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Respected Chicago businessman Joe Mansueto has acquired a controlling interest in Time Out Chicago, the five-year-old weekly entertainment listings guide that is still seeking to realize its full potential.

When TOC debuted, Mansueto, the founder and CEO of investment research firm Morningstar, had a 50 percent stake in the weekly publication. But many of the business decisions regarding the magazine were made out of New York by members of the management team running Time Out New York. The editorial formula for both the Chicago and New York publications is similar to that of the original London magazine, which has long been a popular read and resource for both residents of the English capital and tourists visiting there. But now that he has upped his stake in the Time Out Chicago, Mansueto will have the primary say in how the magazine is managed and edited.

Sources familiar with its original business plan said TOC hoped to have a paid circulation of around 100,000 within five years, but the current circulation is believed to be closer to 40,000. Some observers maintain a key to making TOC a viable property long-term is its Web operations. Initially, the magazine's online offerings were only available to subscribers, but they now are more readily accessible by all visitors.

Though almost all general interest consumer magazines have struggled mightily in recent years to hold on to their circulation and operate in the black, Mansueto apparently remains convinced there is a future for magazines. And he has the money to sink into TOC for as long as he wishes. "Joe has very deep pockets," said one source familiar with the TOC backer. Several years ago Mansueto acquired Fast Company and turned that into a good, almost breezy read. He also owns another biz-oriented magazine called Inc.

Is it a sign of the times? Time Out Chicago, the weekly where-to-go and what-to do magazine, has parted ways with Marketing Director Tony Barnett, a founding member of the TOC staff. He has been replaced by his assistant, Julie Sprich-Hammer. In an email to friends and business associates, Barnett said his departure from the magazine "came as very unexpected news."

Reached by phone, Barnett refused to elaborate on what may have prompted his exit from TOC, which, by all indications, was involuntary. "I'm going to move on, and I wish them all the best at Time Out Chicago," said Barnett.

TOC Editor-in-Chief and General Manger Frank Sennett was just as circumspect in his comments to us on the reasons for Barnett's leavetaking. Sennett declined to say whether Barnett's exit may have been a cost-cutting move. But he did suggest Barnett's exit was not performance-related. "Tony did a wonderful job for us, and now he's moving on," added Sennett.

EssentailsCover.jpgTake it from us. When Time Out Chicago magazine launched four years ago, there were plenty of naysayers who were convinced the magazine would never last. And that was long before the unbelievably hard times that have now hit just about every form of print journalism. Four years later, however, Time Out Chicago is still kicking, which is about three years longer than most in local publishing circles probably expected the weekly entertainment and listings guide would last.

That's not to say it's going to be all smooth sailing for TOC going forward. No general interest consumer magazine -- or newspaper for that matter -- could expect that to be the case in this environment. But per Frank Sennett, TOC editor-in-chief and general manager, the Chicago weekly magazine appears to have survived the recent effort by a group of investors in the start-up to sell their share in the publication. Of course, when we heard an investor group wanted out, we were baffled. Who in their right mind would think they could get anything close to their original investment out of a magazine deal now when no one seems terribly interested in buying even a share of a print publication.

Sennett told us this group of unnamed, but antsy investors have come to their senses and backed off of selling their share in the magazine. Chicago-based Joe Mansueto and his local investor pool still hold the controlling interest in Time Out Chicago, and Mansueto appears to be among the firm believers in a future for print publications.

Meanwhile, Sennett and his gang are prepping for the debut of a Time Out Chicago kids edition targeted at parents with children that would be published at least twice a year. There's certainly no indication, right now, that Time Out Chicago is planning to disappear. Rather the cover of the fourth anniversary issue seemed to suggest a message about TOC's attitude about itself as it turned four years old: "Essential Chicago, the Tools You Need to Thrive in the Windy City."



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Lewis Lazare has written the Media Mix column for the Chicago Sun-Times for the past seven and a half years.

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