Unique Magazines Grow Despite Downturn
From the urban hip-hop scene to global topics for teens, three enterprising publications are charting new waters with initial success, despite economic risks
NEW YORK — IT just isn't easy to open a magazine. Publishing one can be a wildly profitable business, but a start-up is a capital-intensive, risky project. The economy's depressed appetite for advertising space over the past few years hasn't eased the way for new publications. Last year promising literary start-ups like Wigwag folded, and some titles that seemed to have survived the make-or-break first five years, like New England Monthly, closed anyway. Then there was Men's Life, which went under right after the first issue appeared. But the enterprising reader has not to worry. At least three intriguing New York publications are succeeding in spite of the times. These magazines each share a commitment to a particular readership - two could be called trade publications - but they offer insights into important, undercovered communities: * The Source, which chronicles the world of rap music and its cultural and political faces, is almost three years old, and its editors are reaching for a Rolling Stone-like grip on the Zeitgeist of their generation. * The editor of Lingua franca says he's just putting the shoptalk of academia on paper. But for about a year he has also given us fresh, close-to-the-faculty-lounge looks at multiculturalism, affirmative action, and other social issues. * Six-month-old Icarus is publishing literary fiction and nonfiction from writers all over the world, for young adults. One hopes its name does not signal an early demise.
The Source: Words on Hip-Hop In a newly renovated building amid the rap-oriented commercial and cultural swirl of Manhattan's lower Broadway are the offices of The Source. Here a group of young writers and editors produce journalism about rap music and the larger cultural movement that embraces it - known as hip-hop. The magazine covers the personalities and business of hip-hop, and the issues underlying the culture. "At [the] core [of rap and hip-hop] is the urban black male," says associate editor James Bernard, an African-American whose goatee, closely cropped hair, and black-rimmed glasses make him look pretty urban. Of artists like Ice-T and Ice Cube, two Los Angeles-based rappers who tell stories about life on the street, he says: "These are people we were never supposed to hear from.... Now they are writers," and their view of society is widely available for consumption and debate. Hip-hop, which includes urba n art forms like rap, graffiti, and breakdancing, is an expression of African-American culture that Mr. Bernard says offers appreciative young people of all races an opportunity to "forge some sense of racial unity." Bernard and his colleagues hope that young people will be unified in their desire to subscribe to The Source. "We see The Source as a life style magazine for a new generation of youth in this country and around the world," says Jon Shecter, the editor in chief and one of the magazine's two founders. He and publisher David Mays started The Source in the summer of 1988, just before their junior year at Harvard University. Their first issues were four- and eight-page efforts at covering the hip-hop scene in Boston; now they print 80,000 copies of their 64-page, monthly product. Mr. Shecter says the magazine is alre ady profitable. (At a recent conference panel on hip-hop culture an audience member questioned why blacks support a magazine founded by two whites, but "Boyz N The Hood" director John Singleton and rapper Q-Tip, of a group called A Tribe Called Quest, spoke highly of The Source's credibility.) The Source wavers between the sycophancy of a "fanzine" and the critical insight of a journal. The magazine always features interviews with rappers, typically reproduced in Q&A fashion. Shecter says readers want to see the actual words of the rappers, but sometimes the interviewers toss embarrassing softballs. In the September issue Ras Baraka asks Ice Cube: "What's 'Boyz N The Hood' about?" This kind of interviewing occasionally explores the obvious more closely than it does the forces and ideas behind hip-hop culture. The writer gets around to asking Cube about urban violence and the motives behind his music, but there's a good deal of fluff. Commentary from Bernard and Shecter, among others, can shine. In his column last September, called Doin' the Knowledge, Bernard writes about interviewing incarcerated gang members in California, and the difficult silence he endured after asking one of them about "Colors," a film about gangs in Los Angeles. It wasn't a stupid question, he writes, it was just that his interviewee had never been asked for his opinion or been able to tell his own story. Bernard goes on to reflect on the story-telling power o f rap, and how it has brought black history into popular view. Shecter has a September piece on the meteoric success of "Niggaz4Life," an album by the group N.W.A (Niggers with Attitude) that topped the pop charts in June. He takes the long view, addressing the album and the press coverage that its success engendered. "Face it:" he writes, " 'Niggaz4Life' contains harmful, hurtful words. It is unnecessarily violent, and it is sexist to a disgusting degree.... But understand that 'Niggaz4Life' is real hip-hop. Not Hammer, not Ice [two successful pop rappers], this is the sound of rap music from the streets, created and performed by talented artists who refuse to sell out. The real niggaz know what their fans want and their fans respond. With real dollarz."
