Southern Gothic


It was a little piece of creative heaven before the fall from grace. What followed for Southern  Progress Corporation and its people was a New York publishing invasion, a lot of pain and a chance for many people to reinvent themselves. For Birmingham, the real question becomes what to do with all of the creative folks cast out.

by Jesse Chambers

The headquarters of Southern Progress Corporation on Lakeshore Drive was once a special place for many Birmingham creatives—writers, editors, designers, food stylists and photographers—now laid off. This atrium area features the beautiful landscaping that distinguishes the entire three-building complex.

Many writers, designers and photographers will tell you that Southern Progress Corporation in Birmingham is, or was, a damn near Edenic place to work.

At Southern Progress, these creatives could practice their craft at a high level while living in laid-back, family-friendly Birmingham, rather than being forced to hustle for a buck in a busy media Gomorrah like New York or Chicago.

The SPC campus on Lakeshore Drive, with its atrium, water features, roof garden and lush landscaping, was a sort of High Holy for anyone in Birmingham who wanted to be in publishing, while also drawing talented people from across America.

Photographer Brit Huckabay was a Chicago freelancer in 1995 when he walked into the SPC headquarters for the first time. He was delivering a story to Cooking Light magazine art director Susan Dendy. “I’ve been in magazine offices before,” Huckabay says. “But [at] SPC, oh my God, you walked in and went, ‘Holy crap, this is like walking into a cathedral. It’s like you hear angels singing.’ And I thought to myself, ‘I want to work here.’ It was just so beautiful.”

Things were also beautiful on the business side for several decades.

SPC’s flagship title, the iconic lifestyle magazine Southern Living, was created in 1966 by publisher Emory Cunningham and soon became the most successful regional magazine ever.

SL tapped an affluent, underserved, mostly female market. It kept increasingly urbanized Southerners in touch with their rural roots, according to scholar Tracy Lauder. And it gave its mostly white, middle-class readers a sense of pride when the South was held in low esteem nationally during the turbulent Civil Rights era.

Other successful SPC products followed, including more magazines, books from Oxmoor House, the Southern Living at Home direct-sales program and even cooking schools and themed cruises.

Former Southern Progress staffers Cindy Cezar Thigpen and Charlie Thigpen now operate their own business, called Charlie Thigpen’s Garden Gallery, at Pepper Place. The Lakeview complex is home to several businesses started by SPC alums.

This created work for talented people like Huckabay, who gave up his thriving Chicago freelance business, moved to Birmingham with his wife and, after freelancing for SPC, was hired by Oxmoor House.

And the success of SPC, a homegrown company, was an economic boon and source of pride for Birmingham.

But like many tales featuring a Garden of Eden or Shangri-La, this story doesn’t necessarily end well. In fact, the ending is perhaps still being written.

SPC has suffered heavy layoffs in recent years, due to the worst economy in America since the Depression, as well as radical changes in the business model for magazine publishing brought on by the Internet.

And some say that SPC’s recent difficulties may have been exacerbated by poor management and even cultural insensitivity on the part of Time Inc. in New York, SPC’s parent company. Time bought SPC in 1985 for $498 million—the most money ever paid for a publishing operation at that time.

In any case, SPC’s old family atmosphere and, perhaps, its feeling of exceptionality, changed forever, and many former staffers have been forced to reinvent themselves.

Now Birmingham finds itself with a potentially valuable pool of talent without enough work to go around.

Before the layoffs, before what a former art director calls “the Fall,”many employees found what they believed was a special place to work at SPC. More than likely, most of them will never find such a place again.

Former Southern Living travel writer Joe Rada has embarked on a new adventure in midlife—combining his lifelong loves of writing and baking in a new web site called Bakery Boy Blog. Rada worked in bakeries as a young man.

According to former SL travel writer and editor Joe Rada, “The initial impression I had of [SPC], and it lasted for a long time, was how polite the society there was. It was the epitome of Southern culture. It was a growing company, always expanding, introducing new sections, new divisions. And everybody was nice. Everybody was polite, positive Southern boosters. The whole corporate concept was the good life in the South.”

A Charleston, WV, native, Rada was working for a newspaper near Seattle, WA, in 1988 when he got an offer to come to SPC, travel the South and write about interesting people and fun vacation spots. “It was too good of a job to pass up,” he says. Rada remained at SPC for 21 years.

Many former staffers talk about what they call SPC’s family atmosphere. Nick Patterson was an associate editor at SL in what became the Travel & Livings department. “[former CEO Tom] Angelillo, it would never fail that if he saw me in the hall, he would stop and ask me what I had been doing. And [former SL editor in chief] John Floyd would have meetings with his staff every week. ‘Java with John’ it was called. Basically he would answer any question from anybody on the staff.” A former Birmingham Post-Herald reporter, Patterson worked at SPC for nearly 10 years and is now director of communications for Birmingham Museum of Art.

SPC was known for providing employees with opportunities for personal growth and experimentation, at least more so than most big companies. “I was probably the first editor that was ever asked to write a story who had never typed a word in their life,” Charlie Thigpen says. “They wanted me to write because I was a gardener, not because I was a writer, and I thought it was interesting that they wanted a hands-on perspective.”

Thigpen began working on the grounds at SPC while in high school and became director of landscape and SL associate gardens editor.

