If you are a fan of free St. Louis publications, you're of course familiar with the old mainstay known as the Riverfront Times. You've seen the more recent upstart known as Playback St. Louis. Perhaps you've chanced upon a copy of the left-leaning Confluence magazine. However, unless you're between the ages of 14 and 18, you're probably not familiar with a more recent addition to the stable of free publications. The pleasantly named Louie Magazine, established in November 2000, is subtitled "The Magazine for St. Louis Teens" and is now distributed in nearly 100 local high schools. Written for teens by teens, Louie occupies a unique place amongst St. Louis publications.
The idea for Louie Magazine came to Sharon Reus almost 20 years ago. A member of the class of '81 from Jennings High School, Ms. Reus came across some issues of Prom Magazine in an antique store. Intrigued by the pictures of high school students featured prominently in Prom Magazine, Ms. Reus came to discover that the magazine had ceased publication in 1971 after a 25-year run. She wondered why there wasn't a magazine for St. Louis teens, featuring their stories and photos, available to teens all over town.
Time passed. Ms. Reus received her degree in communications from UMSL. She embarked on a career encompassing advertising, public relations, journalism, and corporate communications. Most recently she was at Busch Creative Services (then a subsidiary of Anheuser-Busch). However, when the tragedy at Columbine exploded into the national consciousness, she revisited her idea about a magazine for St. Louis teens. Instead of hand-wringing and negativity, why weren't there more positive outlets for teen voices and self-expression?
Investing her personal money and securing a bank loan, Ms. Reus founded Louie Magazine. The first prototype issue was sent around St. Louis for critique and feedback. One of the recipients was Kids Under Twenty-One, known also as KUTO. As their website says, KUTO is "a unique group of youth and adult volunteers committed to the empowerment of young St. Louisans and who work to promote teen focused crisis prevention, intervention, and postvention services." The magazine found its way into the hands of local businessman and KUTO board member Dan Apted. A few months later, Louie Magazine had a new financial supporter and community booster in Mr. Apted.
Louie Magazine has lasted almost three years, no mean feat for a new magazine. Many, many new magazines fold within the first year (Public Defender, anyone?), but Louie Magazine has just kicked off its fourth school year by returning to the standard, 8 1/2 by 11 magazine size. Originally Louie was printed on heavy, glossy 8 1/2 by 11 stock, but in its second year went to a smaller-sized format in order to save printing costs. Although students liked the smaller, more portable size, the small format was generating an unacceptable amount of paper waste since the printer was merely cutting large margins off the standard-sized sheet in order to create a smaller magazine. Although some students were upset that they could no longer conceal Louie within their textbooks, the return to a full-size standard magazine format looks very professional to this layperson.
That air of professionalism extends to Louie's teen staff members. Louie has somewhere between 35 and 40 high-school students on staff at any given time. The August issue had close to 20 student bylines. In its short life, Louie has generated alum who have gone on to write for student papers at Mizzou, Dartmouth, and U Texas (Austin). Every Monday night the teen staff meets with the "grown ups" in mid-county and exchanges ideas, works on their stories, and plans the next issue. These teenagers are treated as professional journalists, although they are not paid for their efforts. Louie has six teen editors supervised by a full-time staff of three adults. In the most recent issue, writers' credits covered schools from the private school MICDS to the parochial schools Visitation and JFK to the county public schools Webster Groves and Hazelwood East to the city schools Soldan and Metro.
This illustrates a theme very important to Ms. Reus Louie Magazine is for all teens all over St. Louis. Louie is not for white teens or black teens or city teens or county teens. Louie is for everyone. Feature stories and monthly columns cover topics of interest to teenagers everywhere sports, driving, and fashion are obvious areas of interest but Louie isn't a pile of ads and fluff like some teen-oriented magazines. An important new monthly feature is "Real Life," which attempts to show teens what to expect when they get out of school and are exposed to the Real World (not the TV show, but life as we adults experience it). But in typical, peer-to-peer style, Louie doesn't preach or pontificate. Teenagers get enough lecturing from other sources. Louie is for teens by teens and comes off that way, but in a way that is professional and respectful not titillating or provocative like so many other teen-oriented products are. That's why in its three years of existence, not one school has dropped Louie for editorial reasons.
Even though Louie is known, loved and appreciated by local high school students, running Louie is still a challenge. To make enough money to stay in business requires selling advertisements. But most adults haven't seen Louie and so the advertising decision-makers often don't know that 50,000 copies are distributed each month in almost 100 high schools. Keeping the magazine afloat requires a constant process of outreach and education directed towards the adults who control the purse strings at local businesses.
Surprisingly, Louie has no problem recruiting and retaining teen writers and editors. In this modern era where teens have TV and video games and sports and volunteer work and extracurriculars galore competing for their free time, perhaps the biggest indicator of the success of Louie is that the kids are coming to Louie as contributors of their own volition. Teens like Mallory Rusch and Dan Pritt could just as easily devote their time to activities at Nerinx Hall and Parkway North, instead of spending their free time as Teen Editor and Teen Sports Editor, respectively. A publication that attracts 40 high school students from all over the metro area must be doing something right. Sure, maybe a few are doing it to pad their college applications, but the fact that Louie has to work harder to recruit adults than to recruit teens says that the kids buy into Louie.
Future plans might include expanding to other cities. If Louie keeps expanding and growing, Kansas City might see its own version soon. Of course, it would be tailored to the teens of KC and written by the teens of KC.
One hundred St. Louis principals and thousands of students like Louie. If you have teens of your own or you want to see what kids of today are thinking about, you can pick up Louie Magazine at your local YMCA or your local Borders Bookstore, or contact the magazine directly at www.louiemag.com.
Ajay Zutshi lives and plays in the city of St. Louis with his faithful canine companions Rocky and Gracie. Correspondence welcomed; letters written on the back of a twenty-dollar bill will be answered with the highest priority.