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Country Living Magazine: Taking The Mission Of “Country Coast-To-Coast” To The High Seas – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Rachel Barrett, Editor In Chief, Country Living Magazine…

February 27, 2017

cl-july-august-2016-cover-unit“I think Country Living is in a unique space because our readers tell us that we’re a breath of fresh air delivered to their mailbox every month. And so we are a brand that represents slowing down, life doesn’t have to be that hard; so the idea of this magazine arriving in their mailbox is that moment on the porch for them.” Rachel Barrett

“Country Living in print is very important because it’s this tactile experience that represents relaxation, but then they also consume our brand through digital, video; who doesn’t love an adorable puppy photo? It’s interesting as an editor to see what resonates online, and it may not necessarily resonate in the magazine, because the magazine experience is slightly different. But I do think it’s really promising to see how our readers have a hunger for the brand through all of these different channels. And hopefully that continues.” Rachel Barrett

For the first time ever, Country Living magazine will set sail for the brand’s “Country Coast-to-Coast Cruise,” leaving from Fort Lauderdale March 12-19, 2017 aboard the luxurious Holland America Nieuw Amsterdam. The Country Living Coast-to-Coast Cruise will bring the magazine’s content to life over the seven day voyage and give cruisers a chance to meet Country Living editors, contributors, and special guests including the Junk Gypsies, Amie and Jolie Sikes. Passengers will also have the opportunity to participate in a number of interactive classes and demos in between stops in Turks and Caicos, the Bahamas, St. Maarten, and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Rachel Barrett is editor in chief of Country Living and has used the authenticity of the magazine’s relatively new home in Birmingham, Ala. to bring a subtle trueness and real vision to the magazine. From the first-ever guest editor, country music superstar, Miranda Lambert, two years ago, to today’s mission of taking “Country Coast-to-Coast,” Rachel’s passion for the brand and her team player spirit is what adds to the genuineness of the brand.

screen-shot-2017-02-26-at-5-50-34-pmI spoke with Rachel recently and we talked about where Country Living has been since its move to Birmingham, where it is today, and where it’s heading. The upcoming Coast-to-Coast Cruise is the type of event that does what Rachel and her team like, it gets them up close and personal with their readers. And that’s what’s most important to them.

The cruise will include bonafide junkers, Texas businesswomen, and all-around southern girls, the Junk Gypsies, Amie and Jolie Sikes, who will share their addiction to flea marketing and Americana-inspired design on the cruise through demonstrations, DIY projects, and Q&A sessions. There will also be a special “Junk Gypsy Prom”—a chance to dance the night away on the high seas in “junk fashion.” It sounds like a Country Living good time. And who would want to miss that?

So, join me for a conversation with a woman who is passionate, fun, and an absolutely firm believer in the attributes and benefits of “Country Living,” Rachel Barrett, editor in chief, Country Living magazine.

But first the soundbites:

CLX090116_006On what it’s been like since Country Living moved from New York City to Birmingham: Since we’ve been in Birmingham, just last year we ended the year three percent up on newsstand, which as you know these days is no small feat; the industry average is down 16 percent. And we did this all while raising our cover price from $4.50 to $4.99, so hopefully, everyone can see that it’s working.

On the most difficult challenge that she had to overcome since moving to Birmingham: What was really unique in that particular move was that we started from scratch, so everyone was new to their role. Usually with a magazine, even when you walk in as a new editor, there’s a staff in place and you can sort of recognize people’s strengths. Here, we were all getting to know each other; we didn’t know each other’s personalities; we didn’t have an existing workflow, so it was definitely a bonding experience. I felt like we all went through cowboy boot camp together. (Laughs)

On whether she believes her audience can detect the magazine’s change in venue, from New York to Birmingham: I don’t know that they’ve noticed a change. Even when I talk to readers at fairs, we have a fair in Atlanta, and so I’ll mention that this is a great fair, and they’ll ask why, and I’ll say because we were able to drive here. Then they’ll ask; where are you? So, I think there’s not necessarily this awareness with our entire audience that we’re a Birmingham-based magazine, and we didn’t want to change dramatically, to be honest, because it was a healthy brand when we inherited it, so we weren’t looking to make crazy changes.

