On paper, starting a Bellingham lifestyle magazine in 2009 looked like a crazy business idea. Like the rest of the country, Bellingham was suffering from a recession. In the fall of 2008, just months earlier, a historic financial meltdown threatened to crash worldwide markets. In early 2009, as fears lingered and the recession stifled local businesses, Lisa Karlberg was undeterred as she started to pitch her idea of a regional lifestyle magazine.
Things were rather grim in Bellingham: Unemployment was up, business was down, foreclosures and short sales dotted the real estate market. The number of real estate agents, a key advertising group for a fledgling lifestyle magazine, had plummeted from more than 1,000 before the downturn to about 400, recalls Joe Hoppis, owner of Hoppis Real Estate, one of Bellingham Alive’s first advertisers. “2009 was probably the bottom of the barrel, really,” he says. “That was the darkest of windows.”
Karlberg chose not to look. “I totally ignored it, and people thought I was crazy,” she says. “It didn’t even come to the front of my mind that it would fail.”
Karlberg’s willful ignorance, coupled with relentless optimism and a sharp eye for what people want, paid off. This month, Bellingham Alive is celebrating its 10th year, with Karlberg the engine.
Today, Bellingham Alive remains the area’s only subscription-based, editorial lifestyle magazine, covering three North Puget Sound counties—Whatcom, Skagit, and San Juan. It has grown to occupy a lasting foothold in the region’s media market. The magazine is a publication of K&L Media, named for Karlberg and her husband, Ken, a local attorney and regular contributing writer who was the magazine’s first editor. Produced for residents and visitors, it’s available in professional waiting rooms, in rooms at area hotels, on Amtrak-Cascade train routes from Eugene, Ore. to Vancouver, B.C. and for sale in places like Woods Coffee, Haggen, Fred Meyer, and most grocery stores from north Seattle to the Canadian border.
Bellingham Alive has grown into what Karlberg envisioned in 2009: readers describe it as a stylish, beautiful publication with an emphasis on local events, people, and places. Last year, circulation was listed as 31,984 with a readership base of 218,535. The magazine gained national recognition by winning a 2016 Maggie Award from the Western Publishing Association for best editorial layout (see story, p. 69), and earning finalist nominations for Best City/Metropolitan magazine and Best Visitors Guide (for the K&L Media-produced North Sound Life Guest Book).
“From the very beginning, it was just, ‘If I produce something good and what the community wants and needs, it will strive and it will move forward,’ ” says Karlberg, 53. Bellingham and the North Sound did not have a lifestyle magazine. It needed one. End of story.
Also, the start of one.
Armed with a binder showing a mockup of the new publication, in February of 2009 Karlberg floated the idea of a lifestyle magazine to city mayors, Whatcom County Executive Pete Kremen, and other area stakeholders. “I literally just picked up the phone and started calling,” she says.
Says Kremen: “My initial thought was, ‘Good luck, and I think it’s great and I hope it works out.” Kremen, a former radio man before his political career, had worked in media markets from South Dakota to Seattle. Even when times were good, newspapers like the Bellingham Herald, Cascadia Weekly, and others in Ferndale, Blaine and Lynden, along with business publications and broadcast stations, were competing for advertising dollars. Would a magazine like this work? Privately, Kremen said, “I had my doubts.”
Karlberg grew up in the Seattle area but did not know many people in Bellingham. They didn’t know her, either. But she “got street cred,” she says, from the Karlberg name (she and Ken married in 2008). Ken is a Bellingham High graduate. His father, Gary Karlberg; mother, Pat Karlberg; stepfather, Bob Keller; and brother, Doug Karlberg, have deep roots here into the 1950s.
Still, the first two years were difficult. The major businesses in town were tough sells initially, says Karlberg, who only later found out that a couple other lifestyle magazines had failed previously. But with earlier retail ownership and publishing experience in the Gig Harbor area, Karlberg offered a new perspective: that of a small business owner herself. She could relate to businesses and their struggles. It was her experience as a business owner and in advertising sales at the Seattle Times and later Seattle Met magazine, however, that caused her to dream the “big dream,” she says.
