Years in print:
St.Louis Times Targets Elderly With Blandness
By E.S. Evans
The St. Louis Times, a…monthly labeled “Timely News for Mature Minds, Bodies and Spirits” is an idea – perhaps a bright business idea, but how good a read it is remains to be seen as it ages.
“I’ve been told that it’s a good thing that I’m a businessman rather than a journalist,” says John A. Rothbarth, the publisher and editor. As a former marketing executive and administrator of a childrenswear manufacturer, Rothbarth obviously thinks that is true. He was interviewed in his office in Creve Coeur.
The 28-page, limited-color pulp magazine is distributed free throughout St. Louis and the nine counties of the Bi-State metropolitan area, each stack’s size is in proportion to its neighborhood’s share of the 670,000 residents age 50 or older area wide. That kind of detail is typical of Rothbarth’s carefully drafted marketing plan.
Distribution totaled 150,000 copies until increasing newsprint costs forced him to cut back to 100,000 by reducing East Side circulation.
Rothbarth, a Ladue High graduate who studied business at the Universities of Missouri and Arizona, left the family business, National Garment Co., a few years ago and began looking for a new venture. He was attracted by the demographics of the aging American population and took some graduate courses in gerontology at Washington University.
“In January 1994, I woke up in the middle of the night with this print media idea,” recalled Rothbarth, then 39. “I jotted it down, and when I got up in the morning, I wrote the whole thing out in three hours – 12 pages of notes.”
Months of learning and planning followed: a nationwide survey of publications for older readers, the local advertising market and gerontologists and other experts.
“Now, I’m not an expert in anything, except in knowing what I don’t know,” Rothbarth explained. The experts make up an advisory board that still serves the St. Louis Times.
He describes his idea as “a news magazine catering to the 50-and-over audience – timely, with a solely positive perspective, to enhance the balance of human experience in its psychological, spiritual, physical and sociological aspects – in an industrial urban community. It aims to serve their needs for information and to market products to aging consumers.
He found 98 percent of about 200 such publications in North America filled with what he calls “gloom and dying,” rather than addressing the reality of active, healthy and varied older generations. “There was no niche communications vehicle like this in this market,” he asserted.
Not so, says Karen Zarky, co-publisher of Senior Circuit, a semi-monthly free tabloid published in South St. Louis since 1987. It has a distribution of 40,000 copies on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River only.
“The biggest difference is our commitment and dedication to the elderly,” Zarky said. “They (the Times’ editors) are addressing broader interests. Are they really serving older citizens or the general public?”
She said the new competition since last October “has had no effect at this point” on her newspaper’s operations. “We have a lot of dedicated readers, and they know we’ve kept them informed for eight years. It’s not really the ‘Senior Times’ is it?”
Rothbarth said “senior” and “senior citizen” are terms that will never appear in his publication. Except for its celebrity profiles and a second long article in each issue, both periodicals run similar topics regularly: legislative issues, hobbies, travel, sports/recreation, health, business/finance, food/dining and more. While Circuit has in the past often looked poorly written and edited, most Times articles have been rather dull, though clearly written and easily read, and not particularly newsy or timely.
“We don’t do anything controversial, by design,” Rothbarth said. “We don’t want to incite anything that’ll move us off the fence post.”
Among notable articles were features on sportscaster Jack Buck’s family members also in broadcasting (December 1994) and on St. Louis photographer Jack Zehrt (April 1995), plus several legislative reports from the Missouri and Illinois capitals. But much good information and some helpful insights have been undermined by less-than-compelling prose, as in an important piece on drug and alcohol misuse among older people (April). Except for a cover story on authors Fred and Patricia McKissack (March 1995), interracial and cross-cultural interests seem scant or lacking in most issues.
Rothbarth’s journalism mentor was A. Edward Heins, former University of Missouri professor and editorial director of the Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis, who served as an advisory board member and managing editor. In January Heins was replaced in the editor’s chair by Susan Spanel. “Ed helped get the project off the ground and through start-up,” Rothbarth explained, “and worked his way out of the job by design.”
Times has a staff of nine editorial, advertising and circulation employees and a group of 18 regular free-lance writers, photographers and various editors. Most are under age 50, but some are over 70, with diverse backgrounds. Art design and production, as well as printing, are contracted out.
Ads now take up 55 percent of each issue, cutting editorial content from its uneconomical dominance in early issues. “The split may go to 50-50 as we grow,” the publisher said.
Sometimes advertising concerns have appeared to infringe on editorial matter. In one instance, a full-page KSD Radio ad touting John Carney’s morning show and offering music club participation was followed with a turn of the page by a story on Carney’s devotion to “music for mature listeners” and similar interests (March) Rothbarth insisted that it was an unfortunate coincidence.
“Editorial space is not for sale,” he stressed. “It’s been a daily problem with advertisers and public relations agents that we’ve steadfastly resisted.”
Also, while the monthly Travel Club tie-in with travel agencies’ ads is clearly up-front promotion, commercially “sponsored” thumbnail sketches spotlighting notable volunteers in charity is awfully muddled with a “Business Spotlight” featuring Dierberg’s Market employees. Both appear with identical graphics and typography, but only the volunteer boz’s content is produced by the magazine’s editors.
While the St. Louis Times and Senior Circuit serve different styles and formats, can both survive?
“No,” says Karen Zarky of the more “senior” periodical. “There’s not enough room for both of us. And if [Rothbarth]’s honest, he’ll say no too.”
“Free niche news is what’s growing, not paid news,” he says. He noted that his business venture is just two issues from breaking even financially. “We’re within spitting distance right now,” he stated.
Or maybe in a spitting match already.
(Originally published in the St. Louis Journalism Review 5/1995).