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Thursday, September 7, 2017

Living Magazines Sells Media Enterprise to Company Employees

Jim Lied, publisher of Fort Thomas Living for 40 years, and his wife, Karen.
 By Kara Uhl

For 40 years Fort Thomas residents have turned to Fort Thomas Living magazine for stories about their community. With a focus on positive news, it is within this humble, black-and-white publication where neighbors have spent years learning more about their neighbors—the basements artists, the community events they’ve planned, the awards they’ve won, the businesses they’ve opened. And for 40 years Fort Thomas resident Jim Lied, along with others, has made sure that Fort Thomas Living—as well as other Living magazines through the Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky area—has made its way to mailboxes and coffee tables every month.

In April, Lied sold what is now called Living Magazines Inc. to Fort Thomas Matters Editor Mark Collier and Living Magazines Chief Operations Officer Erin Sendelbach.

Living Magazines was acquired by new owners, Erin Sendelbach and Mark Collier.   

“We are going to stay true to our roots, which has always been to tell the inside story of a community better than anyone else can and to do it in a positive manner,” Collier says.

But before we get to the future of Living Magazines, first, a look at the past.

Peter Baker

Fort Thomas Living began with a shared cup of coffee in the basement of St. Andrews Church in Fort Thomas in 1976. Peter Baker, a trained journalist selling insurance, and Lied, then director of audio-visual support services for the University of Cincinnati, were discussing the lack of a weekly newspaper in Campbell County. The long-held assumption was that because the mafia had been so strong in the area in the years’ prior, no one was willing to publish a hyper-local paper.

But Lied was curious if it could work. He priced out what it would take to publish a weekly paper. The result? $30,000. A month. It wasn’t doable.

But several other important things happened during this time. Lied teamed up with John Trojanski, a colleague at U.C., and formed MarketHouse Inc., a company created to publish books and newsletters. And Lied, while visiting family in Los Angeles, stumbled upon a neighborhood monthly magazine. He put some numbers together and realized that if they published monthly, and sold subscriptions, they wouldn’t need as much cash up front. It could work.

“Everybody thought it would die,” he says, laughing. “We didn’t take any money out of it for a couple years.”

Baker served as editor. Lied served as publisher, but also hand drew all the art, including the covers and advertisements. The first issue launched spring 1977.

Ginny Deckert

Ray Duff

Trojanski left the area soon after the magazine started. Lied and Baker worked on the magazine in addition to their full-time jobs. Their daughters helped with delivery. Baker’s wife, Kenny, served as office manager and managed accounts. Ginny Deckert sold advertisements. Ray Duff, Bill Thomas and Steve Sparks worked with Baker on the editorial side of things. Lied designed every issue and prepared it for press.

“Ray Duff was our first editor, and that was important because you’re talking to a couple Protestant kids starting this in a community that’s about half Catholic,” Lied says. “Ray and her husband kind of bridged that gap. It was pretty much two communities at that point. In 1970, it was very different.”

In 1981, Lied and his wife, Karen, bought out the Hyde Park-based interior design business Karen had been working at since 1974. With that Lied and his team had two offices to work from—one in Hyde Park and one in Fort Thomas. In 1981 Anderson Living was born (and Living Magazine Inc. became a new corporation, Community Publications Inc.), followed by Hyde Park Living in 1982.

From the very beginning, all freelance writers and advertising sales representatives were paid. With growth, part-time and full-time employees were added. And in 1985 Lied quit his job at the university and joined Community Publications full time.

They experimented with many different magazines, including Downtown Living, Montgomery Living, Western Hills Living, Blue Ash Living, Clifton Living, Forest Park Living and Oakwood Living (a suburb in Dayton).

Throughout the entire 40 years Lied and his partners and staff strived to simply be a positive force in the communities they served. “Our intent was not to chase the fire trucks or ambulances or any of that sort of thing,” Lied says. “The only controversial thing we covered was the election. What I wanted to do was emphasize the positives. There were a lot of positives going on in [these communities] that weren’t getting press.”

For years folks have run into Lied at the grocery, thanking them for including their child in the magazine.

“I think people need community,” Lied says. “They need to feel a part of it. Our job is always to find the people who aren’t in the news and the best things thing me are to put people on the cover who you would never expect them to be on the cover. All this just builds community, and that’s what we’re trying to do. Not just on the cover but inside as well.”

In the 1990s technology began to change. Lied experimented with a new digital press called Docutect, offered by Xerox, but it proved to be too expensive. During this time Lied established a new company on his own called MicroPress Inc., with offices in Bellevue. The Hyde Park and Fort Thomas offices of Community Publications both closed and operations were combined at the Bellevue space. At this time Baker was ready to leave and sold Lied his shares in the company.