Karlberg met skepticism with promises that this magazine would be different, including the bold concept that the magazine would be subscription-based. “A lot of people did not like that,” she says. “We got a lot of, ‘Oh, I see what you’re doing now.’ I was like, ‘Yes, I’m creating jobs, paying employees and I’m putting out a highly reputable publication that I hope people will enjoy. And making all that happen costs money.”
As a paid-for publication, she was determined to uphold certain editorial standards. “We’re very careful not to mix advertising with editorial. We don’t do a pay-to-play. You don’t get an article written about you just because you’re advertising with us. If we want to cover something, we’re going to cover it whether you’re spending money with us or not.”
But would the magazine succeed? It went from concept to reality in four months, with the debut issue printed in June 2009. But after a complete redesign, the Karlbergs got a glimpse of their future when the magazine paid for itself by the second issue in August/September. “We had to keep our costs down to ensure that we would make it.”
Staying lean was the mindset from the beginning. The company’s first office, on Coho Way in Squalicum Marina, was a third-floor, 1,200-square-foot space that held as many as eight people. “We were on top of each other,” Karlberg says. The graphic design table was also a ping-pong table, a good way to pass the time while waiting for the all-clear on pages sent to the printer.
At the time, Ken and Lisa were running the magazine while commuting from Issaquah—Lisa had promised her teenage son they wouldn’t move until after he finished high school. For two years, either one or both made the nearly two-hour drive. Unbeknownst to staffers, they didn’t always drive home during the week. On print nights, and sometimes a few others each production cycle, Lisa and Ken slept on an air mattress stashed in Lisa’s small office closet.
“I would be up until one or two in the morning getting files in to the printer, and we would take out the air mattress and we would blow it up and we would sleep on it,” says Lisa, laughing. “We were deathly afraid we’d still be asleep when the employees came in at 9 o’clock.” When they did make the drive, Lisa changed into her PJs before climbing into the car to save time once they got home.
A work history steeped in start-from-scratch, independent ownership helped Karlberg get where she is now. She was one of eight children whose father and mother ran a shipping company in Washington and for a time, in Alaska, where she worked at McDonald’s starting at age 14, hosting kids birthday parties and absorbing the culture of roll-up-your sleeves labor (McDonald’s motto: “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.”). From a young age, she learned about administration and sales from her family. “Knowing what it takes to run your own business, we grew up in that. It’s hard work. You hit the ground running and you stay running.”
The Karlbergs eventually found a home in Whatcom County, ditching the air mattress and settling in Semiahmoo. Now, the office commute takes about 25 minutes. Karlberg has brought more than her varied experience to the magazine. She has brought furniture too. Furnishings for Bellingham Alive’s Best of the Northwest annual party are holdovers from her days as owner of a party rental store—tables, chairs, couches, decorations—that are now stashed in a Bellingham storage unit. (Lisa designs the party venue herself, and she and Ken set up and break it down the next day.)
A decade later, the party continues. So does the magazine, though with less uncertainty. In addition to Lisa and Ken, K&L Media’s staff includes 10 full, part-time and contract employees. Local experts also contribute stories, and the magazine has a longstanding, healthy internship program with Western Washington University’s journalism and PR and design departments.
In the meantime, some of those early businesses that took a chance in 2009 are happy they did. Many of them have stayed with the program through today.
“I remember wondering…how are people going to want to advertise in this kind of climate?” said Christopher Mathews of Northstar Medical Specialists, a first-issue advertiser who continues today. “Ken had a faith in Lisa and Lisa had a faith in what their vision was. I never saw them falter in it. That made me secure in coming back year after year.”
