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Country Living Makes Changes at a Comfortable Pace

Hearst Magazines' Country Living enters the fall with more to read and more to hold.

The monthly title, the leader in the shelter category with a rate base of 1.7 million, introduces its new look with the September issue. The new format coincides with rival Meredith Corp.'s relaunch of Country Home and Time Inc.-owned Southern Progress' debut of Cottage Living.

“I think people are looking for ways to differentiate [the magazine]. Feedback from readers indicated that,” said Nancy Soriano, editor-in-chief of Country Living. “As an editor, you have to know your market, know your audience. Research is always a factor, but you have to be intuitive. It's about introducing new ideas to your readership, but not to do it in a way that scares them.”

Readers and advertisers should be pleased with changes initiated gradually four months ago amid an era of low interest rates and a consumer propensity to nest.

Country Living added 3/8th of an inch to its height and its width with the September issue. The trim size is now 8 3/8-by-10 7/8 inches. The other major physical change is an even whiter grade paper stock to showcase the magazine's photography and bolder graphics. Fonts also were changed.

But judging a book by its cover alone won't do. Soriano and her editorial team used research, focus groups, in-book surveys, online testing and reader feedback via letters, telephone calls and e-mails to evolve the 26-year-old Country Living.

Start with the increase in the number of editorial pages. More information is available in areas such as makeover tips and shopping sources. Articles on Country Living staples like decorating, antiques and collecting as well as food and entertaining get more play.

Among section changes, a monthly Idea Notebook debuts to focus on get-the-look ideas and product information. An interior shot of a dining room, for instance, shows readers what products went into that space. Also, the Cook*Book section has been reformatted to include more recipes, food resources, gadgets and travel stories.

The “What is it? What is it worth?” column grows from one page to three. For this column, readers send in photos of their antiques for appraisal, a feature targeting Country Living's collector audience. The magazine also added an Antiques Across America shopping column.

“We're the magazine in the shelter category where readers come to us for ideas and information on antiques and collectibles,” Soriano said. “We've always been about personal style and comfort in the house in an attainable way.”

Country Living's tag line reflects that philosophy: “Come home to comfort.”

The country theme always has been attractive to magazines in the lifestyle category, even as shelter titles jostle for more lifestyle advertisers. For many titles, “country” is more a state of mind than a house in the countryside. It is more about relaxed living, incorporating rustic elements into an urban lifestyle.

Key players in that shelter/lifestyle category crossover include magazines such as Martha Stewart Living, Real Simple, Better Homes & Gardens, Country Home, House & Garden, Architectural Digest, House Beautiful, O and Country Living. Cottage Living's arrival adds to the gentrification.

“It's not surprising to me that many publishing houses have decided to launch or upgrade [country] publications, because it's a very vibrant category, very successful category,” said Steven B. Grune, vice president and publisher of Country Living.

“That trend is not just 2004, but it's been happening in the last four to five years,” he said. “The importance of home and family accelerated after Sept. 11 [2001]. On a macro scale, interest rates were low. It made it conducive for people to afford first homes, or furnish, remodel or decorate.”

Advertisers are eager to reach this spending market.

Country Living signed new advertisers this year like Procter & Gamble Co.'s Oil of Olay, Johnson & Johnson's Roc, Revlon's Almay, Beiersdorf's Nivea, L'Oreal Paris, Drexel-Heritage furniture, VF Corp.'s Lee Riders, Trex Decking, Tyson Foods and Holland America Line. It retains advertisers such as Home Depot, paint firms Benjamin Moore and Sherwin Williams and Chrysler's Jeep in addition to apparel, packaged goods, auto and pharmaceutical brands.

The September issue carries 113 ad pages out of a total of 186 pages. This is the magazine's largest September issue in 15 years. And for the January through September issues, Country Living is up 4 percent to 843 ad pages versus 812 for the year-ago period.

“Our projections are that we'll finish the year up over last — four years in a row,” said Grune, who did not discuss financial details. “Last year we ran 1,175 ad pages, and this year I project it'll be over 1,200.”

No plans exist to increase Country Living's rate base. The last hike by 100,000 copies was done in January 2002. One-fifth of all copies sold are on newsstands, with the rest via subscription. Country Living costs $3.50 a copy. A year's subscription is $12 for 12 issues at the standard introductory rate, and $15 in some other offers. No premiums are offered.

Subscriptions are generated through www.countryliving.com, which is hosted on iVillage. There are cross promotions with other Hearst titles. Insert cards within the magazine also pull subscriptions.

Grune said the readership is evenly distributed in A, B, C and D counties — as much read by city dwellers as by rural residents. Hence the current changes, while not sweeping or a distancing from country theme, must appeal to all segments either aspiring to or living a lifestyle.

“Country is a mindset of comfort,” Grune said. “We're not shying away from something, but often we do need to clarify.”

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