Originally published May 26, 1997
If you know someone in their 20s who needs a boost in self-confidence or direction, try sending them a copy of David Lauren’s Swing magazine.
The 25-year-old publisher is on a mission to propel his generation to greatness.
“When I started the magazine,” he says, “there was no magazine that spoke intelligently to people in their 20s. I could not find anything that spoke to me, that told me how to grow up, told me the stories of young entrepreneurs who were successful and how I could be successful. I didn’t want to read about an 80-year-old business tycoon whose life I could never emulate. I wanted to know about somebody my age, who was 25 years old, who was already a millionaire, who had done it on their own. I wanted to know about politics but not through Newt Gingrich or Bill Clinton. I wanted to know about politics through somebody who was 27 years old, who was responsible for writing a speech or a bill that got passed through Congress.”
Lauren wants to convey to his peers why somebody their age cares so passionately for political and social issues, what their vision is and how it reflects on an entire generation.
“They make politics accessible to us,” he says. “The same thing with technology and medicine. Some of the greatest breakthroughs are made by people in their 20s. We are the ones using computers, we are the ones working at home because the job market is tight. We are the ones being forced to figure out the future.”
The idea of Swing was to chronicle his generation, to give people in their 20s not only a sense of themselves but of how they fit into the the world and where and how they can succeed. Lauren is trying to accomplish that with cover stories such as “The Best Places to Live for People in Their Twenties,” “The Most Powerful People in Their Twenties” and “The Best Job Advice from the Best Mentors” — including Martha Stewart, Donna Karan, Doug Williams and Chris Blackwell.
And while his magazine’s appearance on the scene two years ago brought its share of derision and skepticism, Lauren has stuck to his guns and is finally winning respect for his lofty goals and delivery.
Inside Media named him one of seven “rising magazine stars.” Dr. Samir Husni, publisher of his own annual guide to new magazines, told the New York Times that “this generation is a group to be reckoned with and this magazine will be a voice for that group.”
Swing is also making money; Lauren reports advertising sales are up 50 percent over a year ago.
Starting the magazine for a national run — Lauren originally produced it for a regional audience while a student at Duke University — the young publisher followed his nose, not any particular demographic studies or focus groups.
“I saw the magazine as a vehicle to inspire people in their 20s, to talk about the issues and the personalities that were defining people in this generation,” he says. “It was just a feeling; it was an instinct.”
Producing the magazine was also a day-by-day, feel-your-way-around-in-the-dark experience, too. Early issues looked like the product of an enthusiastic but undisciplined college staff, but more recently, Swing’s design has shown improvement. Part of the credit may go to Hachette Filipacchi, the international media conglomerate (Elle, Mirabella, Premiere) which has become a partner in Swing, echoing its relationship with John Kennedy and his youth-oriented political magazine, George.
Lauren and Kennedy have another common bond; both are sons of fathers with household names. Lauren’s dad is fashion designer Ralph Lauren.
It took Lauren a little longer than it did Kennedy to figure out that while idealism is good for the soul, celebrity sells.
“Sometimes we ran a really funky cover that did not connect to what was inside,” he admits. “Our belief was that the audience would find us, but we learned we had to make it a little more salable. And that also evolved our view about celebrities. In our first year, we refused to run a celebrity on the cover.”
But while Lauren insists that the cover stories Swing has done from time to time on Generation X icons such as comedian Janeane Garofalo or actor Chris O’Donnell don’t significantly bump sales up, they do distinguish it on the newsstand.
“It has been hard for us to find celebrities in their 20s who really reflect the integrity and the quality of the audience that we cater to,” he says. “For us to just put a celebrity on the cover who is hip and trendy doesn’t really embody the quality and the direction of this magazine. Swing magazine has always been about leaders, people who are original thinkers, that are more than just famous. This magazine is about people who are successful in business, politics, sports and technology.”
I asked Lauren to identify several cultural tidbits that best describe his generation:
ALBUM: “Alanis Morissette’s album was a major success with this generation. She spoke about honesty and truth; she didn’t want to be pushed around with false images.”
MUSICAL ARTIST: “Jewel is very popular now. Young people are searching for an honest voice with integrity. We are very media-savvy. We are very aware of the hype that is out there, that surrounded a lot of the artists before us, and the artist that speaks to us with real meaning is connecting to us.”
POLITICAL FIGURE: “You can’t quite tell who is real and who is not, but Colin Powell, if somebody were to do a major poll right now, would probably be one of the more popular leaders. His interest in being an activist is very popular with this generation. We are one of the most activist generations in terms of getting in on community service, but some people might, in the same poll, feel that it is just a step toward the presidency and maybe not completely trusted.”
BUSINESS PERSON: “Jim Barksdale would be a hero to this generation. He is the president and CEO of Netscape.”
ACTOR: “Claire Danes from (the short-lived TV show) ‘My So-Called Life,” has this huge cult following because the character she played was just a young woman in search of a good relationship with her parents, good relationship with friends.”
TV: ” ‘The Real World’ (on MTV) is popular because it is real.”
MOVIE: “I don’t think we have produced a classic yet, but there are movies like Swingers, about society and young people, that is a movie about real questions.
WHAT HIS READERS READ AFTER SWING: “Time, Entertainment Weekly and Vanity Fair. But I don’t think that there is one magazine that people feel, oh, my gosh, I have to read it. I think that people today will pick up Men’s Health because they want to understand health. Years ago, people would pick up Esquire or Life magazine because it told you how to live better, to reflect a certain sense of society, and I don’t think there is a magazine besides Swing right now that is doing that for this generation.”
Won’t that come as a surprise to the editors of Spin and George?
“I don’t think so,” Lauren says. “They are nice magazines, but . . . If you want to read about who the hottest new band is, you pick up Spin, but I don’t think it tells you how to live better.”
Maybe it is his fashion designer father’s influence, but Lauren insists his generation — and audience — is not just a bunch of grungy, angry, self-absorbed dirty punks only interested in designer drugs, body piercing and getting tattoos.
“When we started off, people really assumed that this generation only looked like the people that you saw on MTV or in Details magazine,” he says. “What they are finding now is that this generation is much more aspirational, much more clean-cut, much more traditional than people previously thought. This is not the slacker MTV generation that sits on their butts watching TV all day. This is a generation that wants to get ahead, be successful and be close to their parents.”
A media mogul at 25, Lauren will outgrow his target audience in a mere five years. What then? Will he hang on, pretending forever to be twentysomething? Will the magazine mature along with its audience, eventually catering to thirtysomethings and fortysomethings?
“I can’t tell you,” he says, answering the question yet playing coy. “We target 18- to 34-year-olds, but we finding that people in their 50s and 60s read the magazine because they want to understand what this generation is about. In the last three years, I learned who our audience is, and I have another five years to decide who it will be.”