Eras: 1990-1998

Time Warner: Faithful to the Sunset Mission and Readership (73)

by Tomas Jaehn, Former Curator for American and British History, Stanford University Libraries

Originally published in 1998 on Stanford Libraries' web site and in Sunset Magazine: A Century of Western Living 1898 - 1998

The August 1990 issue was Sunset magazine's first publication under the new ownership of Time Warner, a new entity created when mega-publisher Time Inc. had combined forces with Warner Communications earlier in the same watershed year. Before its merger with Warner, Time Inc. had built an impressive publishing empire. Time Inc., now a division of Time Warner, remains the United States' largest magazine publisher, carrying popular consumer publications such as Time, Sports Illustrated, and People. Time's weekly circulation in the United States alone reaches 4 million copies weekly, while international circulation exceeds 1.4 million. But Time Inc. does not just publish magazines; it is also a leader in direct book marketing, and has been considered one of the world's most influential, broad-based information companies. Warner Communications, which had formerly lacked a distinct presence in the publishing business, was nevertheless an amazingly successful conglomeration of movie and broadcasting media companies. The merger of these two giants into Time Warner Inc. created a media corporation that shapes the national and international news media, with major holdings in the regional magazine market. (74)

The Lanes saw in Time Warner, whose national magazines had long done well in the West, the "right home," that shared what they considered to be "the unique values of Sunset and the West." (75) With the acquisition of the Lane family's prospering book and magazine publishing businesses, Time Warner--already owner of Southern Living and other regional titles--became the country's largest regional magazine publisher. But the purchase of the company was more than just another magazine acquisition for the East Coast--based publishing giant. Sunset opened the door for Time Warner to a regional market in which it had been historically difficult to establish a truly Western publication. Sunset's Pacific region ties were also of interest. Successful in both mirroring and anticipating the Western lifestyle, "Sunset's unique heritage and your solid Western values" were reasons that attracted Time Warner to the purchase. (76)

Historically, Westerners have subscribed to more than their share of magazines, nearly all of which were published in the East. In this regional market, Sunset magazine is one of the few Western magazines that has prospered. Of its competitors of bygone days, Charles Lummis's Land of Sunshine, later renamed Out West, for instance, did not survive World War I. In more recent history, Saturday Review and the New York Times failed in their attempts to run a Western magazine or a regional edition from the East Coast. Learning well from others' mistakes, Time Warner retained the Sunset Menlo Park offices as headquarters and kept offices in Los Angeles and Seattle. To ensure the distinct sense of "Westering" that Sunset magazine radiated under the Lane family, Time Warner hired Bill and Mel Lane as consultants for a transitional period.

It was not surprising that, when Time Warner acquired the company, readers expressed concerns that the publishing company and especially its regional magazine might lose their appeal. Possibly because of different profit expectations of a large public corporation (compared with a family-owned business), Time Warner closed the small Sunset Films division operating out of an office in San Francisco. Some of Sunset Books' printing processes were moved to Eastern facilities and book promotions were combined with other Time Warner publications such as Southern Living and Martha Stewart Living. The Book Division reduced the number of titles while emphasizing home improvement and gardening, and leaving fewer titles in food and travel. Magazine readers shouldered more of the production cost as the magazine's newsstand and subscription prices increased significantly. (77)

Despite these changes, Time Warner has remained faithful to the successful editorial guidelines of the magazine. Sunset magazine continues to be a "formidable force in indoctrinating westerners in the regional mores of tossed salads, homemade patios, and automobile recreation." (78) Besides keeping the headquarters of the organization in the West, Time Warner retained Sunset's successful and established formula by producing much of its magazine in-house with a full-time editorial staff and few contract articles. Editorial changes were also kept to a minimum. Its current CEO, Steve Seabolt, strongly believing in Western optimism, good education, and interest in the outdoors, confirmed in a New York Times article on February 2, 1996, that the magazine remains committed to the "four cornerstones" of Sunset: Western food, travel, home improvement, and gardening.