On whether they aren’t doing anymore guest editors from the world of country music, such as their issue almost two years ago that had Miranda Lambert as the guest editor: Our readers do come to us for houses, and so the country music issue was so much fun internally and there’s so much momentum around country music, and our audience definitely aligns with a lot of that audience. So, we’re definitely not “not” going there, but as we were looking at issue themes for 2017, we did Miranda Lambert as our first guest editor and then Sheryl Crow graced the cover last June, and it did fine on newsstand; it wasn’t knocking out of the park, but obviously, celebrity shoots come with a lot more logistics too. So now, I think our approach is that we definitely want to check out country music artists and celebrate that lifestyle in the magazine, but we’ve shifted this year. Instead of June being a country music issue, we’re doing our Country from Coast-to-Coast theme that we did last July/August.

On how she can utilize the magazine to reflect the audience from Coast-to-Coast: I lived in New York for more than a decade and you can find yourself living in a bubble from time to time. And so I do think really celebrating just the reader all over the country is important. And I think that’s what people really like about Country Living is that these aren’t all designer projects; these are real people who have decorated their homes themselves, so we use the term “aspirational brand” a lot; we’re an aspirational brand for a mass audience. And I think that’s what’s great about the homes that we feature; they feel real enough and achievable for the average person. But they’re still elevated and beautiful.

cl-july-august-2016-sub-coverOn the brand’s first-ever Coast-to-Coast Cruise: We’ve teamed up with Life Journeys and Holland America Cruise ships to offer this cruise experience, where our Country Living readers can vacation alongside likeminded design enthusiasts, while getting hands-on experience, whether it’s making a DIY beach hat with our crafts director, or getting one-on-one style consultations with our style director. And so, I will be first in line. (Laughs)

On what role she thinks print plays in today’s magazine media landscape: Country Living is a really interesting brand because we are really diversified. When you look at the new magazine 360 numbers, Country Living is at, I think, 25+million now and print factors into that, digital; our social audiences are huge, Facebook has surpassed four million; our Instagram audience has just hit one million, and so I think our readers come to us from a lot of different directions. And I think Country Living is in a unique space because our readers tell us that we’re a breath of fresh air delivered to their mailbox every month. And so we are a brand that represents slowing down, life doesn’t have to be that hard; so the idea of this magazine arriving in their mailbox is that moment on the porch for them.

On whether it’s all been fun and a walk in a Rose Garden for her at Country Living or have there been some thorns along the way: I really do have that much fun and I am so passionate about this brand. I was a reader for a long time before I had this job, and I’m biased, but I think it’s the most fun magazine to produce. Our readers are so fun and so engaged, it’s such a positive vibe set when they’re coming to this magazine. It’s a really fun brand to produce.

On what she considers her biggest competition in the marketplace today: In the country category, there’s obviously Magnolia Journal that recently launched, and it’s a beautiful magazine and our readers definitely overlap, in terms of being a fixer-upper audience too. But we love what Chip and Joanna have been doing, they seem like great people, and have a really great aesthetic. It’s a little bit different from the Country Living aesthetic, but I would say that they’re emerging as a competitor, and then anything that falls into that shelter or lifestyle space. But the beautiful thing about the country is that there’s plenty of room for everyone.

On what someone would find her doing if they showed up unexpectedly to her home one evening: Probably having a glass of wine as I’m playing with my kids, and right now as we’re preparing this Country from Coast-to-Coast issue, we’re looking for reader spaces in every single state, so I’m probably obsessively searching Instagram, doing late-night deep dives searching hashtags such as #IdahoFarmhouse or #NorthDakotaDesigns… (Laughs), trying to find some hidden gems for that issue.

On anything else she’d like to add: I can’t say enough good things about our staff. We all work so well together, I think, because of that boot camp experience we had a few years ago. I’m constantly inspired by them. Right now we have 16 people on staff, so everyone pitches in and helps in different categories. Our copy chief does our cross-stitch that opens so well every single month, and our design director may produce crafts, so everybody really does pitch in and always in beautiful ways. It’s a small group in an old biscuit factory in downtown Birmingham, so it really is a fun place to work, so I have to sing their praises.

On what keeps her up at night: My oldest child just turned four and my youngest turns three this April, and even last night there were the calls for a sip of water or to cover them up again with their blanket, but they probably make me more productive at work, because after I wake up in the middle of the night for them, I end up on my phone. Who knows what sort of wonderful gem I might uncover; a great house that’s potentially a fit for the magazine?

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Rachel Barrett, editor in chief, Country Living magazine.

Samir Husni: Give me an update on Country Living magazine after leaving New York City and moving to Birmingham.

