Online Extra: Hermene Hartman's "Motown Model"

The budding media mogul talks about her vision for magazines that have the feel, the flava, the hipness of [black] culture

Hermene D. Hartman, president of Hartman Publishing Ltd., is wearing a leopard-print jacket and working from an office (in the three-floor Chicago building she owns) with a soft purple sofa and animal-print chairs. In her dress and attitude, this "sista" reflects the same hipness she strives to produce in her publications.

First there was N'Digo, the weekly she launched in 1989 and has grown over the years with the help of mentors from the Chicago Sun Times and Chicago Tribune. Then came N'Digo Profiles, the local annual now turned national quarterly that brings readers inside the lives of high-achieving black personalities. And in January she'll relaunch Savoy, the once-sizzling national monthly that fell into bankruptcy last fall.

After New York's Jungle Media bought Savoy out of bankruptcy in May, Hartman swooped in and purchased it. She saw the four-year old Jungle as a young company with the "b-lls to go in there and do the bid," but one that likely needed money. So she called and asked, "Do you want to sell?" Jungle's investment broker said, "Make me an offer." Hartman's response: "$600,000." He said, "I accept."

SCOFFING AT FAILURE.

  Born to a middle-class family on Chicago's South Side, Hartman has always been attracted to words. As a little girl she eschewed ballerina lessons and took to typing -- up to 125 words a minute. "That stuff fascinated her," her mother Mildred Bowden recalls. Hartman still bats out 90 words a minute, but it will be a formidable mission to make Savoy successful amid a consumer magazine market that has grown from 2,000 titles in 1980 to more than 6,000 today, according to Samir A. Husni, CEO of Magazine Consulting & Research in Mississippi.

But Hartman scoffs at the notion of failure. N'Digo already writes compellingly about black issues -- as diverse as the "down-low" phenomenon, in which black men live with women but secretly court other men, to the continuing struggle for civil rights. That's precisely what Savoy did and why Hartman thinks it makes such a nice fit with N'Digo.

"The affluent African-American market is unnoticed and underserved," she says. "We need intelligence and authenticity." Waxing characteristically hip, she says: "I'll go beyond the 'bling bling.' This is about substance." Here's more of Hartman's cool talk, in edited excerpts from a conversation with BusinessWeek Chicago Deputy Bureau Chief Roger O. Crockett:

Q: How do you describe what your magazines are about? What's at the soul of them?

A:

I call it the Motown Model. I want to be to newspapers or to print what Motown is to music. Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson are contemporary icons that basically came out of Detroit's ghetto. Barry Gordy took and shaped and presented the sound to the world. Was it black music? Of course, it was black music. Could while folks feel' it? Of course they could, if they could.

You go to Brazil, and Stevie Wonder is as big as he is here. You go to Paris, and the sound is there too. What did they do to the sound? They made the sound hip. They made the sound appealing. But they never, ever for any reason negated their ethnicity.

We want to do that with the magazine. In this world of fashion, in this world of culture, in this world of hipness, black folks have always led it. And we've never stepped to the plate to get paid for it or even get credit for it.

Q: So you want to give credit to them in your publications?

A:

Yeah, that's what we want to do. And we've done it with N'Digo. You go down Lakeshore Drive, and little ol' white ladies will pull their N'Digo out just as well as a sista in the church will, because it's hip. The white folks want to meet Jesse Jackson, too. They want to meet Johnny Cochran, too.

So I think if you get the feel, the flava, the hipness of the culture. The trends, the patterns, the people, the personality, and the "what's happenin'," then you've got something, and we need that. That's really where I want to be, to make this just that kind of hip.

Q: You're targeting the black middle class with this content. Why is it important to reach them?

A:

When I was at City Colleges of Chicago, their formula of recruiting was to use an ad in the Chicago Tribune [the city's daily newspaper]. I said we need to be appealing to sectors: we need women, blacks, Hispanics. The Tribune ain't getting all of this. We didn't have a black middle class, something that I could appeal to. That amazed me.

