Vermont Life Magazine Wins a Reprieve and Charts a New Course

by Mike Dunphy

Few people move to Vermont for a career. Most move to Vermont for Vermont, and it only takes a single glance at the cover of Vermont Life magazine to remember why. Since it was launched in 1946, the magazine has captured and distilled the essence of what makes our little state so special in both stunning photography and high-quality journalism—all with the goal of bringing Vermont to the world and the world to Vermont.

And for a long time, it was very successful at this.

However, recent times have been far less rosy. The near total collapse of the publishing industry in the mid-2000s hit the magazine just as hard as so many others. “When publishers started experiencing downturns in the publishing sector 10 years ago, with the rise of advertising spending in digital media, rather than print media,” explains Steven Cook, deputy commissioner of the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing, “Vermont Life also experienced a downturn in business, both at the level of subscribers and in advertising.”

Essentially that hobbled two legs of the “three-legged stool” that formed the core financial structure of the magazine (the third being Vermont Life products), and the magazine began to run in the red at a rate of about $200,000 per year until reaching a total debt of about $3.2 million by January 2018. The added weight on the state coffers did not go unnoticed, leading some in the government to question whether it was time to slay the fatted Holstein. As Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, told VTDigger in May 2016, “I’m worried we are clinging to a vehicle of the past. When national magazines can’t make a go of it, you have to wonder if it’s really worth the subsidy that’s required to keep it afloat.”

It’s a sentiment also shared by Governor Phil Scott publicly. “…It’s time to change,” Scott said in June 2017,  “We’re going to have to move on to something else. We hope to keep Vermont Life going in some capacity, but we’re going to have to work together in trying to determine what the 21st century brings for Vermont Life.”

A major change was also signaled by the departure of editor-in-chief Mary Hegarty Nowlan, who stepped down in mid-2017 after ten years at the helm. She had led a serious effort to update the publication and the image of Vermont to attract a younger set of readers, ideally those who would consider bringing their skills and energy to the state—a mantra repeated by just about every state agency and official, including the governor in his 2018 State of the State Address: “We also must do more to reach workers—specifically younger workers and entrepreneurs—who currently live elsewhere, but would like to live and raise their family in the safest and healthiest state in the country.”

In September 2017, a request for proposals was sent out, with a variety of options on the table, including, according to the document, “purchasing, partnering, entering into a licensing agreement, or otherwise working with the State of Vermont to maximize the State benefit of Vermont Life magazine, both financially and as a vehicle to promote Vermont to current and future residents and visitors. Preference will be given to bidders that maintain current Vermont Life staff and operations in Vermont.”

Nine “very thoughtful” bids were received from publishers such as Yankee Publishing, Lighthouse Media, and Vermont Business Magazine revealed Cook,  “all of which had great creative ideas, proposed alternatives for the way it was operated, and all proposed an option to take Vermont Life off of the state’s hands in a different way.” However, all contained a serious flaw. None of the bids would take on the debt, so essentially the state would be relinquishing its oversight of the magazine but still be responsible for the debt, regardless of the new publisher’s performance. “If we are going to be responsible for the profit and loss of this enterprise,” Cook explains, “we really need to have direct oversight of that. We can’t give that up.” As a result, the state reversed course and decided to retain Vermont Life.

The question then became how to get the magazine into the black. This led to a number of “efficiencies” in the operation. Most significantly, a new editor in chief and publisher will not be hired, moving those duties to existing staff members. Any concern of the ship operating without a captain was tamped down by Cook, who is confident the right people and skills are already in place. “Our commissioner Wendy Knight has lots of publishing experience and is a big part of the long-term planning, goal setting,  and strategy for Vermont Life along with myself and the team. We are working very collaboratively among the experienced team who have been doing this for a long time.”  We certainly hope Cook is right, but it nonetheless raises the old joke, “What’s a camel? A horse designed by committee.”

Even if the new model works at optimal efficiency, Vermont Life faces a number of challenges, starting with the core tension between its quest for youthful readers and “aspiring Vermonters” and the existing subscriber base, whose average age is 55 and tends to prefer the classic version of Vermont (and Vermont Life), be it the covered bridge, tin sap bucket, or Holstein heifer.  Indeed, many of them were unhappy with the direction Nowlan took during her tenure. As one former subscriber, Bob Arthur, 58, told Vermont Public Radio in June 2017, “It was more about the food culture, the artisan beer, which is fine, I like all that, but it got away from the essence of what I read the articles about, which was almost a history of Vermont. But a perspective that I think a lot of us have—an older generation of Vermont—that wasn’t there anymore.”

Adding to the tension is the fact that although a younger audience might be desired, few of them have the funds to support the magazine, at least compared with the traditional crowd. Indeed, in the current subscriber base, 50 percent have incomes of $100,000 and 24 percent of those top $150,000. So ultimately, winning back someone like Arthur probably translates into more actual dollars for the magazine than wooing someone half his age. This reality must affect the content and design.

Cook acknowledges this tension but sees a way forward, believing there are ways to speak to both audiences. “I think it’s about speaking to them through different mediums, both in the digital space and print space, different content and different methods of communicating that story to different audiences. While they are one in the same in their love for Vermont, they are slightly different in what excites them about Vermont.”

In many ways, this split is similar to that between the traditional print and the digital publishing worlds, which by and large approach content production in different ways. Whereas old-school print journalism tends to focus primarily on the quality, relevance, and import of a story, digital platforms are concerned with raising online traffic, because there is a direct connection between clicks and revenue. This model aims for content with viral and shareable potential, particularly on social networks, which dictates content be easily digestible, bite-sized, and largely superficial, e.g., “A Moose Came to my Wedding and You’ll Never Guess What Happened Next,” and “10 Sexy Uses for Maple Butter.”

And based on the numbers, Vermont Life needs a significant amount of maple butter. At the moment, the Vermont Life website registers only 3,367 unique visitors a month, a tiny number compared with 57,547 a month at Vermont Business Magazine, or even the 66,250 weekly unique visitors claimed by Seven Days.  New Hampshire magazine gets 20,000 unique visitors a week. The number of “followers” on social networking looks a bit better—with Vermont Life registering about 22,000 followers on Facebook and 26,100 followers on Twitter—but it’s worth noting that a significant number of the latter appear to be bots or fake accounts.

Regardless of the challenges, Cook and the team project a lot of confidence in the future of Vermont Life. “We think that there’s a bright future for Vermont Life,” Vermont Commerce Secretary Michael Schirling told WCAX-TV in January, “whether it’s as a magazine in the near-term or long-term—just as a media asset going forward.” Cook agrees. “The next time you are on social media and Instagram, look up the hashtag #VermontLife, and what that brings to the front of your screen. The name, the brand, Vermont Life, is such an incredibly valuable asset to our state that saying goodbye to it or giving it away or selling it, we run the risk of losing an important part of that name.” 

Whatever the outcome, they can at least move forward knowing that all Vermonters—existing and aspiring—are rooting for Vermont Life to live.

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