Magazine with staying power

SUN JOURNAL

Survivor: While other magazines fold within the first year, Yankee has thrived, covering lifestyles and lore from Maine to Connecticut for more than a half-century.

January 22, 2001|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

DUBLIN, N.H. - Four buildings dominate the square in this 19th-century New England hamlet: the restored Victorian-style Town Hall, the white-spired Dublin Community Church, the 101-year-old stone library and a sprawling red clapboard house, the home of Yankee magazine.

There's not much more to Dublin than that. Yankee magazine is as much an institution here as the local board of selectmen or the church. It was established 65 years ago by the grandson of a Boston foundry owner, who wanted to preserve the culture and characters of New England. Editor Robb Sagendorph worried that this corner of America would be swallowed - "swallered" in Yankeese - by "a sea of chain stores and nationwide hook-ups."

The chain stores came to New England long ago, but Yankee's brand of plain talk and poetry remains a seller. At the start, the magazine with its hand-drawn covers and "swoppers" column billed itself as "a monthly magazine for Yankees everywhere." It reported on lifestyles and lore from Maine to Connecticut.

Back then, or so the story goes, the magazine had 612 subscriptions "and 600 were bought by a subscription agency, and they were bogus," says Jamie Trowbridge, president of the Yankee Publishing Co. and the grandson of its founder.

Today, when most magazines are owned by media conglomerates, Yankee remains a family-run business. The magazine has about 600,000 subscribers, half of whom live outside the region. That's at a time when 50 percent of national magazines fail in their first year.

In its early years, the magazine offered readers insights into the typical American college girl, the answer to, "What Shall the Well Dressed Man Wear in a Hurricane?" and "Why Not Community Forests?"

It identified the New England town with the country's only foreign water supply - Calais, Maine - and pondered whether the region could halt the spread of the spruce sawfly. Yankee standards included a Lost and Found, the weather and items for barter, "swops" in Yankee parlance. Swoppers still hawk their wares in the magazine, and travelers' tips tell of fall foliage and home-spun remedies for prying a rust-sealed lid from an old milk can. Glossy photographs have replaced the original art covers, drawn by the founder's wife, Beatrix T. Sagendorph. The Internet edition offers a repository for Yankee recipes, be they Aunt Gussie's Filbert Balls or a cranapple frappe. Yankee's reportage may be confined by geography, but those borders set it apart.

"A regional magazine that is multistate is relatively rare," says Jim Dowden, executive director of the City and Regional Magazine Association. "I haven't heard of a new multistate regional magazine start-up in some time."

What Dowden has seen are magazines that focus on a region within a state: Western Michigan Magazine, Arizona Foothills Magazine, Central Pennsylvania magazine.

"They have defined a territory and taken a name of that territory. Whether they will survive with that name is another story," he says. "There's no question Yankee has a format that has worked for a number of years."

In an industry that sells sex, diets and celebrities, Yankee resembles the story-telling magazines of another era. It has featured a Connecticut Yankee's eel-skinning talents and the man who made snow and life on Little Cranberry Island in Maine.

"We don't do the celebrity map of New England, and that has been proposed," says Trowbridge.

"We don't do the sex scandals," adds Jim Collins, a native of New Hampshire and the first nonfamily member to serve as the magazine's editor.

But that didn't keep Yankee from featuring a photograph of a bodacious, bare-midriff pool player in a story on Hampton Beach, N.H.

Readers complained. But Trowbridge says the photograph reflected the story's narrative: a coming-of-age summer at the beach, a time of experimentation.

The October cover story invoked the region's most celebrated horror writer: "Stephen King's Maine, The real-life places that inspired the horror!" It reflects a new take on an old theme.

"One of the things people everywhere associate with New England is ghost stories," says Trowbridge, 40. "We don't think it's an accident that Stephen King lives in New England. We think there's a real heritage."

Many Yankee readers favor a nostalgic, postcard view of the region - and the magazine caters to them. But Trowbridge says the magazine has changed with the times and presented the real face of New England in features and investigative pieces.

"If we didn't change Yankee, we'd be dead," he says. "What hasn't changed is our commitment to the region, our commitment to the values of the region."

Texas Monthly, an award-winning magazine based in Austin, began in 1972. In its early days, its editors made sure to include a piece from Dallas, a feature from Houston, a story from San Antonio. But over time, that thinking changed.

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