Rachel Barrett: It’s been great. It’s such a unique experience to be able to be a magazine editor and not live in New York City, but I think for a brand like Country Living, it makes a ton of sense. The experience for our editors is really interesting as we’re talking about recipes. We’re aware that the grocery store down the street may not carry certain ingredients, but I think we’re a lot more in tune with the non-New Yorker. And for a brand like Country Living, obviously that’s a great thing.

And since we’ve been in Birmingham, just last year we ended the year three percent up on newsstand, which as you know these days is no small feat; the industry average is down 16 percent. And we did this all while raising our cover price from $4.50 to $4.99, so hopefully, everyone can see that it’s working.

Samir Husni: The newsstand is always the acid test for any magazine, so being up on newsstand is, like you said, is a great thing by itself.

Rachel Barrett: Yes, and I think Erynn Hassinger, our design director, has been in the fold for a little over a year now and I think she has a great sense of our reader. I’ve also gotten to know our reader much better and I do think that we’re benefiting as a brand. There’s this national move toward embracing a country lifestyle, an increasing hunger for this laidback life.

I’ll also say with our sales calls, the peach truck is the new banana stand. What I mean by that is it used to be that people would fantasize about quitting their jobs and someday moving to the beach to sell bananas, and that was their ultimate dream. But now there’s this whole set of younger consumers who really dream about picking up and moving to the country and selling peaches from their vintage pickup truck. There’s this desire to have that great country farmhouse, and have two dogs running all those wide open spaces, so hopefully we’re doing something right internally, but I think that there’s this national movement and momentum for the country lifestyle that is only helping our brand.

Samir Husni: As you move forward, can you recall the most difficult challenge that you had to overcome since moving to Birmingham?

cl-july-august-2016-cover-unitRachel Barrett: What was really unique in that particular move was that we started from scratch, so everyone was new to their role. Usually with a magazine, even when you walk in as a new editor, there’s a staff in place and you can sort of recognize people’s strengths. Here, we were all getting to know each other; we didn’t know each other’s personalities; we didn’t have an existing workflow, so it was definitely a bonding experience. I felt like we all went through cowboy boot camp together. (Laughs)

Now, being on the other side of it, it was great for the staff. We’re a very close knit staff; a very small group. I can’t say that there weren’t hiccups along the way. Even as we were staffing up, people would ask; what’s the job description? And I’d ask; what can you do? We weren’t filling this one particular void; we were filling this giant void. We had a student crafts director, for example, because I met Charlyne Mattox, who had worked at Real Simple and she could do crafts and she could do food, so we created a job around her skillset. It was a unique opportunity, but it came with plenty of challenges. But now, three years down the road, I think it’s been really beneficial for the whole staff.

Samir Husni: As you put your finger on the pulse of your audience, do you think they noticed your change in venue? Do you think they could see a difference from when you were based in New York to now, being in Birmingham?

CLX090116_006Rachel Barrett: I don’t know that they’ve noticed a change. Even when I talk to readers at fairs, we have a fair in Atlanta, and so I’ll mention that this is a great fair, and they’ll ask why, and I’ll say because we were able to drive here. Then they’ll ask; where are you? So, I think there’s not necessarily this awareness with our entire audience that we’re a Birmingham-based magazine, and we didn’t want to change dramatically, to be honest, because it was a healthy brand when we inherited it, so we weren’t looking to make crazy changes.

But I think there’s this subtlety of being a little bit more in our reader’s world, so even our offices here in Birmingham are in walking distance of a garden shop or an antique shop, so there’s this sort of natural reader experience that our editor’s get a chance to experience day to day, so hopefully it’s a subtle feel in the magazine.

Samir Husni: When we talked last time, which was almost two years ago, you had your first guest editor, Miranda Lambert; have you decided not to do that anymore?

Rachel Barrett: You know what’s funny, our readers do come to us for houses, and so the country music issue was so much fun internally and there’s so much momentum around country music, and our audience definitely aligns with a lot of that audience. So, we’re definitely not “not” going there, but as we were looking at issue themes for 2017, we did Miranda Lambert as our first guest editor and then Sheryl Crow graced the cover last June, and it did fine on newsstand; it wasn’t knocking out of the park, but obviously, celebrity shoots come with a lot more logistics too.

