Fishbowl Five: Garden & Gun’s Rebecca Wesson Darwin

Garden & Gun's CEO talks about how she pulled a fledgling magazine through the recession.

Rebecca Wesson Darwin was only planning to be in New York City for a year, spurred by that all-too-common post-graduate curiosity about big city life. But an internship on the business side at GQ turned into a full-time job, then a promotion, and then a move to The New Yorker, where she would soon become that magazine’s first female publisher.

When she finally returned to her native South Carolina in 2004, Darwin brought her publishing experience with her. Working with Pierre Manigault, chairman of the Evening Post Publishing Company, Darwin started sporting and lifestyle mag Garden & Gun in 2007. But as any student of recent economic history could tell you—the timing was unfortunate. With the recession hitting less than a year into the magazine’s run, and the Post Publishing Company ready to offload the title, it looked like Garden & Gun wasn’t going to make it.

Refusing to give up on the magazine, Darwin went independent with the title, retaining Manigault as a partner. With a devoted cadre of staff that stayed on, despite being paid very little, the magazine managed to make it past the recession and thrive. Darwin recalls just how fragile a time it was.

“We had to skip an issue [and] I wrote a letter in the next issue and explained to the readers why I had to make this decision: we either skipped an issue and re-grouped or we shut off the lights and left. And I think that letter made such a difference and such an impact on our readership. People mention it to me all the time and they feel like we were honest with them and that our editorial pages are honest. So they just have this tremendous respect and trust for what we do.”

Darwin spoke with FishbowlNY about breaking into the boys’ club at The New Yorker, how Garden & Gun was able to persevere and why the pub’s name is here to stay.

FBNY: Your first publishing industry job after moving to New York was in the GQ promotions department. How did you transition to The New Yorker?

Darwin: GQ was part of Condé Nast and owned by Si Newhouse, and when he purchased The New Yorker, I was asked to go over with Steve Florio who was [GQ’s] publisher. I went over as the marketing director and then was kind of given this carrot. If we could turn business around—because The New Yorker at that point had been in decline for a number of years—I would be made the publisher. I did, and so I became the first female publisher of The New Yorker. It was really an amazing thing because The New Yorker is such a legendary magazine, and to have been given that challenge and then to have such a big responsibility—not only to lead the team, but to honor the tradition of what The New Yorker was all about. It was just an amazing experience.

FBNY: As the first female publisher, you had this “breaking into the boys’ club” experience at the age of only 34. How has this shaped your career?

Darwin: Well, even back at GQ when I was selling advertising, there were very few women on the sales team, and I think if you looked today it’s probably completely flip-flopped in terms of the number of women that are on sales teams versus men. It was a boys’ club and I guess I did break through, but I never really thought about it that way. I always thought, ‘What can I personally do? What’s my best?’ And not comparing myself really to a man or woman, but ‘How can I be the best at this job?’ I do think things have certainly changed, although probably in some ways they’re still the same.