini both graduated from Pittsburgh-area colleges a few years ago, and they believe Pittsburgh can be just as stylish as New York. In New York, "People don't raise an eye" at such imagery. Hubal flings a copy of Las Vegas magazine on the table, its cover featuring a nearly nude supermodel. "I mean, look at this. We're asking, 'Can you handle where society is going?' Because we'll take you there."

***

Sitting on a back porch overlooking the West End Bridge, Jack Tumpson is the picture of contentment. "This community embraced us immediately!" he exclaims, unperturbed by the sound of floorboards being torn apart in the Duquesne Heights home behind him.

That home, where Tumpson and his wife Christine lived, is now the offices of Whirl, the society magazine they founded in 2001. A pipe burst the night before, leaking water all over at least one office computer, but if that bothers Tumpson, he's not letting it show. As with other trends in Pittsburgh publishing, and Pittsburgh politics, Whirl is all about staying upbeat.

Before Tumpson got into publishing, he was a local concert promoter. The ventures aren't much different: Instead of boosting those in the spotlight, he now promotes the people in the crowd. Each month, his magazine publishes photos of those attending charity fund-raisers and other society gatherings across the region. Says Tumpson, "We're a regional lifestyle magazine that focuses on personalities, events and community."

The magazine took root, Tumpson says, after he returned to Pittsburgh from a stint in Nashville. "My wife and I realized we'd been taking this city for granted. ... At that time ... 1999 and 2000 ... there was a lot of energy: The stadiums were just opening, [the redevelopment of] Fifth/Forbes looked like it was going to happen, and 9/11 hadn't happened."

Tumpson also credits as inspiration the society page of the Tribune-Review and the Post-Gazette's weekly "Seen" column. Both document society gatherings around town, and Tumpson saw potential. "When I left for Nashville, 'Seen' was one column with no photos," he says. "When I got back, it was three pages long."

Now it's even larger.

On June 2, the Post-Gazette rolled out an expanded once-a-month magazine version of the "Seen" page. Distributed to subscribers with the Monday paper, the full-color magazine offers even more photos of socialites, plus lifestyle features.

"Advertisers and readers were telling us how much they wanted to see more photos in color," says Marylynn Uricchio, the editor of Seen. Urichhio says the magazine is part of a natural evolution. "The P-G sort of started all this ... I guess we take the blame ... 20 years ago, with a little society column by Jim Richardson."

Popular a century ago, society pages fell out of fashion in the postwar years, but have undergone a resurgence. Publications like Tumpson's, in which the rich and not-so-famous celebrate themselves in print, have thrived for years in places like Palm Beach. "You might question those magazines philosophically, and they're totally ad-driven," Tumpson says. "But they are beautiful."

Indeed, Uricchio says conventional reporting has its own philosophical problems. "Many news organizations have decided that news has to be bad. At the same time, news has become really generic. Seen is local news, about local people doing good things."

Does such coverage suck up resources from more important stories? "You can say the same thing about sports," Uricchio says. "If a new CEO comes to town, people want to know what he looks like ... and more importantly, what his wife looks like. People want to know who their neighbors are."

Certainly Pittsburgh's society pages aren't afraid to celebrate, and make celebrities of, each other. In 2002, Whirl's third issue featured Uricchio on its cover, and a February 2002 "Seen" column returned the favor: "Whirl is creating a swirl of excitement in town. Now that Pittsburgh finally has its own glossy society magazine ... everybody wants to be in it." Apparently so.

"Ultimately, you can't say it isn't all a little silly," acknowledges Tom Sokolowski, the head of The Andy Warhol Museum and no stranger to society pages. Still, he notes that the surest way to get into the society page is by organizing and contributing to charitable events. "If being in a magazine or newspaper gives someone kudos for their generosity," Sokolowski says, "I don't think it's such a bad thing."

