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The rich heritage of Farm Journal is the same heritage as that earned by American agriculture's farm and ranch families for the past six generations. We became good friends through the years. Wilmer Atkinson said it best 120 years ago: "We shall use our best endeavor to make the Farm Journal a newspaper that shall possess real value to the class for whom it is published—the cultivators of the soil—and an entertaining monthly visitor to rural firesides. The future will determine the measure of our success."
Farm Journal Corporation is the holding company for a number of media interests that have grown out of Farm Journal, the influential Philadelphia-based magazine that was established in 1877. Throughout its history, its owners have embraced new technologies and publishing concepts. Creating a brand out of the Farm Journal name is in many ways a continuation of that forward thinking, in large part borne out of necessity because of the ever-shrinking numbers of U.S. farmers. In addition to its flagship magazine, Farm Journal also publishes Top Producer, Beef Today, and Dairy Today, as well as several newsletters. The company also holds broadcast interests: the Farm Journal Radio Network and two nationally syndicated television programs, AgDay and WeekEnd MarketPlace. Involved in the Internet since 1995, Farm Journal has merged its operations with other partners to launch AgWeb.com, for which it provides much of the content. Farm Journal is controlled by a limited partnership, which includes top management of the company.
Influence of Farming Publications in the 19th Century
Agricultural journalism has a deep, although somewhat overlooked, history in the United States. Not only did early farm publications connect and entertain isolated farm families and help disseminate information on new machinery, techniques, and business practices, their editorial pages championed causes that were important to their readers. Although almanacs, such as those published by Benjamin Franklin, included agricultural content, the beginning of the farm press is generally traced to the 1819 foundation of the American Farmer, published in Baltimore by John Stuart Skinner. According to its title page, the publication contained "Original Essays and Selections on Rural Economy and Internal Improvements With Illustrative Engravings and the Prices Current of Country Produce." Skinner would join forces with the legendary Horace Greeley in the mid-1840s to publish the Monthly Journal of Agriculture. William Dempster Hoard, future governor of Wisconsin, was also a pioneer of farm journalism, and was especially influenced by Greeley's use of editorials. Hoard's papers became known for their strong editorial pages that weighed in on a range of issues in addition to agriculture. Emerging from this tradition was the founder of Farm Journal, Wilmer Atkinson.
Atkinson was born in 1840 in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, the son of Quaker parents. After spending a year in a seminary he taught school while helping his father on the family farm. His first experience running a publication came in 1862 when he and a partner purchased the Norristown Republican. Two years later he sold his interest in the paper and moved to Wilmington, Delaware, where he established the state's first daily newspaper, the Wilmington Daily Commercial, which he sold in 1876. He then moved to Philadelphia to start a monthly agricultural paper, the Farm Journal, which he said was intended for farmers within a day's ride of Philadelphia and dedicated to "practical, not fancy farming." The first issue, priced at 25 cents, was published in March 1877 with an initial press run of 25,000 copies.
Atkinson also established a sense of integrity by announcing in the first issue that Farm Journal would refuse to print "quack medical advertisements." At the time, patent medicines and medical devices of dubious value were a mainstay of the popular press. In 1880 Atkinson was the first publisher to issue a personal guarantee, the "Fair Play" code, against the claims made by his magazine's advertisers, anticipating "the Good Housekeeping seal of approval." In 1913 Farm Journal became the first magazine to issued a money-back guarantee that allowed its subscribers to cancel "at any time, for any reason or for no reason."
Like Hoard, Atkinson used the power of his magazine to champion causes: rural free delivery of mail, postal savings banks, and the preservation of birds. Atkinson wrote in one of the early issues:"We do not publish the Farm Journal for the money there is in it, but for the good we can do." This belief became an enduring legacy, as succeeding editors were encouraged to have a cause and to use Farm Journal to promote it. One example, of many, was the campaign to abolish the "Widow's Tax," which had forced many farms to be put on the block to pay off the taxes incurred when the husband had died. Laws were changed to recognize the full partnership of women in running family farms. In his day, Atkinson also championed women's rights, heading the Pennsylvania Men's League for Women's Suffrage that operated out of the Farm Journal offices in 1915. Atkinson even led a march through the streets of Philadelphia that began at the front steps of Farm Journal.