“Southern Progress was a complex place to work,” Thigpen says. “You had brilliant executives, you had creative people, like artists, you had test kitchens. You’d be walking down the hall and smell bacon cooking. It was very different, a lot of creative forces.”

SPC management—early in their firm’s marriage to Time Inc.—took pains to assert their relative independence from New York. According to Don Logan of Birmingham, who was SPC president and chief operating officer at the time, “When the company was sold, we stressed to [Time Inc.] how different the culture was at SPC and how important it was that local management be in charge of the editorial content, marketing and other departmental functions,” he says. “People in New York wouldn’t understand the nuance of the South’s culture and how it related to our business. There was some push back at the beginning, but we pushed back, too. And SPC operated for 20 years with people from SPC managing the bottom line with great success.”

Not long after the sale, Logan became Southern Progress CEO and served for seven years. He moved to New York to serve as president and chief operating officer of Time Inc. in 1992. He became CEO of Time Inc. in 1994. Logan now owns Seek Publishing and the Birmingham Barons minor-league baseball team.

Don Logan, former CEO of Southern Progress Corporation, says that the firm was able to operate successfully for many years while remaining largely independent of its parent company, Time Inc.

Logan praises the CEOs who followed him at SPC, Jim Nelson and Angelillo, and recites the traditional Southern Progress recipe for success. “[The firm] did well through that period, because everybody was passionate about what they did, and it was a family atmosphere, and they worked hard,” Logan says. “And SPC contributed a big chunk of Time Inc.’s profits.”

Logan discusses the changes the Internet brought to the magazine business in the early 2000s. “People were asking if magazines were still relevant and would they survive,” Logan says. “My opinion was that there were too many magazines that were dividing up a shrinking revenue base. The ones that were commodity-driven, or of broad, general interest, struggled the most where there was more TV and Internet competition.” According to Logan, magazines that offered a commodity such as news faced more competition than those that offered something unique.

“Magazines that I thought would do well were lifestyle magazines, be it a Southern Living kind of magazine with food, home, garden and travel folded under Southern culture,” Logan says. “There’s nothing else like it. The editors are selecting, choosing and presenting the topics that a reader is most passionate about. All the information may be on the Internet, but it is not organized nor packaged like a magazine. I thought these magazines would do O.K. and have the ad revenue to support them.”

One event that would complicate the relationship between Time Inc. and SPC and have deleterious effects on SPC, at least indirectly, was the acquisition of Time Warner Inc. in January 2000 by internet company American Online Inc for roughly $180 billion in stock and debt.

The goal in combining the companies was to create synergy—a period buzz word— between AOL’s Internet assets and the vast reservoir of content, including TV, movies and magazines, that Time Warner provided. But Logan was opposed to the deal. “I was totally against it,” he says. “Nobody asked my opinion. I would have given it to them. Because of the valuations, putting the two companies together didn’t make economic sense.”

According to Logan, AOL had a higher market value than Time Warner, even though Time was much larger and its many divisions were performing well. “I wouldn’t say that AOL was valued too highly, because it really was a function of the market values of the day,” he says. “It was priced like Yahoo and some of the others. But all the Internet companies were priced too high.”

The AOL-Time Warner combination didn’t work. AOL’s internet service provider business deteriorated, and the market value of AOL and other similar companies began to drop. This created pressure for cost-cutting in relatively healthy divisions at Time in order to keep up the all-important stock price of the combined company. “AOL continued to erode, and the stock price eroded, and there was a huge pressure to get profits up for Time Inc.,” Logan says. “It eventually put pressure on SPC.”

The relationship between Time Inc. and SPC also began to change, according to Logan, who was made chairman of AOL-Time Warner’s Media and Communications Group in 2002. “I don’t think the people running [Time Inc.] understood the difference in content in the magazines and the importance of having Southern culture permeate the book,” he says. “And that really begin to be dialed up as I was nearing retirement in January 2006.”

According to Logan, SL had a devoted readership with huge renewal rates and could charge more for advertising, in addition to other healthy metrics. And Cooking Light and some of the other titles were doing well. “I don’t think that was valued or understood as it should have been in New York, and some changes were made that, in my opinion, never should have occurred,” he says.

One of the biggest changes at SPC came in late October 2008, when Angelillo and three other executives abruptly retired. “They replaced all the top management at SPC all at one time, eliminating a huge amount of the company’s historical knowledge,” Logan says. “They centralized a lot of functions that had been done at SPC, from accounting and legal and HR and some ad sales and circulation. When you take those functions out, you don’t have the culture of a stand-alone company anymore.”

The departure of Angelillo and the others was a body blow, according to Charlie Thigpen’s wife, Cindy Cezar Thigpen, SL creative services director at the time. “[That] was the day that really shook us to the core,” she says. “We knew that we would never, ever be the same.”

I asked Logan whether he served as SPC’s protector prior to his retirement from AOL-Time Warner in 2006, as some former employees believe. “I don’t want to characterize it as protecting, because it was SPC’s bottom-line performance that was doing the protecting,” he says. “Southern Living,Cooking LightSunset and a host of their businesses did very well. I did oppose centralization of all the corporate function because I don’t believe in centralization. I believed that an independent SPC was in the best interest of Time Inc. and the Time-Warner shareholders.”

