Green thumbs, greenbacks, and magazine prestige

It won't send many ripples through the stock market. It won't rock the world of publishing. It didn't even produce a pres conference. For this is a consolidation of prestige: the purchase by The New Yorker (one of America's premier magazines) of the Boston-based Horticulture, the nation's oldest gardening publication and the official maganize of the august, 152 -year-old Massachusetts Horticulture Society (MHS).

The agreement, announced Sept. 23, establishes a new venture, Horticulture Associates, owned 60 percent by The New Yorker Magazine Inc. and 40 percent by Connecticut plant nursery executive Eliot Wadsworth II. Horticulture editor Thomas Cooper will stay on at his post, and the society will retain a voice on the magazine's advisory board -- ensuring, says MHS executive director Roger Dane, that "our philosophies and policies concerning the diverse aspects of horticulture will not be neglected in the inevitable expansion."

The move is partly a marriage of convenience. The 7,000-member society has been in a financial bind for some years -- partly because the magazine has recently been soaking up $1.5 million of its annual $2.5 million budget. In past years, the MHS has eaten into its principal to fund current expenses -- a move which so appalled some of the Brahmins among its membership that they stopped giving.

When Mr. Dane was brought in the 1979 to stop the decay, he found annual donations sputtering along at about $20,000 a year, a magazine without a central focus, and a once-magnificent fin-de-sieclem building far too cavernous for the society's needs. Since then, the MHS has been slowly changing course -- although not without controversy, as in last year's auction of 180 lots of rare books from the society's 31,000-volume library.

Officially, the price of the New Yorker transaction in "undisclosed." Those close to the agreement, however, told the Monitor that the arrangement calls for The New Yorker simply to assume the entire financial burden of the magazine and to continue its application along similar lines. For the MHS, the result will be a substantial drop in expenses that will help restore it to fiscal soundness.

The New Yorker, say insiders, has no difficulty with fiscal soundness: its 500,000 subscribers are such a highly valued market that the magazine has to turn away would-be advertisers. In the last decade it has founded a printing company in Colorado, bought a one-third interest in a medical books publisher, and purchased 35 percent of Teleram Communications Corporation, a manufacturer of video display equipment used in editing texts. But never in The New Yorker's 56-year history has it purchased another magazine.

So why, after Horticulture sought financial backing earlier this summer, was The New Yorker among the eight groups interested?

"Our standards are very high, as are those of the horticulture society," says George J. Green, president of The New Yorker magazine. He added that his firm had never before found a magazine it particularly wanted to buy.

And New Yorker vice-president Janet Muir, who now spends two days a week in Boston, notes that both periodicals appeal to the same sort of "fairly affluent, sophisticated people who have leisure time."

Her immediate goal, she says, is "to bring the expertise of The New Yorker to bear on the situation" -- bringing in advertising and circulation people, shaping a focus, and producing a January 1982 issue that will contain more four-color pages, look a little neater, and begin to attract national advertisers.

That may not be difficult. Horticulture magazine already circulates to all 50 states and 75 foreign countries. If, as Mr. Green hopes, its circulation can grow toward 200,000, it will be a valuable advertising outlet.

But his first goal, he says, is to "improve the editorial product" -- though not necessarily by importing the literary flavor of The New Yorker, and certainly not by moving in the direction of more popular periodicals like Organic Gardening.m

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