Still, the foundation of the magazine is its readership, a powerful predictor of magazine reading in itself. (79)

Sunset's target group remains home owners and first-time home buyers in the 13 Western states. In the early 1990s, subscribers to Sunset magazine were more often women than men (roughly a 75:25 ratio); probably the majority are Caucasian, and most likely to own their residence and to drive a car. (80) There is no indication that the readership profile has changed since. To the contrary, if current trends in Western suburban areas such as Las Vegas, Nevada; Phoenix, Arizona; Denver, Colorado; and Seattle, Washington, are an indication, an even greater number of readers own houses and cars--and presumably will subscribe to Sunset. Today's middle-aged Sunset readership remains overwhelmingly suburban, with a higher-than-average income and home value. (81)

Although the population in the West is increasingly heterogeneous, multicultural, multiethnic, and urban due to continuous (im)migration to the Sunbelt, Sunset continues to address only defined aspects of Western living. Sunset's ability to merge "the real and the imaginary so that the boundary between the two becomes progressively vaguer" keeps the magazine attractive to many Western urbanites. It continues to offer information about travel, home improvement, gardening, and food to its readers, and as such helps Westerners to associate "suburbanization with their own cultivation of environmental amenities and an informal pace of life." (82) Sunset is successful, and has been for decades, at mixing the modern twentieth-century West with nineteenth-century Anglo-American Western dreams. The magazine remains largely apolitical and positive in tone, and none of the "current Weirdness in the West" such as the Unabomber and freemen should be expected to be discussed in the magazine any time soon. (83)

The new owners did make some editorial revisions in an attempt to broaden their target group and to reflect changing demographics, and presumably more changes can be anticipated. For instance, the logo was changed. On a more substantial level, Sunset tries to attract readers both from above and below that middle-aged group of readers, by expanding its editorials. "Watchful publishers, who see a growing market in a graying America..." try to appeal to this new constituency with a variety of special needs. (84) Thus, Sunset added more health food segments and "Quick Cook" recipes. While Sunset had for decades emphasized fresh, regional foods, recipes now contain nutritional information as a matter of course. Herbal remedies, vitamin supplements, and fat-free foods, once the domain of health zealots, have now become part of mainstream America. Aging baby-boomers, as many Sunset readers are, want to preserve their quality of life. In its crossover to the "alternative approaches" of Western foods, Sunset found an opportunity to give greater attention to its readers' needs and interests. (85)

The current management also continues Sunset's quiet efforts to become an environmentally aware magazine, pointing to the advancing limitations of the Western environment. Articles such as "Forests: Celebration of Light, Dilemmas Over Logging" (May 1992) or "Secrets of the Rain Forest" (November 1997) underline the detrimental impact of extractive industries on the environment. The photo spreads-- continuing a Sunset tradition--are often as much wake-up calls on the deterioration of the environment as invitations to travel and see the grandeur of the West.

More physically active and lower-budget travel articles are also part of a plan to continue a broad appeal. To be sure, adventure travel was always a part of the magazine's lineup, but the term's meaning has changed with time. Traveling by car to Yellowstone in the 1930s was certainly an adventure, but Sunset has progressively emphasized rigorous activities such as white-water rafting and climbing, preferably in remote locations, as an increasing number of its readers pursue such demanding activities, and Sunset's current plan affirms this direction. Travel articles tend to provide background information about destinations and suggestions regarding action sports geared to appeal to younger readers. Still, with its Western ambiance, Sunset reflects as much an attitude of regionalism as of specific demographics. (86)

Advertisements of stylish Cadillacs and Mercedes, exotic Hilton resorts, and healthy Quaker 100% Natural cereals continue to address that specific demographic group, but electric vehicles, too, have found their way into Sunset's pages (Honda, September 1997). Appealing to adventure, tradition, innovation, and individualism, the ads often serve as a continuum and natural extension to the text. Minorities, although still rare, begin to appear in advertisements. (87)

With its seat in the Silicon Valley, it is natural that Sunset would find ways to participate in the information highway. Sunset began publishing on-line in 1994 by providing garden articles to Virtual Garden, a Time Warner site on the Internet. (88) It added its Western Garden Book on CD-ROM with searchable interfaces to its lineup, and provided a Web site for its growing clientele of computer-literate readers with information on recent issues of its magazines and books. To accommodate the expanding demand for electronic presence, Sunset's leadership has recently developed a new Web design with up-to-date information for its readers.