The fall of 2008 was a horrible season financially for the magazine industry, including Time Inc., where—according to Erik Sass of mediapost.com—ad pages were down 9.3 percent through the first nine months of the year.

Lay-offs began in earnest at SPC on October 23, with about 30 people, mainly in accounting and editorial, losing their jobs. This came only a few days after SL editor-in-chief John Floyd retired after 18 years and Cottage Living editor-in-chief         Eleanor Griffin took his place. The chilly gale winds blowing toward the lush, suburban home of Southern Progress were making themselves felt.

On November 19, 2008, three weeks after Angelillo’s sudden departure, Time Inc. announced that it was closing Cottage Living after only four years. It was also announced that most of the staffers, as well as the publisher, of Cooking Light were resigning, along with several more SPC execs.

Such trademark SPC workplace perks as fresh fruit, free mouthwash and fancy pod-style coffee makers had already begun to drop away, in what some former employees look back on now as a series of small portents of the coming apocalypse. “All those things started to go away,” Patterson says. “And so there were these little things that showed you that things were changing. And you know, the glory days were going.”

Amanda Storey, former Cooking Light magazine marketing manager, hopes that the layoffs will not be allowed to define the creative community at SPC. She says the talent they represent could transform Birmingham.

Amanda Storey, marketing manager for Cooking Light magazine, saw signs that things were getting tougher in both the economy and the magazine business. “We were fighting for business,” Storey says. “In 2008, it became less about big ideas and how we were going to do great partnerships. Advertisers didn’t have the same amount of money that they had.”

The close-knit SPC family was buzzing with worries about possible lay-offs, according to Storey. “No one was quite sure what was going to happen,” she says. “Rumors were everywhere. I mean, if you just read the news media, the New York Times, you keep seeing SPC coming up. You start thinking, ‘Oh, that’s not good.’”

It was still a shock for Storey when her entire marketing team was laid off in November 2008. “We knew something was up and we knew there were going to be layoffs,” she said. “But no one in a million years thought it was going to be our marketing department. We were a very high functioning, solid marketing group. I don’t any of us were prepared for that.”

The layoffs and other changes at SPC continued in 2009. Time Inc. sold Southern Living at Home. Southern Accents magazine was closed in August. Wade Kwon of mediaofbirmingham.com—a former associate features editor at SL whose position was terminated in December 2008—reported in October that SPC had cut 41.4 percent of its Birmingham staff in the previous 12 months, eliminating 290 positions, and that all Southern Progress titles had lost ad revenue.

Rada and a number of other staffers in the SL Travel & Livings department, including Patterson, were terminated in November 2009. “As I understand it, it was strictly business,” Rada says. “The magazine business was shrinking. Nothing personal. I survived several waves of lay-offs. So it wasn’t a complete surprise. The surprise was that I was no longer going to get to do the job I love to do. I really thought I was a lifer and would be able to keep on doing that as long as I wanted. Maybe I wasn’t realistic about that in the job culture of this recession. So I can’t say I was totally surprised to get caught up in the latest layoff, but I wasn’t prepared to move on. It was hard to let go. I always thought it would happen to someone else.”

The shock was magnified for some staffers by the feeling that SPC was so successful that it would be almost immune from Time Inc. layoffs. According to Patterson, “For many years we’d been told that SPC, and Southern Living in particular, were very lean and not viewed as having too many staffers. The idea we were given was that we shouldn’t worry about layoffs because we were already very efficiently run, making a lot of money. So I know that for a lot of people it was very shocking to start to see what happened.”

Patterson had prepared himself emotionally for his termination. “I was expecting, because of the way things had been going, that eventually I was going to get laid off, and I was one of several people who were not exactly dreading it,” he says. “Things had gotten to the point that it was difficult to work there, just from a mental [and] emotional standpoint.”

Layoffs were tougher for people who had been with SPC for most of their professional lives, according to Patterson. “I felt particularly sorry for those of my colleagues who had been there for a very long time,” he says. “I had been there almost 10 years. Many people had been there longer [and] had really only worked [at SPC]. They had their whole lives tied up with working there. Their whole identity seemed to be connected with their work. I was kind of philosophical that it was time to do something else.”

The fact that SPC had once maintained such a family atmosphere made it tougher for some people to let go, Patterson believes. “I think for a lot of people, they thought they were being disconnected from that,” he says.  “And not all of us had been there forever, so I think that makes a difference, but there were definitely people who felt they were being uprooted, disconnected, forcibly torn away from everything they had known.”

It should be stressed that the lay-offs at SPC and Time Inc. were not unique, since the entire magazine business experienced similar trauma. Scott Jones was an executive editor, formerly a food editor, at Southern Living until leaving the company in December 2010 to start a business. He describes a situation faced by one of his friends at another large publishing firm. “When Conde Nast decided to replace longtime Bon Appétit editor Barbara Fairchild late last year and move the magazine from Los Angeles to New York, a friend who’s an editor there recounted how the staff was inexpressively informed one afternoon that the magazine was moving and that they’d likely have a chance to reapply for their jobs,” Jones says. “When I asked her if there was mention of financial assistance to make the move to the other coast, she simply replied, ‘Nope.’” In January, Jones formed Jones Is Hungry (www.JonesIsHungry.com), a culinary media company focusing on custom food and wine content, brand representation, TV production, and education.

