Bitter Harvest for a Farm Magazine
Capital Cities kept the title of Michigan Farmer alive but fired the editor and eliminated the investigative reporting.
By Richard Lehnert
Richard Lehnert freelances and tends a flock of sheep at his home in DeWitt, Michigan.
I was making my way to the fridge to add a couple of ice cubes to the remains of my Scotch when the phone rang. It was Mike Pickett, my boss, calling me at 10:20 on a Monday night.
Our magazine had been sold, he said. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., our financially troubled parent, had sold Michigan Farmer and the 11 other magazines that comprised HBJ Farm Publications to Farm Progress, a subsidiary of Capital Cities/ABC Inc. Some staff members would be offered their jobs; I would not. Pickett, the president and publisher, was also out. So was our advertising manager, Paul Bundschu, with whom I had worked 23 of my 26 years at the magazine.
Who else would go? He couldn't say. But the next afternoon Advertising V.P. Austin Schnacke, in one of his final acts, would visit our Lansing offices. I would get a severance package. Tomorrow would be my last day.
I mumbled something about how hard this must be for Pickett and hung up. I went upstairs and woke my wife, Mary, who expressed disbelief. She offered to go with me to the office, but that room held more of the stuff that defined me than my home did. It was mine to do. I drove alone in the van to an all-night supermarket to gather banana boxes for the packing.
Bundschu was already there. We packed until 4 a.m., then went to an all-night coffee shop. It was a somber end to my quarter-century of service to a shrinking but appreciative audience.
Paul was the typical ad man and I the typical editor, and we had had fiery arguments over the years. Each of us was wary of the other. Actually, we were more typical of advertising and editorial staffers at newspapers than at trade publications. At trade magazines, editors are often industry shills and the publications conceived as advertising vehicles. Reader service is incidental, and the concept of a publication as an industry watchdog is, if not foreign, not religiously held. But Michigan Farmer made the reader its primary consideration, even though we depended on advertisers for most revenue.
Paul always knew that the most important thing about Michigan Farmer, the nation's third oldest farm magazine, was its dedication to readers. Since its founding in 1843, the magazine had been their advocate in some very tough confrontations with government regulators, farm organizations, agribusinesses, and Michigan State University and its increasingly non-farm-oriented administrators. Seventeen years earlier, editorial had lost Paul's biggest ad account by reporting on polybrominated biphenyl, an industrial chemical that contaminated livestock feed. A colleague and I shared the 1975 Detroit Press Club Foundation Award for outstanding reporting by a trade publication for our PBB coverage. Everybody still remembered PBB.
As our curtain fell, we were pushing a $64 million project to revitalize the livestock industry. Previously we skewered Michigan State University Provost David Scott for hiring a new Cooperative Extension Service director at the highest salary for the position in the nation. We pressured the state government to protect farmers better from lawsuits by their suburban neighbors and from high taxes on farmland. And we were backing a concept called "sustainable agriculture" in which farmers draw away from their intensive use of chemicals.
For me, Michigan Farmer was a delight. The staff commanded the attention of readers and, consequently, the state's leaders in agriculture and government. My column in the magazine often stood up for farmers' rights. But I also reminded farmers that life is more than growing crops, that the world environment is fragile, and that we need to examine and reexamine our values. I never liked cheerleading.
In a sense, our magazine's approach was anachronistic. We had reader loyalty – 51,500 subscribers in a state with 54,000 farms. But only 24,000 of those farms generated annual sales of more than $10,000. So we were spending a lot of money on paper, printing and postage to serve many readers who didn't farm big or were retired – and whom many advertisers didn't want to reach. We were popular, but we never learned to make money from that.
This was but one of the problems that landed us with Farm Progress. Paul and I knew Farm Progress would make changes. Sitting in the all-night restaurant that morning, we felt our brand of agricultural journalism was about to become extinct. Michigan Farmer would no longer be a magazine solely about farming in Michigan; there would be very few dedicated state farm magazines left after this buyout.
Instead, at least a third of Michigan Far-mer's content would come from other states, shifting from issues of concern to Michigan farmers interested in the agricultural leadership and infrastructure of the state to testimonials and recommendations about crops such as corn and soybeans common to many states. Farm Progress planned to mail the magazine free to many of the 25,000 farmers in Michigan who produce such crops. The remainder – small farmers and fruit, vegetable and other specialty farmers who have no interest in corn or soybeans – would not be served. Major advertisers would include national automotive, seed, and chemical companies that sell corn and soybean weed killers – advertisers wanting acres, not readers.