So now, I think our approach is that we definitely want to check out country music artists and celebrate that lifestyle in the magazine, but we’ve shifted this year. Instead of June being a country music issue, we’re doing our Country from Coast-to-Coast theme that we did last July/August. It was our big reader issue and we received so much great feedback from that particular issue. The theme was essentially 50 states, one state of mind, Country from Coast-to-Coast. And it was celebrating how mainstream county style and country culture had become, and we featured a reader space from all 50 states, which was no small feat for our homes department.

A lot of readers wrote in, and this was just July/August; a lot of readers wrote in to say that it was so refreshing to see America being celebrated at a time when the country felt so divided. And I think the country still feels a little divided, so we’re revisiting that theme this June and it’s really great, especially for readers. We feature plenty of houses in upstate New York, or we feature a lot of houses in California; we feature a lot of houses that are obviously close geographically because they’re more in our radar, but it’s so nice for our reader in Idaho, North Dakota and Delaware to see spaces in the magazine, but now if Carrie Underwood wants to submit her house for that issue, great. (Laughs)

Samir Husni: (Laughs too).

Rachel Barrett: She can represent Tennessee. I think we’ve put the focus back on the reader, which doesn’t mean to say that we’re stepping away from the country world. I had an exchange with someone from the CMA organization in Nashville just the other day, talking about how we could collaborate down the road, but in terms of a dedicated issue theme, we’re going back to celebrating the reader as our celebrity.

Samir Husni: As you continue to make the magazine a reflector of the entire country, how do you think you can utilize the magazine to reflect the audience from “Coast-to-Coast?”

screen-shot-2017-02-26-at-5-50-34-pmRachel Barrett: I lived in New York for more than a decade and you can find yourself living in a bubble from time to time. And so I do think really celebrating just the reader all over the country is important. And I think that’s what people really like about Country Living is that these aren’t all designer projects; these are real people who have decorated their homes themselves, so we use the term “aspirational brand” a lot; we’re an aspirational brand for a mass audience. And I think that’s what’s great about the homes that we feature; they feel real enough and achievable for the average person. But they’re still elevated and beautiful.

So, just making sure that we’re digging across the country and not just automatically looking at the projects that fall into our laps; if we haven’t featured a home in the Midwest in a while, we want to be sure that we’re showcasing how people live in the Midwest. If we haven’t showcased a home in California, we’ll make sure that we’re Coast-to-Coast digging. In any given issue of Country Living, I think you’ll notice the homes in the feature well are very geographically distinct, and that’s what’s so great about the brand.

Samir Husni: To continue that intimate relationship with your audience, you’re setting sail for the brand’s first ever Coast-to-Coast Cruise. Are you going on the cruise with your readers?

Rachel Barrett: I know when you hear the words Country Living, Caribbean Cruise doesn’t automatically come to mind, but we started researching the experiential cruise category and it seemed like there was a fit. Our readers are very much a community; we see them bonding while standing in line for the Country Living fairs. By the end of the day they’re grabbing drinks together, and we thought it would be fun to offer this once-in-a-lifetime vacation experience.

So, we’ve teamed up with Life Journeys and Holland America Cruise ships to offer this cruise experience, where our Country Living readers can vacation alongside likeminded design enthusiasts, while getting hands-on experience, whether it’s making a DIY beach hat with our crafts director, or getting one-on-one style consultations with our style director. And so, I will be first in line. (Laughs)

We’re really excited; it will be a really fun experiment, we’ve never done this before. I’ve been reading about other brands like Master Chef and The Biggest Loser doing these cruises and there is such an appetite for it. Even the Property Brothers from HGTV recently did a cruise, so we thought we’d dip our toes into those waters and see how readers react. What’s really fun is that this July/August we’re doing our first-ever water issue and so we will be able to recap the cruise in a natural way.

Samir Husni: Linda Thomas Brooks from the MPA said that 2017 was going to be the year for magazine media. Hearst is launching two new magazines in June; nobody is speaking the phrase “print is dead” or “print versus digital” anymore. What role do you think print plays today versus pre-digital days; pre-2007?

Rachel Barrett: Country Living is a really interesting brand because we are really diversified. When you look at the new magazine 360 numbers, Country Living is at, I think, 25+million now and print factors into that, digital; our social audiences are huge, Facebook has surpassed four million; our Instagram audience has just hit one million, and so I think our readers come to us from a lot of different directions. And I think Country Living is in a unique space because our readers tell us that we’re a breath of fresh air delivered to their mailbox every month. And so we are a brand that represents slowing down, life doesn’t have to be that hard; so the idea of this magazine arriving in their mailbox is that moment on the porch for them.