Layoffs and buyouts have continued regularly at Southern Progress from 2008 to 2010, according to Kwon in a recent email. “The cuts come from different operations at different times, making them more difficult to track,” he says. “Also, the company has continued to hire people while terminating others, but the overall Birmingham-based staff size has shrunk by at least 50 percent if not more.”

There have been fears locally that Time Inc. has done away with its SPC subsidiary and fully absorbed all of its operations. According to Kwon, SPC is “now known as the Birmingham division of Time Inc.” Time spokesperson Debra Richman identifies SPC as a subsidiary of Time Inc. in a recent email. According to Richman, day-to-day operations are run by Birmingham-based executive Bruce Larson, and the following products still have staff based here—SLCooking Light, Coastal Living and Health, as well as Oxmoor House and some web sites.

According to Birmingham Business Journal, citing Publisher’s Information Bureau, SL and Coastal Living ad revenues fell in 2010, but revenues at three other titles—Cooking Light, This Old House and Health—were up.

So what are the prospects for SPC and, especially, the long-beloved SL? I asked long-time SPC watcher Samir “Mr. Magazine” Husni, an expert on the magazine business who teaches at the University of Mississippi. “The problem with Southern Living and [SPC] is they not only faced the economic collapse, but they had a lot of personnel changes and changes in the magazine’s DNA that made them lose some of their footing with the readers, with their base,” Husni says. “Does Southern Living now have the same impact as in the ‘80s and ‘90s? No. Is it a must read. Debatable. They still have a huge circulation No one is writing off Southern Living.”

According to Husni, he was told in the 1990s that SL had an astonishing 20 percent penetration of Southern households. He says this success was based on delivering a familiar, comfortable product. “The magazine was very predictable and traditional,” he says. “Now it’s hit and miss. They’re trying to reinvent the wheel. Time Inc. should have left SPC alone, but you never find a big company that buys an established magazine and leaves it alone.”

According to Husni, not all magazines should follow the contemporary formula of big pictures and short, snappy articles. “That can be [Time Inc. lifestyle magazine] Real Simple,” Husni says. “It’s doing great. But that doesn’t apply to all magazines. Southern Living had this sophistication of upholding the Southern tradition of women, even in the 21st century. Nobody is saying Southern women just stay in their kitchen and cook, but they look at the magazine with a halo around it. ‘My mother got it. My grandmother got it.’ We stick to traditions in the South, for better or worse. If it’s December, I want my white cake on the cover. If it’s November, I want the Thanksgiving feast. People loved the predictability. That’s gone. It’s become just another women’s magazine that just happens to have the name Southern Living.”

Lindsay Bierman recently became editor of the iconic lifestyle magazine Southern Living and seems confident that the new Time Inc. leadership understands the magazine’s cultural importance. “Our Southernness will always be our number one asset,” he says. (Read Bierman’s full interview at the conclusion of this article)

Lindsay Bierman became SL editor in chief in July 2010, taking over for Eleanor Griffin, who became the magazine’s vice president of brand development. Bierman previously served as SL deputy editor, I asked Husni if he thinks that Bierman is in full control of the magazine—the way John Floyd was—-or whether the real power is now in Manhattan. “The power left Birmingham years ago,” Husni says. “All you have to do is go to the office. It does not take a genius to walk through the hallways at Southern Progress and (realize) you hear your echo.”

However, Bierman—who responded to my questions with an extensive email—asserts that he is very much in control at SL.  “I work for our readers,” he says. “As long as they’re happy, my bosses are happy.” He says he has a good relationship with Time Inc. editor in chief John Huey, a native Southerner, and editorial director Martha Nelson, and that “they understand and appreciate the culture here.”

[Bierman expressed confidence at the time of our email exchange in the leadership of Time Inc. CEO Jack Griffin, who assumed the position last year after having worked at Meredith, a Midwestern lifestyle magazine firm with a corporate culture that is somewhat similar to that of SPC. However, as we went to press for our March issue, Griffin was fired as CEO. It is interesting that Husni and Logan had some nice things to say about Griffin. According to Husni, “Without running down the previous regime—I respect [former Time Inc. CEO] Ann Moore and the others—but I think Jack is more down to earth and more in touch with service magazines. With his background, by hook or by crook, he may force them to go back to that DNA.” Logan told me that Griffin would “understand the cultural issues better than the previous regime.” Logan was also hopeful regarding the future of SL. “[It] is a still powerful brand and has a huge impact on the South,” he says. “I am hopeful that some of the changes that occurred can be reversed.”]

What about the working relationship between Birmingham and New York? “We at Southern Living operate independently, but because I’m looking for any advantage, I’m happy we can share our knowledge and resources in areas such as consumer research, cover strategies, and digital assets with our colleagues in New York,” Bierman says. According to Bierman, there are no plans to move any of the products managed in Birmingham to New York.

Bierman strongly defends the health of SL. “[It] is the sixth-largest monthly consumer magazine in the country with a rate base of 2.8 million,” he says. “We have very healthy circulation metrics and maintain a higher average price than the bulk of our competitive set” According to Bierman, ad and beauty ad pages are up in SL, and the magazine published several best-selling books in 2010.

