Southern Comfort

Dixie chic is giving regional titles like Southern Living a lift

The South clearly is rising again, which has given the region’s magazines a distinct lift in the face of an industry-wide slump. Read by one in five Southern women, Southern Living has expanded its circ beyond the South by 11 percent over the past four years, while 22 percent of readers overall live outside the region, according to GfK MRI’s readership survey.

Over at buzzy, aspirational lifestyle book Garden & Gun, 45 percent of readers live outside the Southeast, per an Ipsos Mendelsohn subscriber survey, and last month the magazine added 130 newsstands in New York alone. Over the last two years, the Charleston, S.C.-based magazine upped circulation by 20 percent to 261,854 and won a 2011 National Magazine Award for General Excellence. Known for stunning photography and high-profile contributors like Pat Conroy and John T. Edge, the five-year-old magazine recently inked a three-title deal with HarperCollins for a how-to book, a cookbook and an anthology of its popular “Good Dog” columns.

“Most people in the media assume that a really good magazine can’t come out of somewhere other than New York City,” says editor in chief David DiBenedetto, who believes that the South’s deep literary tradition has also burnished the allure of the regional titles.

Then there is the politically minded Texas Monthly, which won National Magazine Awards for Feature Writing and General Excellence in 2010 and 2009, respectively. The October issue features a cover story on the University of Texas, a history of Jerry Jones’ takeover of the Dallas Cowboys and a profile of the state’s first female U.S. Senator, Kay Bailey Hutchison. Its literary yet newsy mix helped boost newsstand sales 9 percent (the magazine’s total circ now stands at 312,135), while ad pages and revenue grew nearly 7 percent in the first half of 2012. That’s a big improvement versus the magazine industry at large, where single copy sales fell 9.6 percent, ad dollars dipped 3.8 percent and ad pages sunk 8.8 percent in the same period.

Just as the nickname of its Alabama home is “The Heart of Dixie,” Southern Living is the grand dame of Southern magazines. As Texas interior designer Vanessa Evermon explains on her blog: “Growing up, we had two things on our coffee table—the Holy Bible and Southern Living magazine.” With its circ of 2.8 million, the magazine is the 17th largest in the country.

While other large-reach titles such as Reader’s Digest and Prevention have been forced to cut rate base because of declining newsstand sales and subscriptions, Southern Living has managed to increase its circ every year for a decade. What’s more, over the past year the magazine added 179 national and regional advertisers, including both new clients and ones that had been dormant for two or more years. Ad revenue rose 5.7 percent as ad pages declined 3.1 percent, compared to an 8.8 percent drop in pages industry-wide.

“The South is clearly having a moment,” says Sid Evans, group editor of Time Inc.’s Lifestyle Division, also based in Birmingham. A Memphis native and the editor in chief of Garden & Gun from its launch in 2007 until 2011, Evans says the South’s strong cultural identity is a key selling point of Southern Living. The magazine, he says, “has an advantage because of this built-in connection to the reader, whereas a lot of other magazines are building a brand around an idea that they have to continually sell to the reader.”

The connection runs deep. Since its launch in 1966, Southern Living has built a massive empire, inserting the brand into nearly every aspect of daily life. Even though brand extensions have become common across the magazine industry, Southern Living’s stable of products is formidable. Its readers can live in a home based on one of Southern Living’s 1,000-plus house plans and constructed by a Southern Living-approved builder. After whipping up dinner based on a recipe in a Southern Living cookbook (there are 56 Southern Living titles for sale through publisher Oxmoor House), they can eat off china from Ballard Designs’ Southern Living line. (The Ballard licensing deal was renewed for another four years following the huge success of last spring’s debut collection.) After washing up with a Southern Living towel, readers can curl up on a Southern Living-branded mattress pad swathed in sheets from the magazine’s bedding collection, a top seller at Dillard’s. Outside the house, they can place a Southern Living planter beside their Southern Living patio furniture.

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