And let's face it: if these publications sometimes trumpet style over substance, they're in the right place. Throughout the 1990s, Pittsburgh itself was looking for the right image, the "brand identity" to convince people it was hip and sophisiticated. Accordingly, to hear Tumpson tell it, getting photographed for his magazine isn't just narcissism; it's a celebration of the region. As his publishers' note in Whirl's June 2005 issue puts it, seeing Pittsburgh's social activity makes him wonder "whether the people who claim that there is 'nothing to do in Pittsburgh' and that there are 'no young people' here have been out on a night like this."

MANIAC's mission statement, meanwhile, pledges to "Redefin[e] the new face of Pittsburgh as a leading trendsetter with the sassiest fashions, hippest trends, provocative issues and breathtaking visuals." Explains MANIAC publisher Hubal, "A city isn't a city without nightlife; people go to a city for its nightlife." She could almost be channeling former Carnegie Mellon University professor Richard Florida, who insisted on the importance of a hip "scene" for a city's future.

Likewise, Whirl's paean to youth could have been cribbed from the Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project, which advocates for "young and young-thinking" professionals in an attempt to "make the region a more dynamic, engaging, and diverse place."

"I don't think it's bragging to say PUMP has helped make a lot of young people aware of how exciting Pittsburgh can be," says PUMP Executive Director Mike English. "So it's not surprising to see magazines capitalizing on that interest." The group has, in fact, helped compile Pittsburgh Magazine's annual "40 Under 40" list, which lauds the accomplishments of young go-getters.

English himself hasn't appeared in the society pages: "I'm probably not cool enough." But young and affluent PUMP members often do. The accomplishments of young Pittsburghers should be celebrated, English says. Still, "There is a delicate balance between that and appearing a little narcissistic, and we have to be careful about that."

***

Ask Betsy Benson, publisher and editor of Pittsburgh Magazine, what she thinks of the new lifestyle magazines, and she'll tell you "I wish they would all go away."

If you live in certain affluent zip codes, you might have thought the same when you find a lifestyle mag like Whirl or Pittsburgh Metropolitan in your mailbox. Copies of each are mailed directly to several thousand of the region's wealthiest residents, even those who've never heard of them. About half of Whirl's 30,000 copies get mailed free; Metropolitan sells copies in area bookstores, but also sends freebies to households with incomes over $100,000. MANIAC, meanwhile, is distributed free in 400 locations targeting a young-and-hip demographic.

Why would anyone keep sending magazines you didn't ask for? For the same reason Betsy Benson wishes they'd go away.

The purpose of these lifestyle magazines, says Mike Bustell, is to "pinpoint the high-end market some advertisers want." Bustell is an executive VP for Media Audit, which surveys the audiences for print and broadcast outlets, including City Paper. Not everyone who gets Whirl reads it, but according to Media Audit numbers, a third of all people living in $500,000 homes do. (It's too early to say anything about demographics for Pittsburgh Metropolitan and MANIAC; readers aren't yet showing up in Media Audit figures.) The magazine's "appeal is not as broad as Pittsburgh Magazine; it offers more of 'rifle shot' to advertisers," says Bustell. If you're selling boutique items with a pinpoint market, that's exactly what you want.

It's also exactly what Benson dislikes. While she stresses that Pittsburgh Magazine has been growing, she says the newer magazines are "fragmenting the market," cleaving off some high-end advertisers.

"None of our members like the trend," says Jim Dowden of the California-based City and Regional Magazine Association. Dowden's group represents city magazines like Benson's across the country, and while Whirl or MANIAC might lack the journalistic credentials of Pittsburgh Magazine, they may also be the future of journalism. In terms of ad dollars and circulation, Dowden says, "Newspapers are down, alternative weeklies are down, national magazines are down. The one sector that has been up is city and regional lifestyle magazines."