Bierman says that SL is relevant to its traditional audience “now more than ever.” He says that the magazine is “like the ultimate social club” and was “the region’s first form of ‘social media.’” He cites several examples of his commitment to keeping the editorial content truly Southern, including signing up Alabama author Rick Bragg to write the regular “Southern Journal” feature.  “I want Southern Living to be a must-read for the daughters and granddaughters of our longtime subscribers,” he says. He also wants to make SL “a magnet for creative talent.”

In any case, former SPC staffers have to move on with their lives, despite their sense of loss and disappointment—something felt, after all, by millions of Americans in this so-called Great Recession.

According to Huckabay, “You can talk to anybody. We love that place. It’s like watching your parents break up and your family split apart, and it’s just heartbreaking. It was the most special place in the world to work. And to see it come apart like that—I never, ever would have predicted what was to come.”

Huckabay lost his job in 2009 when Time Inc. sold Southern Living at Home, where he had worked for several years. Huckabay is once again a freelance photographer and numbers Willow House—the new incarnation of SLH, based in Birmingham—among his clients.

Huckabay fears Birmingham will be unable to provide work for all who need it. “I know people who are struggling just to make it through, [especially] with the economy,” he says. “That really is the eventual end of the story. A lot of these people are not going to be able to stay here. Birmingham is too small. This isn’t Atlanta. This isn’t Chicago.”

Former SPC food stylist Jan Moon sees some of the creative people who were laid off at SPC struggling. “You have to reinvent yourself,” she says. “If you’ve been, say, an art director, there’s not a lot of demand for that. The people who are doing that are still very artistic people. They need to be pointed in a direction and do something for themselves.”

Moon left the company on good terms in 2005, before the lay-offs, to focus on her passion for baking, including wedding cakes. She is the owner of Dreamcakes bakery in Edgewood and freelances for SPC. “I developed some recipes for them at Christmas for Cooking Light,” she says.

Charlie and Cindy Thigpen resigned from SPC and opened their own business, called Charlie Thigpen’s Garden Gallery, at Pepper Place in 2009. Charlie likes being his own boss after his experience at SPC. “At my age, I wanted to be more in control of my destiny,” he says. “I wanted to be in charge, because everything went so well with Southern Progress for so long, and just kind of started crumbling.”

In some ways, the process of midlife reinvention is just another adventure for Rada, who has always built his life around a search for new experience. “Even before I came to Southern Living, I was an adventurer,” he says. Rada’s been a lifeguard, street musician and cannery worker. He’s been an avid backpacker and hang-glider. Married with two kids, Rada is keeping an eye out for full-time work while writing freelance and developing bakeryboyblog.wordpress.com, a website for people who love baking and bakeries.

Rada says he isn’t bitter regarding his layoff. “I had 21 good years at Southern Living, and I enjoyed working there,” he says. “I realized the downsizing was just business. I’m ready to move on. I’m still looking for what comes next, a year afterwards. I wish them well. I hope they wish me well.”

Storey, who worked at SPC for nearly eight years, is now assistant vice president of Community Health & Wellness at the United Way of Central Alabama and is project director for Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities, an effort to fight childhood obesity. She writes an Alabama-centric food blog called foodrevival.com.

Many former SPC employees remain in close touch, according to Storey. “I think most people are still meeting for lunches and Facebooking back and forth,” she says. “And thank God for Facebook, because in that moment it gave us that connection that we would have all lost. It was really painful for a lot of folks who had been there 20 or 25 years.”

Many former staffers still miss the old SPC. “There is a lot of nostalgia, especially for people who were there in what I call the glory days,” Moon says. “It was a great creative outlet, and we all worked as a good team. You spend that much time with people, you build some really good, lifelong friendships. And we do really all care about each other and what’s going on in each others’ lives.”

Storey believes that many of the layoffs were probably inevitable from a business standpoint. Does she have any problems with the way they were handled? “Sure,” she says. “But could I have done any better? I don’t know. What is the best way to lay off a bunch of people? I don’t think any company has figured out the best way to do it. I think because there was a regional difference, it was hard for [Time Inc.] to see what this was like and live it every day. And vice versa. Talk about economic climate. New York was impacted in ways even we can’t fathom. We would all wish that it happened a little more delicately, or that maybe the band-aid was ripped off a little faster, but I don’t know that it could have been avoided.”

If Time Inc. failed to really understand SPC, it is perhaps not surprising given the differences between the companies. “I think it’s the uniqueness of what Southern Progress had built,” Rada says. “SPC grew out of the South, by, for and about the South. Larger corporations like AOL and Time Warner, and the combination AOL-Time Warner, are much more global or national brands. So it’s a different corporate culture. “

According to Storey, it isn’t healthy for Birmingham to look for villains or wallow in the bad news from SPC. “When things like this happen, we have a tendency to point fingers,” she says. “I don’t want the lay-offs to define [Birmingham] or the community of creative individuals It’s really easy to focus on the drama of it. And it was and still is very dramatic. It was very hurtful. It was very challenging. There were a lot of talented people vying for work here, a lot of families who had to pick up and move. You know, it’s just a matter of getting creative and being able to redefine what your good at and do it in a way that serves a larger vision for a community of people.”

