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THE MEDIA

Money problems shelve DoubleTake

Springsteen helped, but magazine needs more

SOMERVILLE -- The poster advertising one of the most improbable fund-raisers in local history -- "an intimate evening of music and conversation with Bruce Springsteen" -- is still on the front door of DoubleTake's near-empty headquarters here. But the future of the magazine that Springsteen tried to save is still very much in doubt.

For two nights last February, the Boss performed in the 900-seat Somerville Theatre to benefit the fiscally challenged documentary magazine founded by renowned Harvard professor, psychiatrist, and social activist Robert Coles. (Coles, a friend of Springsteen's, is the author of the new Random House book "Bruce Springsteen's America: The People Listening, a Poet Singing.")

The benefit "was kind of a Hail Mary pass," says managing editor Kirk Kicklighter, noting that DoubleTake owed $600,000 to vendors and contributors. "The concert was a success beyond our wildest dreams. [But] we never really had a plan for what we were going to do after the concert."

Today, eight months after Springsteen added about $1 million to DoubleTake's coffers, the magazine is no longer publishing, officially on "hiatus." Most of the staff walked out in July, and the current stripped-down crew includes only Kicklighter, who is running the show, plus another editor and an office manager. After staffers recently helped convince Coles of the need to operate DoubleTake as a more traditional business, Kicklighter says, the publication hired a consultant to determine whether it can be economically viable and to create a workable business plan.

If DoubleTake returns, the somewhat esoteric magazine, noted for striking photography and pieces about North Dakota farmers and descendants of the US Confederacy living in Brazil, will be reincarnated with more immediacy and mass appeal, Kicklighter says.

"We haven't always been clear about what our mission is. We haven't always been clear about our brand," says Kicklighter, sitting in the quiet DoubleTake offices in Davis Square. "We don't want to be a pretty little quarterly, a boutiquey magazine for rich people with time on their hands. We want to be relevant to people's lives."

DoubleTake's eight-year history has been a roller-coaster ride. Founded out of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, it earned a prestigious National Magazine Award for general excellence after just a few years in existence. But when DoubleTake rolled up big deficits, the center severed its ties; Coles moved the magazine to Massachusetts in 1999. The last few years featured staff turnover that included the departure of CEO Jim Hart, angry writers taking legal action to get overdue pay, interruptions in the publication schedule, and the ever-present threat of extinction. The one constant has been a strategy of basically living hand to mouth.

"Bob Coles is a visionary," says Kicklighter. "Bob Coles is not a businessman. Never has been, never will be. This magazine has never run, in a business sense, as a real magazine. It's run as a charity." (Through Kicklighter, Coles indicated he would not comment for this article.)

For the past several years, DoubleTake officials -- ranging from Coles to Hart -- have acknowledged the company's failure to meet its expenses and vowed to do better. But nothing seemed to change until the Springsteen concerts altered the dynamic.

According to Kicklighter, 35, the magazine used the proceeds to pay off $600,000 in debt and spent about $200,000 to publish another issue in May. But in July, most of the seven-person staff left, largely out of frustration or philosophical disagreements with Coles's stewardship. Those who remained prevailed upon him to try a different operating model, to "give us a little leeway to really be aggressive in trying to let us save the magazine," says Kicklighter. "That hasn't always been easy to do because it's his baby."

Since August, DoubleTake's streamlined management team has suspended publication, pruned expenses, conducted an internal tax audit, registered as a Massachusetts business, tapped a fund-raiser to find money, and spent some of the remaining Springsteen bounty to hire the New York-based consulting firm Robert Cohen Associates to craft a business strategy. Company president Robert Cohen confirmed yesterday that he has been working for DoubleTake for about a month, but declined to comment on his mandate or progress.

Kicklighter, a former Marine and newspaper journalist who was a student of Coles's at Harvard, still seems to embody the idealism that fueled Coles's vision of a noncommercial documentary magazine that knit together the lives of the planet's inhabitants. But he says that any relaunch of DoubleTake -- which would probably occur sometime next year -- would include more topical subjects, humor, and relevance to the reader.

He promises one other big difference: "We made an absolute blood vow that we won't go into debt again. That's like our mantra. No debt."

Mark Jurkowitz's media column runs on Wednesdays. He can be reached at jurkowitz@globe.com.

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