The Southern Progress Corporation is a Birmingham-based publishing company. Originally known as the Progressive Farmer Company, it was renamed 14 years after the successful launch of its most popular regional lifestyle magazine, Southern Living, which reaches an estimated 15 million readers. The company has become one of the nation's largest lifestyle publishers, with specialized magazines, books, programs, and products that reach more than 50 million people around the world. The firm, now a subsidiary of Time Warner Inc., has offices throughout the United States, with a total workforce of about 1,100 nationally and 800 in Birmingham.
The origins of Southern Progress trace to 1886, with the Progressive Farmer, a weekly newsletter,founded by Civil War veteran Leonidas LaFayette Polk in North Carolina in 1886. The publication provided subscribers with recipes, news, and literary offerings and also advocated for reforms in state agricultural oversight and agricultural education. By the mid-1890s, the newsletter had evolved into a magazine and was adopted as the official publication of the National Farmer's Alliance and Industrial Union. The magazine went through a series of owners, all of whom maintained the focus on content that advocated for rural and farm communities. In 1911, the magazine moved its headquarters to Birmingham, Alabama, and the owners renamed the publishing company the Progressive Farmer Company. Over the ensuing decades, Progressive Farmer purchased several other magazines, folded them into Progressive Farmer, and developed five regional editions of the magazine. By 1930, after a merger with the Southern Ruralist, Progressive Farmer had more than one million subscribers and soon became the most popular and important farming periodical and lifestyle guide for rural families. By the early 1960s, The Progressive Farmer claimed the largest circulation of all southern farm publications, peaking at 1.4 million in 1962. In the postwar, industrialized United States, however, the number of family farms fell as people moved into urban and suburban areas, and subscriptions began to decline. The management of the Progressive Farmer Company began exploring options for expanding the business. Most important, they needed a product to help replace the shrinking readership of Progressive Farmer, which continues to be published.
Around 1964, publisher Emory Cunningham proposed an idea for an additional magazine that would focus on regional attractions, homes, gardens, and food. He envisioned content that would allow increasingly urban southerners to connect with their rural roots. At the time, many national magazines were failing; television was competing with the remaining publications for advertising dollars. As a result, initial inquiries in the advertising market in New York regarding the potential for Southern Living were met with little enthusiasm. But the new magazine, which launched in 1966, turned a profit in 18 months and boasted a readership of 250,000. Within two years, circulation had doubled. Rapid financial success was attributed to high subscription rates, high advertising rates, an affluent audience, and an underrepresented yet rapidly growing region.
One major hurdle faced by the Southern Living executives was overcoming the negative perceptions and cultural stereotypes presented in popular views of the South, particularly those arising from the civil rights protests taking place in Birmingham. The executives' goal was to counter these negative perceptions by creating a publication devoted to celebrating the region rather than portraying the South and southerners in a negative light, as many national magazines had been doing. Although for some, the magazine appeared to reinforce segregationist attitudes and perpetuate race and class division in the region, for the magazine's readership, however, progress meant economic prosperity rather than overcoming societal inequities.
In 1969, the company looked to expand its focus and began developing books based on cooking, crafts, gardening, and travel articles from their magazines. The following year, Progressive Farmer formally established Oxmoor House Books, which operates a highly successful direct-mail program. In 1980, the Progressive Farmer Company changed its name to Southern Progress Corporation in an effort to reflect its wider focus. By this time, Southern Living had a subscription rate of two million and was among the top 15 U.S. magazines in monthly advertising revenue. In recent years, the company has broadened its appeal to more diverse audiences by providing content for the many ethnic and cultural groups that make up contemporary southern culture. Always aware of the changing market and social trends, Southern Progress executives added a monthly "Cooking Light" column to Southern Living in response to the growing trend toward lighter, more nutritious cooking. In 1983, Oxmoor House published a cookbook by the same name that has since become an annual publication.
The company continued to expand and flourish, and, in 1985, Time Inc. (now Time Warner Inc.) bought Southern Progress Corporation for $480 million, at that time the largest amount ever spent on a magazine publishing company and the first instance in which Time Inc. had purchased rather than launched a magazine. That same year, Southern Progress purchased Southern Accents, an Atlanta-based bimonthly featuring the architecture, landscaping, and interiors of upscale southern homes. The purchase proved to be a lucrative move for Southern Progress because the buy-out made national news and increased publicity not only for the magazine but also for the company. It now reaches a total readership of 2.5 million.
In 1987, in response to the popularity of the cooking column, Southern Progress launched Cooking Light as an independent magazine; it has a current readership of more than 10 million. Three years later, Time Inc. purchased Sunset — considered Southern Living's western counterpart—and soon shifted publication to the Southern Progress division. Southern Progress then purchased Coastal Home and after retooling the content, launched it as Coastal Living in 1997. Coastal Living features content from the East, West, and Gulf coasts and focuses on homes, gardens, food, and travel; it now serves about 4 million readers.
Health magazine joined the Southern Progress group in late 1999 when it was shifted out of the Time Inc. group and under the control of Southern Progress. Launched in 1987 under the title Hippocrates in Sausalito, California, it targeted both medical professionals and consumers but failed to lure laypeople. The magazine published a second edition under the title In Health ("Health" was already in use by another magazine), Time Inc. purchased the magazine, moving its office to downtown San Francisco, and secured the rights to the name Health in 1994. In 1999, Time Inc. rolled the magazine under the Southern Progress umbrella, and, in 2001, the magazine's editorial offices were moved to Birmingham. Under the primary Southern Progress roof, the magazine has benefited from the proximity to food and fitness experts at the company's other health-oriented titles such as Cooking Light. Three years later, Southern Progress launched Cottage Living, a bimonthly response to the growing popularity of small homes and simple decorating which ceased publication in December 2008.
The Southern Progress Corporation has grown far beyond the printed page. In 1989, the company established the Idea House program, in which advertisers feature their products in homes designed by the magazine's editors to not only offer readers new ideas in home design, but also showcase that latest in products in the home design industry. In the late 1990s, Sunset, Southern Accents, and Coastal Living all joined the program, as did Cooking Light in 2001. Other successful programs have included the traveling Southern Living Cooking School; Southern Living and Cooking Light themed cruises; and myriad other special events, tours, and products. The latest successful diversification is Southern Living at Home, a direct-sales program that features items for the garden, home décor, and holidays.
In 2000, AOL bought out Time Warner, creating AOL-Time Warner Inc. Later in the decade as the parent companies laid off employees,
Southern Progress cutback on its work force in Birmingham. Since 2000, the company has had annual sales in excess of $75 million.
Lauder, Tracy. "The Southern Living Solution: How The Progressive Farmer Launched a Magazine and a Legacy." Alabama Review 60 (July 2007): 186-221.
Riley, Sam G. Magazines of the American South. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.
Taft, William H. American Magazines for the 1980s. New York: Hastings House, 1982.
Reed, Roy. "Birmingham Publisher Propelled by Regionalism." New York Times, September 7, 1976, p. 40.
Reed, John Shelton. "Southern Living." In The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, edited by Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris, 973-4 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989).
White, Erin. "Southern Living Gets Northern Publisher." Wall Street Journal, August 4, 2000, B5.
Emory and Henry College
Published November 18, 2008
Last updated April 4, 2013