Birmingham developer Cathy Crenshaw believes that the painful layoffs at SPC may have a hidden upside. “To me it really has been a creative seed pod bursting,” she says. “There are so many people who have been here for a long time, and they are creative and smart, and they could go other places, but they want to stay in Birmingham.” Crenshaw has helped provide storefronts or office space at her Pepper Place complex in Lakeview for several former SPC staffers. “We’ve tried to nurture people,” she says. Examples include the Thigpens and former SPC executive Bruce Akin, who runs the start-up firm Chip Rewards.

Storey agrees with Crenshaw. “If all that knowledge, all that creativity, all that work ethic [from SPC] were funneled into something else, I guarantee you this community could transform itself,” Storey says. “If the community is able to invest in the people out of that building, it could transform our opportunities, our culture, everything. That is what’s exciting about it.

Southern Living editor Lindsay Bierman Q&A

Lindsay Bierman

Lindsay Bierman is editor in chief of the iconic lifestyle magazine Southern Living, which is published by Birmingham’s Southern Progress Corporation (SPC). Bierman became editor of SL in July 2010. He participated in this email Q&A with Jesse Chambers of B-Metro for use in Chamber’s new story Southern Gothic, about the recent history of SPC. Southern Gothic is found in our March issue. This is the complete text of the Q&A.

B-METRO: Is Southern Living a healthy magazine? If so, what are the metrics (e.g., circulation, ad revenue, subscription renewals) that show this to be the case?

BIERMAN: Absolutely—Southern Living is the sixth-largest monthly consumer magazine in the country with a rate base of 2.8 million. We have very healthy circulation metrics and maintain a higher average price ($4.99) than the bulk of our competitive set. I’m particularly happy to say that under my leadership, renewal intention among the youngest demographic is at an all-time high. We also saw an increase in both short-term and long-term subscribers in 2010 over 2009. There have been challenges on the ad side for all magazines, but through the first quarter of 2011, our fashion and beauty pages are up more than 200%! Some of our newest advertisers include Lancôme, Olay, Dove, and Pond’s, and I must say it’s nice to see the face of Julia Roberts on the back cover of our current issue. Southern Living also published several best-selling books in 2010. My favorite, The Big Book of BBQ, was a category best-seller (selling well over 100,000 copies), and our mega cookbook, 1001 Ways to Cook Southern, has been doing extremely well regionally. Last year was one of our best years ever for bookazine sales, and the staff will tell you that I’m truly giddy about the release ofSouthern Living Weddings: Your Ultimate Guidebook to Style on January 21 [2011], a 128-page special issue priced at $11.99.

Is Southern Living as a brand still relevant to its traditional audience?

Now more than ever! We’re blessed to have a loyal following of more than 15 million readers—”an army of devoted fans” as the subject of one recent story put it—whose identity as Southerners transcends all other affiliations, no matter where they live or what they do. It’s like the ultimate social club, and Southern Living was the region’s first form of “social media.” Right now, we’re only at the beginning of our expansion across platforms, including TV and the Web, but the magazine will always be the core of our beloved and trusted brand.

Have you been able to retain the “Southernness” of Southern Living? Does it retain its cultural uniqueness?

Who else would stuff fried chicken with pimiento cheese or use sweet tea as an ingredient instead of a drink? You need to join us for a tasting in our Test Kitchen! Southern Living remains the heart of Southern life, and all of us at SL, whether transplants or natives, celebrate our love of the South’s food, culture, style, and way of life in every issue. I’ve studied the work of my predecessors here, and Lord knows I have big shoes to fill—I’m standing on the shoulders of giants who were keepers of our culture. John Floyd, arguably the most iconic SL editor of all, was a longtime mentor for me, and I’m still asking him for advice! My challenge will be to honor their legacy, so the first thing I did as editor was sign up Rick Bragg to write our long-standing back page, “Southern Journal,” to reflect on the ethos of being Southern as only Rick can do, with such humor and raw emotion. Since then, we’ve featured everything from the South’s best legal moonshine—as chosen by staffers who rated them all late on a Friday—to our favorite recipes for black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day. This spring, we’re launching a new column called “Only in the South” to celebrate our uniquely Southern traditions and eccentricities such as a happy hour in Marble Falls, Texas, that’s not for cocktails but for PIE. In the next issue, we’re running an exclusive interview with William Faulkner’s niece, whose new memoir tells all about life with the South’s most iconic author. Our Southernness will always be our number one asset, it’s what makes my job so endlessly fascinating and rewarding.

Has Southern Living changed over the last few years in its style and content?

Our core content will always be the same—a celebration of Southern cooking, gardening, decor, and travel across the region. But everything and everyone has to evolve, so the pages have been freshened up with new typefaces and design elements over the past couple of years. And every editor, including me, has played around with the front section from time to time. The redesign of 2009, under Eleanor Griffin’s leadership, introduced many new columns that continue to resonate with readers. Last fall, we introduced some health and beauty content, which seemed new to us but was actually an integral part of the magazine in the 1960s. It was funny to see a woman with a bouffant hairdo in a black leotard demonstrating a “five-minute workout” on our pages in 1966! We may change what we do and try out new ideas, but we will never change who we are.

What are your plans and hopes for the future?