Readers themselves begin to internalize Sunset electronically. They link their personal home pages to Sunset, and advertise in their home pages specific articles dear to their causes and interests. College class syllabi mounted on home pages make Sunsetpublications required reading and provide hyperlinks to the magazine home page. Electronic Sunset chat rooms and bulletin boards fill the need for quick information on the Western lifestyle and link cyberspace gardeners as much to Sunset as to one another. Editors of Sunset use electronic resources, for example, by seeking on the Sierra Club home page John Muir quotes about San Joaquin wildflowers, a search rewarded immediately with a quote from A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf:

The valley of the San Joaquin is the floweriest place of world I ever walked, one vast, level, even flower-bed, a sheet of flowers, a smooth sea, ruffled a little in the middle by the tree fringing of the river and of smaller cross-streams here and there, from the mountains.

The John Muir Exhibit:

It is images like John Muir's of the San Joaquin valley, dreams of home ownership, and travel suggestions to places that signify Western values, combined with practical advice and how-to sections for gardeners and builders, that continue to make Sunset the successful magazine that it is. The editors successfully reach a readership that will identify with the region and its unique history of westward movement and open space. Sunset's continuous efforts to anticipate its readers' practical needs and to promote American dreams of the wholesome frontier West promise the magazine a bright future in its second century. By purchasing the magazine, Time Warner recognized the regionalism that is deeply rooted west of the 100th meridian and acknowledged that the dream of "Western living" in the American West is vibrant and alive.


(73) The author would like to thank Steve Seabolt (CEO) and Jim Mitchell (CFO) for sharing their knowledge and opinions on Sunset magazine during an interview on 26 November 1997; and Lisa Anderson of Sunset Book Inc. for reviewing this article.

(74) Connie Bruck, Master of the Game: Steve Ross and the Creation of Time Warner (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994), 64, 252. For a brief history of the Time Warner merger, see 246-81.

(75) Interoffice Memorandum, Bill and Mel Lane to Sunset employees and retirees, 27 March 1990.

(76) S. Christopher Meager III, remarks made to the staff of Sunset, 27 March 1990. Copy of transcript in possession of author.

(77) Newsstand issues increased by $1.00 to $2.50 (67 percent increase) when Time Warner took over. Newsstand issues cost currently $3.50.

(78) Earl Pomeroy, Pacific Slope: A History of California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, and Nevada (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965), 384.

(79) James L. Baughman, The Republic of Mass Culture, 2nd ed. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 15.

(80) For demographics on Sunset readers, see Margaret L. Beck, ed., Sunset Western Market Almanac, 1989-1990 (Menlo Park, CA: Sunset Magazine, 1989), 74-79; Katherine Grace Fry, "Old South, AgrarianMidwest and Frontier West: Discourses of Repression and Consumption in Southern Living, Midwest Living, and Sunset Magazines" (Ph.D. diss., Temple University, 1994), 227-28.

(81) "At Sunset, Another Day Is About to Dawn," New York Times, 10 February 1996.

(82) Richard White, "Itís Your Own Misfortune and None of My Own:" A New History of the American West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991), 546.

(83) Richard White, "The Current Weirdness in the West," Western Historical Quarterly 28 (Spring 1997), 5.

(84) Karen Hudes, "Not the Same Old Story," Folio, September 1997, 15.

(85) Lorraine Calvacca, "Publishers Heed Natureís Call," Folio, June 1997, 20-21.

(86) Karen Hudes, "Adventures in Travel Publishing," Folio, October 1997, 15.

(87) For an analysis of under-representation of current non-White groups in magazines, see Fry, "Old South, Agrarian Midwest and Frontier West," 251; see also her chapter "Representation of Non-Whites," 129-152.

(88) Sunset also has created a Web site of its own, at The URL for Sunset material on the Time Warner Pathfinder Virtual Gardener Web site, as of February 1998, is Note for Ben Stone: These links don't work/aren't currently available. Should this endnote be deleted?