Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A magazine in every niche

"Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas."
Joseph Stalin (Russian Prime Minister, Communist leader and Political Dictator. Governed from 1929-53. 1879-1953)

A magazine in every niche
J. Peder Zane, Staff Writer
Garden & Gun hit the stands this spring with a slogan that sounds like a shotgun approach to publishing a magazine. Calling itself the magazine of "21st-century Southern America," it describes its geographic target as Virginia to Venezuela.

Garden & Gun calls itself a magazine for '21st-century Southern America.'

But Garden & Gun isn't really trying to appeal everybody who lives south of the Mason-Dixon line, much less south of the border. Based in Charleston, S.C., it's aimed at people whose idea of fun includes horseback riding, skeet shooting and trout fishing, and who don't need someone to explain the magazine's name to them.

"Our niche is adventurous upscale men with an active lifestyle who believe in conservation and in enjoying all the Southeast has to offer," said publisher Rebecca Darwin, a UNC-CH graduate and former editor of The New Yorker and Mirabella.

"Niche" is the key word. It encapsulates not only Darwin's hopes for success but also the strategy that enables many magazines to flourish. Instead of striving to reach the largest possible audience, niche magazines slice and dice the public, creating publications aimed at specific interests.

Since 1986, the number of consumer magazines has quadrupled to 7,150, according to Samir Husni, a University of Mississippi journalism professor who specializes in magazines. Garden & Gun was one of 54 new titles or special edition magazines that arrived in April, Husni says. The names include MMOGames for online players, Toddler for parents, Verdant for the eco-friendly and The World of Rods for people who restore vintage hot rods.

"Publishers and their advertisers are much more interested in the quality of their audience than the quantity," Husni said. "They are identifying people's changing needs and interests and responding to them."

Publishers have long lamented that young people don't read anymore. But targeted special interest magazines -- such as Giant Robot (for enthusiasts of Asian pop culture), BrickJournal (for Legos lovers) and Bail (for skateboarders) -- have countered the trend. A new survey by the consulting firm McPheters & Co. found that during the past six months, 19- to 24-year-olds reported seeing an average of 18.3 different magazines, compared with 14 for people 65 and older.

Such findings belie that notion that print media are doomed, says Howard Polskin, a senior vice president at Magazine Publishers of America.

"Magazines work because they follow people's interests," he said. "Instead of telling people what they ought to read, they write about the things that interest them."

Readers also crave authoritative sources of information, Polskin added. Even as the Internet has decentralized the flow of knowledge, enabling readers to sample the opinions and insights of innumerable pajama-clad pundits, they also hunger for the expertise that traditional media offer.

Magazine publishers aren't the only ones narrow-casting in an increasingly fragmented culture. The major television networks have to share the audience with hundreds of cable and satellite stations. The Internet offers sites for every interest -- even when that interest is ourselves. And as Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson detailed in his 2006 bestseller, "The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More," businesses from record companies to appliance manufactures are targeting niche audiences.

But having a niche isn't enough to ensure success. About 40 percent of magazines fail to make it through their first year, Husni said. Four years after their premiere issues, only 18 percent of them are still publishing.

The challenge is finding and tapping overlooked niches, said Garden & Gun publisher Darwin, and there is as much art as science in that effort.

Refined idea

The name Garden & Gun pays homage to a dance club that thrived in Charleston in the 1970s. The concept came out of years of discussion between John Wilson, its editor in chief, and Pierre Manigualt, chairman of Evening Post Publishing Co., the media company that owns it.

They contacted Darwin last spring, after they had refined their idea for a magazine reflecting the "Southern sense of gentility and strength ... love of the land and the sporting life that goes with it."

"Right away I thought, that's a great idea," recalled Darwin, who was The New Yorker's first female publisher (she and her two children returned to her native South Carolina three years ago when her husband decided to attend seminary and become a Presbyterian minister).

The hard part was determining whether there was a market and then finding the readers.

Darwin checked out the competition. Like a literary Goldilocks, she concluded that the reach of Southern Living and other lifestyle magazines was too broad, and that of sporting magazines such as Gray's Sporting Journal was too narrow. National upscale magazines such as Town & Country, Departures, Men's Vogue and Men's Journal "didn't seem to have as much appeal to people in the Southeast."

Darwin isn't talking about the tens of millions of people who live or vacation in the region. Reflecting the niche mentality, her Southeast is made up of the 400,000 to 500,000 readers she hopes to attract. "We are not looking to be a mass publication," she said.

To reach them, Darwin bought finely tuned mailing lists filled with wealthy, active Garden & Gun people and promoted the magazines at Garden & Gun kinds of places: upscale hotels, spas and clubs, Virginia's Upperville Colt and Horse Show, Atlanta's Home and Garden Show, the Gibbes Museum in Charleston, a professional golf tournament, a meeting of the board of directors of the UNC's Business School.

The first issue looks like a Southern version of a Ralph Lauren ad. Rich color photographs of Buckhead mansions, idyllic vineyards and remote streams illustrate articles about trout fishing with bamboo rods, efforts to preserve wild turkeys and Thomas Jefferson's contributions to gardening.

When Garden & Gun readers aren't taming the land, they enjoy quality writing. Pat Conroy, who poses barefoot on the cover of the first issue, contributes an essay. The issue also features nonfiction pieces by some of North Carolina's top writers, including Reynolds Price, Daniel Wallace and Clyde Edgerton.

"I always think of a magazine as a community, and as a friend," Darwin said, "the friend that arrives every month."

In the age of niche, Garden & Gun's success will not hinge on whether it makes a lot of friends, but on whether it makes the right ones.

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