Content Like Air Kisses

Vanity sells: Jason Binn's fluff mags have proved a winning formula

Jason Binn's fast-growing empire of luxury magazines is either the future of publishing or a key signifier of an ultra-shallow society.

Or both.

Binn (born Binstock) is the 37-year-old CEO of Niche Media LLC. Niche publishes free glossies that target the upper crust of New York, Los Angeles, Aspen, and the Hamptons. Binn also has a stake in separately held SoBeNews (as in South Beach), which publishes Vegas and Ocean Drive. Binn's job is uniquely suited to his signature traits: imperviousness to ridicule and a penchant for self-promotion. He has leveraged being a besotted fan into close friendships with stars (on stage together at one Binn gala were Russell Simmons, Heidi Klum, and Bill Clinton). He's very good -- and relentless -- at winning over audiences, whether they're readers, advertisers, or celebrities.

His magazines, which are placed in luxe settings such as limos and posh hotels and mailed to select addresses, are stuffed with paeans to local figures and merchants and first-person celebrity musings. Ad pages depict the fantasy baubles of the moneyed life. The editorial pages are perhaps best known for copious photos depicting local swells' social whirl. If life in the big city is high school with money, then Binn's mags are the yearbooks, the mirrors in which readers wish to see their reflections. (Full disclosure: This columnist's photograph has appeared twice in Binn's magazines.) Us Weekly caters to readers' appetite for celebrity-gawking; Binn's mags cater to readers' hunger to gaze at themselves.

SEPTEMBER BRINGS NICHE'S entries into Boston and Washington: Boston Common and Capitol File. Next year, Niche launches in Chicago and Atlantic City. In late 2004, Niche applied for trademarks for titles relating to Houston, Seattle, San Diego, Sun Valley, Palm Springs, Palm Beach, and Phoenix. And Binn hints that the model could work internationally. "I've never had a bad launch," he boasts.

Going abroad may not be a bad idea. Binn's market is getting crowded. Capitol File will be one of three free luxury launches in D.C. next year. Last year, Chicago's Modern Luxury LLC chain snagged a reported $50 million investment from Shamrock Partners Ltd.; it just launched titles in San Diego and Houston. Urban Publishers Inc. puts out PaperCity in four markets and wants to expand.

Good God. Is this where magazines are heading?

Shifts in culture -- we are all celebrity hounds now -- and business have propelled Binn's climb to semi-respectability. As big-name magazine publishers struggle to stem eroding circulation and advertising revenue, Binn's publishing-lite formula suddenly looks good. "What Jason has created is a party everyone wants to be a part of," says one executive at a major magazine publisher. "More publishers should pay attention to his cost structure" -- modest, thanks to tiny staffs. Although many have wondered which ads are actually paid for in a Niche magazine, industry executives who have seen the financial data say Binn's magazines last year posted around $40 million in revenue. These executives say Binn has discussed potential deals, fruitlessly, with major companies.

"They're a form of targeted marketing," says Agency 212 LLC Chairman Donald P. Ziccardi, who has bought ads in Niche titles for clients like Ellen Tracy. "The circulations are relatively small" -- the biggest is L.A. Confidential, at 66,000 -- "but they're so focused." The glossy, oversize format, and sheer number of luxury ads (Aspen Peak's summer-fall issue weighs in at 300 pages) is a consumer experience that doesn't translate online, which might grab traditional publishers tired of losing readers' attention to the Web.

Lunch is ending at the Four Seasons. As Binn leaves, he chats up Details Editor-in-Chief Dan Peres, who tells Binn: "You're mockable, but you're grinning all the way to the bank." If Binn heard a put-down, it didn't show. He had won over another audience. He was beaming.

By Jon Fine

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