Modern Times

Plus: School Spirit; Evil Eyes Averted

 Modern Times
New mags go after D and Paper City's lock on luxury

Barbara Banner is a vice president of Merrill Lynch in Dallas. She is a smart, cosmopolitan woman who in no way resembles the Dallas socialites bird-dogged by Dallas Morning News society columnist Alan Peppard. But because she is in a certain tax bracket, a few months ago she received in the mail the first issue of Modern Luxury Dallas, one of several new entries into the upscale fashion/lifestyle mag market to launch in D-FW this year. (You may have seen one at Starbucks, where they gave away a few of the first issues this summer.)

There are no stories of scandal or intrigue in Modern Luxury. Yet Banner found herself transfixed as she flipped through it. As editorially lightweight as oversized pages of models preening on heavy stock may be, it's pretty intoxicating to look at something so unashamed of its money and good taste. It's why the name "luxury title" should give way to what it actually is: a "wish book."

"[It's] a beautiful magazine," Banner says. "The photos of the clothing are works of art. It's slick and sophisticated, and although I may not be the typical 'Dallas woman,' I can see its appeal to those who are."

She's not the only one. Last week, Shamrock Capital Growth Fund, owned by the Roy E. Disney family, invested more than $50 million in Modern Luxury's Chicago-based parent company, Modern Luxury Media. This was not only to support the company's five titles (in Chicago, Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego and Dallas), but also to fund its planned growth to a total of 15 big-city markets, all the better to please national advertisers like Cartier, Gucci and Mercedes-Benz.

In each of these markets, as in Dallas, Modern Luxury will find itself competing with several types of publications that also cover fashion, restaurants, local celebs, design and the high-society culture. In Dallas, D magazine covers all these areas, as does Paper City. Mainstream publications like The Dallas Morning News have special pages or columns to give these perfunctory coverage, and the Dallas Observer and sites like Guide Live take restaurant coverage seriously. And every one of these products would love the high-end advertisers in each of these areas. The unique thing about the newcomer from Chicago is that it covers these things only, and it does so in an oversized, gorgeous format. Not only that, but since each publication is formatted the same with few exceptions--not unlike how this paper's parent company formats its alt-weeklies in other cities--media planners can fit their ad campaigns into each market unchanged.

In other words, the reason Disney invested in the company is obvious: So long as the rich are willing to spend money, Modern Luxury offers a local coffee-table how-to catalog for them to do so.

"The major boutiques like Gucci and Cartier and St. John, they all want in the local publications in the top-10 markets," says John Carroll, group publisher of Modern Luxury. (He oversees Chicago, Dallas and the soon-to-debut magazine in Houston.) "But because they spend a lot of money to photograph and create these beautiful ads, they want an appropriately luxurious vehicle to showcase their product. We give that to them."

But is there enough money in Dallas to support these titles as well as others like Beautiful and MILK? Wick Allison, publisher of D, says there's "too much money."

"This is a phenomenon nationwide, because the luxury market is so enormous now," says Allison, whose magazine also sports high-end advertisers like Cartier and Elie Tahari. "When I began doing this [in the early '70s], we had a larger share of this market in Dallas. But now, even with a smaller share, we make more money. It's that big."

Still, no publisher believes fully in the "pie-is-plenty-big-for-everyone" theory. They want the entire advertising cake. The whole moolah enchilada. The largest bite of Dallas cheese. How, then, to protect their [insert foodstuff here] from the glossy interloper?

Simply adapt, Allison says.

"When Paper City came in six years ago, it hurt us," he acknowledges. "They took part of our fashion advertising. But we adjusted to that. We had to diversify. And that's led to this year, the best [revenue] year in our history. Now, with these new competitors, we'll be able to adjust again, but the other newcomers probably won't. I don't know who will survive, besides us."

Modern Luxury's Carroll knows that D magazine will take the threat seriously, and that all city magazines shouldn't mock the non-investigative bent of Modern Luxury. He was at Chicago magazine in 1993 when Modern Luxury was launched, and he "attacked" its editorial and sales product, he says. Carroll says he started taking them seriously when he got an unexpected response from a media director in New York who advertised with both pubs.

"He told me to shut up," Carroll says, laughing. "He told me to quit bad-mouthing them, and then he told me that they have a magazine that sells their product, so they're going to keep buying it. Let me tell you, when a client tells you to shut up, it's a wake-up call."