Reaching a Million Subscribers with Farm Journal: 1915
During the 40 years that Atkinson ran Farm Journal, the magazine extended its reach well beyond a day's ride of Philadelphia. By 1915 it boasted a national circulation of one million. Although there was a major migration from the country to the cities in the early 20th century, the overall increase in population meant that the number of rural Americans grew from 44 million in 1900 to almost 50 million in 1910, when for the first time, according to the census, the number of farms surpassed six million. The need for farm publications was greater than ever. With the Depression of the 1930s, however, the farm economy suffered greatly. In 1935 Farm Journal was sold to the Pew family, owners of Sun Oil Co. (ownership was later transferred to The Pew Charitable Trusts). Subsequently, publisher Graham Patterson sold the magazine's printing press, electing to have R.R. Donnelley & Son do the printing. It was the start of a relationship that would eventually lead to publishing breakthroughs. The magazine also broadened its content in the 1930s. In 1939 it purchased The Farmer's Wife, a national women's magazine, which was then included as a magazine within Farm Journal. As wives became more instrumental in running farms, the magazine changed with the times. The women's section was eventually replaced by Farm Family Living, which catered to all members of the family.
Although circulation of Farm Journal continued to rise, reaching a peak of almost 3.7 million in 1953, the dynamics of publishing were changing. Farm magazines simply could not compete with mass market consumer magazines, not to mention television, for consumer product advertising. National farm magazines, which also faced stiff competition from regional farm publications, had to find a way to help farm product advertisers to target specific audiences. A company selling corn seed, for instance, did not want to pay to reach a hog farmer or a wheat farmer. In an effort to address this concern, Farm Journal became the first national magazine to publish regional editions. It set up satellite offices to provide content that would appeal to different groups of readers: the wheat farmers in the Midwest, the cotton farmers in the South, and so on. The parent company of the magazine, Farm Journal, Inc., also tried to expand beyond agriculture with the introduction of Town Journal, a general interest family monthly, which grew out of a news weekly named Pathfinder that had been acquired ten years earlier. Although Town Journal built its circulation to more than two million and gross ad revenues surpassed $3 million, the publication was too expensive to produce and was discontinued in December 1956. Farm Journal, with $13.6 million in gross ad revenues, was doing well, but faced an uncertain future.
Early in 1958 Farm Journal announced that it would voluntarily reduce circulation and advertising rates. Because the magazine had no newsstand sales, it could reduce circulation by removing subscribers, targeting people with non-rural addresses, who were offered their money back or subscriptions to other magazines. Intentionally cutting circulation seemed counterintuitive, but to management the move would "purify" the magazine. According to the president of the company, Richard J. Babcock, "The non-farm readers don't appeal to our advertisers and since it costs more to send a subscription than we make on subscription rates, we save money dropping them. ... Why not give the advertiser what he wants and make a better profit?" The immediate goal was to drop from a circulation of 3.4 million to 3.1 million.
The next step for Farm Journal was to determined who among the rural readers were actually active farmers. In 1962 it began creating a database on its readers, which it soon took advantage of in a rudimentary way. It inserted a "Hog Extra" in the magazines that were mailed to the five leading hog-producing counties in the country. The subscriber received the insert whether he raised hogs or not, but this early effort at targeted publishing led to other inserts in 1964, "Beef Extra" and "Dairy Extra," followed later by a "Cotton Extra." The magazine then began to employ computers in 1965 and gathered specific livestock and crop production information from its subscribers.
Purchase of Company by Management Team: 1973
After a group of seven employees led by Dale E. Smith bought Farm Journal Inc. from The Pew Charitable Trusts in 1973, the magazine became even more aggressive in gathering information, by the use of phone interviews, to further purge its subscription lists. Subscribers had to be preapproved in order to receive the magazine. It was estimated that 95 percent of the people contacted cooperated with the surveys. Although expensive to create and maintain, Farm Journal'sdatabase would prove to be a valuable asset. It formed the basis for Rockwood Research, a company that would generate information and lists for commercial clients. In addition to lowering its subscription base to around 800,000, the magazine was then able to take targeted publishing to an unprecedented level when Donnelley achieved a breakthrough in printing technology.
