What’s Going on at Inside Chicago?

We’re a long time getting around to writing about Inside Chicago. But it looked so low rent when it debuted in 1987. And we were preoccupied with Chicago Times, which soon appeared and has distracted us ever since with its stormy misadventures.

The contrast between the two new bimonthlies was telling. Chicago Times had spent tens of thousands of dollars beforehand on a direct mail campaign that gravely promised that the magazine would shower the city with erudition. Inside Chicago made no promises at all. It just showed up, with flashy, oversize graphics and writing that looked like an afterthought, like the sprinkles on a banana split. The look was arty but, unlike Stan Malinowski’s Metro Chicago, not high-arty enough to make the copy superfluous.

Chicago Times set up shop on Michigan Avenue. Inside Chicago shared space on Peterson Avenue with the owner’s nursing home operation.

Over time, the bankrolling Small family sank over two million dollars into Chicago Times, finally decided the magazine had no prospects, and bailed out. Gershon Bassman, the founder of Inside Chicago, says he’s borrowed well over two million dollars but that he understood going in that new magazines lose money for the first five years. By that token he’s doing fine; he’s expanding in ’89 from six issues a year to eight, and he tells us he might actually break even with the new July issue, two years ahead of schedule.

Clearly, Gershon Bassman did some of the key things right. “They seem to have focused on some reachable, identifiable audience segments,” says Jim Dolan, a media consultant who knows Chicago well. “If I had to position its audience, it’s a little older than the Reader’s, younger than Chicago Times’s is supposed to be, certainly younger than Chicago magazine’s. It’s an audience hardly anyone is delivering to advertisers. It lives downtown a lot, it’s got money in its pockets.”

Bassman gave us his stats: present circulation, 60,000, about half of it controlled; readers are heavily 25 to 45 years old, $35,000-plus income, mostly single, clustered in town along the lake. Bassman is a lot surer of himself talking demographics than editorial purpose. Of course, editorial purpose is what we visited him to discuss.

It isn’t true, he says, about Eleanor Mondale’s legs.

Gershon Bassman is an Orthodox Jew. In the summer of ’87, he won a battle royal with his editor at the time, Deborah Loeser (who was holding out for Judy Tenuta), and placed a gaminesque, black-sheathed Eleanor Mondale on the cover, ballyhooing a seven-page picture spread, “Chicago’s Great Legs.”

Bassman’s name vanished from the masthead that issue and it never came back. Loeser believed–everyone at the magazine believed–that Bassman was ducking heat from his rabbi.

“I took it off,” Bassman tells us, “primarily because I was getting a number of calls from people trying to get into the book for one reason or another. I didn’t want to get those calls.

“I am an Orthodox Jew,” he says, and he does have standards, even if Eleanor Mondale’s legs met them. “If it’s going to be in the house–and we are a magazine to keep around the house–I think it should be readable by any age group that’s able to read. There should not be gross language for the sake of gross language; there should not be nude pictures.”

It isn’t true, says Bassman, about the nursing homes.

Deborah Loeser was saying, “I felt very strange that the magazine was backed by old people.” Bassman says it’s not. “The nursing homes are currently losing money,” he tells us. He has seven of them. The money that keeps Inside Chicago afloat was borrowed from banks, not his other operations.

It isn’t true, Bassman might have said, about the masthead. The owner’s not on it. The “publisher,” Howard Treshansky, worked for Bassman, never paid much attention to the magazine, and is virtually retired. The “associate publisher,” Charles Mouratides, comes in as a consultant. He runs a PR agency.

Next on the masthead is managing editor Barbara J. Young, who’s been there since December of ’87, which in the context of Inside Chicago means close to forever (the magazine has gone through six art directors, according to Kristin Sagerstrom, who was one of them). What’s false here might be our assumption that Young’s experienced: Bassman hired her from the Lerner papers, not another magazine. “I want to go to the top of excellence and attract the stories nobody else will touch,” she gushed. Yeah, sure. Her departed minions do not hail her force of vision.

The next position on the masthead is senior editor. Allyson Barr, listed in the July issue, just quit. Down a ways is art director. Kristin Sagerstrom just quit.

“I know I am a very good employee and I’ve never seen such employees and they all left,” says Sagerstrom, who’s now at Playboy. “But you can’t stay when people aren’t listening.”