Country Living in print is very important because it’s this tactile experience that represents relaxation, but then they also consume our brand through digital, video; who doesn’t love an adorable puppy photo? It’s interesting as an editor to see what resonates online, and it may not necessarily resonate in the magazine, because the magazine experience is slightly different. But I do think it’s really promising to see how our readers have a hunger for the brand through all of these different channels. And hopefully that continues.

Samir Husni: You sound as though you’ve been walking in a Rose Garden at Country Living these days, are you really having that much fun, or have there been some thorns here and there along the way?

Rachel Barrett: I really do have that much fun and I am so passionate about this brand. I was a reader for a long time before I had this job, and I’m biased, but I think it’s the most fun magazine to produce. Our readers are so fun and so engaged, it’s such a positive vibe set when they’re coming to this magazine. It’s a really fun brand to produce.

Samir Husni: Looking at the marketplace, what do you consider to be your biggest competition today?

Rachel Barrett: Any magazine that touches on shelter or lifestyle I consider a competitor. I’m a naturally competitive person, so even magazines that probably don’t even fall into our competitive set, if they have a great cover; I get jealous when I’m staring at the newsstand. (Laughs)

But in the country category, there’s obviously Magnolia Journal that recently launched, and it’s a beautiful magazine and our readers definitely overlap, in terms of being a fixer-upper audience too. But we love what Chip and Joanna have been doing, they seem like great people, and have a really great aesthetic. It’s a little bit different from the Country Living aesthetic, but I would say that they’re emerging as a competitor, and then anything that falls into that shelter or lifestyle space. But the beautiful thing about the country is that there’s plenty of room for everyone.

Samir Husni: If I showed up unexpectedly to your home one evening, what would I find you doing; having a glass of wine and reading a magazine; cooking; playing with the kids, or something else?

Rachel Barrett: Probably having a glass of wine as I’m playing with my kids, and right now as we’re preparing this Country from Coast-to-Coast issue, we’re looking for reader spaces in every single state, so I’m probably obsessively searching Instagram, doing late-night deep dives searching hashtags such as #IdahoFarmhouse or #NorthDakotaDesigns… (Laughs), trying to find some hidden gems for that issue.

Samir Husni: Are you going to visit all of these places?

cl-july-august-2016-sub-coverRachel Barrett: I wish we could. Someday maybe we’ll have the budget to go and knock on every single reader’s door. (Laughs) It’s really great in this day and age of social media; it’s fun to be able to search the Country Living hashtag a little too obsessively, but it’s so great to see how readers are experiencing the magazine. What are they doing that provokes them to tag a Country Living mag? Whether it’s a beautiful view of the countryside or they’re showcasing the magazine style beautifully on their dinner table. What represents Country Living magazine to them? But yes, someday I would love to be able to go and knock on everyone’s door.

Samir Husni: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Rachel Barrett: I can’t say enough good things about our staff. We all work so well together, I think, because of that boot camp experience we had a few years ago. I’m constantly inspired by them. Right now we have 16 people on staff, so everyone pitches in and helps in different categories. Our copy chief does our cross-stitch that opens so well every single month, and our design director may produce crafts, so everybody really does pitch in and always in beautiful ways. It’s a small group in an old biscuit factory in downtown Birmingham, so it really is a fun place to work, so I have to sing their praises.

And also working for Hearst is great. We were a little bit of an experiment, in terms of being a satellite office. Hearst has just done a really great job of making us feel in the fold. I obviously get back to New York fairly often, but our staff doesn’t necessarily, and they’re also very happy to be working for this company. We all feel taken care of and that’s very nice.

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

Rachel Barrett: My oldest child just turned four and my youngest turns three this April, and even last night there were the calls for a sip of water or to cover them up again with their blanket, but they probably make me more productive at work, because after I wake up in the middle of the night for them, I end up on my phone. Who knows what sort of wonderful gem I might uncover; a great house that’s potentially a fit for the magazine?

My assistant, Natalie, laughs because I’ll send her leads when I see them online at 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. She’ll always ask, those kids weren’t sleeping last night, were they? (Laughs)

Samir Husni: Thank you.

_________________________________________________________________________________
act7Magazines Matter. Print Matters. That is the theme for the Magazine Innovation Center’s ACT (Amplify, Clarify, Testify) 7 Experience that will take place April 25 to 27. Space is limited, so check the agenda and register to join us for an experience of a life-time.

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