Former publisher reflects on 40 years of Lovin’ Life
by CONNOR DZIAWURA
Someone once likened a publication to a three-legged stool, with each leg being a different component: Editorial, distribution and advertising.
To this day that metaphor sticks with former Lovin’ Life After 50 publisher Steve Fish, who spent nearly three decades with the after-50-marketed publication.
“If any one of those is weak, then the stool’s going to fall over,” Fish explains.
As such, in his many years with the brand, Fish always made sure to have a good team behind him. And perhaps those memories remain the closest to him all these years later.
“The thing that I enjoyed most, I think, about it was all of the employees and getting them involved,” Fish ponders from a conference room at Times Media Group’s Tempe office. The company acquired the senior-focused publication in 2009, with Fish remaining on board.
“I had a great team,” Fish reflects. “When we made the transition, I think my newest employee had been with me 13 years.”
Long before it became the No. 1-ranked free circulation publication in the state, however, like everything else it had small beginnings.
Fish was raised on a ranch in West Texas. Though he wound up in the newspaper business, journalism wasn’t his background. But he did have business acumen.
Fish earned his undergraduate degree in agricultural economics from Texas Tech University in Lubbock. After that, he pursued a graduate degree from The University of Texas at Arlington and switched his focus to accounting.
“When I graduated from college, I decided to make a change, so I got into accounting,” he says. “I was with Price Waterhouse for about three years, and then I went to work for Harte-Hanks Communications, which at that time was primarily a newspaper company that had recently gone public and was expanding. But from the business side, I was the internal audit manager, and then became vice president of a San Diego group of publications.”
As Fish tells it, part of Harte-Hanks’ commercial work in the 1970s included the San Diego-based Senior World Publications. That brand expanded to Arizona in 1979. Fish ultimately left Harte-Hanks and bought into Senior World Publications. But when he intended to close the failing Arizona edition, he “got enthused.”
“What does a person who doesn’t know what he’s doing do? He bought it from the parent company and took it over in August of 1980,” Fish adds with a laugh. “That’s when I actually became the owner of what was then Arizona Senior World.
“The first issue was 12 pages and had less than $5,000 of ad revenue in it. And it was a combined August/September issue, which was the only combined issue we ever had in the 40 years.”
But with hard work, Arizona Senior World grew.
At one point, Fish remembers, there were as many as 17 editions, from the Metropolitan Phoenix area to Yavapai County, Tucson and even Las Vegas, Nevada. The largest issue was about 104 pages, he estimates, and at one point he had around 12 sales representatives working for him.
“We tried different things and some of them worked and some of them we backed off of,” Fish says, calling 17 zones “too much” with a laugh. Nevada Senior World, in particular, he acquired in the 1990s; Times Media Group discontinued it.
But why did Fish become enthused in the first place? According to him, he saw Phoenix had a large senior population and there were changes that could be made. But while the news business had its ups, it also had its downs.
“It was a tough go back then. People thought that seniors all lived in nursing homes, and they didn’t then and they certainly don’t now,” Fish says, adding that it was difficult to acquire advertisers targeting seniors then.
Early on, Arizona Senior World was in Phoenix and Tucson, but circulation was pulled back. In 1984, Fish says, it reopened in Tucson and expanded Phoenix-area circulation. In fact, the Tucson edition was already making revenue by its second issue.
“We just about tripled revenue in ’84, over ’83, and that was the first year that I was here on a full-time basis, because I had taken another position in San Diego to put food on the table,” he adds.
There were several factors in Arizona Senior World’s turnaround, Fish says.
First, there was his heavy work load, alternating between the paper here and work in San Diego. Then, he feels “people started understanding a little more about the senior market.”
Various events have long been tied with the publication. Lovin’ Life After 50 has sponsored the Ms. Senior Arizona Pageant during its 30 years. This year’s pageant is Saturday, March 30, at the Valley Vista Performing Arts Center in Surprise, and rehearsals have already started.
“Working with Steve Fish was just absolutely wonderful,” says Herme Sherry, executive director of the pageant, who likens Fish to a mentor. “He was always there to help. I could call him at any time. We started working with the expos, the Lovin’ Life Expos, and whatever we needed he had it there.”
She adds, “Steve Fish is one of the hardest-working guys, and I can understand why Lovin’ Life lasted so long … He was much like a second father to me, as far as business.”
Perhaps the magazine’s most notable contribution is its Lovin’ Life Expos. Now 31 years in, they didn’t always succeed. In fact, everything went wrong the first time, Fish says. Guests were charged for entry and parking, there were issues with the organizer, and more than 100 exhibitors signed up but very few guests attended. It was held in a barn at the Arizona State Fairgrounds, alongside a home show, which had even fewer guests, Fish recalls.
Feeling obligated to give it another go, he held it the following year at the Phoenix Convention Center. Alas, it still didn’t perform up to snuff. So, they kept trying, and, well, the rest is history. Today, the expos are Arizona’s longest-running expos for the after-50 market. Now, there are five: East Valley, Mesa, Sun City, Tucson and West Valley. Set during the fall and winter months, they accommodate exhibitors in the businesses of tour and travel, retirement living, health care, finance, leisure and education. According to Fish, like the once-diverse zoning, there were at one point as many as eight expos.
“One of the great things about the expos was talking to the readers of the paper and all of the positives that they had to say,” he says. “Very, very seldom do we hear anything negative as far as the publication. They liked it.”
In 2004, Arizona Senior World changed its name. At first it became Lovin’ Life News, but then it changed to Lovin’ Life After 50 so the target market would be clearer. The name was inspired by the expos. Though Fish felt the negative connotation some Baby Boomers derived from the word “senior” was unnecessary, and he didn’t want to change the publication’s name, he ultimately feels they made the right decision.
While things were “great” for much of the ’90s and early 2000s, according to Fish, he eventually sold it to Times Media Group.
Initially, it was just a meeting of minds between Fish and Times Media Group publisher Steve Strickbine, who hadn’t set out to acquire Lovin’ Life After 50.
“I just hit it off with him,” Strickbine says of Fish. “He’s one of those guys that I felt we had a connection because we had been through a lot of the same wars in terms of just publishing and some of the challenges of starting a publication. He understood very, very well. So, we almost had just kind of a fraternity feeling right out of the gate.”
In fact, business acumen was a shared trait, with both publishers coming from accounting backgrounds.
“The one thing we had in common, I think, that was odd is – and I’ve never had this since, and I may never have it again – that we were both CPAs at one time in our careers. So, we were publishers but CPAs, and that’s an odd coincidence,” Strickbine notes.
“We had a lot in common in that regard, I think from just the standpoint of understanding the language of business well and being a man of high integrity. Because I think accountants go through pretty rigorous ethics training. So, we always had that kind of, I guess just ability to shake hands and agree on things, and I think that really had served us well for a long time after I bought the papers.”
But with the recession hitting, Fish and Strickbine say merging Times Media Group and Lovin’ Life After 50 was a viable solution to increasing difficulties at Lovin’ Life.
Strickbine calls it a “powerhouse publication” and estimates it having once hit a peak circulation of 200,000 copies every month. He observes a bright future in the after-50 market.
After the acquisition, Fish remained at the company until September 2017.
Still living in the Valley, Fish now does consulting and also serves as treasurer on the board for the Arizona Senior Olympics.
Though he is no longer with the publication he helped build over several decades, through good times and bad, Fish looks back fondly on his time in news – and the decision to continue its legacy in a new light.
“It was probably the best thing that either one of us (Fish and Strickbine) ever did as far as a business decision, when we combined efforts,” he says.
Former publisher reflects on 40 years of Lovin’ Life