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St. Louis Life History

St. Louis Life Struggles to Find Its Niche

By E.S. Evans

            St. Louis Life is but a dream – though the 18-month-old family magazine appears to be coming true for Ellen Mrazek, a 31-year-old publisher reared in Webster Groves.

            “I’ve always been infatuated with magazines; I grew up with them,” Mrazek says. “I always wanted to have my own, but I hadn’t planned on it.”

            As a journalism student at the University of Missouri, she found she disliked reporting and news writing, but loved magazine design, became intrigued with typography and served as art director of the Columbia Missourian’s Sunday magazine. After graduation she found little opportunity in that field back in St. Louis, so she enrolled in writing classes at Webster College.

            Then, two years ago, she was hired to edit a new St. Louis pulp called Sports & Leisure, which premiered in October 1993 and promptly folded for lack of money. She took over the short-lived monthly and turned it toward the broader interests of baby-boomers’ families, renaming it St. Louis Life.

            Now readers can “get a Life” free from stacks “all over the area,” she noted. “Our best circulation area is the central corridor and downtown; it’s been difficult to place them in West St. Louis County. Our  next big hit will be the East Side; it feels left out, though we have done a lot of stories there. But no advertising at all.” She reported total distribution at 65,000 copies, up from 25,000 at the start.

            It also appears to be very much a family operation, with her husband in charge of advertising and her brother as a regular contributing writer. She is, of course, her own art director.

            “We started out with a lot of articles on recreation sports, but advertising was spotty,” Mrazek said in an interview at her offices in Richmond Heights. “Overall, St. Louis is more family-oriented than sports-minded. By August we had veered away to more substantial things – like the zoo – and since then, more in-depth articles.

            The space in every 40-page issue devoted to animal stories is substantial. Notable among them: armadillos invading Missouri (March 1994 issue), survival chances for wolves (November 1994) wild horses in Missouri (January 1995).

            “We’re all into animals here, and the environment,” Mrazek explained, referring to her staff of three editorial workers and three advertising salespersons. The staff box also lists three “Publication Pooches:” T-Rex, Kelsey and Roxy.

            Participant sports remain: cover story on golf (April 1994) and numerous short pieces. Local history has become a frequent topic: the Underground Railroad in St. Louis (February 1995), streetcar memories (December 1994) and a regular “Chronicles” department.

            Mrazek swore the Underground Railroad piece’s appearance during Black History Month was pure coincidence, but it pointed up a lack of more interracial and cross-cultural service. Except for a few other coincidences cited by Mrazek, African-Americans and other ethnics fail to show up in what would be a fair reflection of family interests across the whole spectrum of a diverse community.

            “We won’t become a Riverfront Times and do controversy for the sake of controversy,” she stated. “We’re not slanted white or black and won’t cover neighborhood news. And we don’t do celebrities.”

            She seemed almost apologetic about one of the better pieces in the magazine (March 1995). The article thoroughly analyzed the impact of developments on Faust Park in Chesterfield.

            Dealing with another dispute, an article provided more information in defense of public radio station KWMU-FM (March 1995) than has been offered elsewhere, but slighted the opposition to federal funding of public broadcasting with a couple of paper-tiger quotes from House Speaker Newt Gingrich. It also failed to mention other public radio stations in the area.

            Besides “Chronicles,” regular departments include restaurant reviews by a “phantom” writer, film reviews by Aaron Mermelstein and home computer usage by the publisher’s brother Larry Mrazek, as well as  “Daytrips,” gardening, recycling and an events calendar. Each issue features two longer articles, several short stories and many shorter items. Most of the writing is bright and reads easily, though not  particularly engaging or pointed.

            “I’ve got a philosophical thing about what people will read – short stories, like in USA Today,” she stresses. “People don’t have time to read these days. We give a lot of information, interestingly written, and limit longer features.”

            The magazine is the only one is St. Louis on the Internet’s World Wide Web, and its appearance on computers has prompted growing interaction with screen readers. She says she may increase computer involvement, but believes the audience is still limited.

            Originally 75 percent, editorial content decreased to 56 percent  as ad sales increased after Mrazek’s husband, Randy L. Ring, became sales manager. Their goal is a 50-50 split.

            “We went through a lot of bad sales people,” she said. Also a lot of poor free-lance writers, she added. “I have had to do too much rewriting, but now we pay almost as much as the Post-Dispatch for some articles and have a reliable stable.” Staff writer Bob Bourgeois is her star.

            “We want to make a promise and grow,” Mrazek said, noting that a recent hike in newsprint cost may require a boost in ad rates. Even with limited color and economy photo reproduction, each issue costs $25,000, she estimates. “We also want to be read and kept, not just flipped through like most freebies.

            “I knew it would take us a few years, and we’re starting to get recognition. But St. Louis is a tough market. St. Louis is slow to warm up to new things.”

            As Ellen Mrazek said earlier, even while talking about her dream: “Why so many people want to do a magazine, I’ve never understood.”

            (Originally published in the St. Louis Journalism Review May 1995).