As I started thinking about that, I wanted to own [a publication]. That's where the germ of the idea came from. I looked through the major dailies, and their coverage of blacks was mainly for Black History Month. So I said, "With all due respect, there is more to life than this. This is really insulting. You need to take a look at your readers. Half of your readers in this city now are black. It's beyond Black History Month. Ya'll need to get on the case."

That was the genesis of N'Digo. I said, "Let me do for you a Black History Month newspaper."

Q: You saw that as a marketing vehicle to reach the black middle class and also as a vehicle to deliver content that was being neglected?

A:

The test was to see if the city would be driven to something like that. And it was. We did 500,000. I said "uh, oh. I've got something." I saw the black middle class overlooked and underserved by mainstream media. We see Oprah, we saw Michael Jordan. You just saw what I call the super stories.

But where's the lady who raises the child, who goes to college, who pays her taxes, who drives a BMW, and who goes to church on Sunday? For point of view, for commentary, for lifestyle we had no vehicle. Somebody else was interpreting us. Beyond the super story, our reality I thought was truly missed.

Q: Most of the faces on the cover of N'Digo and Savoy have celebrity status. Is that the aim?

A:

Yeah, that's the aim. That's making the book attractive. That's making the book appealing, sexy. It's saying: "Pick me up!"

Q: What did you learn from your experience with the Chicago daily newspapers?

A:

We talked philosophically about the editorial voice, about the power of it, and what it means. If I said, vote for Bush in an editorial, and even if my paper were as thick as an encyclopedia, I might be out of business within 30 days. That would not be the right thing for me to say. As a black publication, if I don't promote progress and success and the right thing to do, the attack on me is like what you don't even know about.

We talked about the role of the paper and how you don't want that voice to be compromised or conflicted. Jack Fuller, who was the editor of the Chicago Tribune said, "If you're going to be powerful and if you're going to have a voice, then you gotta do it by yourself. We're not going to let you do that [at the Tribune] because it conflicts with our voice." So we thought independent.

Q: How did the Savoy opportunity come about?

A:

We talked to 15 to 20 advertising agencies in New York [last fall when Savoy was having trouble], and the constant thing that you heard? "We really like Savoy." We heard that over and over. They loved Savoy. And we started reflecting on it.

Q: So why did the magazine go under?

A:

They went under because of some elaborate business practices. What I hear is that they had three floors in an office building. They were using less than half of it. A landlord wouldn't let them out of it. An entrepreneur would rent 2½ floors. I bought a bargain at a bargain-basement price. If I do good, it can be quite profitable up the road. It adds to our business nicely.

Q: What's your circulation goal for Savoy?

A:

It was 325,000, with 50,000 from newsstands. That's too low. My goal would be to take it to a half-million within three years and maybe take it international. I'd maybe take it to London, Paris, Brazil, West Indies, South Africa. That's easy. That's not hard to do.

The subscription base is very strong, and we want to grow that. We would build it up quick via radio and a 1-800 number. I would go right back into the churches. I'd go to the mega-churches and have them fill out subscription cards.

Q: Will you change anything about the magazine?

A:

I thought it was a wonderful magazine. But it was a male magazine by category. And I think I would make it a general-interest magazine and try to balance that gender read. I would do some Q&A-type interviews to get more personality copy in there. Put some fashion in it. I'd add a gossip column.

Q: What about news, business, perspective? Do those kinds of things have a place?

A:

I think they do. I think that's part of the revamp. We'll keep what it had and add to it. The people in Chicago and New York and LA are interested in the Presidential election. This ain't just about the Denzel Washington, new movie cover story. We want to keep the seriousness.

Our tag line is "Style, sense, substance." The Vanity Fair slogan is "Power, style, substance." We're one word off, and I think we would add some things to broaden it.

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