At 80, Yankee magazine is far from slowing down
New England sells — ads or not
Millennials may quip that the birthday makes Yankee nearly as old as its average reader (a slight exaggeration), but the family-owned publication isn’t ready for the journalistic nursing home just yet.
The magazine, which publishes six times per year, fills its pages with Cape Cod beachscapes and recipes for hermit cookies and clam chowder and stays in the black with a decidedly print-first business model that conventional wisdom dismissed as outdated long ago. Three-quarters of the revenue still comes from paid print subscriptions, which number 290,000 and cost $28 per year, after promotional rates expire.
Won’t the money dry up when the subscribers die off, as it so often does at other publications?
Editor Mel Allen said the older-readership question has loomed since at least 1979, when he joined Yankee. The answer has always been that a Yankee subscription is something people age into, like Medicare or elastic-waist jeans. “The people who are in their 60s reading us now were the 25-year-olds who didn’t read us when I started,” said Allen, who is 69 years old. “Somewhere along the line, they start picking the magazine up.”
They do for one simple reason, according to media specialists. In stories about Maine summer camps and top leaf-peeping destinations, readers find a version of New England they pine for.
That’s true even if “you sometimes think, ‘I’ve seen that cover before,’ ” said Barbara J. Roche, a journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, adding that she recently received a Facebook message complimenting her on an article she wrote in Yankee nine years ago.
“New England is a state of mind, and that’s part of its enduring appeal,” said Mike Stanton, who teaches journalism at the University of Connecticut and occasionally contributes to the magazine. “We’re a place full of rich history, natural beauty, and quirky people, and Yankee has always been good at capturing that.”
“You also get nostalgic as you get older,” Stanton added.
Yankee reserved one spot on the list for its own founder, Robb Sagendorph, who published the first issue in September 1935. Since 1939, Yankee Publishing Inc. has also printed The Old Farmer’s Almanac.
The Sagendorph family still owns and operates the company today. Robb’s grandson, Jamie Trowbridge, is Yankee’s president and chief executive; his nephew, Judson Hale, is editor in chief; and Hale’s son, J.D., is vice president of sales. They have a staff of about 20 and work out of a quaint, barn-red building with white trim in the small town of Dublin, N.H.
Their response to sharp declines in print advertising sales — felt across publishing — has run counter to that of many peers. It has a website and a tablet edition, but Yankee doesn’t sell digital-only subscriptions or native online ads; instead, it has bet heavily on print circulation, raising subscription fees to offset advertising losses. Despite fee increases of 17 percent, circulation has held steady for the past six years.
“The subscription business is very predictable,” Trowbridge said. “It’s frustrating how unpredictable ad revenue is.”
Yankee’s paper-and-ink strategy might seem pulled from a bygone era, but Northeastern University journalism professor John Wihbey said it could make sense for what he described as a magazine with “a virtual lockdown on a certain niche — vacation, food, and travel for a particular region.”
“A decent analog might be vinyl records, which have a retro, vintage appeal among a certain crowd,” said Wihbey, who is also a freelance contributor to the Globe.
And yet, for a print-first publication, Yankee boasts surprisingly robust online metrics: More than 11,000 Twitter followers, 79,000 Facebook fans, and 525,000 unique visitors to its website in August, according to an in-house tally. All three focus heavily on New England eye candy. Foggy sunrises and sumptuous pies abound.
The magazine still publishes long-form articles, but it turns out that much of the content Yankee has been creating for decades — “12 best lobster shacks” or “top 25 foliage towns” — is precisely the sort of snack-size stuff that online readers eat up. In fact, that format, often called a listicle, is one big reason for the popularity of BuzzFeed, which recently received a $200 million investment from NBCUniversal Inc. and caters to an audience of Yankee readers’ grandchildren.
Brook Holmberg, Yankee’s publisher, said the magazine’s print and online readers are essentially two different groups, the latter being younger and more tech savvy. Only a third of subscribers visit the website with any regularity.
Because there is so little overlap, Yankee has few reservations about giving away all of its material on the Internet, even as magazines like The New Yorker (90 years old) and The Atlantic (158) have experimented with paywalls.
That’s beginning to change, according to Holmberg. Yankee executives are thinking hard about whether, and how, to charge for online access. A digital revenue stream may be necessary for the magazine’s long-term survival, but for now there appears to be a big enough market for Yankee’s brand of New England pride, printed on glossy 9- by 12-inch pages.
“There’s a basic strain in there that has this Yankee sensibility,” said Ronald Schachter, who teaches journalism at Nichols College and wrote two pieces for the magazine a decade ago. “It draws that out of writers and the readers, too.”