The obvious question–does the southern rim of Lake Michigan need both Lake and Shore?–is the wrong question. It doesn’t, strictly speaking, need even one, so it might as well have two. To be deemed worthy of notice by a glossy, oversize arbiter of style and culture is flattering enough; to see two of them brawling outside your door for your affection is exhilarating.
“I love both of them, and most of my friends do too,” says Karen Larkin-Johnson, a realtor in New Buffalo, Michigan, who buys ads in both magazines. “And I’ll tell you the one thing both magazines have–they have shelf life. You don’t really want to throw them away. If you have a summer house you’re renting you want to put them in a wicker basket to tell people where to go, what wine to buy.”
The right question is whether the differences between Lake and Shore that matter so much to their editors matter to the public. “They’re hot looking. They’re slick,” says a New Buffalo business owner. “I know a woman who picked one up and said, ‘I really like this. You can slip it under your arm and walk around with it.’ I don’t know if people discriminate as long as they have one of them under their arm. Not everybody wants to read War and Peace.”
The history of the two magazines would make for good beach-blanket reading in either. Owned by the Small Newspaper Group, Lake was launched as a quarterly in 2000 by Deborah Loeser Small, a journalist who married into the Small family and became infatuated with the dunes and beaches east of Chicago. Small published four issues and moved to California, but she stayed in close–perhaps uncomfortably close–touch with her new editor, the wife of Gary’s deputy chief of police. Pat Colander is a former Chicago journalist who’s led a life rich in vicissitudes. Lake would be yet another. Her first issue set a tone: it carried her interview with Donald Trump and her friend Denise DeClue’s account of the days when Nelson Algren and Simone de Beauvoir were shacking up in Miller Beach.
Lake flourished, but Colander felt constrained. “I wanted to be a regional Vanity Fair,” she said at the time. Last July she stunned Small by giving notice. The Times of northwest Indiana, a Lee Enterprises daily where she’d once worked, had hired her to run its niche-products division. Colander led a group of essential Lake staffers and writers over to the Times to fill a niche that arguably didn’t need filling. Last November she and they launched Shore.
Lake reeled. But the Small Newspaper Group rushed in magazine people to prop it up. Dennis Rodkin, a regular Chicago magazine contributor who also wrote for the Reader (as did Colander and DeClue before him), stepped in as interim editor until Colander’s successor could be found; that successor went back to Cleveland after two weeks, so Rodkin returned to his post and may stay. His publisher hopes so. “He’s not just a good writer. He’s organized,” says Mike Peterson. “He has a sense of vision.”
When I asked Rodkin about the rivalry he said there wasn’t one, because Lake operates according to an entirely different, superior set of assumptions. “The idea of doing a ‘regional Vanity Fair,’ which Pat Colander aired in your column in the past, is interesting,” he told me by e-mail. “But when you look at Vanity Fair, most of the articles are reported and written by expert reporters, people with long careers in reporting and fact-finding. There’s not so much fact-finding on view in Shore as there is the kind of me-me-me story that used to be called navel-gazing.
“The writers spend a lot of their space talking about themselves,” he continued. “You see a bit of that in Vanity Fair, but it’s by people like Dominick Dunne, who have earned–through long years of reporting–the privilege to indulge their personal stories. What I see at Shore is an extensively first-person writing style that I think excludes the reader. It’s so intensively focused on the writer that readers find it hard to discover what is special or intriguing about the person or place the story is ostensibly about. There’s this idea that the writers are personalities or demi-celebrities, which is especially ironic considering that they’re writing about such a laid-back place where ego doesn’t matter much.”
Like other successful city and regional magazines, Lake is “relentlessly about the locality we cover,” wrote Rodkin. “Those who read Lake or Shore are reading ten other magazines, and what Lake tries to do is speak in the language of those other magazines. You don’t see much first person in the New Yorker. If it’s always ‘I went here, I ate this, I did that,’ it’s more about you than the subject.”
Peterson told me that when he arrived as publisher in September Lake’s message was inconsistent and its “brand” unclear. “The people who did that are now at another magazine,” he said. “We have a real magazine editor now who understands the voice of the Lake brand. We’ve done brand-personification studies that help our writers speak with a common voice. We understand what the personality of the Lake reader, ergo, the Lake brand, really is. Great companies have to know who they are and what they stand for, and we do. We get it. When we did our personification study we learned that if Lake magazine were a person we certainly would be very societally conscious, understanding the world around us and ready to give back. A good community citizen. A friend. It’s almost as though your reader is your self-selected best friend.”
I hoped Colander would tell me brand is a word that makes her break out in a rash. She didn’t, but when she spoke about the Shore brand it was with little of Peterson’s exuberance. “We want to be the brand people identify with most, but I don’t think we’ve ever been clinical about this,” she said. Like Rodkin, she believes that once you get beyond the obligatory coverage of local socialites and their marvelous parties, Lake and Shore offer very different content. “They seem to be going more toward a Midwest Living or Sunset Magazine kind of mainstream-magazine approach to a luxury lifestyle,” she said. “I don’t like to have a model that I’m trying to fit. We want to run stories that interest readers. If they want to make rules about no first person–well, I don’t have those rules. We try to let writers do stories at the length they think they ought to be. I really believe in writers, and I really believe in photographers, and I believe in people driving the train.”
It might not make a difference what approach either editor takes–as long as realtors and developers in Harbor Country are making money hand over fist and there are advertising dollars for everyone. The editorial content is secondary. The important thing is to flatter the readers by making their lives look sleek and expensive.
Realtor Karen Larkin-Johnson called me this week with excitement in her voice. The June issues of both magazines had just appeared. “They’re identical! They’re both blue with bright yellow letters,” she announced. “They both have sky behind their names. One is on water, which is Lake, interestingly, and Shore’s on land. Lake has ‘Peerless Joys’ and up to the left in hot pink is ‘Merry Crispness–fresh fruits, cheeses, picnics & other delights.’ Shore has ‘Algren, de Beauvoir by a “Secondhand Sea.”‘”
(Colander explained to me that because fresh biographical information had surfaced, Denise DeClue was updating her tale of the two authors’ fling. In the interests of full disclosure, I must say here that DeClue figures in my will. She’s been bequeathed a fetid old poker table Algren briefly owned.)
Larkin-Johnson had examined the two magazines with a gimlet eye. She told me a big local developer whose full-page ad ran on page one of the April Lake was on the inside front cover of the June Shore and in the same issue was a four-page, totally flattering profile of this developer and his “penchant for perfectionism.” (Happenstance, say Colander and the developer. The Shore rep who sold the ad agrees. This ad rep, a Lake renegade who’d left with Colander, tells me she just quit to go back to Lake.)
In Johnson’s view the intrigue is secondary. “They’re both stunning covers,” she said. “They’re both hot covers.”
The wording hit me oddly. Not these Christians or those Christians. Just Christians. For the first time I felt aggregated, lumped into a global, monolithic religious sect. Apparently we’re all up in arms.
The poster was Steve Rhodes, a former Chicago magazine reporter and columnist, and what I’ve italicized were his links to beachwoodreporter.com, the extremely ambitious blog and e-magazine he launched a few months ago. Rhodes sounds a little frustrated. What he’s trying to create is hard work. It’s worth a visit.