A taste of the country with a 21st-century flavour

For a magazine that’s coming up to celebrating 111 years in publication, claiming the past year has been its most successful ever is a bold statement.

But Mark Hedges, editor of IPC’s weekly glossy guide to rural Britain, Country Life, is confident as he explains why his title is having a golden period against a backdrop in which many magazines are suffering.

‘Everything came together,’he says. ‘We had a successful year in terms of our copy sales. In terms of all aspects of advertising for the title, every area that goes towards the bottom line showed improvement on the previous year, which is quite an exciting thing when not every magazine is doing as well as it might be at the moment.”

The right people

Country Life is set for a second consecutive ABC rise under Hedges’ editorship, after seeing a gradual decline from 45,675 in 2001, to 40,205 in 2005. Although its circulation, which is currently 40,408 and has stayed around 40,000 since at least the mid-1990s, doesn’t match the triple figures of some of its IPC stable mates, Hedges says that Country Life’s goal is not just to sell more copies, but to sell ‘more copies to the right people”.

The ‘right people’have changed considerably since the title was launched in 1897 by Edward Hudson, he says.

‘My big challenge now is that most of the people buying the houses in Country Life are ‘new money’ – hedge fund money, entrepreneurs, foreign investors. They haven’t grown up with Country Life in their kitchen. I have to get them to become acquainted with it. The British country house is one of the totems of success.’

Hedges explains that they’re now trying to reach out to three types of Country Life reader: Core-country – who live in the countryside and live the lifestyle; core-cultured – London and city-based people who are interested in the the arts, but still have their heart in the countryside; and core-aspirational – the group of people who want to enjoy the lifestyle that country life is associated with.

Surrounding the classified advertising of luxury properties (average price £2m) in last week’s issue, is an eclectic mix of editorial, tackling the issues of modern day rural life. A guide on raising, killing and plucking your own free-range chickens, and a feature on a wild flower meadow made by Miriam Rothschild are mixed in with articles on pressing issues such as bird flu.

Hedges says that the title uses the web to its advantage, with up-to-date news stories on property, alerting users the minute their dream home is on the market. And when bird flu broke in Dorset last month, the story was up within 20 minutes.

The print title has Michael Heseltine, owner of publishing giant Haymarket, writing the gardening column, and celebrity chef Tom Aitkin doing the food, but perhaps the most notable contributor comes in the form of the Prince Charles, an avid reader of Country Life, who wrote the leader for a feature on the National Trust’s centenary.

‘Country Life is read by most of the royal family and many people with influence and power,”says Hedges. ‘We have an incredibly influential readership, and they can then write articles for the magazine – politicians or leaders of industries. We propose the debate and the debate will ensue within our pages. Because of our influences things get done.’

In 2006, Country Life presented a 10-point manifesto for creating a better future for the British countryside, which sparked several campaigns. Hedges says that number two – asking for countryside lessons in schools – led to a series of meetings with the then head of the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, David Milliband – and a change to the national curriculum.

‘Certainly, under my editorship, we campaign quite vigorously for things we feel really matter. I feel that it’s very important for a magazine that has as much influence as Country Life to play its part.”

Hedges is currently preparing a new 10-point manifesto he hopes to reveal in March, with the aim of eventually making them yearly.

Hedges’ passion for all things rural goes beyond the pages of his magazine. He grew up in the Cotswolds in a house now owned by motoring pundit Jeremy Clarkson, and commutes to London from Hampshire, a sacrifice he’s willing to make to ‘see the night sky and feed his free-range chickens”. His wife is a cheese maker, producing Tunworth – a cheese once hailed by the Sunday Times as the most fashionable in the country.

‘We live the life as well. We talk about local food, but we actually make it at home. I am a country boy first and foremost; I get very lost in London. I think sometimes the danger when you work on magazines in big tower blocks is that you forget what’s actually happening in the field, so to speak.’

Hedges encourages staff to escape IPC’s space-age Blue Fin building as much as possible. While equipped with all the mod cons a publishing company can dream of, it does little to inspire the rural way of life. Hedges’ office, however, is completely off-kilter with the rest of the building – he works at a grand antique desk that the first-ever editor of Country Life used, and is surrounded by other gems, such as chairs by architect and designer Sir Edwin Lutyens.

Hedges, 44, had the misfortune of graduating with a geology degree just as the price of oil collapsed (‘the last thing anyone wanted was an average geologist”), so he ran away to Newmarket to work with horses.

In 1990 he returned from a year in Australia – a newly-wed in need of a job – and came across an advert for a reporter on IPC’s Horse and Hound magazine. A shared passion for fox hunting with the then-editor Michael Clayton secured the job for an inexperienced Hedges.

‘He was absolutely thrilled to have a kindred spirit and gave me the job. The fact was I could neither type nor proofread… I had done nothing in journalism at that point. It was a miracle I got the job. It was quite surprising I survived, because once I sat down behind the desk I had not a clue what to do.’

Big break

He worked his way up to editor on Horse and Hound before becoming editor of Shooting Times, which had suffered 13 years of ABC decline. Hedges declares this was his big break, after he managed to turn around a falling circulation.

He then went on to spend a year as publisher of IPC’s shooting titles and Angler’s Mail. ‘It’s quite unusual for an editor to have been a publisher, it’s been one of the best things that ever happened to me,’he says.

‘I’ve always maintained that publishers speak French and editors speak German, and if you can be bilingual you can achieve far more between the two of them.’

In 2000, Hedges was head-hunted by Emap, and offered the job as general manager running its specialist magazines in Peterborough. He was working out his notice when IPC’s chief executive, Sylvia Auton, came to his office and offered him the post of editor-in-chief of Country and Leisure Media (now IPC Inspire).

‘I’d always felt my first love was in editing, and so I was very happy to take it,’he says. Hedges spent six years redesigning all the titles in the group, looking after the editorial positioning, employing the editors, and introducing digital pages, until the editorship of Country Life came up.

‘Prompting and suggesting to others has its merit, but I just wanted to see if I could still crack it myself,’he says.

One problem he has yet to crack is Country Life’s positioning by retailers. The title can be among ‘home and living’titles in some shops, ‘outdoor pursuits’in others, and, much to Hedges’ distress, nestled next to IPC stable-mate Nuts in his local Sainsbury’s in Basing­stoke.

‘Country Life has to jump out more than that because we could almost be anywhere. I don’t think you can invent Country Life any more – nobody could dare to be as eclectic as we are.’

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