The success of a start-up magazine rests on many factors, not the least of which is a catchy name. Earlier this year, local publishing executive Steve Hull found himself struggling to choose a moniker for his new glossy lifestyle magazine, which would cater to the denizens of Kensington, Potomac, Cabin John, Silver Spring, Bethesda, Rockville and Gaithersburg. But Montgomery County Magazine didn't exactly roll off the tongue.
What Hull really wanted was a title that embodied the aspirations of the affluent people he was trying to reach. Upon further reflection, Hull settled on Bethesda Magazine.
"A lot of people consider [Bethesda] the good life. This represents what they'd hope they would achieve with their life," he said.
Hull wants to document the good life -- and its occasional hassles, from parking to remodeling problems -- and present it in a perfectly bound, full-color format.
In June, about 30,000 residents in southern Montgomery received Bethesda Magazine's restaurant guide at home. The first regular issue arrives in mailboxes this week. Readers in targeted Zip codes will receive several more issues for free, but eventually they will have to pay $19.95 for an annual subscription. Newsstand copies cost $3.95.
These aren't great days for print advertising, which hasn't totally recovered since 2001. And Bethesda Magazine will have to compete for Montgomery County readers and advertisers with the Montgomery County Gazette (which is owned by The Washington Post) and the Journal Newspapers, and for lifestyle readers and advertisers with the Washingtonian magazine.
Hull said Bethesda Magazine isn't going to be newsy; it will offer narrative features instead. Nor, he said, is his magazine competing directly with the Washingtonian. In fact, he thinks Washingtonian's success as a regional magazine creates an opening for smaller publications which don't have to be as relevant to readers and advertisers in Reston or Manassas.
True to its local focus, the September issue of Bethesda magazine doesn't stray far from its readers' doorsteps. One story charts a Massachusetts couple's year-long quest to buy an $800,000 home in southern Montgomery. Another article follows one family's house renovation. A third feature narrates a night in the kitchen of a Bethesda Chinese restaurant.
"People here are obsessed with two things: eating out and remodeling their homes," said Julie Beaman, the magazine's "Habitat Editor."
So far, Washingtonian editors aren't exactly looking over their shoulders. "I don't think we're worried [about Bethesda Magazine]. I think there's a place for a magazine like that," said Leslie Milk, Washingtonian lifestyles editor and Bethesda resident.
Advertisers appear willing to give the newcomer a try. After a slim debut issue, Bethesda Magazine's ad revenue grew 140 percent by the September edition, Hull said.
Starpower Communications LLC bought three full-size pages of advertising in the September issue. "We're not in every county in the region," said David Carmen, senior sales manager. "Their circulation met our serviceable area nicely. Almost exactly."
Joe Stromick, owner of JS Audio, which sells and installs audio and home theater systems, signed on for one year of ads. Stromick had previously advertised in Washingtonian, but said he found it "too costly to be effective."
Bethesda Magazine's ads cost less than Washingtonian's, though it offers about one-fifth the circulation -- a fact that hasn't gone unnoticed. "For the exposure, [the price] was high," said real estate agent Krystyna Litwin.
Advertisers are paying for quality presentation and readers, not just quantity of eyeballs, Hull said. "I'm trying to prove that a national quality magazine can work at a local level," he said.
A former senior vice president with National Journal Group -- now part of Atlantic Media, publisher of the Atlantic Monthly -- Hull struck out on his own in 2003. He took his idea for a city magazine to a private investor whom he won't name, who gave him a loan. Hull said it is costing him less than $500,000 to launch the magazine.
Before embarking on his new venture, he studied 150 city magazines, including ones in affluent edge cities, such as Main Line Today, outside Philadelphia, and Westchester Magazine, outside New York City.
Though he helped launch such publications as CongressDaily and the now-defunct Web site PoliticsNow.com, in which the Washington Post was a partner, Hull said running a start-up has been a major adjustment.
To keep costs down, Hull, 49, runs Bethesda Magazine out of his Chevy Chase home. On a recent Wednesday morning, Hull and his girlfriend, Susan Barrett, who is the magazine's associate publisher, were awakened by a phone call informing them that a truck carrying several thousand copies of the September issue was outside their Chevy Chase house, ready to unload. The two lugged the magazines from the curb to their "warehouse" -- Hull's son's bedroom closet.
Overall, Hull said, the advantages of being a small-time publisher outweigh the negatives. He has been able to assemble a relatively cheap and highly-skilled workforce of former professionals who are now stay-at-home parents. "These are mostly women who aren't in dire need of money and can make a choice to do something that is fun and interesting to them," said Beaman, a former editor and interior designer who has been at home raising two children and will continue to work at home.
Hull hosts editorial meetings in his living room. He has lunch meetings at his dining room table. "I serve grilled cheese," he said. One of his biggest advertisers is a neighbor. "I see him mowing his lawn," Hull said.