Photo by Madoline Markham.
A Southern cultural renaissance A conversation with Time Inc.’s Sid Evans
Mountain Brook resident Sid Evans serves as the group editor of magazines including Southern Living and Cooking Light from their offices off Lakeshore Drive.
Sid Evans is the kind of guy you can’t help but feel at-ease to talk with. The groupeditor of Time Inc.’s lifestyle magazines, including Southern Living and Cooking Light, made his family’s home in Mountain Brook close to a year ago. Curious about the magazines and his experience, we sat down with Evans to talk publishing, food, Birmingham and the South from his office off Lakeshore Drive.
You moved here last August. What do you think of Birmingham so far?
It’s been great; it’s been very welcoming. It’s a great place to raise kids.We have got two young kids that are seven and five, and they have adapted very quickly and made very good friends. I think it’s a really dynamic place; there’s a lot going on in the food scene and music. There are all sorts of creative people here—certainly in terms of writers and photographers. For someone who grew up in Memphis, it’s not that radically different.
What kinds of things has your family enjoyed doing around town?
We’ve enjoyed everything from going to music at Work Play, to the back patio at Chez Fon Fon, to new restaurants like the Little Donkey in Homewood, to Railroad Park. We just saw Wilco at Sloss Furnaces, which is a really great venue.
You are renting a house in Mountain Brook, right? What do you think of the area?
We love it; it’s great. We have a great place with a yard and a big ole cypress tree in the backyard. We are a stone’s throw from Publix and Whole Foods. We are still getting to know where everything is.
Can you tell me about your vision for Southern Living and what changes have been made since you started?
Southern Living is an amazing brand that has a remarkable history. What’s really struck me is the connection that it has with a big audience of Southern women. I think that a few years ago, the magazine had started to drift a little bit from its original mission, so I think that putting the South back in Southern Living is a continued priority. I think that Lindsay Bierman, the editor, has done a really good job with that. We have also reinvested in the print magazine. People still love a great print magazine, so we have actually improved the paper quality significantly starting in the April issue. What that does is let a magazine do what it does best, which is to showcase great photography. It makes it more tactile, and it’s a better reflection on the South.
Southerners have a distinct voice, and we have been working hard to capture that. Someone like Rick Bragg does a great job of that. You’ll see a number of other new voices in the magazine. The South is a literary culture. We are known for our great writers, so we should have some great writing in Southern Living. I feel very strongly about that.
At the same time that we are investing in the print magazine, we are also aggressively expanding our digital footprint. We launched tablet editions at the first of the year for all the Time Inc. magazines. We are on the iPad, the Kindle Fire, the Nook, and we are ready to be on whatever device comes next. I think it’s important to be wherever your readers are.
What about Cooking Light and the other titles?
We have also improved the paper quality at Cooking Light. The magazine is more nationally focused and in a competitive arena. One of the interesting things about Cooking Light right now is that food has never been a hotter topic. There is a whole new generation of people who are completely obsessed with food and cooking. One of our challenges is how to reach that next generation of cooks.
Another big thing about Cooking Light is that this year is their 25th anniversary. I think that’s pretty remarkable. It was founded here in Birmingham. They are gearing up for a big event in New York in the fall and an anniversary dinner at Hot and Hot Fish Club on October 8 (tickets will be available to benefit a charity). They have a cookbook coming out this fall that’s called The New Way to Cook Light.
Coastal Living has their 15th anniversary. It is doing extremely well. They have a really loyal readership. It is the must-read for people who live on the coast. Obviously summer is their big time of year.
I am also dealing with Sunset and This Old House. Sunset is out of California. One thing that is not that widely known is that Southern Living modeled itself on Sunset when it launched. Sunset was founded in 1898. It has been a successful regionally focused magazine. Someone had the idea that maybe there was a space for a regionally focused magazine about the South, so they started Southern Living in 1966.
This Old House [based in New York] is a terrific magazine and is well positioned because I think people are obsessed with do-it-yourself projects and homemaking; they are an authority on that. The TV show is widely known, but the magazine is its own identity and has its own voice. It has a loyal audience.
How are the magazines doing now?
I think it’s a very exciting place right now. Southern Living in particular has been doing very well in terms of ad sales and newsstand sales and books and online; it’s been doing very well on every front. I think it has to do with all the exciting things that are happening in the South right now. I feel like Southern culture is going through something of a renaissance.
How have you seen Birmingham as a microcosm of that renaissance?
It starts with food; there is an appreciation for Southern food that has really gone not just national but international. The South is kind of like the Italy of the United States; it’s this incredibly rich place when it comes to food. [Chris] Hastings just won a James Beard award. Ollie Irene was nominated for best new restaurant. If you look at the winners of the James Beard awards for cookbooks over the past 10 years, I think eight of them have been Southern cookbooks. Southern Living was nominated this year for a James Beard award.
Birmingham has always been known for its food, certainly for the past 20 years. I look around and see new restaurants popping up all over the place, and young chefs and bartenders who are having a ball and doing creative things in the kitchen.
The magazine benefitted from that; Cooking Light has benefitted from that. I don’t see it slowing down. I think it’s great that a place like Little Donkey can open up, and you can hardly get a table there. It’s all based on locally sourced food; they make everything right there. I love to see people get excited about a place like that.
How has your experience at Garden and Gun and Field and Stream informed what you are doing now?
Garden and Gun taught me how passionate people are about Southern culture. Field and Stream is similar to Southern Living because it’s a magazine for people who really like to get out and do things. In the case of Field and Stream, they like to get out and hunt and fish. It was a very service-driven magazine, and we were trying to teach the readers how to be better hunters and fi sherman. In the case of Southern Living, you are trying to teach the readers how to be better cooks, how to have more successful gardens, how to take more fulfilling trips, and how to be better at designing their homes.
You grew up in Memphis. What has it been like to live in the South again?
It’s been the greatest. I love it. It makes you appreciate it even more when you leave the South and then come back. I was gone for 14 years living in New York. I loved New York and had a great time there, but my wife is from Nashville and we wanted to raise our kids in the South.
Our kids love the zoo and their school (Highlands Day School). We have beencatching lightning bugs every night for the last week; you can’t do that in New York. We have gone down to Moss Rock Preserve in Hoover and done things like that; you are just always accessible to the outdoors.
What do your kids think of your job?
They like the office. They came and had pancakes in the test kitchen, and they thought that was the coolest thing ever.