An Excerpt from the Book:
“Our success hinged on the fact that everyone
who picked up an RFT wanted a copy: it required a conscious choice”
In 1977, Ray founded Hartmann Publishing, whose first publication was Profile St. Louis, which was followed by the Riverfront Times (The RFT) a year later. The RFT became one of the ten largest alternative newspapers in the country. In 1998, he sold The RFT to New Times Media, and then later published St. Louis Magazine, where he currently serves as CEO. Ray has received numerous local and national honors, and is also a regular panelist on the weekly Donnybrook program on PBS.
When I was a Senior at Parkway Central High School, I found my passion running the student newspaper. I went on to study Journalism at Mizzou, where I had the dubious distinction of being the only person to run their student newspaper for more than two semesters. I did not excel academically. Borrowing a line from the great Jack Buck, I graduated in the half of the class that made the top half possible.
In 1976, I was given the opportunity to write speeches for Lieutenant Governor Kit Bond. In hindsight, it was a curious matchup, but Kit was a bit more moderate back then, and I was not yet known for my political views. I was given a week to submit three speeches; since I was headed out of town, and something of a procrastinator, I knew I wouldn’t get them done in time. So I pulled an all-nighter and had them on his desk by the next morning. I don’t know that the speeches were all that good, but his staff was impressed on the quick turnaround and gave me the job. However, I was out of work after Kit lost to Joe Teasdale in the gubernatorial election. Unemployment was something of my impetus to start Hartmann Publishing with my first publication: Profile St. Louis.
Profile St. Louis was modeled after People and Time magazines with a focus on local personalities. We had some solid pieces, and it was well received by the community. One night, while I was being interviewed on KMOX by the late Jack Carney, we sold several hundred subscriptions while I was on the air – I think mostly to people who were my grandmother’s age.
Profile St. Louis was by all accounts a creative and artistic success but a financial disaster. We had a distribution of about 15,000, which covered the entire metropolitan area. I learned the first of many hard lessons: focus matters. We were too spread out, trying to be all things to all people without a real point of view. We were mailing publications to people in West County who did not really want them; without saturation, we were unable to attract the necessary advertisers to pay the freight. Lesson two was that quality content wasn’t enough: if we weren’t ringing the cash registers of our advertisers, the model did not work.
Once it became clear that Profile St. Louis wasn’t going to make it, I had to pivot. In November of 1977, I started a pilot publication, Downtown, that was free and focused on the downtown market (both for content as well as distribution). The publication was mostly a guide to entertainment for local bands, restaurants, and so forth, and was a modest success. By May of the next year, we rebranded to become The Riverfront Times: our circulation was steady, and saturation made it work for our advertisers.
We were still somewhat strapped by the financial losses from Profile St. Louis. One day, Mark Vittert walked into our offices and changed my life forever: he liked what we were doing and provided the necessary financial backing so we could continue to operate. He went on to own and publish the St. Louis Business Journal and is one of the sharpest guys I have ever met.
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