Why? Instead of taking more interest in global events after 9/11, says Dowden, "People have been staying closer to home. That means weekend getaways and home remodeling, which plays into the hands of a local lifestyle magazine." Federal tax cuts ... and the Bush administration's post-9/11 urging to shop for freedom ... have also had an effect. "This has been a consumer economy," Dowden says. "There is a suddenly a mass of people who are fashion-sensitive, and who can afford to hop into their SUV for a mountain cabin. We're seeing new periodicals in places that five years ago could only have been called farm towns."

Another factor, says Bustell, is that affluent couples are waiting longer to marry and have kids, giving them more disposable income. Even in a notoriously older market like Pittsburgh, "There are probably about 75,000 childless adults earning $75,000 a year with a white-collar job."

But how many Pittsburghers -- who pride themselves on being unpretentious -- would actually look at a magazine layout full of $179 short-sleeve shirts? "Practically every radio sales rep I know, OK?" Bustell says. "You'd be surprised how many people read these."

Not that "reading" is the point. A typical lifestyle magazine, says Bustell, offers two things: "good-looking ads and good-looking people."

The difference in emphasis becomes obvious within minutes of talking to the publishers. Ask Pittsburgh Metropolitan editor and publisher Tara Rieland what her magazine has to offer, and it's obvious she's most excited about advertising layout and design.

Rieland stresses her magazine's lack of pretension -- her business manager is her former car mechanic -- and says she's interested in stories that "can't be found anywhere else." The recent men's issue, for example, included a profile of an unsung local scuptor and a health story about being tested for testosterone levels. But she takes most pride in saying that her advertising layout is "how it's done in New York" ... with double-page ads at the front, followed by single-page ads, and so on.

Not coincidentally, Rieland was previously the ad buyer for retailers at Oxford Center, the high-end Downtown retail complex where she still works part time. And in most "consumer lifestyle" magazines, the articles themselves are a form of advertising. In fact, sometimes it's hard to tell which is which.

The February/March issue of MANIAC for example, features a write-up of "Hungarian bombshell Eva Sztupka" and her spa ... an advertisement for which graces the back cover. Similarly, Whirl's June issue profiles Chef Josef Karst of Atria's Restaurant ... who has a full-page ad on the next page. Of the eight fashion purveyors who appear in the issue's "Style Guys" feature, three have ads in the issue.

"I wouldn't call it an overlap between advertising and editorial," says Dowden about such practices. "It's a strong suspicion that there is no distinction between the two."

Metropolitan and Seen have shown little overlap so far, however, and in any magazine about consumption, it's likely that advertisers will crop up in stories. Even in an ethical bastion like City Paper, you're certain to find a Filmmaker's ad close to a review of one of its films.

MANIAC publisher April Hubal denies any quid pro quo with advertisers. However, she says, sometimes "We approach them and say, 'We'd love to do a story,' and then they say, 'We'd love to advertise.'"

Whirl publisher Jack Tumpson has a more nuanced view. "We're about promoting the region," he says, and that includes "doing as much as we can to promote members of the Whirl family. Historically, there was a black-and-white line between advertising and editorial. At Whirl, it's gray." (He says, however, that paying for ads is no guarantee of coverage.)

Benson used to edit the Pittsburgh Business Times, and says by comparison, "I think the blurring between advertising and editorial is more accepted in the magazine industry." But she has resisted that blurring herself, and believes "The real test is whether readers are willing to pay for your magazine." That's a boast her competitors, sending their magazines unasked-for, can't yet make.

Dowden agrees. "If the economy goes south" and people no longer have the money to spend on high-end retailers, "those who deliver a consistent editorial product will be the ones that survive."

Bustell is more guarded. "Some people just like to look at eye-candy. I don't think the market will ever go away."

It may even be taking over.

****

In the universe of Pittsburgh lifestyle magazines, Amber Brkich may be the queen.

A contestant for two seasons of Survivor and one season of The Amazing Race, Brkich has also been seen nationally in the pages of Stuff magazine, displaying her trim physique in lingerie and smoldering eye make-up. Pittsburghers, though, have seen a different side of her.

