Why we should save Arizona Highways - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Why we should save Arizona Highways

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Posted: Monday, July 16, 2007 11:32 am | Updated: 6:53 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

As a child, everything I knew about the Grand Canyon State I learned from a magazine called Arizona Highways. Sharp pictures rich in color captured breathtaking scenes from intimate hidden crevices above the Colorado River to the brilliant red rocks towering over Sedona to spring grasses waving in the wind under the classic outstretched arms of saguaro. Before I ever set foot in Arizona, the magazine’s feature stories led me to a special appreciation for the state’s culture.

Jim Sartori, a retired corporate credit manager who lives in Mesa, discovered Arizona Highways much later in his life than I did. But his reaction was exactly the same.

“I just fell in love with their photography,” Sartori said. “I remember as a kid getting National Geographic, and this is almost better.”

Sartori, who is part of my dad’s generation, became an avid subscriber to Arizona Highways after he moved here from the San Francisco Bay Area in 1999. He has even gathered up an additional 300 to 400 issues from earlier years at antique stores and estate sales for his collection.

I, on the other hand, never have subscribed to Arizona Highways. I enjoy looking through the magazine at the bookstore or while visiting someone else, but never had an urge to have my own copy delivered every month.

This difference in outlook reflects the fundamental challenge facing this icon among American travel magazines. An intensely loyal pool of Arizona Highways readers has shrunk by half in the past decade, as generations from before the age of the Internet gradually pass on and aren’t replaced by younger fans.

While the official mission of Arizona Highways is to promote tourism, the 82-year-old magazine owned by the state Department of Transportation has become a peerless chronicle of our history and landscape for the rest of the world. Its gold-plated name means instant, universal respect, whether it’s applied to travel books and calendars, murals in a Chandler mall or the title of a local outdoors television program.

Officials at Arizona Highways say the magazine also does its primary job for taxpayers, with studies estimating it brings anywhere from $35 million to $400 million in tourism spending to the state each year. About a decade ago, the state auditor general recommended combining the magazine’s staff with the state Office of Tourism, saying the magazine editors were promoting the state far more efficiently.

Today, the shine of Arizona Highways is threatened by a steep decline in subscriptions that provide much of the funding to operate the magazine.

“God, if we lose that … It’s like apple pie and America, for this state,” Sartori said.

With a new editor at the helm and a new sense of urgency about the future, management at Arizona Highways is laying groundwork for changes intended to replenish circulation without alienating too many of its current admirers. Publisher Win Holden admits his plans might require the Legislature to temporarily drop a 25-year ban on taxpayer subsidies, or a decades-old prohibition on advertising in the magazine. He won’t be surprised if someone revises the idea of selling the magazine to a private owner.

But Holden and many others say any strategy should protect the legacy of Arizona Highways.

“I can’t imagine a world where it didn’t exist,” said Joan Henderson, president of the International Association of Regional Magazines. “It just so well-known. It’s just shocking that anyone would consider not saving this magazine.”

PEAKS AND VALLEYS

Arizona Highways was launched by state highway engineers in 1925 to promote seeing the sights by car, according to the magazine’s own official history. Not coincidentally, the magazine allowed those same engineers to tout their work to expand the young state’s fledging road system. But from the beginning, Arizona Highways featured stories about the state’s natural gems along with black-and-white photos of what motorists could see when they arrived.

The evolution into a premier showcase of natural wonders started in 1938 with the hiring of the first non-engineer as editor, Raymond Carlson. In turn, he recruited George Avey to be the first art director. Together over the next 40 years, they carved out the practices that guide Arizona Highways today. They were early innovators with the use of color photos and illustrations. Some of the best-known contributors, at least to nondevotees of the magazine, have included Ansel Adams, Josef Muench and his son David, and the late Sen. Barry Goldwater.

The year 1938 was also when the state decided to bar all advertising in the magazine. That came to add to the mystique of Arizona Highways, as many loyal readers believe a lack of ads makes more space available for its intriguing storytelling and eye-popping artwork.

Readership of Arizona Highways blossomed across the country and around the world. Annual subscriptions climbed to a peak of about 500,000 in 1977, and the magazine capitalized on its identity to start selling other products — travel books, maps, calendars, postcards, etc.

Other states blatantly copied the formula of Arizona Highways. In 1956, Oklahoma’s governor held up the magazine to persuade lawmakers to launch a state travel publication, now named Oklahoma Today. As its current publisher, Henderson sounded rather envious during a telephone interview of Arizona Highways’ fame.

“We are in the tell-a-pretty-story-about-ourstate business, and they are the best,” Henderson said. “They are absolute geniuses.”

Gov. Bruce Babbitt’s administration saw the first serious reversal in the success of Arizona Highways, when the magazine suddenly lost 81,000 subscriptions in 1981. A year later, the Legislature pushed for Arizona Highways to operate more like a private business. The state cut off all tax subsidies, but created a special fund to hold any magazine’s profits to weather potential lean times. That allowed Arizona Highways to accumulate a large reserve of up to $11 million over the rest of the decade as new management improved on the business model and won a number of design awards. Since the mid-1990s, the Legislature has taken about $8 million of those funds to spend elsewhere.

Jana Bommersbach, one of the state’s top journalists and a frequent contributor to Arizona Highways, said such siphoning left the magazine far more vulnerable to a circulation decline than it should be.

“They never should have touched that,” Boomersbach said. “If anyone will be responsible for the destruction of Arizona Highways, it’s the Legislature.”

Arizona Highways has about $2.5 million left in savings as subscriptions continue to fall and the magazine struggles with a potential deficit this year of nearly $200,000 in a $9.5 million operating budget.