Hoppis, the real estate business owner, sees Bellingham Alive as helping centralize information, a change from the dozen or so smaller publications that existed in 2009. It’s more visible now and represents how great Bellingham is, he says. “And I love the shelf-life of it too. It does sit around on coffee tables and in offices. Other (publications) are pretty easy to throw away. Bellingham Alive is not something that people toss.” In its 10th year, the magazine has proven staying power.
“Now I feel like the distribution is everywhere. You guys have established it as one of the cornerstones of media in the town.”—MJB
A First Issue, then a Big Change
Among the few similarities between Bellingham Alive’s first issue in June/July 2009 and the one today are 1. The name; and 2. The singlecopy price ($3.99). The magazine’s debut was rocky.
“I remember it not looking like anything I thought it would,” says Lisa Karlberg, publisher and president. Shortly after, she hired a graphic designer to overhaul the entire magazine. The second issue is more familiar, with the trademark logo. The designer threw in an exclamation point that lives on. “I’m not quite sure why he added that, to be honest with you,” Karlberg says. “I sort of liked it so I left it. It’s there because it’s fun.”
The emphasis has always been on what’s local, but the first cover story emphasized what you could visit within a 180-mile radius of Bellingham. (Money was tight during the recession, and the thinking was to stay close to home.) Other stories included a look at the city’s homeless and how to help; a feature on the history of Bellingham Golf & Country Club and other courses in Whatcom and Skagit counties, written by Karlberg’s husband, Ken, an attorney and golfer who remains a regular contributor; a festival celebrating the french fry, and a story about the new KuruKuru Sushi restaurant near the Bellwether; the relatively new The Woods Coffee at Boulevard Park; consignment stores; lemon and lime cocktails.
K&L Media, which publishes Bellingham Alive, also produces the annual North Sound Life Guestbook, a hardcover book placed in hotel rooms in Whatcom, Skagit, and San Juan counties, and Couture Weddings, a wedding publication. Another magazine, Menu Seattle, with menus and features on the Seattle culinary scene, made its debut in May.—MJB
Timeline of Bellingham Alive
Bellingham Alive magazine debuts as a subscription-based, editorial bi-monthly publication of K&L Media, covering North Sound’s Whatcom, Skagit and San Juan counties. Lisa Karlberg, with husband Ken, are among eight staffers
who produce the first edition of the magazine, which weighs in at 66 pages. Magazine’s website launches at the same time. Circulation is approximately 15,000 and readership an estimated 56,095. The magazine is available in-room at area hotels, professional waiting rooms and is on sale at Woods Coffee, Haggen and The Markets newsstands.
Second issue is printed. Exclamation point in Bellingham Alive logo makes its appearance as part of a design overhaul of the magazine.
Debut of Couture Weddings Magazine.
First Best of the Northwest contest swells issue to 114 pages. Contest draws more than 4,600 votes in 110 categories.
North Sound Life replaces Bellingham Alive cover in Skagit and San Juan counties.
North End Metro Magazine launches to penetrate and focus on Snohomish and Island County.
K&L Media operations moves from Squalicum Marina’s Coho Way to Squalicum Lofts.
Re-design of the magazine to its current format.
Bellingham Alive circulation reaches 24,658 with a readership estimated at 168,047.
Bellingham Alive wins 2016 Maggie Award for “Best Editorial Layout” for the Sea to Storefront article. Earned three finalist honors, including 2014 best feature, “Making out with Maggie.”
North Sound Life hardbound Guestbook launches. Placed in rooms at hotels throughout Whatcom, Skagit and San
Bellingham Alive begins publishing monthly, North End Metro magazine closes. Bellingham Alive’s expanded distribution includes most grocery stores from North Seattle to the Canadian border.
Circulation reaches 31,984 with a readership base of 218,535.
Best of the Northwest contest draws record 522,217 total votes in third year after moving to online voting at BellinghamAlive.com
K&L Media moves magazine operations to Bakerview Square.
MENU-Seattle launches, providing residents and visitors a twice-yearly culinary magazine with local menus, features, and area events listings.
Bellingham Alive magazine celebrates 10th year.