I want Southern Living to be a must-read for the daughters and granddaughters of our longtime subscribers. That’s my mission and my mantra, and I know from readers and research that our longtime subscribers share that goal. I also seeSouthern Living as a magnet for creative talent—a place where editors, writers, foodies, and other creative types want to work because the passion they have for our culture can inform, inspire, comfort, and entertain millions of readers. Finally, I want to showcase and support Southern entrepreneurs, designers, and shopkeepers. We should be their first big break! In that way, Southern Living can help drive economic growth across the region.

What is your particular challenge at SL? What do you have on your mind on the typical morning when you point your car toward work?

Imagine producing not just one magazine every month but a dozen! It took me months to wrap my mind around all our regional and state editions and all our licensing deals and book projects, and the wild pace of putting out a home/travel/food/garden/health+beauty magazine all in one. It would certainly be easier to publish just one edition, but we’d miss out on a lot of rich material out there. The real value of Southern Living is how deep we get into the heart of small and rural communities to better reflect the region’s rich cultural and geographical diversity. It’s ambitious, especially when you’re trying to shoot everything in season and maintain the highest quality of writing and reporting, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I wake up in the morning with the same concerns that anyone in media or business has—budgets, staffing, ad sales, etc.—but mostly I’m just feeling excited about whatever issue we’re working on. Almost every day, I see a photo that takes my breath away or read something inspiring or drive past a beautiful house or eat somewhere that gives me a story idea. I’m so lucky I get to live my job. I have all the same questions as our readers, such as what color to paint the living room, what to make for dinner in a hurry or serve guests, where to stay in New Orleans, and what on earth to do with the empty pots on my deck. And I love getting to know our readers from the hundreds and hundreds of letters I get every month.

What is the working relationship between SPC staffers in Birmingham and Time Inc. in New York?

It’s no secret that we live in very challenging—and exciting—times for media. We at SL operate independently, but because I’m looking for any advantage, I’m happy we can share our knowledge and resources in areas such as consumer research, cover strategies, and digital assets with our colleagues in New York.

Are you fully in control of the magazine and its direction?

Yes. I work for our readers. As long as they’re happy, my bosses are happy. But magazines are a collaborative effort. I’m surrounded by writers, copy editors, designers, and so many others behind the scenes whose enthusiasm and expertise never ceases to amaze me. Imagine working every day with the best cooks, garden gurus, storytellers, and tastemakers! I’m also fortunate to work for some of the very best minds in the business: Time Inc. Editor in Chief John Huey and Editorial Director Martha Nelson, who now oversee all SPC titles. John, who spends most weekends at home in his native Charleston, has a particular affinity for Southern Living, which is truly great for us, and Martha has run some of the most successful magazine brands in the history of publishing. They understand and appreciate the culture here, and I’m excited about our future under their leadership.

I’ve been told that new Time Inc. CEO Jack Griffin, who comes from Meredith, which has a similar DNA to Southern Progress, might be a good fit from SPC’s viewpoint, that he gets the cultural uniqueness of the SPC titles, particularly Southern Living. Would you like to comment on that?

I’ll be introducing Jack to our Birmingham staff in the near future and feel at ease about his leadership, given his outstanding record in our category.

[NOTE: As we mention in the online version of Southern Gothic, Griffin was fired as Time Inc. CEO after we went to press.]

 

Any chance that any of the products managed in Birmingham could migrate to New York?

No, we don’t have plans to move any of the products managed in Birmingham to New York.

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15 Responses to “Southern Gothic”

  1. Wade Kwon says:

    I appreciate writer Jesse Chambers including my quotes and reporting from Media of Birmingham in this article.

    While Jesse, and many ex-SPC staffers, may characterize this downfall as a Time Inc./New York-vs.-SPC/Birmingham battle, it fails to take in an important consideration: SPC management was intractable to a fault.

    While at times SPC management — and I’m referring to leadership at every level — could point to successes as a reason for Time Inc. to remain hands off, they must also share in the blame for failure to innovate and adapt to a changing world. Staff members were often given conflicting directions, be creative but then rein it in to match what has always been done. Embrace the Web, but then make it exactly the same as the print product. And so on.

    To narrowly focus on positioning SPC as a mecca of creativity belies the fact that such creativity alone was insufficient to keep the company from being better prepared for changing markets. Much of the SPC leadership, like leadership in many companies, was sorely lacking in the ability to move beyond what had always been done.

    • Jesse Chambers says:

      Wade–

      Thanks for your help. And thanks for your feedback. You make a good point.

      –Jesse

    • Brian Carnahan says:

      This is a well done and thoughtful article. To Wade’s point about intractable SPC management…perhaps a fair point as I would suggest management at any company is never perfect. One problem for SPC not mentioned in the article is that from the time of the AOL merger until 2006, SPC’s online content was tied up in the doomed AOL service so SPC never had the chance to fully develop a locally controlled digital business until late in the game. And even then it faced heavy oversight from NY. What happened to SPC happens all the time in our market driven economy dominated by massive global corporations. It is great to see how resilient and strong SPC folks are in the face of this. We all move on and we all do well. But the bottom line is Time Inc destroyed a unique company. It was a knee jerk and thoughtless reaction to the economic downturn. Enlightened leadership knows how to guide an organization through tough times. “Enlightened” is not an adjective I’d use to describe the leadership skills of Ann Moore, Sylvia Auten, or pretty much anyone else in Time Inc executive management who had a hand in the SPC reorganization.

