Editor of Country Journal shares some final thoughts

Toby Lester calls the publication he has been editing, the Country Journal, a pastoral New Yorker. It soon, however, will be a memory.

The last issue of the bimonthly magazine, which offered a lifeline to readers dealing with rural life, is now on newstands.

Primedia, the parent company that a year ago appeared ready to resuscitate the flagging 27-year-old magazine recently announced that it was suspending publication.

"I think the decision has a lot more to do with the magazine [publishing] climate than it does with life in rural America," Mr. Lester says.

Primedia Group publisher Bill Wehrman, who oversees Country Journal and Horticulture magazines, agrees that there's a rural audience waiting to be served. And he was pleased with the staff's "remarkable job of transforming the magazine" editorially. But to rebuild circulation by attracting a new generation of readers was proving a longer, harder row to hoe than anticipated.

To go from 95,000 readers to 150,000 could require five years, longer that Primedia was prepared to wait. Even so, the company has decided not to sell the assets and will retain the name, subscriber list, archives, etc.

"There's a need and a market for the magazine if you can get to the people, but that's the trick," says Lester. The Country Journal tried to make the transition to readers whose main interest is lifestyle, not idealism.

Included in recent issues were stories on homemade fertilizers, outdoor showers, work gloves, heirloom apples, pond hockey, stone walls, and cutthroat croquet, as well as essays and recipes.

Before he cleared out the desk of his Boston office, Lester shared some of his thoughts on the rural revival he sees taking root.

What is driving current city dwellers to seek country acreage?

A lot of people are not motivated by the purist, return-to-the-land ideals as much as by a desire to live a less frenetic life. They can continue to do the work they were doing living in the city - not lose touch with a lot of things that are important to them, but have more land. It's less idealism and more just the realization that geography is less limiting, that you can have more space and have more contact with the outdoors whether or not you believe in the values of organic farming or in a commitment to rural communities.

So, in a sense, they are creating their own outlying bedroom community?

You could say that. Because of technological changes, these people see that they don't need to be where they are [in the city] and that simplifying doesn't mean asceticism. A lot of people moving out to the country see it just as a way to have a better quality of life.

Do nouveau rural dwellers really expect to make their livelihoods in the country?

For a certain core of people, country living is a hobby, but there are quite a lot of people who have decided to move to the country and adjust to that new reality and try to make a go of it. Maybe they have independent means, but that doesn't mean they're not going to derive some sort of income from working in the place where they're living.

What sort of things challenge people who move from the city?

How to get engaged socially, how to get involved when your nearest neighbor is a couple of miles away. People who move to the country sometimes don't think through how reliant they are on the communal infrastructure that's readily available in the city. All of a sudden you have to think about your own water supply. In a city or the suburbs, local and municipal governments take care of a lot of problems. In the country it's your problem.

Do some transplants find country life more of an Outward Bound experience than they'd anticipated?

Sure. That's definitely the case. However, some people [who moved] to the country have made their millions in the New Economy, and for them it's not going to be much of an Outward Bound experience, ever. We have [had] to assume a sizable portion of our readership is willing to get their hands dirty, but it's always going to be slightly optional. They'll go out and try to put in a fence or rototill a garden, but if it doesn't work out, it's not going to be the end of the world. They'll call someone who knows how to do it.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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