In her repeated appearances in Whirl and Pittsburgh Magazine, she's been the puppy-cute girl next door. When she appeared in Pittsburgh Magazine's "25 Most Beautiful People" issue last winter, she told readers she felt beautiful when people compared her to their mom or sister. It's unlikely Stuff subscribers thought of her that way.

Even as Pittsburgh lifestyle magazines transform the media celebrity into the girl next door, they also transform your next-door neighbor into a celebrity, his redecorated living room into a movie soundset. More importantly, like reality TV itself, they promise to turn the rest of us into spectators.

It's probably no accident that when asked to describe the popularity of magazines like Whirl, Jack Tumpson says, "People don't get as much human contact as they used to. You have all these reality shows going on TV; what's up with that?" Or that MANIAC editor Jen Petrini cites reality shows and HBO's Sex in the City as an influence on the magazine's identity. "We can live like that in our own way," Petrini says of the show. "Instead of Manolo Blahniks, we can wear strappy Nine West sandals." Combine that with MANIAC publisher April Hubal's ambition to create "a brand and a lifestyle," and what do you have? A lifestyle imitating a magazine imitating TV shows ... shows that claim to imitate real life.

Meanwhile, the real-life influence of lifestyle journalism is growing.

Whirl has a Wednesday morning society broadcast on KDKA-TV, and a similar tie-in with WSHH-FM. MANIAC does cross-promotions with WXDX deejay Alan Cox, and is contemplating its own fashion line. Don't be surprised if Seen gets bigger, or if the Tribune-Review someday offers a society magazine of its own. Already, it publishes an afternoon tabloid that at least once a week displays a photograph of Britney Spears or Paris Hilton on the cover. It, too, targets young professionals, with hawkers pushing it on the streets of Downtown and Oakland.

Even hoary old Pittsburgh Magazine is changing, as the "25 Most Beautiful People" issue attests. Benson is trying to boost sales at newsstands and says, "You will see more commercial covers than we used to have." While the magazine will continue to do serious journalism, she says, it may not be foregrounded in the same way. "It's all about the balance between the serious and sexy."

It was hard to see that balance in "25 Most Beautiful People," which took up 22 full pages of the magazine. It was fluff journalism, through and through. And it was also the second-most popular issue in Pittsburgh Magazine history ... finishing just behind an issue commemorating the death of beloved children's-show host Fred Rogers.

That's the Pittsburgh that lifestyle magazines serve, the Pittsburgh Amber Brkich rules.

"Everybody in the periodicals is trying to shift to a younger demographic," says Dowden. "The whole Internet thing is making us a nation of non-readers of print. The great abyss out there is all of these young folks who get their information from a screen."

As David T. Z. Mindich, author of Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don't Follow the News, put it in a recent Wilson Quarterly article, "[M]ost young people tune in to situation comedies and 'reality' TV to the exclusion of news. ... Most of the young people I interviewed had almost no measurable interest in political news."

"People are only interested in what affects their lives, because their lives are so busy," says Tara Rieland, of Pittsburgh Metropolitan. "This is a time when people are very interested in luxury. They feel like, 'I work hard, so I deserve it.' Right now, people just want to relax and enjoy more instant gratification."

Even the articles must gratify in a hurry. Rieland's fashion and lifestyle editor, Tom Watson, explains the guiding editorial principal: "If you can't finish the article during your time in the bathroom, it needs to be written by someone famous." No Metropolitan story is longer than 1,500 words; that's less than the number of words on the page you're reading now.

Assuming you're reading it at all. Says Mike Bustell of Media Audit, "Even your young liberally thinking person doesn't have time to read a three-page article. They want pictures, and they want it condensed to a page."

City Paper, of course, will go on offering the staid lefty bullshit you've come to know and love. Or at least expect. But your mind, and mine, are already being changed, our priorities re-wired, by what's out there.

Don't believe me? I'll bet you a round of mojitos that if you remember nothing else from this cover story, you'll remember the length of Nick Carter's johnson.

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