  2. A Member of the SPC "Family" says:

    This article is only about half true, because people who speak without anonymity and on the record must protect themselves, especially if they still work at Southern Progress. But if you were there during the “Glory Days” (and I was there for 20+ years), you know the truth. Don Logan (and, as he says, Southern Living and Cooking Light’s, success) did protect SPC from Time Inc. for years. When Don left Time Warner, the people in charge in NYC mounted a vendetta against SPC because they finally had the power and ability to do so. They got rid of the most senior, most experienced, highest producing editors, writers, publishers and marketers simply because they could. They used “cost cutting” and the ad recession as an excuse, while still running expensive, bloated operations in NYC and elsewhere. What they did to SPC wasn’t in the best interest of Time Inc., SPC, or Time Warner shareholders. But it allowed them to assert their power, finally. They never understood — or even tried to understand — SPC. And they feared and hated what they couldn’t understand. Countless lives have been destroyed unnecessarily. The people from Time Inc. in NYC who did this weren’t the least bit blind to what they were doing. The Time Inc.ers know exactly what they did, and they don’t care. They were only trying to protect their own ridiculous incomes and those of a few chosen cronies. They are incompetent at best and evil at worst. One can only hope that true karma will some day give them a taste of the pain that they so stupidly and vindictively inflicted upon a truly great company and the real, flesh-and-blood people who worked there. This is the REAL truth and I can guarantee you that many if not most of the people affected by this tragedy believe the facts to be exactly as I describe them.

    • Charles E. Walton, IV says:

      My name is Charles E. Walton, IV and I am NOT anonymous…and I could not agree more. After 30 years of my life, invested there, it just makes me sick and so very sad……you speak of “true karma”….well….let them eat cake…

    • Jesse Chambers says:

      Southern Gothic is, in a sense, only the first draft of a deeper, richer story that will be told when more people involved in this whole drama feel more free to speak. Some of the concerns that Wade Kwon raises in his comment just above sort of come under this category.

  3. Joe Rada says:

    B-Metro: Thanks for taking on this Birmi-centric subject.

    Jesse Chambers & Beau Gustafson: Good job on the story and photos.

    Publishing World: I’m still here and I’m ready, willing, able and available for writing/editing work. Call me.

    – Joe Rada (aka Bakery Boy)

  4. The one before all the others says:

    Such a well-researched and inclusive article should mention that Time Inc. sold the Southern Progress legacy title—The Progressive Farmer—in 2006. At the time, the venerable title was making an against-all-odds successful transition to the emerging rural lifestyle market. And, it survives and thrives in Birmingham… its editor, Jack Odle, was even profiled on your pages.

    • Jesse Chambers says:

      You are right. I felt bad about not mentioning it. I can only plead that I had an enormous amount of data that I struggled to fit into the piece–even at more than 5,000 words.

  5. I was the Decorating Editor at Southern Living back in the glory days of the late 70s and early 1980s. All of us probably earned less than we could have made elsewhere, but we had incredible passion, producing relevant quality-driven magazines and having fun while doing it. We used to joke that our job was to show people how to live as well as we lived on 1/3 the money! Another catch phrase was, “We don’t CARE how they do it in New York!” That was before New York owned the place, of course.

    I lived out of state for a number of years., but I expected the same vibrant office culture when I moved back and freelanced at SL, but alas, things had changed. So many good people had scattered to the winds, and sections of the building were totally unoccupied. The spirit was still there, but people were keeping their heads down, not knowing who would be next.

    As it turned out, the department where I freelanced was next. Now it’s gone. Just gone. And I’m one of those who created a life outside of publishing. I started Chocolate Magnolia, making artisan chocolates for parties and weddings. Still, my early days at SL taught me one important lesson: No matter what happens–unexpected obstacles, nothing going as planned, or whatever disaster strikes–you still must come back with the story. I so hope that this will happen with Southern Living. I love the company that it can be. I hope that it gets back on track, reinvents its story, and lives up to those glory days. I think I’m seeing glimmers that it is.

  6. Former SPCer can't find a job says:

    I worked at SPC for more than 10 years, laid off in Nov 2008. I work in another field for a year and half but lost that job in August 2010. I am now struggling to make ends meet on unemployment. When will this nightmare be over?

  7. I’m fortunate in that I receive a pension from SPC (Time-Warner). Why is John Huey still watching out for SPC? Did you check into the late 80/90’s to find out what “CEO” did for John (i.e. employment). Check Time Publishing Ventures. Then when that venture failed and “CEO” was in NY, John became editor of a NY TW mag?
    Details—the money problems @ SPC should have been followed from about 1998–I worked close to the money and a lot was spent–on salaries, bonuses, etc. for the chosen. Maybe if cuts had started back then; changes would have been different. Don Logan was in NY then but Angelillo and Nelson knew the bucks that were being spent. As I said, I have a great pension,stock & 401K,but the current employees don’t. Sad–

  8. Mary says:

    For Ann Moore to describe the layoffs as a real “home run” was a clear signal that she needed to go. And I, for one, was happy she left.

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