Lingua franca: Witty academics "The face the [academic] profession presents is so desiccated," says Jeffrey Kittay, former French literature professor at Yale University. "And it's a bum rap," he says, because people go into academia driven by "passion, blood, adrenaline." Mr. Kittay is looking a little desiccated himself, since it's July in New York and the pillow of mugginess is choking off all intelligent life forms outside. But just as an air-conditioned restaurant and a bottle of mineral water are perking him up, so his magazine, Lingua franca, is intended to enliven his former profession. Kittay put out a trial issue in June of last year before starting bimonthly publication in January. After five issues and a $200,000 investment, he has got 14,000 subscribers and sells about 1,500 copies on newsstands and in bookstores. He is still in the red, he says. The magazine is a witty survey of things important to academics in the humanities and social sciences. There's a section of short, often funny pieces in the front - called "salty peanuts" in the trade because reading one makes you want another - and a section that focuses on publishing, which is of course the bane of academic life. The feature articles in the April issue, probably the best of the lot so far, include a discussion of why "academics are the worst-dressed middle-class occupational group in the country," an inside look at the process of recruiting a minority professor, and a profile of the National Association of Scholars, a conservative-backed organization that is part of the multiculturalism debate. Kittay's periodical isn't offering any answers to the burning academic quandaries of the day, but it does "aerate" the d iscussion, to use his word. Though geared to its audience, the humor of Lingua franca is funny for the rest of us. In the June publishing section a writer explains one reason why sociology books have fallen out of favor since the 1960s: "The stun gun of sociological prose stupefied too many otherwise alert readers."
Icarus: Already flying high In the office of Roger Rosen's small New York publishing house, founded by his parents in 1950, an entire wall is given over to the staple of his business: books for teenagers on a wide variety of social topics, such as date rape, parental illiteracy, and values. Hard-bound and simply written, these books aren't literature, but they meet a demand. And they sell. In roughly the middle of the shelving, there is some empty space for a new product very different from the rest of the books. Mr. Rosen has started a quarterly magazine of literary writing for young adults, called Icarus. It is too soon to tell whether there's a huge demand for this publication, although he says sales of some 8,000 copies have already made the venture profitable. (He adds that the marketing apparatus in place for the rest of his titles has helped.) Icarus is influenced by the British literary magazine Granta - they both publish quality nonfiction as well as fiction, and they are similar in their bookish size and spare, clean design. But Rosen is pitching his periodical to young people, although it's hard to tell from reading it, and he has also imbued Icarus with a resolutely international perspective. "We feel that American youths are blinkered in their perspectives and limited in their access to international perspectives," he says. Each edition is focused on a theme - the latest one is called "Street Gangs: Gaining Turf, Losing Ground." It features reports from Los Angeles, which you would expect, but also dispatches about gangs in the Philippines, Ireland, and South Africa, which you might not expect. The first edition of Icarus covered teenagers in war, and the second focused on apartheid. Rosen's contributors - journalists from publications like the Los Angeles Times and the London Times, fiction writers like Doris Lessing, as well as photographers and artists - aren't "dumbing down" their work for a teen audience. Rosen says an eighth- or ninth-grade reader can handle "just about anything," although the contributors are asked to keep what Rosen calls "the next generation" in mind.