Most of the 16 other state magazines in Farm Progress's new empire would undergo similar changes. They would no longer report as much local news, investigate controversies or carry as many editorials or letters from readers. They would no longer cast an umbrella over a piece of geography and call it theirs. But they would sell ads.
Statistically Michigan isn't a great farm state. It's half water, half woods and sits on the north side of the Corn Belt. It's urbanized, suburbanized and industrialized. But it's also livelier than such quintessential farm states as Iowa, filled with tensions and issues and competing interests, an environment of tourists, hunters, fishermen, farmers and industry, and its agriculture just as diverse.
For many years, all state farm magazines, including the Farm Progress publications, shared a similar localized approach. In 1987, when Farm Progress largely abandoned that, its four magazines became rivals of ours instead of neighbors. It invaded our states with magazines competing for advertising dollars.
The 1970s had been bullish for farmers, who expanded in response to market signals and propaganda that said the world was getting hungry. The Soviets were buying, Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz was cheerleading and President Carter, like Joseph in Egypt, was preaching the need to produce and store for the lean years. But by 1982, it was evident that the big food market was not there. Agriculture entered a period of contraction in which farmers lost a third of their equity, faced low prices and a glut of grain in storage, and had huge debt and no credit. They were shorn of buying power.
With Michigan Farmer losing advertising, I pared my editorial budget in 1985 by not filling an open staff position and dropping several contributing editors. In 1987, I pared again, cutting my staff to a secretary and three people who wrote, edited, took photographs and did the layouts using desktop technology. Despite the hard times, our company seemed committed to survival. We even talked about buying Farm Progress.
During the 1980s, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich consolidated its four farm magazine groups under the umbrella of the newly created HBJ Farm Publications, which covered 11 states. The company made other incredible internal changes, among them the location of our corporate and production headquarters and our technology.
In 1987, British media baron Robert Maxwell offered to purchase the entire company, including the farm magazines. HBJ was led by William Jovanovich, a man who rose from the ranks to become, in 1954, chairman of the textbook publishing company Harcourt, Brace and World. A man of immense ego, he once declared New York City unfit for people to work and moved the entire company to Florida. Jovanovich responded to Maxwell's offer as if it were a personal affront.
Jovanovich fended off Maxwell, but at a high price. The poison pill Jovanovich and his financial advisers swallowed was debt. They gathered $3 billion from loans and the sale of junk bonds and gave an enormous dividend: $40 for each share of common stock, plus a new $12 share of preferred stock to stockholders, whose shares had previously been worth about $12 each. Those of us in the employee stock ownership plan shared the enthusiasm. For example, I would get the cash equivalent of my 3,000 shares in 10,000 new shares. After the dividend, they traded as high as $18. I had paper profits of more than $150,000.
Then came the plunge. The $3 billion could not be repaid. To raise cash, HBJ sold its 110 trade publications for $326 million. It jettisoned its entertainment division – Sea World, Cypress Gardens and Baseball & Boardwalk – for $1.1 billion. But the word was out: The company was an equityless shell, without cash or credit and still $2 billion in debt, and had trimmed funding for the critical textbook division. By the time I lost my job, my retirement fund was worth only $6,250.
A lot of us thought that HBJ Farm Publications was poorly run. We were not organized as part of the publishing division; after HBJ sold their trade publications, it moved us to the insurance division. But there's more logic here than meets the eye. Years ago, farm magazines had struck gold selling insurance to farmers, and HBJ had a farm-based insurance business long before it owned other insurance companies. Agents sold subscriptions and insurance door to door. In Michigan, they called themselves the "Michigan Farmer men," trading on the magazine's abundant goodwill. Michigan was No. 1 in the company's insurance sales, and many people in the insurance division had come up through Michigan.
The company announced our sale with an upbeat statement to its insurance agents. The sale not only brought Farm Progress a publishing empire but expanded Harcourt's insurance empire. That division retained rights to sell subscriptions to its 11 former state magazines and gained rights to sell subscriptions in four additional states, ensuring agents would continue to have a foot in the door as they tried to sell policies to farmers. I was axed by two insurance guys I know well. So much for friends in high places.
In the years HBJ was flailing about, Farm Progress responded differently to the same economic downturn. Farm Progress cut back on the writers who reported for all four of its magazines. Some local writers wrote simple one-source articles and took photos. There was no desktop publishing. Hard-hitting or complex stories were largely abandoned. In 1987, Farm Progress regionalized further. Indiana Prairie Farmer expanded into Michigan, Ohio and Kentucky. It added one writer for Michigan and Ohio and turned out editions for each of those states.
