THE D MAGAZINE you see today is fat with ads, peppered with talent, beloved by readers, managed by experts and run like a well-oiled machine. The reader, who may be presumed innocent of the misdemeanor of ever having started a magazine, might assume it was launched in execution of some grand master strategy, backed by marketing matrices and management by objectives.
This would not be a good assumption.
Like any other business enterprise that suffers through a painful birth, survives the tough times and finally blossoms into success, D Magazine was started because it fulfilled a basic human need. Among life’s many rules, there is one that is absolute: An average middle-class kid who somehow makes it through college, who has no money and no prospects of inheriting any, must find a job.
There’s never been a better reason to start a magazine.
The original concept of D Magazine was twofold. If you think back 10 or 12 years ago to the Dallas we knew and loved in those days, it can either be remembered generously as a pleasant, slow-moving little city or, more accurately, as a bore. Not that people weren’t trying. A few innovative restaurants such as The Grape had opened their doors. Some galleries struggled to make ends meet. But the facts of everyday city living were daunting. Every major arts organization was in hock (not even counting the minor ones). The museum was chiefly used as a place for elementary school tours. Downtown had the ghostly aspect of an Indian pueblo. Addison was pasture land. Our county government was so provincial it could have been lifted straight out of Uvalde. I won’t even talk about the flimflam of the Nolan Estes school system.
But Dallas, we gamely told ourselves- as every generation of promoters and boosters before us had told themselves-had potential.
My idea that the one thing that would help this city the most to reach its potential was the very thing that no publication in Dallas had ever attempted. I thought it would be helpful if a publication printed the truth.
The second part of the magazine’s concept may have been the only decent business idea I’ve ever had. Why, I reasoned to myself, should a Cadillac dealer or a boutique owner or a real estate developer advertise in the newspapers when the majority of newspaper readers couldn’t afford expensive products? A magazine, by its nature, goes to a limited audience; that limited audience is more wealthy than a mass audience. In our own jargon, we called it targeting for a rifle shot; you, dear reader, are the clay pigeon.
With those two fairly simple notions in hand, and encouraged by a handful of friends who thought one plus one might equal a magazine, I dropped out of graduate business school and prepared to hit the streets to raise money.
Here I want to digress to offer some advice to anyone who wants to start his or her own business. The best resource in the nation happens to be in your own hometown: The Caruth Institute has helped hundreds, maybe thousands, of entrepreneurs learn the rudiments of getting a business off the ground. The first step is a business plan, which I don’t have the space here to describe. Suffice it to say that a business plan is a reasonable and conservative presentation of a set of numbers meant to disguise a crazy idea. For some reason, investors love business plans.
The second step any budding entrepreneur must take is to memorize the words of Calvin Coolidge. One day, in a secondhand bookstore, I stumbled across a small poster with this quotation:
“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not. Nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not. Unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not. The world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
I taped that poster right next to my bathroom mirror. It was the first thing I saw in the morning and the last thing I saw at night. It’s one of the few honest things I’ve read about business.
Raising money is not my idea of a swell time, especially the first time out. You’ll get nowhere without the moral support of friends who are there to pick you off the floor the 39th time a door is slammed in your face. You also need a way to feed yourself while you wait for all the checks to come pouring in. As an Army veteran, I received a monthly VA check to pay for business school; when I dropped out, I simply neglected to inform the appropriate government agency, and that’s how I lived until they caught me.
By that time, fortunately, after I had made my pitch to more than 70 people in and out of Dallas, a group of young businessmen headed by Ray Hunt had made the commitment to finance the magazine.
It wasn’t only our investors’ support that made this magazine possible. Before we ever printed an issue, a number of established businesses joined in to help us. Stanley Marcus-in this as in so much-was in the lead when he agreed to mail a subscription offer to his Neiman-Marcus customers. Sanger Harris enclosed an offer in its monthly bills and has since been the only advertiser to appear in all 120 issues. Inter-First and other banks did the same with their monthly statements. This is the one feature above all others that makes Dallas different-the support an idea can garner. The two most recent examples, of course, are this summer’s Grand Prix and the financing of the Republican National Convention.
It was after D was safely launched and on its way (with 20,000 subscribers and 55 advertising pages) that we ran into one small problem.
The idea of the magazine, you’ll recall, was to tell the truth and to sell specialized advertising. That sounds fine, even somewhat noble, until one realizes that the people you’re telling the truth about happen, in many cases, to be the very people who buy your advertising. This didn’t dawn on me until five minutes after the first issue was printed. I guess that’s how long it took for the phone to start ringing.
Now, understand, I don’t have anything against these people. A restaurateur has very little incentive to advertise in a magazine that just called for his place to be closed by the health department. But it does make it difficult to have an upbeat morning when- within 20 minutes of each other-the five biggest banks in town call to cancel their advertising. (If they were unions, I suppose this would have been called solidarity.)
We were young then, full of vim and vinegar, and besides that, we didn’t know any better. By the 10th issue in August 1975, we had about six or seven advertisers left. We were determined to keep on publishing because, among other things, Ron Chapman had said on KVIL that if we made it to a 12th issue he’d eat it.
In short, we weren’t about to win any popularity contests.
Except with readers. The strangest thing was that the people of Dallas kept sending us checks. Often there would be notes attached saying things like “Keep at it,” or “What a difference you’ve made.” The reason D is alive today is because our readers had faith, and our investors had guts. Advertisers are another story.
Of course, the other thing that nearly drove us under was another surprise: lawsuits. If the last refuge of the scoundrel is patriotism, the first refuge is the libel suit.
Yes, I know all the arguments about how the press has too much power and goes too far and how the libel law is the only mechanism that saves us from total domination by an unelected media. But the simple fact is that you or I or anyone with a grudge or anyone who wants to wheedle a little money could effectively bleed to death or outright kill any magazine or newspaper in this country that’s less than 5 years old. The simple expedient is to find a lawyer who’s willing to work on commission and to file a libel suit. This is not what the Founding Fathers had in mind.
The first person to file against us (after our fourth issue) was one of then-mayor Wes Wise’s former associates, whom we had identified as a hack. Before the question could get to trial, a judge agreed with our position and threw the case out of court (it’s one thing for a magazine to call you a hack; this man is forever branded in the judicial records of Dallas County). A nice victory, but it cost $15,000 in legal fees. Next, Wise himself took umbrage with the story; that case lasted four years. We survived all this, but barely. I’m as ready as the next person to point out the foibles of the press, but the answer is to encourage more journalistic outlets, not less. To allow public figures to use libel suits as a political weapon has one result: Only media conglomerates can afford to publish.
D’s success story is only one in a city that in 10 short years has spawned thousands. Today I live in New York, and from the perspective of doing business here I can see a little more objectively the strengths that Dallas possesses. At the very top of the list is a climate that lends support to a person with an idea, that encourages people to believe in their own dreams, that by example after example demonstrates what a person can accomplish if he sets out to do it.
Maybe it’s the Texas air. Although my wife and I love New York and our latest magazine, maybe that’s why we feel the need to return so often-just to breathe it.