“In the beginning,” said Deborah Loeser, “Inside Chicago was a man, who wanted to put out a city magazine and had big plans and not a big budget, and myself, who wanted to see Chicago have a more arty, exciting, younger, more creative magazine.”

Loeser, who had been dying on the vine at a little tourist sheet called Where, was the first Bassman hire and a prototypical one: young, unproven, affordable, and hungry to create something that would make Chicago sit up and take notice.

“I felt the Chicago market wasn’t a hip market for younger readers,” she says. “In LA and New York there are half a dozen magazines to choose from. I saw Interview in its early years. I thought ‘What a beautiful magazine!’ I saw LA Style. I thought, why not something like that here?

“I wanted to do something relatively avant-garde for Chicago. I wanted something between Stan Malinowski and what Inside Chicago turned out to be, something intelligent and fun. Inside Chicago turned out to be, for a variety of reasons, kind of a throwaway magazine.”

Why? Too small a budget and too small a staff, said Loeser. And visions that never quite harmonized. Says Bassman, “She wanted more of a Stan Malinowski magazine. I wanted to provide our readers, who I felt are very intelligent, with sort of an escape but to deal with them not just at a picture level. I wanted a little more guts to it.” Says Loeser, “He really wanted to do a New York magazine. He wanted a lot of political articles. The problem was an editorial budget of $2,000–that was my first issue.” Says Bassman, “If there was a model I’d probably say New York magazine. . . . But their articles are definitely longer than we plan ours to be.”

Bassman is flinty and direct and we liked him. But we never could figure out what he wants Inside Chicago to become. New York magazine? It’s no closer to that than it is to LA Style, Details, or any of the other flashy books that inspire the whippersnappers who come and go. Inside Chicago has no je ne sais quoi, and without it . . .

Without it, it’s still got a growing flock of advertisers trolling for yuppies.

“I’m committed to it, and if I’m committed to it, it stays,” says Bassman. “I’m a very, very strong person. It’s shown its potential. It’s here. And as a matter of fact, I’m looking for the magazine to start supporting the nursing homes next year.

“And that is not a facetious remark.”

The Flag Bill of Rights

President Bush’s call for a constitutional amendment to save the flag has drawn the usual media japery. Once again, the people and its leaders line up firmly on the side of patriotism, and the Fourth Estate somewhere else. Our own feeling is that the president’s proposal can be faulted only as too modest: ever since 1791, we the people have enjoyed a whole packet of amendments to guarantee our dignity; why should the national ensign, which flies supreme over us all, make do with only one?

That’s why we’ve written up a draft of something the flag has long had coming–its own bill of rights.

(1) The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States shall not be construed to permit the flag to be destroyed, mutilated, or otherwise insulted under the guise of protected speech, or to be appropriated as a symbol for any purpose save that of expressing individual or corporate patriotism. Any purpose commercial in nature shall be interpreted as patriotic.

(2) The Second Amendment shall be understood to guarantee the right of the people to defend the flag by whatever means necessary. The variety of arms that can be borne by the people for the purpose of defending the flag shall include, but not be limited to, weapons biological, chemical, or nuclear in nature.

(3) The Fourth Amendment, prohibiting unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be interpreted to provide any sanctuary whatsoever for suspected flag desecraters.

(4) The Eighth Amendment, prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment, shall not be interpreted to prohibit symbolically appropriate punishment for flag violators, such as sending them “back” to Moscow, Beijing, Hanoi, or any other destination the state may deem appropriate.

(5) The rights not delegated to the people by the Constitution are reserved to the flag.

Well, that’s five new amendments the country badly needs, and constitutional scholars can surely come up with more. But a new bill of rights will take time, and we should be looking for quicker ways to halt the flag burners. It can be done. Consider the malcontent who chooses to vent his disloyalty not by burning the flag but by mooning the local federal building.

The police would make swift work of this gent.

But where’s the difference? Surely, indecent exposure is no more offensive to decent people than insult to the national ensign!

The difference is that indecent exposure, categorically, is already on the books. A fellow who pulls down his pants in public is equally liable to arrest whether he’s protesting American aid to freedom fighters or he’s engaged in the stainless activity of trying to sell used cars.

Americans who want to send the message to Old Glory’s foes “Not in our town, you don’t!” might take a long look at their pollution-control ordinances.