Michigan Prairie Far-mer was no rival editorially to Michigan Farmer, but that didn't matter. Prairie offered an ad rate of $900 a black and white page. Michigan Farmer charged $3,000. Prairie offered less than 17,000 subscribers (who got it free), but that was enough for advertisers selling corn and soybean herbicides. Michigan Farmer's agrichemical advertising dried up. In the end, Farm Progress, with its low-editorial-cost approach, won.
The last day in our office was awful. We were supposed to be putting out the June issue, but few could get any work done since most staff members were unsure of their future. My ransacked office did not inspire calm. I took to the computer to produce a résumé. The next day I'd be stripped of the marks of civilized life: fax machine, computer, copier, WATS line. Going back to a typewriter at home was to be, I found, as impossible as chopping cuneiform characters in wet clay. I would buy a computer within a month.
At 3:15 when Austin Schnacke, the advertising v.p., sauntered in, I asked him how he wanted to dole out the dread news. He said we should all pull up chairs in my office. He handed out envelopes. I knew what mine said, so I watched the others open theirs. Managing Editor David Weinstock, our controversial investigative reporter, was out. Our secretary and editorial assistant of 21 years, Jacki Sprague, was asked to stay to the end of the week to help with the transition. The only person left who could work the desktop publishing software, Jacki worked hard for three tear-stained days to finish the June issue. Associate Editor Eleanor Jacobs was kept on, and within a few months was moved to Ithaca, New York, to edit American Agriculturist. Connie DeMarco, the advertising secretary, also remained.
It was tacky. After a few questions, Schnacke went into Bundschu's office. They wasted no affection on each other. They spent a half hour in what remained of Paul's office, door closed. I half expected violence, but Schnacke was back in his rented car and on his way to the Detroit airport within 45 minutes of his arrival.
Like me, Paul liked his job. There was always one more ad call that could be made, just as every story could use one more edit. Our jobs and our lives were not well separated. The lesson for journalists, of course, is not that we should remain aloof from our jobs and thus be immune from pain. But journalists who work for non-journalistic organizations should be wary. In the end, an insurance company without periodical management skills did us in. In all, 13 editors and writers and six ad salesmen across the country and about 30 artists and other production people in Orlando were fired. I was one of them. Forty-eight years old, I had to sign off on the age discrimination portion to obtain my severance package; I never had a contract to work, but I got one to leave.
The takeover hurt contributing editors, too. Jay Richter, who runs a Washington news service used by many farm magazines, learned from a message on his answering machine that he was no longer needed for Michigan Farmer. His column had appeared in the magazine for 35 years.
The long association between Michigan Farmer and the Michigan State University Agricultural Economics Department also ended. Jim Hilker, an MSU economist who compiled a two-page market column every issue, felt as truncated from his world as I did from mine. The Michigan Farmer market column is now one page written by some guy in Iowa.
The Farm Progress victory gives it a foothold in 30 states, covering 70 percent of America's farms and farmers. It's now positioned to challenge Farm Journal, the nation's largest farm magazine, with a circulation of 800,000. Can the Journal continue its fine brand of journalism, including its investigative pieces? It has high costs with its many writers on staff or contract, but Editor Earl Ainsworth says he hopes to move in quickly to report on topics that state magazines have vacated.
"There's no way to provide the same quality in your product after you lose half your editors or reporters, and that's one reason many farm magazines aren't serving readers well," says Ainsworth, who has trimmed the Journal's art and manuscript budgets but hasn't laid off any staffers.
Ainsworth says many state editors are "just filling space" at a time when their magazines need to examine government policies that have disenfranchised rural farmers. He includes those who have added "warm and fuzzy" tales of rural America aimed at women "because they need to reach the person who writes the check." In farm families, that's often a wife.
Surely readers will see the difference between the old Michigan Farmer and the new. But in a world where readers don't pay the costs of publishing, they have no way to hold on to what they like. Many won't even be able to cancel subscriptions to the new Michigan Farmer, a threat the old version faced. They'll receive it free if they qualify and will have to go to a lot of trouble to stop it from coming.
Farm Progress is right: I wouldn't fit into their organization very well. But I'm not the only casualty. I wonder if the whole industry has changed so much that journalism also no longer has a place in it. l