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New City Magazine Takes Wing in Lakeland

The Lakelander

You often hear that print media is out -- or going digital.  So when an upmarket, city magazine  with big  production values suddenly appears in a mid-sized town like Lakeland, can it succeed? Publishers of the new magazine, The Lakelander, are banking on it.

Publisher Curt Patterson has no illusions about print. He recently saw his print edition of the Polk County yellow pages for Christian businesses go out of business. But after the phone directory was gone, he still had a connection to hundreds of advertisers and was looking for a way to make use of them. Then, at a magazine conference, he met the publisher of the city magazine for Boca Raton.

"She told me, actually, we're doing well and growing," says Patterson. "That got my attention!"

Boca Raton's city magazine may be doing well. But Lakeland is certainly not Boca Raton.  The demographics of this Polk County town are much different, and Patterson says that's fine. He says Lakeland is not about glitz and glamour, but is -- in his words -- "real," and he says the magazine is, also.
The magazine looks upscale, with matte finished paper, oversized pages and an emphasis on quality photography. But the style section features affordable clothing, and the so-called shelter pages may cover a renovated apartment in addition to million dollar homes.

"It's not Sarasota," says Patterson. "Sarasota is a great city magazine. But I would say they've gone just after the affluent. I would say we've got an affluent market. But the affluent people here in Lakeland are very real people. When you're affluent in a bigger city, you tend to hang with other affluent people. But the affluent people in Lakeland hang with everybody. So we do it a little different in Lakeland. And I think The Lakelander reflects that."

The magazine comes out six times a year from its offices in a small, historic building in the heart of downtown Lakeland. Patterson put out the first issue of The Lakelander in September of 2012, and says it's already operating in the black. He employs eight full-time staff and about 20 freelancers, and he says each run's 15,000 copies are getting picked up in half the time that they were a year ago. He attributes the success to Lakeland's relatively small size, which he says makes it an ideal niche market.

"A niche!" he says. "Give me that. I can control that. Give me an area. You have to have an area where people live and breathe and shop and work and see each other. That's why Lakeland has done well."

Patterson knows about niche publishing. He's done it since 1984, with magazines aimed at very targeted audiences, such as one for people who own  classic  Mustang cars. He says niche publishing is about giving readers editorial content that they can trust

"If you can get the reader to trust you and follow you, the advertisers will be there," he says. "But most city magazines tend to be swayed by the advertiser,  [who say] 'write a story about me.' But that's the wrong road. Because it becomes a short road. You lose the reader."

Hugh J.  Martin is a media economist and an associate professor at the EW Scripps School of Journalism, and says it appears to him that Patterson is a savvy publisher who's been in the business a long time and who knows what he's doing.

Martin says he's impressed with the way Patterson gets the magazine to readers, by placing it with what he calls his "advertiser partners."

"This is clever," Martin says, "asking your advertisers to distribute your magazine. It solves a circulation problem."

And it puts the magazine in places where it won't have to compete for attention with dozens of other magazines, like a grocery store rack.

Tiffany Osler is a Lakeland mom and the president of the Junior League's local chapter, and says she loves it. "I call it a coffee table magazine," she says. "I keep it with my Garden & Gun and my Southern Living." Osler says The Lakelander magazine appeals to arts lovers, foodies, and young professionals looking for a unique experience in town.

"Personally, I love the fashion," she says. "But I like that they use a lot of local businesses to get the clothes from.  So you're developing these individual boutiques' business as well, which I love, because you want to grow the entrepreneurial spirit of the city, and have thriving businesses, and not have just a bunch of chains."    

The magazine definitely gives off a knowing, young vibe. But it's got to walk a fine line. The uber-hip has never gone down very well in Polk County.  And Martin, the media economist, says it may be difficult to keep the content fresh in a smaller market.

But Martin also says there will always be a demand for the look and the feel of a beautifully photographed -- and printed -- magazine.

Robin Sussingham was Senior Editor at WUSF until September 2020.
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