What Donnelley called selectronic binding was the ability to incorporate the computerized information that Farm Journal had gathered on its readers to select specific sections that would be of interest to a particular subscriber. No longer would an insert like "Hog Extra" be sent to every subscriber in a particular county. The method, which came into use in 1982, required that Farm Journal supply more content to satisfy both regional and demographic needs, resulting in the hiring of a large number of freelance writers around the country. Selectronic binding gained a great deal of notice with the May 1984 edition of Farm Journal, which was printed in more than 8,000 different versions. Because the database also made it feasible to launch magazines that were targeted for specific readers, some of the inserts were then spun off, creating Hog Extra, Dairy Extra, and Beef Extra. Another insert, devoted to farmers with more than 250 acres, would later be launched as Top Producer. The upscale magazine was modeled after Fortune.
Although no other magazine could rival Farm Journal in technical innovations, the magazine was far from thriving financially. More than half of Farm Journal subscribers received the magazine for free, the result of the early 1980s when increasing postal rates made it more costly to mail renewal notices than to send free copies. Management began talking to Chicago media giant Tribune Company in 1993 about a possible sale. After reviewing the books, Tribune management urged Farm Journal to cut costs before further discussions could take place. Farm Journal then trimmed its staff by about 10 percent, and in June 1994 Tribune purchased the company for a reported $20 million. The Farm Journal magazines and database were expected to create synergy with Tribune's nationally syndicated television program, "U.S. Farm Report," but the combination was short-lived. In 1997 a group of investors, including some employees of the magazine, bought back Farm Journal Inc. from Tribune for $17 million. It then created the holding company Farm Journal Corporation.
New management initiated efforts to make Farm Journal into a multimedia company, following the lead of other publishing companies that extended the brand name of a magazine in any number of directions. While still under Tribune ownership, an Internet site, Farmjournal.com, was created. To provide more content for it, Pro Farmer, the largest circulation agricultural newsletter in the United States, was acquired. In 1997 Farm Journal began organizing policy conferences in Washington, D.C. More than just admission fees, the events added to the company's prestige. In January 1998 Farm Journal purchased AgDay, the longest running nationally syndicated agribusiness news television program. In 1999 Farm Journal purchased a syndicated radio program to augment its broadcast interests. It also acquired Globalink and the AgCast Network to provide agricultural news and market data to farmers via satellite and the internet.
Farm Journal filed with the SEC in June 1998 in preparation for going public. The hope was to raise some $30 million to fuel acquisitions as well as to pay off long-term debt, which stood at $19.6 million. The offering was shelved, however, when the IPO market soured. By November 1999, management decided to scrap the plan altogether, after concluding that an offering would fail to sufficiently excite investors. Nevertheless, the company continued its efforts at becoming a multimedia company. In January 2000 it teamed with Internet holding company Safeguard Scientifics Inc. and private equity fund Madison Dearborn Partners to start a new Internet business, AgWeb.com. Again it was the database, with information on 90 percent of the nation's farmers and ranchers, that was a major selling point, along with its existing Farmjournal.com operation and the AgCast and Globalink data services. Madison Dearborn, which reviewed hundreds of Internet-based e-commerce companies, decided to invest in AgWeb.com because of Farm Journal's information and editorial content, as well as the ability to promote the site in Farm Journal publications. Furthermore, the numbers of farmers and ranchers gaining access to the Internet were reaching critical mass. The goal of AgWeb.com was to become a portal where clients could set up online storefronts so that commodities as well as farm-related products could be sold. The site would then collect a commission on each sale. The company also hoped to sell banner ads and provide information technology services for farming-related companies.
The president and CEO of Farm Journal, Roger D. Randall, stepped down in order to run AgWeb.com, which set up offices outside of Philadelphia in King of Prussia. He was replaced by Andy Weber in May 2000. Weber was previously an executive at Cahners Business Information, where he was involved in the running of 41 magazine titles in the United States and Europe. He also worked at Chilton, where he was not only responsible for magazines but also five trade shows and 13 web sites. As the number of farmers continued to decline, while competition over revenues increased, Weber faced formidable challenges in leading Farm Journal into its third century. Maintaining the data that the company had so assiduously gathered over the previous 40 years would remain key. According to Weber, "That database and our field presence tells us what shifts are taking place and allows us to understand farming trends first. It allows us to reflect those trends in our magazines, television, radio, over the Internet and everywhere else." Given the historic willingness of Farm Journal to change with the times, there was no reason to doubt that the company, like the practical farmers it served, would find a way to successfully adapt.
Principal Operating Units: Broadcasting; Internet (33% of AgWeb.com); Magazines; Newsletters.
Principal Competitors: Dairylea; Meredith Corporation; Primedia Inc.; Vance Publishing; eMerge Interactive.