Mother Earth News and the Growth of Affinity Journalism

I had a wide ranging conversation with Bryan Welch, publisher of Ogden Publications following his fun and inspirational keynote address at the LOHAS Forum. You might not recognize Ogden Publications but you will certainly know its magazines, which include The Utne Reader and Mother Earth News, a magazine about gardening, alternative transportation, country living, self-sufficiency and not being a wussy.

Welch provided a roadmap for attendees to refocus and reinvigorate efforts to both lead a more sustainable life and to ensure sustainability as entrepreneurs. The gist of his talk was this: Start by renewing idealism (and don’t worry about being realistic) as you set goals, forget practicality when you define criteria and then take first steps that are realistic, practical and also optimistic.

But what really struck me were his remarks about Ogden Publications. The company’s flagship title, Mother Earth News, was 2009’s fastest growing magazine, he said. And this is amid a print  media downturn. After his address, I asked Welch what he’s doing right while I wondered what so many other media companies are getting wrong.  I also asked for his view on advocacy journalism–expressing my own dismay at the business model of a website I’d learn about at LOHAS that promotes eco-friendly home product vendors in exchange for hefty donations by those vendors.

He owes the success of Mother Earth News to its approach and its tone. “I don’t like advocacy journalism,” he said, contrasting it to Ogden Publications’  practice of “affinity journalism.”

“We think of ourselves as a dinner party with a diverse group of friends,” he said, explaining that the readers of Mother Earth News, for example, represent a wide swath of political viewpoints and that they range small organic farming hobbyists to employees of major industrial agricultural companies. It’s the interest in sustainable farming and hands-on, do-it-yourself rural lifestyle that binds them. And this has been the case for 30 years, since the magazine was first published.

He bristled when I suggested that Mother Earth News might be growing fast right now because its readers are Luddites, compared consumers of other publications–say, technology rags–who are more interested in reading content online rather than paying for it through subscriptions.  Two thirds of readers of Ogden pubs and more than half of Mother Earth News readers are online, he countered. And about 40 percent of new Mother Earth News subscribers are subscribing through online forms. And conversion rates for other Ogden pubs are similar.

But the growth that Ogden is enjoying right now is the result not just of its ability to convert its online readers into subscribers. It’s due in part to Welch’s expansion of the title’s branding. “We’ve sold $2.5 million in branded Natural Home products in Target stores last year,” he said, referring to a line of eco-friendly home products that Ogden has curated and started selling under the title of its eco-home design magazine. (I later confirmed that was $2.5 million in wholesale sales, and for all of ’09 plus two some of ’08….that’s about $5 million at the retail level.)

The difference between linking products with a publication’s brand and promoting a brand in exchange for financial support (as is the case with the aforementioned eco-friendly home product website) might be vague, at first blush. But my take is that the former keeps an acceptable distance between editorial and revenue while the latter fails on that score.

That said, the success of Ogden Publication titles isn’t just about good timing and smart branding. Any magazine that has survived 40 years has a loyal and always-growing readership. It seems like, to a large degree, the world is just catching on to what Mother Earth News has been talking about for decades.

Freelance writer Mary Catherine O'Connor finds that a growing number of companies are proving the ways that they can make good financially, socially and environmentally (as the triple bottom line theory suggests).With that in mind, she contributes to Triple Pundit, as well as to Earth2Tech and other pubs focused on sustainability. She also writes The Good Route, an Outside Magazine blog that addresses the intersection of sustainability and the active/outdoor life.To find out more, or to reach her, go to

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