When they are good, they can be very good. But even when they are not, they can be very, very profitable. City magazines, the slick and glossy publications that circulate principally in the metropolis whose name they bear, are a boom sector of the publishing industry.
Exact statistics are hard to come by because city magazines tend to be privately and locally owned. But industry observers call the city magazines, with their cousins, the regional magazines, the fastest-growing segment of the magazine business, in terms of circulation and advertising.
The emphasis in these journals often seems to be on ''life style'' coverage, and the prose to be light and fluffy, rather like a nice omelet. The magazines are often almost embarrassingly fat with ads. And in some cases they literally reek of affluence, as the fragrance of scented samples attached to perfume ads wafts up to the reader.
But Ron Javers, editor since 1982 of Philadelphia Magazine, defends city magazines as ''the last repository of solid, general-interest magazine journalism'' in the country. Decrying the ''ghettoization'' of the magazine industry, with the market shattered into slender slivers of specialty publications, Mr. Javers says, ''The city magazine still does it all.''
In one sense, the ''city books,'' as publishers call them, are specialty magazines. Their demographics indicate an audience any advertiser would like to sink its teeth into; ''upscale'' is the operative word.
Readers of these magazines ''have an average household income of $68,000; 55 percent are college graduates, 25 percent are in top management positions, and 88 percent have professional or managerial positions,'' says Ray Nordstrand, publisher of Chicago magazine and president of the City and Regional Magazine Association. He's citing a 1983 study of 24 of CRMA's 40 members, whose combined annual sales are said to be well over $100 million.
In another sense, though, city and regional magazines are ''mass magazines,'' argues Gregory Curtis, editor of The Texas Monthly, in Austin. (Strictly speaking, it's not a city magazine; but, as a three-time National Magazine Award winner, it is highly enough regarded that industry people asked to name the best city books usually mention it.)
''If you take our market penetration here in Texas and extrapolate it nationwide, you'd get a circulation like that of a national magazine; not TV, and not Time or Newsweek, but something not far behind,'' Mr. Curtis says. At their best, he adds, city magazines can be top-quality writing in a mass publication.
Others among the most prosperous city books have similar claims. Chicago's Mr. Nordstrand says his 220,000-circulation magazine, which grew out of the program guide for the radio station with which it is still jointly owned, reaches 1 out of 5 Chicago readers and grabs more college graduates than the Sun-Times.
Philadelphia Magazine, with a circulation of 143,000 monthly, claims a market penetration of 41 percent of metro Philadelphia households with annual incomes of $50,000 and up.
But there's more to it than upscale demographics, insists Mr. Javers - who is , remember, an editor, not a publisher. ''What this magazine has going for it is a strong tradition of investigative journalism, and not just reviewing the local quiche bars.''
Javers insists that local-angle stories don't have to be parochial. ''A story that runs in our magazine ought to be able to appear anywhere.''
On the other hand, Philadelphia Magazine is no slouch at covering the less-than-cosmic issues. The cover headline in May, for example, proclaimed, ''Philly loves junk food!'' and pictured Ben Franklin toting a tremendous hoagie.
There is a certain balance, though. That same issue also had a group of articles on the resurgence of militarism in the United States, under the rubric ''The Return of Gung Ho.'' The coverage included a profile of Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr. The piece had a local-angle introduction, identifying ''the man presiding over the biggest naval buildup in military history'' as a ''Philadelphia Kelly'' - a cousin of Princess Grace, as is explained later.
Like many other city books, Philadelphia has its roots in a chamber-of-commerce publication that has evolved from controlled to paid circulation, with advertising revenues increasing accordingly.
''The magazine in its present form goes back to 1959,'' says Javers, when D. Herbert Lipson, its current publisher, took over from his father, who had bought it from the local chamber of commerce in 1948. In the 1960s, when most city magazines, such as they were, were publishing mostly civic cheerleading, Philadelphia was taking on such worthies as the Pearl S. Buck Foundation and a star investigative reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer, who, the magazine claimed, was extorting money from the subjects of potential exposes in return for keeping quiet.
The tradition continues, and observers asked for a short list of city magazines with strong traditions of investigative journalism almost always name Philadelphia.
It is this background that gave Philadelphia's editor at the time, Alan Halpern, his claim to be the ''father of the modern city magazine,'' says Javers. (What about New York Magazine? you may ask. It was launched in its present form in 1967. Publisher Clay Felker ''talked to Alan before he (Felker) started out,'' he adds. Philadelphia seems fated to be the place where ideas get started before becoming famous elsewhere.)
In any case, the new breed of city and regional magazines flowered during the late '60s and early '70s. There are 50 of them with audited circulation, says Mr. Nordstrand, 100 others that are not audited but accept national advertising, and then perhaps - he estimates - another 100 smaller general-interest city and regional magazines.
The prosperity of the magazines is largely a function of size, according to Nordstrand, and he denies the comment heard from some quarters that ''publishing a city book is like having a license to print money.''
''Those in the big markets are doing well,'' Nordstrand says. ''There's been solid growth in the medium-size markets. In the smaller markets, it's an uphill battle,'' but, he adds, ''it's getting better every day.''
A major-market city book can attract a fair amount of national advertising. Boston Magazine publisher James P. Kuhn says, ''We expect 425 to 450 national ad pages this year.''
But advertising can be problematic for a city magazine in a mid-size or small market. However upscale a magazine's readership is, its small market will mean it can't command the same ad rates as a national publication.
''To do a good city magazine you have the same editorial and production costs as national magazines - staff costs, fees, etc.'' says Mr. Nordstrand. ''But your advertising rates are limited by the size of your market - and so your profitability is limited.''
High production costs over a relatively small circulation base mean a city magazine doesn't have the economies of scale that a national one enjoys.
The CRMA is trying to get around that problem with a newly launched marketing arrangement that will let a national advertiser buy space in several member publications with one order.
How are city magazines doing as ''serious journalism''?
''It seems as though the farther west you go, the 'softer' you get,'' one observer comments. By this he means not that chamber-of-commerce puffery prevails - ''Nobody does that anymore'' - but that what the industry calls ''service'' articles, including the inevitable restaurant reviews, predominate.
Mr. Kuhn says, ''A city magazine should reflect its market. In some markets they just don't expect investigative journalism'' in city magazines.
But the Texas Monthly's Mr. Curtis says the charge of ''softness'' is ''East Coast snobbism.'' Speaking of one notably successful West Coast magazine, he says, ''It's so fat with ads, and yeah, they run movie stars on the cover. That blinds people to some of the good stuff that's in there.''