Not that he thinks Modern Luxury competes with D or Paper City or any other publication in Dallas. (Of course, every publisher says this, even as they scan rival pubs for advertisements to cherry-pick.)

"Wick does a great job at D, and Texas Monthly is a great publication. But we're different," Carroll says. "We offer concentrated distribution in the Park Cities, if that's what you want." Twenty-five thousand copies of Modern Luxury are mailed to affluent ZIP codes, about 10,000 copies are distributed in other controlled environments, and about 5,000 are offered to newsstands; they claim (through pass-along) more than 200,000 readers, while D claims more than 300,000.

"But we're a different product. And if you are trying to sell your $200,000 kitchen to a potential customer, the question is, where do you want to advertise that? We think the answer is us."

Which is the one time Carroll makes a patently inaccurate statement. The answer, of course, is the Dallas Observer. Goes right after the ad for The Lodge. --Eric Celeste

School Spirit

On a rain-soaked Wednesday afternoon, two young women huddle under umbrellas outside the student union at the University of North Texas, gathering signatures on petitions. A steady trickle of wet students stops by their table to sign up for the cause--not an anti-war protest, but something more prosaic: They want more time to study for finals.

Earlier this month, UNT rescheduled three exam days, moving them up five days after the school's Mean Green football team won its fourth straight invitation to the New Orleans Bowl on December 14, right in the middle of UNT's finals week. Texas is Texas, after all, and we're talking football here, so what's a few days of study time?

Try telling that to someone who has a statistics final to prepare for, like junior Kathryn McNally, one of the students collecting signatures.

"I only have one final that didn't change," McNally says. Resetting the exams may give students more time to get to the big game--and, more important, party in New Orleans--but that's not the point, she says. "I'm not saying I'm against partying, but people shouldn't be partying during finals."

"We think they're compromising our academic standards for athletics," says Michelle Sears, the other petition-gatherer at the student union.

University spokeswoman Kelley Reese says the decision to move finals came after consultations with student government executives and the faculty senate. It was necessary, she says, because UNT's fall semester started a week later this year, pushing finals week into conflict with bowl day. The decision to reschedule came late because the university held off until after it was certain of the bowl bid.

It also was motivated in part by a traffic accident that killed four UNT students returning from last year's bowl game, Reese says.

"Safety absolutely was a concern," she says. "They did not want to have a situation that demanded students drive all night both ways because they have to take a final exam."

As for the hundreds of signatures collected on several petitions circulating online and on campus, that's not likely to change the decision, Reese says. Provost Howard Johnson changed the exam dates with the understanding that once changed, they won't be changed back. --Patrick Williams

Evil Eyes Averted

Serial killer Coral Eugene Watts will face a mandatory sentence of life without parole now that a Michigan jury has convicted him of killing 36-year-old Helen Dutcher in 1979. Based on the testimony of an eyewitness, the conviction prevents Watts' possible 2006 release from a Texas prison where he was serving 60 years in a controversial 1982 plea agreement, a nightmare scenario outlined in "Evil Eyes," a Dallas Observer cover story published June 19, 2003.

The story triggered a 60 Minutes segment in October; covered by Court TV, TV newsmagazines, and German and Canadian networks, the trial was attended by many families of Watts' Texas and Michigan victims, each woman chosen, Watts has said, because they had "evil eyes."

Prosecutor Donna Pendergast says that Watts at times appeared agitated and plagued by facial tics. At the end of each day, while he was being chained and taken from the courtroom, Watts would turn and cast a sweeping gaze at the victims' families.

"He studiously avoided looking at me," Pendergast says. "At one point, our eyes locked. Both of us refused to let go first."

Watts' legal saga is not over. While the jury was deliberating, the Kalamazoo District Attorney's Office announced the indictment of Watts for the 1974 stabbing murder of 19-year-old Gloria Steele, when Watts was a student at Western Michigan University. And the Michigan State Police task force formed to re-examine cold cases possibly committed by Watts has requested DNA tests for hairs found on the clothing of Hazel Conoff. The 23-year-old Detroit woman was strangled and hanged in a seated position in 1980. Pendergast says that Conoff's murder was similar to the slaying of Phyllis Tamm in Houston two years later, to which Watts confessed.

"I've become more and more convinced that Watts may be the most prolific serial killer in the history of the United States," Pendergast says. She estimates that his victims total from 60 to 100. "Seeing his pattern--he'd kill two women in one night--it was like a blood lust," Pendergast says. --Glenna Whitley

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