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Yankee Magazine celebrates 80th year as a New England institution

Sunday News Correspondent

February 07. 2015 6:04PM

DUBLIN - Yankee Magazine has been telling stories about the people and places of New England for eight decades. And it's not just a magazine - it's a mission, according to those who have helped shape its past and future.

"Yankee's destiny is the expression and, perhaps indirectly, the preservation of our New England culture," said Editor-In-Chief Judson D. Hale Sr.

Hale is the nephew of Robb Sagendorph, who founded the magazine with his wife, Beatrix, in 1935. Robb was the writer; Beatrix the artist, creating iconic New England scenes for the covers.

"What he wanted to do was define, and contribute to, and help along the Yankee culture," Hale said during a recent interview in his office at Yankee's Dublin headquarters.

This year's milestone is cause to both look back and look ahead.

"Throughout the whole year, we'll be celebrating our 80th anniversary in different ways in the magazine," said Jamie Trowbridge, president and CEO of Yankee Publishing Inc.

Only the start

The January/February issue on newsstands now is just the beginning of that celebration.

One feature examines lodging properties in Northern New England that were opened in 1935. Another looks at the industrialization of the maple sugaring industry, focusing on the people, not the technology, Trowbridge said.

The Food Guide revisits franks and beans with recipes inspired from a Maine farm, and humorist Ken Sheldon offers a Yankee Zodiac (If you were born in January, you're a Moose; in February, Beans).

Wasn't part of the plan

Hale joined Yankee 57 years ago, not knowing it would become his life's work.

"I went to Dartmouth. Had to leave Dartmouth a couple months before graduation for a funny, jolly, little episode of throwing up on the dean," Hale said.

(He did eventually graduate, three years later. Asked about Dartmouth's recent announcement that it was banning hard liquor at campus events, Hale said, "I think it's a good idea.")

Hale joined the Army and when he returned home three years later, he was looking for work. His mother suggested he ask his uncle for a job.

He was still receiving an income from the Army, so he was able to accept the meager salary his uncle offered, Hale said.

After getting married and a honeymoon in Bermuda, he and his bride, Sally, landed in Dublin.

"I think that first morning, I made up reader letters," Hale recalled. "We didn't get very many, and Robb asked me to write some ... interesting ones."

"We don't do that anymore," Trowbridge chimed in.

Another first-day task was taking the office garbage to the dump. "I made a mental note to bring my .22 the next time so I could shoot rats," Hale said.

What he thought would be a temporary job turned into a lifelong career. "I absolutely loved it from practically day one. I was raised in a small town like this, and I felt like I was coming home....

"And eventually it became my life."

Over the years, Hale has held most jobs at the company - associate editor, art director, ad man. "We all did everything, everybody; there weren't that many people here," he said.

Hale's son, Judson D. Hale Jr., is vice-president of sales for Yankee Publishing.

Trowbridge, a grandson of Beatrix Sagendorph, took a more purposeful route into the family business.

As a teen, he worked at Yankee in the summers. He then spent five years in publishing in Seattle and Cambridge. He moved back when his wife was expecting their first child, and went to work in Yankee's production department.

Trowbridge says he never considered doing anything else. "I love my association with Yankee, and it's been a great privilege to work here."

Dublin's resident magazine

Yankee Publishing has always been in Dublin, growing out of the town's former Post Office building.

Four years after publishing the first Yankee Magazine, Sagendorph acquired The Old Farmer's Almanac. Started in 1792, it is the oldest continually published periodical in North America and will celebrate its 250th anniversary in two years.

Yankee has had its share of ups and downs over the years. In 2000, the magazine was at a financial crossroads. In the 1990s, national magazines cut their subscription prices so they could grow circulation and charge more for advertising, which hurt Yankee, a publication that traditionally earned more of its revenue from subscriptions and newstand sales than from advertising.

Hale credits Trowbridge with turning the company's fortunes around.

"Without him saying, 'I think we can save it,' it would have been sold or disbanded," Hale said. "Jamie came in and made some bold moves ... He hired wonderful people."

Innovation is key in the publishing industry right now, Trowbridge said.

"We've had some really good recent success with our websites - and - that are helping us," he said. "As aspects of our traditional business erode, we are replacing them with new and different things that we do." The magazine counts 400,000 to 500,000 unique visitors to its website each month.

The magazine's current size - 10 1/2 by 7 1/2 inches - seemed to be a new wrinkle to long-time readers when Yankee made that switch in 2007. But Yankee's decision to abandon its longtime digest format was actually a return to its roots as a full-size magazine.

"During World War II they made the paper smaller because of a paper ration," Trowbridge said.

After the war, Sagendorph decided he like the smaller format better and kept it.

"In 2007, we changed to the current size, and the outcry was enormous. 'How could you forget your roots?' And New Englanders don't like change," Trowbridge said. "What was really interesting is that we didn't even think to say this at the outset, but when we communicated to people in response to the outcry that we actually changed back to the original size of the magazine they said, 'Well why didn't you say so?' as if that would make it better."

Yankee was founded as a monthly, but began reducing its frequency in 2000, which it cut publication to 10 times a year. In 2007, it began publishing bimonthly. At it peak, the magazine had a circulation of 1 million.

"We thought that would be the kind of volume that would win us national advertising," Allen said. "We sold some national ads, but the model proved unsustainable, and we backed off on the promotion, which was terrifically expensive. Yankee's circulation dropped to 700,000, then to 500,000, and now to a little under 300,000. Yankee's subscription business is much more profitable at the current level."

In 2013, Yankee Publishing acquired McLean Communications in Manchester, which publishes New Hampshire Magazine, New Hampshire Business Review, Parenting New Hampshire and New Hampshire Home, as well as a variety of custom publications. With the acquisitions, the company employs 85 people, with 50 in Dublin and 35 in Manchester.

Telling stories

Hale continues to write the "House for Sale" column for his magazine. And for the past 10 years he has been recording podcasts for the Yankee website.

Yankee Magazine still strives to tell the stories that steadfast readers expect while remaining relevant to new readers, Hale said.

It's about being part of a region, not just observing it, he said: "Loving what you do. Loving what you're covering. Loving the subject matter. Loving the region in this particular case, absolutely loving it, being a part of it. ...

"And, of course, hiring the right people that will make you look good."

People like Yankee editor Mel Allen, who has been guiding the magazine for 35 years. "Mel came in with about 25 ideas and I wanted every one," Hale said.

While Hale comes from a long line of Yankees, he said you don't have to be from New England to understand and appreciate the culture. People move here from all over the country, joining their local historical societies and planning boards to help keep New England the way they envision it, he said.

"I think sometimes they have a better understanding of what New England is 'cause they've looked at it from the outside," he said.

One of the reasons Robb Sagendorph started his magazine was that he felt that Yankee culture was being threatened by the homogenization of American culture, Trowbridge said. Eight decades later, his legacy lives on.

"One of the things that we really celebrate here at Yankee, in the magazine, is the distinctive nature of Yankee culture - and we believe we deserve some credit for keeping it distinctive," he said.

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