New offset printing presses, bindery equipment and image-setting technology were purchased, allowing the magazines to be produced in-house much more inexpensively.

In the years that followed, many staff changes took place and the company consolidated to six magazines: Fort Thomas, Fort Mitchell, Hyde Park, Indian Hill, Sycamore and Wyoming.

Sendelbach joined the company in 2004.

“I had a background in graphic design and originally came on to just do the ads,” she said. “It was an interesting time because not every company we were dealing with then had access to digital logos so I was literally creating art by putting things together piece by piece.”

In May 2006 the company went completely digital with the purchase of two used Kodak DigiMasters, which printed, folded, stitched and labeled an entire magazine quickly and in-house.

“In 2008, everything fell apart,” Lied says. “It was a sea change. The bubble burst.”

But they had equipment—expensive equipment—to pay for. By 2012, Lied was the only full-time person on staff, and he was not drawing a salary. But he pushed forward. And things gradually got better—much better. Revenues were up and five magazines survived.

Lied stressed that the success of Fort Thomas Living, though, was started by three key people in the late 1970s and into the 1980s and 1990s. “Their work made the magazine a hit,” he says. “All three have now passed, but their legacy is strong. Baker was my partner in Fort Thomas Living and Community Publications up to 2000 when he retired. His part of the business was the editorial management for not only Fort Thomas Living, but the other magazines as well. He also liked to run advertising contests for all the magazines too."

“Duff's contribution to Fort Thomas Living was stellar. With her inside knowledge of the town, everyone had a chance to be on the cover. And her recipes from Fort Thomas people were a big hit. As I mentioned, she was the bridge between what then were two separate communities."

“Deckert made the advertising work. She was persistent in those early days to make Fort Thomas Living bigger and better. Her success was the reason we could grow the company and the amount of news printed."

“My role was initially setting up each issue for the printer and handling the finance and accounting duties. Important tasks, of course, but no more important than the other team members.”

Sendelbach credits Lied’s family-atmosphere in the workplace for her longevity with the company.

“When I started at Living I wasn’t married didn’t have children. Today, I’ve been married for nine years and have three kids. Jim is a family guy and always allowed us to grow professionally with the underlying thought that family was number one and I always appreciated that.”

Although Collier and Sendelbach now own Living Magazines, Lied still plans to work with them, particularly on the book publishing side of things. He plans to focus on the aspects of the work he enjoys most—book artwork, design and layout, and painting, which he does weekly in his Bellevue studio with a group of friends.

Today, Collier and Sendelbach are 50/50 partners. They’ve moved the offices to the Central Business District of Fort Thomas, in the Hiland Building, next door to Fort Thomas Independent Schools’ Board Office and down the street from City Hall.

In addition to publishing Living magazines in Fort Thomas, Fort Mitchell, Indian Hill, Hyde Park and Wyoming, the two will also publish custom books out of Micropress, which is now under the Living banner. They can handle the design, layout, print and publishing of books by authors who want to self-publish. Most recently, they have helped Kenney Shields publish his autobiography.

They also can handle custom-printing jobs as well: business cards, invitations and newsletters.

“I’ve not lost the fact that our society craves news every day, even locally,” Collier says. “I’ve seen the shift intimately with the growth and reach of Fort Thomas Matters. We believe that running digital news alongside of print is one of the keys that will sustain us into the future. I don’t think anyone does those things better in tandem in our industry. It's a new frontier in the media industry and we're excited to see what success looks like.”

Collier says that running those platforms at a high level and figuring out how to leverage social platforms has helped him figure out how to position advertisers in the best light, which paved the way to Collier and Sendelbach’s entry into public relations and marketing.

“I can look at how our clients are stacking up against their competitors with information that is publicly available and I know they are all dominating the social spheres, which is what matters today,” he says. “Right now we are a publisher of good news. I’d like us to become a marketing company that also publishes good news about its communities. If we can balance those two, Living will last another 40 years.”

Collier says that he has no doubt that they are the publications of record in the communities they serve. “It’s because we know our communities more intimately than bigger news organizations ever could,” he says. “We literally saturate these markets with good news and make it very difficult for our competitors to compete because we simply care more. You can’t fake that. When people tell me print is dead, I disagree. It's just that the business model with newspapers and magazines need a broad scope change. But there are companies with our same mission that are thriving nationally. Jim and his original founders were onto something so early.”

And so, Fort Thomas Matters, Fort Thomas Living, as well as all the other Living magazines will continue, with an optimistic look toward the future and deep dedication to continue delivering good, hyper-local news to community member’s mailboxes and coffee tables every month.

Stay tuned.

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