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Bill Regardie pulls the plug on his latest publication.
It’s not always true that the third time is the charm.
Bill Regardie has launched three business-feature magazines in D.C. The first two glossies, both named Regardie’s, which had their runs from 1979 to 1992 and from 1994 to 1995, respectively, still hover in the zone between legend and object lesson in local media circles.
The legend is that a native D.C. son with vision, panache, and a glossy rag can singlehandedly create a stir in the highest circles of professional Washington. Back issues of Regardie’s and clips about the man who built it are redolent of a Washington that has, in many ways, disappeared: It’s the whiff of steak and martinis at the Palm as the Barry-era city sinks further into decline and decay.
The object lesson, alas, is that the grand gestures and personal schmooze that build such machines aren’t always enough to sustain them.
His third effort, the bimonthly Regardie’s Power, was launched by Regardie and his wife and partner, Renay Regardie (who served as the magazine’s publisher), in September 1999. The first issue featured a cheesecake cover trumpeting a story about a women’s oil-wrestling promoter who’d managed to cybersquat on America Online’s domain name. The magazine published its final issue last week, with a cover on Washington Redskins minority owner Fred Drasner. This time, the Regardies’ effort only lasted 18 months.
When the news of Regardie’s Power’s demise broke in the Washington Post last week, many in local media were taken aback by the stinging assessment of their own efforts that the Regardies jointly gave to the paper. “In today’s media- saturated environment,” the Regardies told the Post in a statement, “the product was not vital, necessary or entertaining enough to carve out its share of the market.”
Bill Regardie was willing to expand on those remarks in an interview with the Washington City Paper, and he isn’t backing down from their candor.
“When I soar, I crow,” Regardie says. “When I crash, I tell the truth.” That truth, Regardie observes, “is that I couldn’t produce a product that the market had to read.”
Regardie’s Power Editor in Chief Bill Hogan came on board in May 2000, after Eric Feltenthe magazine’s first editortook a job at Reader’s Digest. Predictably, Hogan takes a slightly different view.
“I don’t read it with too much meaning,” says Hogan about the Regardies’ statement to the Post. “It’s something that didn’t bother me, because we were getting great feedback on the last few issues.” The magazine that Hogan produced hewed to traditional strengths of past incarnations of Regardie’sstrong personality pieces and lengthy in-depth features with an expansive view of what constituted a “business” story. Hogan believes that Regardie’s Power was “just hitting its stride.”
There’s no debate, however, about another element of the Regardies’ joint assessment of their failed effort. Regardie’s Power didn’t grab enough of a share of the D.C. market. The magazine debuted at 120 pages and showed an overall downward trend in page count over the course of its existence, ending up 40 pages lighter by its farewell March/April 2001 issue.
Bill Regardie says that he didn’t run out of money, but rather that the downward swing in the economy and his magazine’s inability to gain traction in the market conspired toward an early close. “It would have taken four or five issues to refocus it,” he says. “I just didn’t see any hope in turning it around in that time.”
The bottom line, says Regardie, is that the magazine was dropping ad pages. “Advertisers just didn’t feel the hype,” he says. He’d envisioned Regardie’s Power as a “bridge” between the old economy that he rode to initial success in the ’80s and the new markets of the mid- to late ’90s.
“Those markets had no desire to be bridged,” Regardie concludes.
Regardie’s notion that the old and new markets could somehow be married for profit was commonly held, before the last few months of free fall. It has turned out to be a marriage made in hell for many magazines.
Back in the heyday of his first publication, Regardie observes, “I knew the local market backwards and forwards. The downtown business community was smaller. The presidents made all the decisions, and I knew the presidents.”
Around 1986, Regardie continues, “it started changing. By about ’90, [Washington was] just like any other city in the country.” Local corporate power had been diffused by conglomeration and globalization, and knowing the president of a D.C. company wasn’t enough anymore.
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The tech boom of the mid- to late ’90s lured many players like Regardie back into the game with an old paradigm: Such booms mean image-advertising bucks for publications savvy enough to reach for them. That hasn’t turned out to be the case, particularly because tech companieseven the ones that were flush with venture-capital cashweren’t buying ads in general-interest magazines, if they bought them at all.
“I was not able to talk to the new economy,” Regardie says. “A lot of people in the tech community don’t see any need to communicate with the traditional economy.”
David Carr, former Washington City Paper editor, now senior correspondent at Inside.com, bluntly predicted that Regardie’s Power would fail in his Paper Trail column in the City Paper’s Sept. 17, 1999, issue. Carr agrees that the failure of Regardie’s Power had a lot to do with the differing values of the tech entrepreneurs whom many magazines have targeted and the real estate moguls who paved the way for Regardie’s success with his first business magazine.
