What ‘Modern Farmer’s’ Tenuous Situation Means For the Future of Print

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In this week’s New Yorker, writer Alec Wilkinson profiles Ann Marie Gardner, the founder and editor of Modern Farmer. By its third issue, the two-year-old print magazine won a prestigious National Magazine Award for its “Magazine Section,” which “Honors front- or back-of-the-book departments or sections regularly published in print.” No other magazine has been honored as quickly.

Modern Farmer is a striking, handsome magazine that sticks out on the newsstand. Published quarterly, with 16,000 subscribers and 100,000 issues, it costs $7.99, and it is sold in bookstores, newsstands, groceries, feedlots, and tractor-supply stores. Each issue has a beautifully lit animal on the cover. The contents inside range from columns like “Meet the Modern Farmer” (which features good-looking, hard-working farmers in duck boots photographed in fading morning light), along with in-depth articles on wild pigs, growing mangoes in Africa, and injuries on farms. There’s fashion featuring a lot of work-wear from Pendleton and Filson.

Invariably, there’s an article on some photogenic person from Manhattan who has chosen the country life upstate, from motel owners to restauranteurs. It is a magazine that is very particular, an “international life-style brand.” According to Gardner, it targets “RURBANISTAS” with one foot in the city and one foot in the country. It’s not the easiest magazine to pitch, considering its breath and quirk of coverage.

It is also precipitously close to closing. This is, of course, a notoriously bad time for the pursuit of a print magazine. There are signs all around that print publications, from magazines to newspapers, aren’t making the money that they’re used to — in the past month, McSweeney’s made the announcement that it was becoming a nonprofit publishing house, with its magazine, The Believer, changing to a bi-monthly schedule. That seems like a way to side-step the pressure to make money, for a company that isn’t run by one moneyed oligarch.

Because these days, most media is getting bailed out by the 1%. Most of our major newspapers — bailed out by the likes of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (The Washington Post), Mexico’s Carlos Slim Heliu (The New York Times), the Boston Red Sox’s John Henry (The Boston Globe) —— are reporting losses, with the New York Times reporting a $9 million dollar loss this quarter, made worse by the expenses of buyouts, with print revenues continuing to fall. The New York Magazine feature on online start-up First Look Media, funded by eBay executive Pierre Omidyar, suggests that the venture looks dead on arrival, even if it may end up being a media outlet that pokes the lions with its splashy hires like Glen Greenwald and (formerly) Matt Taibbi.

Even former Times editor Jill Abramson, whose new start-up was announced with splashy aplomb this week, is creating something that seems to be potentially tenuous. It’s a subscription start-up, piloted with journalist Steven Brill, that will offer writers $100,000 for “a perfect whale of a story,” that will result in compelling, once-a-month longform. It sounds like a pie-in-the-sky fantasy.

At Modern Farmer, Gardner is also dependent on the kindness of an investor — in this case, Frank Giustra, a friend of Bill Clinton who made his money in mining investments. His initial outlay (generally rumored at $2m to $3m) bought him a majority stake in the company, which simply isn’t profitable yet.

Where the agreement gets dicey is that Giustra wants his money recouped, and Gardner, so far, has succeeded in establishing Modern Farmer as a brand, a lifestyle, and a charming web presence (goat cam!), but not an actual money-making company. There’s been complete staff turnover in the past three months — staff that came to the small town of Hudson, New York (let’s just say the company didn’t add jobs locally in an economically depressed area) from previous jobs in San Francisco and Boston are now back in major cities, in jobs at places like Fast Company, The Atlantic, and Cook’s Illustrated. At one point the summer 2014 issue was seen as the likely final issue.

They were bailed out at the last minute from Giustra, and the New Yorker‘s story ends with Gardner telling her staff that Modern Farmer was secure for the near future at a staffer’s going-away party. Yet that security looks to be short-lived: “When I asked her how I should describe the future of the magazine,” writes the New Yorker‘s correspondent, “[Gardner] said she wanted to speak to her lawyer. Then she sent me this sentence: ‘The relationship between the company and the primary investor remains tense and the company is still looking for long-term financing.'”

There’s something beautiful about Modern Farmer. It’s a handsome, gorgeous magazine that is a pleasure to read, and it makes perfect sense that an editor so familiar with lifestyle (with experience at Monocle, the ultimate useless/gorgeous magazine) can create something that’s very satisfying. But the very existence of Modern Farmer, at the whims of one man with success in mining, seems like a ’90s dream of a magazine that captures the zeitgeist, and in doing so, has its moment in the sun and then fades away. I don’t know if it can exist in a day-and-age where people want their money and investments to bear fruit; and I wonder whether that divide is applicable to the weird, idiosyncratic, and pleasurable print media throughout the industry.

The idealism and passion driving Gardner’s project is something to watch. She’s a helluva promoter, and I daresay I’ve read more articles about her and what she’s doing than I’ve actually read articles in Modern Farmer. At the end of the day, that may be the heart of the problem between art and commerce in this project, and why I wonder whether Modern Farmer will last for any amount of time. Perhaps that’s the difference between creating a brand and creating a publication.