How I Brought a Dying Publication Back to Life

By Rebecca Darwin, President & CEO, Garden & Gun Magazine, Charleston, S.C.
In 2006 The Evening Post Publishing Co., a South Carolina media conglomerate, hired me to helm their first-ever magazine venture. A year later, we launched Garden & Gun, a publication focused on the sporting culture, food, music, art, literature, and personalities of the new South. Media Industry Newsletter Magazine named us the number-two hottest launch of over 700 magazines that year, but even immediate acclaim wasn't enough to shelter us from the global financial meltdown.

In December of 2008, The Evening Post announced that it wanted to focus its resources on its newspapers -- and if they couldn't find a buyer for Garden & Gun, they were going to shut us down. I immediately approached Pierre Manigault, the chairman of the board, because I was seeing too many positive signals to just walk away. Our subscription base was steadily growing, we had won numerous awards, and I suspected that our most committed subscribers might launch a coup if we just gave up.

Pierre and I formed a company together and acquired the assets of Garden & Gun to keep it alive. Assuming responsibility for a fledgling magazine, its employees, and its debts involved a whole new level of personal financial risk for both of us. I've worked for some of the largest publishing companies in New York, where I always had an entrepreneurial bent -- and a tremendous support system. But this time we were on our own.

Dropping the safety net
When most people buy a business, they find funding first and then set the wheels in motion. Pierre and I didn't have that luxury: Purchasing the magazine without an investor on board was just the first step in our "never say die" business plan. The bottom had dropped out of the economy, and big names in publishing were dropping like flies. We did get some interest from private equity firms, but we were wary of getting involved with a firm that would expect a quick return.

This magazine is our baby, but more than that, I knew it would only succeed if we found someone who trusted our vision. We didn't want to hand equity over to someone who would fall back on the traditional revenue models that were failing all around us.

A focus on quality
I knew that maintaining the publication's integrity would be key to our survival. We didn't want to do what everyone else was doing: cut corners, downgrade the paper stock, and accept dubious "special advertisement" sections just because advertisers had cut back on their magazine spends in light of the recession. All I ever heard from subscribers was, "I love the quality of the magazine -- the paper it's printed on, the photography, the writing. It's like nothing else out there."

Without additional financial backing, we needed to cut costs. We had to let 25% of the staff go, and everyone else agreed to pay cuts. Our editor, Sid Evans, worked wonders with the editorial budget. Freelance contributors and vendors even agreed to work with us on extended payment schedules in order to see the magazine endure.

Building a community
Next, we needed to cultivate additional revenue streams. As our team saw it, Garden & Gun was more than a magazine. It's like a club filled with people who share a common bond, so my solution was to create the Garden & Gun club. Subscribers could join at one of three tiers, each allowing an ascending level of access to special discounts, services, products and events.

We also launched an online store where readers could purchase framed photos from the magazine and Garden & Gun branded gear. Then, we launched an online auction series featuring items like custom-made furniture from artisans featured in the magazine. It let readers literally become a part of our stories.

Pressing on
Even with the boost from our new revenue models, it wasn't enough. At one point, we needed to skip an issue to avoid going even deeper into debt. When I explained the situation in a letter to our subscribers, instead of protests about failure to deliver the product paid for, we received endless notes of encouragement.

In my previous life as a publisher in New York I was no stranger to sleepless nights. The weight of an organization on my shoulders always came with a certain gravity. With Garden & Gun, it's also been stressful, but with so much ardent support, it's different. Even on the darkest days, there's no question that it's worth it.

If all goes according to plan, we'll soon be a rare exception in today's world: a profitable magazine. In the world of new magazine launches, the basic rule of thumb is that if you break even in your first five years, you're a success. We're on track to do that in 2012. Our rate base is growing at roughly 12% annually, ad revenues are up 160% over the same period last year, and we'll soon offer eight issues each year instead of six. After a long search, we've also found a fantastic investor -- he's not just a money guy; he's on board with our unique vision for the publication and has become a key creative partner.

I believe our approach to the challenges we faced -- holding out for the right investor, sticking to our "quality guns," and building a lifestyle brand -- is the reason for our success. Our efforts have imbued the venture with a distinctive character, and that's really what our readers get behind. Without guesses, gutsy moves, and a lot of risk, Garden & Gun would be just another publication swimming in debt and fading into the ether.

Rebecca Darwin headed home to South Carolina from the New York publishing world six and a half years ago. For her, life in the low country means walks on the beach with her daughters, shooting clays and small batch bourbon.
-- As told to Joe Conway

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