The end of Modern Farmer?

An award-winning magazine struggles to connect with readers

Modern Farmer, the stylish quarterly that tried to mix cosmopolitan glamour with a back-to-the-land ethos, is ceasing publication one month after its founding editor quit and months after it won a National Magazine Award.

As of Friday, the magazine has no editorial staff or leader. But there has also been no formal statement about it closing permanently, leaving some glimmer of hope for a revival of an outlet that won fans for its quirky food and animal coverage. “The future of what remains of the Modern Farmer brand is uncertain,” as The New York Times put it. But in the meantime, advertisers were told there would be no spring issue. “If they want to put a new team in place, if they want to figure something else out, I doubt they will be sharing information me,” Cara Parks, Modern Farmer‘s former executive editor, told Mashable.

“It was definitely the best job I ever had,” said Jesse Hirsch, the magazine’s former senior editor. “I think we carved out a really interesting space that didn’t exist before. It’s sad that the business conflicted with the editorial. Figuring out how to monetize what you do is a problem for everybody, whether you’re Modern Farmer or The New York Times or The Atlantic.”

The magazine was not yet two years old, but its swift rise and quality content and packaging captured the attention of a media industry hungry for success stories. It won its Ellie Award last year, for best magazine section, after publishing only three issues, and was nominated for the general excellence prize. In November, The New Yorker devoted a lengthy feature to Modern Farmer–and it was only the latest in spate of profiles in major outlets. A New York Times article called it “a magazine for farm-to-table” that smartly capitalized on the local food movement. The Daily Beast said that it “caught the magazine equivalent of lightning in a bottle.” In raw numbers, Modern Farmer had a circulation of 100,000, including 16,000 subscribers. Its newsstand price was a lofty $7.99, and it was known to pay freelancers a dollar a word for print pieces.

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But Modern Farmer‘s blend of luxurious photography, beautiful design, and hipster editorial content struggled to find a concrete audience.

“There has always been a bit of a question mark, since the beginning” about the magazine’s ability to thrive, said Hirsch. One recent issue had pieces on how to chop wood–101 material for farmers–and a photo feature on “the finest farmwear money can buy.” When founding editor Ann Marie Gardner accepted her National Magazine Award, she joked that the publication was “the farming magazine for media professionals.” The magazine was housed above a Swedish cosmetics store in Hudson, NY, and Gardner, a longtime Manhattan magazine editor, has never been a farmer.

Cultivating an elite, urban readership is the bread-and-butter of most magazines, but Modern Farmer stretched the wire too thin. Its winter gift guide suggested readers pick up handcrafted $150 sleds and $40 wool socks–hardly in tune with real life farmers, whether they are working in the countryside or on hip urban farms. And as for the urbanists who care about local food but are hardly headed for a life planting vegetables, features like the Winter 2014/15 cover story–“Donkeys: The New Goats“–only inspire so much loyalty beyond the internet, where goat videos are a beloved genre. When it came down to it, Modern Farmer just did not have sufficient real-life resonance for its readers.

Capital New York, when it profiled the magazine last June, described this disconnect between the magazine’s supposed target audience and the readers it actually attracted this way:

In short, it is a well designed double-barreled shotgun of an editorial product aimed at both contemporary farmers, and, perhaps more importantly, those who fancy joining their growing ranks. In a world where words like “organic,” “sustainable” and “local” have become brands unto themselves, Modern Farmer has bet that farming can be an aspirational lifestyle.

But it was a dispute between Gardner and the magazine’s chief investor, not its struggle to find its niche, that appears to have hammered the death nail. Frank Giustra is a Canadian financier and mining magnate who, according to The New York Times, grew impatient with Gardner’s promises about swiftly paced profits and finding additional investors. Gardner, in turn, argued that the magazine needed time to develop its roots. Giustra issued a statement in December, when Gardner stepped down, where he declared his commitment to “the Modern Farmer brand.” But the magazine was apparently left rudderless without its founding leadership.

When Hirsch thinks back on what he loved best about the magazine, he said that it was the mix of silly content and serious explanatory journalism. Modern Farmer produced some excellent reporting during its short life, and it certainly served as a reminder of the power of a beautifully and thoughtfully designed print publication and website. Its last issue, featuring a donkey on the cover, included features on the growth of pot farming and food regulation policy, as well as striking photography from the Boiko highlands in Poland. More low-key and practical content was published on its website (“Is it legal to start an urban composting program?“)

“When you see an exciting publication doing interesting things, and you come out on the editorial side, you don’t pay that much attention to the business side of things,” Hirsch said. “You think, ‘Wow, I have an opportunity to do all this great stuff.’ Maybe in the future I’d make the same mistakes all over again if I find a cool and appealing magazine. But the takeaway should be that you need to make sure things are stable.”

Curiously, the magazine is not the first to flame out shortly after winning one of the top prizes in journalism. In 1990, the weekly magazine 7 Days, helmed by Adam Moss, was only two years old when it won a National Magazine Award for general excellence–one week (naturally) after it folded.

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Anna Clark is CJR’s correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.