CHANGING TASTES

Many print publications — newspapers, general interest magazines, issue letters — are facing significant declines in paid subscriptions. The travel magazine industry is suffering as well, said Laurie Borman, president of the Society of American Travel Writers.

“Even people who are magazine junkies are finding they have less time (to read),” Borman said. “And it’s an environmental issue. ‘Do I want to contribute more to paper production when I can read it online?’”

Arizona Highways hasn’t changed much with the times, so perhaps its approach has become somewhat antiquated. Robert Stieve left Phoenix magazine earlier this year to become the new editor. He refers to the style of Arizona Highways as “armchair tourism,” which people in their 60s and older love to just look at; but that approach appeals far less to folks who want to go and do.

“The content needs to be more than things that you can enjoy from your living room, which is what any travel magazine does,” Stieve said. “We need to be more relevant. We need people to understand if they miss an issue of this magazine, they’re missing something. Frankly, it had gotten to the point where people could pick it up once or two times a year … they had gotten their fill of beautiful photography.”

Still, Stieve and Holden know the magazine repeatedly wins awards and keeps its fans loyal with that photography. So they’re not planning to remove most of it or shove it to the back of the magazine.

“You’ve got 48 pages,” Holden said. “So, devoting a few pages to a diner story which is just fun and interesting and kind of organic still gives you 45 pages to do other stuff.”

Currently, the magazine has a circulation of about 182,000 with subscriptions from all 50 states and 120 countries. It compares well with similar magazines in other states as Oklahoma Today has a circulation of 45,000 while Texas Highways sells about 250,000. But those numbers are far less than the best-known private travel magazines, with Conde Nast Traveler at 782,500, Travel+Leisure at 950,000 and National Geographic Traveler at more than 700,000.

Once, magazine sales were the main source of funding for Arizona Highways but now makes up only about half of its budget, Holden said. The rest comes from books and calendars and name licensing for other products. The ban on advertising significantly limits ways to shore up financing within the magazine, although there are some limited experiments taking place on the Web site at www.arizonahighways.com.

Holden says he already has taken steps to cut costs, such as eliminating jobs at the Phoenix offices and cutting back on buying freelance submissions. He wants to remove $100,000 more from the budget to shrink the deficit further.

But frequent budget cuts to match dropping subscription revenue will damage the quality of Arizona Highways before long, driving away even more readers and accelerating the cycle of economic losses.

SAVING THE FRANCHISE

As the Tribune and other outlets reported on the problems at Arizona Highways earlier this month, the publicity has spurred a flood of phone calls for subscriptions.

But at best, such attention offers only a temporary reprieve from the long-term trends. Holden says the magazine relied for too long on customer renewals and word-of-mouth promotion to attract new readers. For years, little money was spent on subscription marketing, and now there’s none available to undertake a new campaign.

That’s why he might seek a temporary tax subsidy.

“In point of fact, we’re not doing anything but asking for some of our money back,” Holden said. “It’s money that was … I prefer to say ‘borrowed.’ And there’s an opportunity for the Legislature to return some of that money to allow us to rebuild the business a little bit.”

State law allows up to $500,000 a year from gasoline and vehicle license taxes to be spent on the magazine. But Holden said his staff is still working on a potential marketing plan, so he has no idea how much money might be required or where it should be found.

After a quarter-century of operating independently, any subsidy proposals will meet significant opposition at the Legislature.

Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City, said a tax subsidy could distract the magazine from making critical, far-reaching changes. He says ADOT should focus on reclaiming a right to sell ads in the magazine and emphasizing a robust Web site that draws in new generations of readers.

“I love the magazine,” Gould said. “I think it has great pictures. With an updated business model, you probably could save the magazine without going back to the taxpayers.”

In the wake of the recession six years ago, transferring Arizona Highways to a private owner was suggested to raise money for the state. From a libertarian perspective, it’s fair to ask if government possession and regulation has isolated the magazine too much from the positive benefits of competition.

But not even Gould, probably the most libertarian-oriented lawmaker, believes the state should sell. The magazine’s financial problems and subscription trends would discourage many quality publishers, and over time a private owner could emphasize ads and product sales to the detriment of its photography and stories.

Holden worries that magazine ads would eventually corrupt the magazine even if Arizona Highways stays in the state’s hands. But Borman points out that quality publications don’t allow advertisers to unduly influence the content.

“Advertising, as long as you have a good editor, only will be there to help funding of the publication,” said Borman, who is also editorial director for map-maker Rand McNally.

ENOUGH TIME TO DO IT RIGHT

Holden believes the state has three to five years before the current trends become a real crisis for the magazine. So transportation officials, lawmakers and the public in general have a chance to debate the true value of Arizona Highways as we know it today, compared with where it could go if pushed to more closely resemble private magazines.

Henderson points out that Arizona’s statehood centennial is less than five years away. Oklahoma Today has seen a recent uptick in circulation as people participate in that state’s 100th birthday this year. She believes Arizona Highways will benefit even more from similar attention in 2012.

Part of the solution might simply be for everyone to change our expectations. Forget about the past and focus on what should be considered a success today.

“At what point does the model have to be validated,” Holden asked. “If 200,000 see this publication every month and are willing to pay for it, that’s not a bad number. Would you rather have 300,000? Sure … I just don’t believe, in my heart of hearts, that we have a disaster here. We have remarkable treasure here that has become a little wrinkled.

“If we can’t fix this with this team then, forgive me for saying this, but I’m not sure it’s fixable. That’s not ego, that’s honesty.”

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