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Publishing panache.

Can A Society Section Make It As A Newspaper?

When the premiere issue of Life & Home Weekly rolled off the presses in early December following only three weeks of preparation, Publisher Bob Plunkett looked at his associates and wearily suggested the newspaper's name be changed to Life & Home Occasionally.

"It was a minor miracle," Plunkett says of the first issue of the Little Rock publication, which he claims made a $143 profit.

Plunkett's approach of, "Would you buy an ad for something you've never heard of -- that I don't even have a copy of?" worked remarkably well.

But he knew his real battle was yet to come.

Without the luxury of several weeks to sell an issue, Life & Home was losing money by the first of the year.

Jim Gentry is president of Merit Publishing Inc., which he, Plunkett and Editor James Thompson formed in November.

"It scares me to death to think about it," Gentry says of the hectic pace at the new publishing venture.

Gentry, a real estate agent for 20 years, considered starting a real estate publication years ago. But he didn't seriously look into the logistics until the Arkansas Gazette closed Oct. 18.

When Gentry investigated the sales potential, he discovered more interest than expected among real estate colleagues. He then decided to expand the publication's focus.

Meanwhile, Plunkett and Thompson were considering creating a newspaper geared toward an upscale audience. Thompson had been a Gazette writer and editor since 1964. Plunkett, who free-lances in writing and marketing, had worked with Thompson to produce an automobile section for the Gazette.

"We heard about Jim, and he heard about us," Thompson says. "Within 24 hours, we had a company."

The trio wanted to publish by the first of December to capitalize on Christmas advertising and establish Life & Home as the publication for Little Rock's upscale market.

"We are not in the business of putting out news," Plunkett says.

Society events, profiles of the rich and famous, home furnishing ideas -- this is the stuff of which Life & Home is made. The owners hope the non-controversial copy and high demographics will translate into an advertiser's dream.

"These are the people who spend the money," Plunkett says.

But that doesn't necessarily mean Life & Home is the newspaper where

advertisers will spend theirs.

Piggybacking To Success

In Life & Home's thickest issue, the 28-page Dec. 19 edition, the cover story featured a vendor who travels from Dumas each Saturday to sell hot tamales in the Heights. The Saturday after that story ran, the usual batch of 1,000 tamales was gone by 11 a.m. A quick trip back to Dumas for another 1,000 tamales paid off. They were sold by 3 p.m. The tamale vendor usually doesn't leave until the sun goes down.

A reader wrote Plunkett regarding the article and the vendor's increased sales.

She said, "Realize your power and go for it!"

First, though, the owners needed sales help.

Plunkett admits the newspaper's biggest problem was its lack of an organized sales force. Gentry attempted to be the main salesman and train an assistant at the same time.

But Life & Home faced bleak January sales prospects. January is a month when even established publications see sales slow. Gentry knew he needed help.

Enter Julia "Bitty" Martin, the former sales manager at Little Rock's Spectrum Weekly.

Martin immediately put her sales experience to work, establishing longer advertising contracts. Until she was hired, a 13-week contract was the longest an advertiser could sign.

"We have people calling left and right wanting to get in," Martin says. "Every day it proves ... I made the right move."

Business is looking up for February. The issues, which are running a thin 16 pages, are expected to increase in size next month.

"You aren't seeing where this thing is going to be," Plunkett says. "There are those who feel we don't know what we're doing. I think they're going to be surprised."

Life & Home is distributed free to 35,000 houses in the Heights, Hillcrest, Maumelle and west Little Rock. Once several exclusive North Little Rock neighborhoods are added, circulation will be about 45,000.

Mailing expenses run $4,000 per issue, which, with printing costs, brings total weekly expenditures to about $10,000.

Advertising rates are $650 for a full-page, four-time run; $350 for half a page; and $175 for a quarter page.

For now, Life & Home is losing money. But Plunkett says as the newspaper is fine tuned, publication costs are coming down.

For instance, Merit Publishing has teamed with another company to distribute the newspaper in conjunction with that company's mail out.

Plunkett may use a similar piggyback system with a second Merit publication. By Feb. 1, the company hopes to have the new newspaper ready. The niche marketing this time will be targeted toward those interested in automobiles. The publication tentatively was titled "Wheels Weekly" until Little Rock's Snider Corp., owners of KARN-AM, 920, produced a product with the same name.

Life & Home and the automobile publication likely will be packaged together. But the second publication will go to an additional 30,000 homes, including some outside Pulaski County.

Making It Office-al

From his elegant home in the Heights, which doubles as his office, Plunkett describes what life was like when he worked in a regular corporate environment. His most vivid memory is of standing on a chair to rip out a music system from his office ceiling.

Plunkett abhors office environments. Yet he's giving in and scouting a location for Life & Home. There is no full-time editorial staff except for Thompson, but Plunkett wants to eventually hire two full-time writers.

The newspaper is using former Gazette staffers such as Leslie Welch, Leroy Donald, Linda Bennett, Mardi Blissard and Dan Morris as free-lancers.

Meanwhile, Martin is planning to hire additional salespeople.

"As far as I'm concerned, we're on track," Gentry says.

Although the company didn't borrow money to start Life & Home, it has secured a loan through an individual who expressed interest in the publication.

After $1,000 was used to pay writers, the rest of the money was put in the bank.

"We're struggling right now just to keep publishing," Gentry says. "At the rate we're going, we can continue to |publish~."

He adds, "We have survived the first couple of months, and I feel we're here to stay."
COPYRIGHT 1992 Journal Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:Merit Publishing Inc. publishes Life and Home Weekly newspaper
Author:Rengers, Carrie
Publication:Arkansas Business
Article Type:Company Profile
Date:Jan 20, 1992
Previous Article:Arkla's big scare.
Next Article:'No free shots.' (columnist John Robert Starr's attitude)

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