When Starting a Magazine Was Fun—and Often Profitable

By Jack Limpert

Screen Shot 2015-08-19 at 5.27.09 PMToday’s Washington Post Style section features David Adler, a New York City event planner. The story’s hed: “The reinvented D.C. party: Speeches out, hashtags in.” The message from Adler, at a meeting of Washington event planners, was that a party needs “live Instagram feeds and anything else that will transform another boring evening into a talker.”

Why listen to David Adler? Why feature him in Style? The story says:

All this comes from a man steeped in the old, pre-smartphone Washington tradition. Adler grew up in the nation’s capital, graduated from American University and founded Dossier magazine in 1975, at age 21. It was the city’s first publication devoted to the social elite and arrived just as the Vietnam War, post-Nixon vibe was swinging back to the more traditional (and conspicuous) displays of wealth and power.

The young publisher moved in the city’s top circles and sat at the most exclusive tables. “I went to so many parties, people thought I was a maitre d’,” he says.

Adler sold Dossier in 1988 and moved to New York, where he turned his expertise at parties into a career as a corporate-events organizer, throwing elaborate soirees in grand settings.
David Adler founded Dossier magazine? That’s sort of true.

In 1975 I was editing the Washingtonian and a tall blonde socialite, Sonia “Sonny” Adler, came by to say she wanted to write a column about the DC party scene. She gave us several samples, we decided to pass. A few months later Sonny and her husband, Warren, who ran a DC ad agency, announced plans to create Dossier, a monthly magazine about DC’s social scene.

Dossier did pretty well for about 10 years—the Washington economy was booming, plenty of money was being spent on parties. Sonny edited the magazine, son David ran the business side, Warren helped pay the bills, ran his ad agency, and began writing novels.

The problem for Dossier was that its circulation, probably about 25,000, was what’s called controlled, meaning it’s given away free. Without any paid circulation, Dossier had to survive on ad revenues and it had to convince advertisers that enough affluent people read a magazine that arrived uninvited in the mail.

Warren then struck it rich with a 1981 novel, The War of the Roses, that sold well and was made into a Michael Douglas-Kathleen Turner movie. By the late ’80s the Adlers were ready to abandon Dossier and move to Los Angeles, where Warren wrote novels and screenplays. David moved to New York City to found BizBash, which helps plan parties. Dossier folded in 1991.

One lesson for editors—at least in the era of healthy print magazines— is that if you reject someone’s writing and they have plenty of money, they may start their own publication.
And it happened again. In the late 1970s, Bill Regardie, a fast-talking guy whose business was collecting data on DC-area real estate, came by to sell me on his writing a monthly humor column. Bill had some wit, but humor columns are very hard to pull off and we said no. Not long after the rejection Bill announced plans for Regardie’s, a monthly magazine to cover business in Washington.

Like Dossier, it did well in the booming 1980s. Bill hired some smart editors, and he was terrific at finding young art directors. Fred Woodward went from designing Regardie’s to Rolling Stone, and Rip Georges went from Regardies to Esquire.

But Washington, and the rest of the country, went through a business turndown in 1990 and Regardie’s called it quits in 1992. (Bill tried twice to revive it and finally gave up.)
Print in the 1980s was a good business. There also was a Washington museum and arts magazine plus a few others. The challenge was getting people to buy the magazine. It takes time to build a paid circulation magazine; The Washingtonian started in 1965 and charged $3 a year for a year’s subscription. After five years its circulation was less than 20,000 and it continued to lose money. It took another five years to build enough paid circulation to attract advertisers and stop the bleeding.

But it’s easy to start a controlled circulation magazine. Hire a staff, find a printer, create a magazine, and mail it free to a list you think advertisers might be interested in reaching. In good times, it can work, but when times aren’t so good, then controlled circulation publications tend to disappear fast.

While they last, they can be fun to read. RIP, Dossier and Regardie’s, and good luck David Adler, though you should thank your Mom and Dad a little more often for all they did.

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