Profiles for 'Grownups Who Pay Attention'
Tired of what he saw as sloppy editing and frivolous journalism, Michael Rozak started his own publication
BOSTON — MICHAEL ROZEK does a good and kindly imitation of the Long Island, N.Y., insurance salesman he talked with on the phone. "Mike," said the salesman, "my life is so darn stressful that what I do is take [the latest issue of] Rozek's and go to a locked room to read it. I tell everybody not to disturb me, and then I escape...."
What beckons the harried salesman is a calm and compelling publication called Rozek's, perhaps better characterized as an eight-page intimate letter unlike any other publication or letter commercially available today.
In each issue of Rozek's there is a single article, an engrossing, 7,000-word, diamond-clear, in-depth interview with one person. No ads. No chunks of bright sidebars. No photos. No speedboat writing that shoots spray in all directions. Just writing as clear and cool as lake water. Just the illumination of the experiences and ideas of one person engaged in one corner of life.
After 10 years of free-lance writing for most of the well-known magazines in the United States, Michael Rozek was unhappy. He disliked what he saw as the sloppy editing of his articles, the careless regard by editors for the people he interviewed, and at times the magazines' changing of facts.
"Good writing is what used to sell magazines in the '40s and '50s," said Rozek in a phone interview from his home in Seattle. "Now it's something that fits between the cracks of advertising. Magazines like Vanity Fair and GQ [write about] movie stars, flavors of the month, people who are hot for some reason having to do with crime or a fad. And their profile writers almost always put themselves in the story."
Rozek wanted to go deeper, to restore as much objectivity as possible to profiles. He wanted to write at length about little-known people who "should be luminaries but are not." He stuck his neck way out and decided to create Rozek's, and his baby is published now eight times a year for a $39 subscription.
"I like to think there is something innocent about what I do," he says. "I don't want to be cynical and jaded like the magazines. I pick subjects that are good people, intelligent, honest and substantial people who inhabit a world the reader might want to know about."
Turn the pages of Rozek's and you will have no casual meeting with Jonathan Storm, a man who records the sounds of the rain forest in the Pacific Northwest; or Dave Nemo, the host of an all-night radio show for truckers. Or Leslie Muth, the owner of a folk art gallery; or Kathy Magers, an expert fisher on the women's professional bass-fishing tour. Or a yet-to-be-published profile of Edward Robb Ellis, the 82-year-old keeper of a 20-million-word diary, the longest diary on earth.
"These are not homey, folksy people," Rozek says defensively. "To me, these are the people who should be written about if the mainstream [of magazines] hadn't fallen into a ditch."
But after a year of writing and distribution, the outlook for the continuation of Rozek's is slightly cloudy. Despite Rozek's professional skills, an ability to find just the right people, and some attempts at marketing his publication, he has managed to gather only a core of about 200 subscribers in 43 states. Not the sort of figures that sustain a writer supporting a small family with a mortgage and bills to pay.
And recently, when Rozek lost a free-lance job with a Northwest magazine he had written for since 1984, he got on the phone and tried to call each one of his subscribers. The message was: If you believe in the people and values Michael Rozek writes about, and knowing you can't get his kind of writing in any other publication, please consider renewing your subscription.
"Michael has a great product," says Fred Wackerle, a subscriber and the head of a Minneapolis firm that finds and interviews chief executives for companies. "After a number of talks with him I thought support was warranted." Mr. Wackerle lent Rozek $5,000 to do a direct-mail appeal. Results were "a failure," Rozek says. He gained only a few new subscribers.
"Michael is going to find if he can make it on his own," Wackerle says. "There is a moment when an entrepreneur needs a little more leverage," he says. "I wanted him to have faith in himself. Now he needs to find a different angel, someone able to help him market the product. I will be saddened if he doesn't make it, but sometimes man learns best through meaningful failures."
Rozek's has solid support from professionals. Dave Kindred, national columnist for the Sporting News, has written that Rozek's "is a little magazine with a big idea," and "against a tidal wave of nonsense" from magazines and newspapers desperately trying "to redefine journalism" and reducing "character to caricature," Rozek's "does profiles for grownups who pay attention."
Terry Teachout, a writer and member of the editorial board of the New York Daily News, says, "I'm just old enough to remember what the Atlantic and Harper's used to be like. Reading Rozek's for the first time reminded me of what we were missing, long pieces about people who matter."
Dave Nemo, host of an all-night show for truckers, was profiled in Rozek's. "Mike was totally accurate," Mr. Nemo says from New Orleans of the exhaustive interviewing process, "and he was relentless. He stayed with me through two shows, and we got down to the basics. I was pleased with the outcome."
Rozek, not a trained journalist, says he spends up to 400 hours on a profile. "I do from 8 to 13 hours of tapes," he says.
"Then I listen to them slowly, and go back again with more questions, and then go through the tapes again. I spend hours on the writing and rewriting."
His wife serves as a first editor for each profile.
"She'll say to me, 'You lost me here,' or 'this doesn't read right,' " Rozek says. "I don't want a reader to have any difficulty with my writing."
Rozek has no difficulty proclaiming his priority: people. "People are a reflection of the daily universe we live in," he says," and yet we are obsessed with animal rights and saving the planet. But the No. 1 priority for all of us should be other people. If people are to be loved, how are you going to love them if you don't know about them, if you don't take the time to understand?"
* Rozek's, 3423 10th Ave. West, Seattle, Wash., 98119.