Alexis Moynahan is standing in line at the Whole Foods Market on P Street NW on a Sunday afternoon. The store is pretty crowded, and she has a few minutes to kill before her groceries get scanned. It’s a moment when a lot of folks thumb through a title from the magazine rack.
Moynahan, though, stares straight ahead, oblivious to the yoga, lefty, and high-end cooking mags on display at the market. “I usually like Cosmo, Mademoiselle, and Vogue,” says Moynahan, a 22-year-old student at the University of Maryland College Park.
Whole Foods outlets are a little low on mainstream women’s beauty magazines. And, like most things at the thriving chain, the title choices are driven in part by politics. Whole Foods honchos don’t like magazines that run ads for companies that use animals to test their products—a common practice for makers of cosmetic and household goods. “We try to shy away from that,” says Whole Foods’ Debra Thompson.
Thompson’s title at Whole Foods is “whole-body category manager.” In addition to overseeing health products for regional outlets, she safeguards their “core list” of magazines.
Although Thompson won’t disclose the contents of the list, the sensibilities that dictate it are splayed out on Whole Foods racks everywhere. It’s a bonanza for soy-milk advertisers—there’s Healing Lifestyles & Spas, Utne, Mothering (featuring a special in the current issue on “prenatal yoga”), and Mother Jones, plus more conventional titles such as Shape and the Atlantic Monthly, not to mention a virtual library of cooking magazines. Yoga Journal is one of the chain’s top sellers and is also on the Barnes & Noble top-100 list.
As it plans an expansion from 145 to 250 outlets over the next two years, Whole Foods is upending the classic grocery media experience, wherein consumers, lured by splashy photos and tabloid headlines, check out a little pop culture before checking out with their meat and potatoes. “We’re an offbeat retailer, and we do keep people on their toes a little bit,” says Whole Foods spokesperson Sarah Kenney, noting that the store’s array of titles is “for the person who’s looking to read something they normally would not buy.”
Maybe that explains Shambhala Sun. This is a journal of “Buddhism Culture Meditation Life” and can be had at the P Street outlet for $6. The current issue features a piece on Sak-yong Mipham Rinpoche and the nine stages of shamatha meditation, also known as “peaceful abiding.” It also contains columns on health, environmental design, and yoga.
To the unenlightened eye, the bimonthly Shambhala Sun appears to abide peacefully on the racks, like many titles at Whole Foods, with no danger of depletion. But Peggy Brown, circulation assistant for the magazine, says Shambhala Sun has a newsstand circulation of 40,000, and health-food stores such as Whole Foods account for about half of that tally.
Whole Foods’ Thompson describes Shambhala Sun as “more mainstream” than the chain’s “far-out” selections. “Our customers are always looking for alternative healing or a spiritual path,” she says.
Or, perhaps, a good piece of flank steak and red-leaf lettuce. According to magazine-industry consultant James Kobak, supermarket customers are supermarket customers. They gravitate toward the pop-culture and celebrity magazines that have always hovered over the Tic Tacs and 9-volt batteries. Even the health nuts that frequent Whole Foods. “They’re people, for chrissakes—this [health consciousness] is just one thing they do differently,” says Kobak.
Thompson says that Whole Foods outlets in Pennsylvania have experimented with some mainstream titles—she declines to identify them—but those don’t do as well as the chain’s standbys. “That stuff just doesn’t sell as quickly in our stores,” Thompson says.
“Our sense is that, if a magazine isn’t selling, it’s not there for posterity’s sake. It’s not there to set forth a certain image,” says Kenney.
But out by the conveyer belts, shoppers tend to view the reading selections as more Whole Foods symbolism. “This comes off as trying to create an image,” says 42-year-old customer John Miller, pointing to a display of cooking and lifestyle magazines. “And this, too,” he continues, zeroing in on a neighboring checkout-counter product called Perfume With a Purpose, from a company called Trillium Organics.
Robert Limon, a 41-year-old systems analyst, says he bypasses Whole Foods’ highbrow cooking titles in favor of the selection at nearby Safeway. “They’re more appealing to my style of cooking: easy,” says Limon. “Throw something in a pot and let it boil.”
Not all shoppers shun the Whole Foods rack, however. On a recent visit, Robin Lenhardt flipped through a copy of the Atlantic Monthly as she waited at the checkout line. “They usually have good articles,” said the 35-year-old lawyer, who praised the chain’s unorthodox mix.
And Whole Foods’ rejection of magazine retail norms goes deeper than the title selection. Unlike many supermarket chains, Whole Foods doesn’t charge publications quarterly fees for the “pockets” in which their titles are displayed. According to magazine specialist John Harrington, a single pocket in prime checkout space can run up to $15 per quarter—and that’s just on one aisle. “Selling display space is a regular part of the retail universe,” says Harrington.
Pocket-placement contracts often limit grocery chains to a one-size-fits-all magazine selection. Giant Foods, for example, sends a “set script” of magazines to its 160 outlets in the Washington region, according to spokesperson Barry Scher. When asked whether Giant charges for display, Scher said he could not comment on contractual matters.
