Sid Evans on What Southern Magazines Can Teach the World About Media
A report from the ACT2 Conference.
What’s the difference between Garden & Gun and Portfolio, two award-winning magazines that were both launched in 2007?
Other than the obvious response—Portfolio is out of business while Garden & Gun thrives—for Sid Evans, the difference comes down to one word: Soul.
Evans, the group editor of Time Inc.’s Lifestyle Division and founding editor of Garden & Gun, says being “soulful” makes all the difference between magazine success and failure, and it’s something Southern magazines can teach the world.
Evans was a keynote speaker at the ACT2 Conference in Oxford, Mississippi, and in his presentation, he offered seven key ingredients for success of Southern magazines, ingredients that all magazine brands can emulate. “Our first cover had Pat Conroy standing in a fountain,” Evans said. “It was not a choice a focus group would have made. But to me it made sense!”
In music, art, literature, architecture, food and more, there is “an abundant, rich life” in the South, and that’s what people want, Evans said. “We were a general-interest magazine about Southern culture, and it struck a nerve immediately,” he said. “And somehow, that translates beyond the South.”
Here are Evans’ 7 ingredients of successful Southern magazines.
1. Make people proud of where they’re from. Think about what was going on in the South in 1966, when Southern Living was launched, he said. It wasn’t great. “But Southern Living was about a civilized, gracious place.”
2. Make food the center of everything. “Food is what binds people together,” Evans said. “It’s what they talk about. And it’s not just the recipes, it’s the stories—the barbeque joint that’s been around since the 1950s. The term ‘American food’ doesn’t really mean anything—but Southern food, that means something.”
3. Never underestimate the power of a great story. “A lot of the media world has lost sight of that fact,” Evans said, recounting a story in Southern Living of how people survived the devastating tornados in Alabama earlier this year, and how it touched people all over the world.
4. Never underestimate the power of nostalgia. “Even as you do Facebook and develop a Twitter presence, remember nostalgia,” Evans said. “At Garden & Gun, we got a letter from a reader in New Jersey who said we made her nostalgic for a place she’s never been. We did story on Facebook about Southern sodas, regional sodas that people grew up with. It was like someone dropped a bomb on our Facebook page!”
5. Have a drink. Southern Living has had a “tortured relationship” with alcohol over the years, Evans said, but now, alcohol is a regular part of the magazine, as it should be. “When you do a story about a mint julep, you’re doing something about more than a drink,” he said. “When you think about most kinds of alcohol, they come from somewhere else. But bourbon is ours. It is uniquely Southern.”
6. Pick the right heroes. “One of the things that makes Southern magazines unusual is that readers treat celebrities as members of an extended family,” Evans said. “When you’re writing about celebrities, you need to be careful. If they don’t seem real, if they don’t represent the South well, then you lose credibility with readers.”
7. Make your readers the star. “Elevate them,” Evans says. “Recipe sharing is a huge part of the culture—a kind of cultural secret weapon.”
And in the end, Evans repeated, a magazine should “be soulful. It’s not a business strategy, but it is a business philosophy.”
The ACT2 conference is organized by Samir Husni, director of the Magazine Innovation Center at University of Mississippi the journalism school, and widely known as “Mr. Magazine.” The two-day event, in its second year, has doubled in size from 2010, Husni said.