“In hindsight, I wouldn’t have launched a magazine if I’d known what was ahead.”
That’s Rebecca Wesson Darwin, president and CEO of The Allée Group, which owns Garden & Gun, the magazine she helped launch in 2007.
For the as-yet uninitiated, Garden & Gun celebrates the “soul of the South.” Think: seersucker, screen porches, sweet tea, sculpted gardens, and other accoutrements that echo with gentility. The gun part? It’s more spaniels, setters, and sporting clays than the shaggy beards and shotguns seen on a certain reality-TV series.
Overall, between long reads by Southern voices like Roy Blount and Rick Bragg and evocative photography, Garden & Gun is decidedly upper-crust.
Though the marketplace for lifestyle magazines was crowded, Darwin, who’d previously held positions at GQ and Fortune, and was the first female publisher of the New Yorker, wasn’t easily intimidated. Initially, she’d been approached by Pierre Manigault, a fellow parent at her children’s school, to see if she could apply her publishing expertise to a local magazine run by his company, the Evening Post.
“They thought it would be a city magazine, just put on a truck and delivered around town,” she recalls. Darwin wanted to make a bigger statement. She envisioned a national magazine: focused on the Southern region, but which would resonate with readers no matter where they lived across the country.
Right out of the gate, Darwin tells Fast Company, she declared the circulation between newsstand and mailings would be 150,000, “So people would take us seriously.” For perspective, most regional magazines at the time fell somewhere between 20,000-40,000. She wrote to everyone who got a copy, encouraging them to subscribe to this new endeavor. “Within a year we converted all to fully paid,” she says.
Growth continued until it all came to a grinding halt with the recession. Publishers everywhere were shuttering or limping along with a fraction of the staff and extremely limited resources. Garden & Gun didn’t stop publishing. But after losing its funding, Darwin says she had plenty of sleepless nights. “I knew if something didn’t happen by tomorrow, I wouldn’t make payroll or be able to keep the lights on,” she remembers. Still, she says, she felt like the magazine was in a good position to weather the economic storm, because the circulation was growing–even though the advertisers weren’t able to pay–and the quality of the photography and writing were undeniable. “I think that that is the foundation that carried us through,” says Darwin. “We built a loyal following,” she says. “Once that happens, the rest falls into place.”
Indeed, after forming the company that owns Garden & Gun now, Darwin and her two partners forged ahead in their niche. In time, the publication received industry acclaim, including two American Society of Magazine Editor’s awards for general excellence in 2011 and 2014. It also ranked second in the online category, behind National Geographic. It currently reaches a total audience of over 1.2 million readers, according to the Alliance for Audited Media’s December 2014 report.
Looking back now, Darwin believes coming through the recession made Garden & Gun a much stronger magazine. But the road wasn’t always strewn with pecan pie and peach cobbler. We asked Darwin what other lessons she learned from this, and throughout her long career in publishing.
The more they stay the same. When Darwin was publisher of the New Yorker in the late 80s, she was giving talks about the future of publishing. At that time, as it has been recently, there was plenty of speculation that print magazines would soon go the way of the dodo. “We are still here and kicking,” Darwin points out. But not for lack of innovation. Darwin believes successful magazines–and businesses in general–have had to become much more attuned to tapping a variety of creative ways to encourage revenue apart from the traditional streams. Though Garden & Gun still draws 62% of its revenue from advertising, Darwin says that it’s been up to them to figure out how to create different channels for advertisers to sponsor beyond buying pages in the magazine.
Garden & Gun readers are nothing if not vocal. And being primarily Southern, says Darwin, they’ll still pen a long letter or make a phone call to crow or complain if they are so moved. Listening is important, she says. But when feedback is overwhelmingly positive, Darwin says it’s important to put your ear to the ground and hear what’s not being said.
“Early on, we tried a lot of things when we were desperate for money,” she admits. Things like auctions for experiences didn’t work. “I wound up buying a lot myself,” she says ruefully. Ditto for the Garden & Gun membership club, which Darwin says they phased out when they realized that the membership and subscription was redundant .
Darwin also admits being a little slow to the digital game. “We did want to watch what other people were doing, because it didn’t seem like it worked for others,” she explains. After they did make the leap, they were recognized by the industry for the last two consecutive years.
When Garden & Gun debuted, it hit the stands a few days before the shootings at Virginia Tech. Controversy over individual gun possession has continued to escalate in the wake of other tragedies. What happens when nine people are shot to death not far from the magazine’s offices in Charleston?
Darwin says that Garden & Gun’s editorial position has always been about lifestyle and not politics. But this time it was personal. “My husband is pastor at a church a block away and knew Reverend Pinckney,” she says. Though Garden & Gun will not stray from its position as a lifestyle magazine, the staff did send out a dispatch that covered some of the gatherings of mourners in the aftermath of the shootings. Darwin says simply, “We have our personal views, and the time has come to deal with them.”
Darwin left her work in New York City to follow her husband’s calling to a church in Charleston. A native of Columbia, South Carolina, Darwin says at the time she thought it would be an opportunity to spend more time raising her two young children. She naively thought she would forget about work. “After 30 minutes of coloring on the floor, I was back at my desk doing some kind of search on the web,” says Darwin, laughing. “I don’t think I would have ever given up [working],” she says, even if the opportunity to launch a new magazine hadn’t presented itself.
When she was publisher of the now-defunct Mirabella magazine, she was tasked with turning declines into gains. During her tenure, ads and circulation rose, but that didn’t mean her position was secure. She was dismissed.
“Our business has always been a fickle one. New management comes in and often wants to bring in their own team members. It can be shocking, particularly if you are being let go just after having completed a successful and lucrative project, or at the end of a record-breaking year,” says Darwin. “The key is to leave with grace, to remember one’s strengths, and to be honest in future interviews about what happened. The reality is that work life under that new management would probably be pretty miserable, so best to move on and see what door opens. It’s a great time to make sure that the next step really counts, and to decide whether to continue on the corporate track or start that dream business.”