“The endemic base that fueled his first surge and part of his second wasn’t there for the third round,” Carr observes today. “Regardie’s depended on a lot of image advertising, but a lot of people [in the D.C. technology sector] don’t care what their image is. The measurement is in zeroes.”
Three months before Regardie’s Power started publishing, it was preceded into the D.C. market by another business-magazine start-up, Washington Business Forward. Published each month by Jeremy M. Brosowsky, Business Forward started small (48 pages) in May 1999 and has seen slow but steady growth with a more traditional editorial approach and business model.
“It was never our aim to go after tech companies,” says Brosowsky, whose magazine has attracted much of its advertising from financial-service firms. “We’re interested in how tech interacts with the economy; we funnel it through that prism.”
Brosowsky admits, however, that Business Forward has run into roadblocks with many tech advertisers. “A lot of them,” he says, “if they’re spending money, say that they’re spending money with bigger publications.”
Regardie says that Brosowsky “has a very clear view of what he wants to be,” but he doesn’t venture a guess about the future of Business Forward.
“He’s still in business,” Regardie chuckles, “which makes him smarter than me today.”
The death of Regardie’s Power has wider implications for a particular style of Washington journalismthe long, in-depth feature that unravels a complicated and colorful knot of news or personalities. In short, there are fewer and fewer venues for such stories with its shuttering.
Regardie’s Power clearly struggled with editorial consistency. Reading back through the brief life of the magazine, you can’t miss features such as Regardie’s column, WARfare, ping-ponging through various slots in the book, or ignore the ever-changing look of the magazine.
Consistency is exactly what isn’t lacking from its competitors. The Washingtonian, for one, has honed its monthly blend of local gossip, service journalism, and bright colors to a razor sharpness. Business Forward has adopted a similar approach, with a consistent look and succinct, yet broad-brush, editorial approach that’s big on lists and Q&A.
For Brosowsky, emphasizing the “forward” in the magazine’s name is key. “We’re interested in where D.C. is headed,” Brosowsky says, “not where it’s been.”
Regardie’s Power, on the other hand, harked back pleasantly to its own earlier incarnations. Many of its covers featured compelling investigative business journalism (Patrick Kiger’s profile of U.S. Attorney-turned-felon Jack Field III in the January/February 2001 issue, or Alan Green’s dissection of the Pixelon start-up scam in the July/August 2000 issue), and the magazine continued to offer refreshing side trips like Washington City Paper contributor Eddie Dean’s foray into moonshine country in the November/December issue.
Hogan penned a number of cover stories during the first run of Regardie’s, and he says that he wanted to offer readers that kind of journalism. “Many people tend to remember the Marion Barry stuff,” says Hogan of the first Regardie’s, “but they don’t remember the rock ’em, sock ’em business stories that we did.”
Hogan cites the Field story as an indication of the magazine’s feel for the narrative form. “[The Field story] was a two-paragraph story in the Post,” says Hogan. “We had a certain aptitude for reading in between the lines.”
Even the service pieces in Regardie’s Power, Hogan points out, had a certain edge to them. “We did ‘Washington’s 10 Most Feared Lawyers’ in our last issue,” notes Hogan. “Who’s going to do that piece with a bit of attitude now?”
One thing that helped make Bill Regardie a legend in D.C. journalism was his regard for the writer. Hogan says that Regardie has a desire for his publications to take on ideas that “might not fly elsewhere.
“What Washington loses,” Hogan says of the demise of Regardie’s Power, “is a magazine with curiosity.”
Regardie agrees that his magazine championed the writer but fears that this was, in part, why his latest incarnation didn’t make it.
“I thought there would still be an appeal to telling the stories behind the stories,” says Regardie. “But you’ve got to have a lot of words to do that, and no one has time these days for a lot of words. Renay kept pushing me for shorter and shorter stories. She was right. Had we done a different product, we might have made it.”
Regardie says that he and his wife will be taking a few months off before doing anything else. “I’ll try and identify what I can do, what we can do,” he says.
Regardie is anything but bitter, however. “I’ve been fortunate,” he says. “I have had my successes and my failures. I consider myself extremely lucky.”
The Washington media world, however, has definitely lost one of its more distinctive personalitiesat least until he resurfaces again.
“What bums me out,” says Carr, “is that everyone said he couldn’t do it, and it was true.” CP