By shunning display deals, Whole Foods avoids committing its rack space to highly profitable mainstream publications. Instead, it entrusts title choices to nutrition specialists at each store.
Although those choices occasionally reflect the wacky prejudices of alternative-medicine devotees, they have made the chain a beloved institution in the world of specialty magazines. “We don’t pay for [placement]. They just do it because they are intelligent retailers,” says Dan Cullinane, newsstand sales manager for Liberation Publications Inc., whose gay and lesbian titles the Advocate and Out are featured on Whole Foods racks. The chain moves between 400 and 600 copies of both the Advocate and Out each month, says Cullinane.
Utne, a bimonthly with a thinky bent, is another Whole Foods soul mate. According to promotion manager Mitra Milani Engan, most of the company’s outlets carry Utne and collectively move up to 5,000 copies per issue, making the grocer one of the magazine’s top three retail distribution chains. Says Utne circulation director Jeremy Wieland: “It’s the only grocery chain in most cities where you’re going to be able to walk into the store and buy Shambhala Sun and Utne.”
Still, not every shopper wants to actually buy magazines on a grocery run. “These magazines you can’t read in line, so I look for the shortest line,” says Whole Foods customer Brenda Wilson. “In Safeway, I look for the longest line, so that I can read the tabloids.”
Captains of industry generally don’t settle in the District. They come here to lobby and carouse, only to retreat to Virginia for horse farms and low tax rates.
Katharine Graham was different. The multimillionaire Washington Post publisher resided in Georgetown and compiled a list of essays on Washington that was published last year. She also championed hard local-news coverage and assisted city charities.
“She insisted that her charities first and foremost had to do with Washington, D.C.,” says Post Vice President At Large Ben Bradlee.
And, in an act of local boosterism from beyond the grave, Graham appears to have saved the District from a budget deficit. Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans told the Post that the proceeds from Graham’s estate were larger than the city’s $27 million year-end budget surplus. The District’s tax rate for mega-estates is 16 percent.
Post Co. Chairman and CEO Donald Graham, son of the late publisher, declined to disclose the estate numbers to his own paper. And, believe it or not, he didn’t return a call from the Washington City Paper on the same topic.
That leaves guesswork. Estate-tax proceeds over the 10 years before Graham’s estate tax came due averaged $30.2 million.
For Graham’s year—2002—the tally was $125.9 million.
When John F. Kennedy Jr.’s private plane crashed in the waters off Martha’s Vineyard in July 1999, U.S. News & World Report tore up an issue right in the middle of a press run to squeeze in the breaking story. The decision cost the newsweekly “north of $500,000 by a good piece of yardage,” according to Editor in Chief Brian Duffy.
When the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas this past Saturday morning, the magazine stuck with its regular issue.
To save on distribution and production costs, U.S. News closes out its weekly editions on Friday night, a day before competitors Newsweek and Time. It’s a problem only when big news breaks on, say, Saturday morning.
Duffy insists that the magazine’s production schedule forced him to forgo the frantic “Stop the presses” call to chase the Columbia story. And that’s because the presses had already stopped. The weekly run of 2.2 million copies had finished by late Saturday morning, when word of the Columbia disaster became official.
On the JFK Jr. tragedy, by contrast, the newsweekly got an inkling of the story on Friday night and confirmed it early on Saturday morning.
Recalling this past week’s issue would have cost in “the neighborhood of a million bucks,” says Duffy. Instead of jamming a few pages of rushed coverage into the magazine, Duffy rallied his people to produce a special issue that hit the streets early this week. “We ended up with 50 pages of very high-quality journalism,” he says.
A Likely Candidate
In the Jan. 19 Post Book World section, writer Michael Dirda describes how he happened upon the latest idea for his column. “One recent weekend, while staring out the window at a bleak landscape of bare trees, dirty snow, monotone gray skies and icy rain, I started mulling over what kind of literary/cultural magazine I’d create, were I given the chance.”
The rest of the column lays out this dream publication, discussing the journal’s motto, design, writers, contributing editors, scholarly articles, interviews, and so on. All told, the column is a fascinating and exhaustive blueprint for a literary journal.
So fascinating and exhaustive that Dirda couldn’t have spent a mere afternoon thinking about it.
Indeed: James Olney, outgoing editor of the Southern Review, a literary journal based in Baton Rouge, La., says that Dirda is a leading candidate to replace him. “All of the contacts I’ve had with the search committee indicate that he’s a very strong applicant,” says Olney.
Dirda confirms that at one point he discussed the job with the Southern Review. However, he says he has since withdrawn from contention. “I exchanged some e-mail with them, but I never actually interviewed with them. At the same time I was thinking about all of this, I thought, Well, this would make a good column.” —Erik Wemple
Spiked by the Publisher
Katharine Graham pushed D.C. estate-tax revenues to new heights.
Regular Rich People
Regular Rich People + Katharine Graham