The story behind the first issue of this magazine, as told by the people who were there.
In 2007, WV Living founder Nikki Bowman was living in Jackson, Mississippi. She was the managing editor of Mississippi magazine. It was a large lifestyle publication with a small staff, but its impact was felt all across the state. “It helped build businesses. It helped define the culture of the state,” Bowman says. “I kept thinking, we don’t have that in West Virginia.”
Around that time, Bowman, a Clay County native, came back to West Virginia to visit her aunt Dee Braley, who lived in Summersville. “She was absolutely West Virginia’s biggest champion and had always been involved in the art and music scene,” Bowman says. She was also Bowman’s biggest cheerleader. During their visit, Bowman told her aunt she wanted to move back to West Virginia, but there weren’t any Mississippi magazine-style publications for her to work at.
“She said ‘Well, Nikki Lee, you know enough about magazine publishing. Start it. Stop waiting on other people to fulfill your dreams.’ I remember thinking at the time, it’s not that easy. You don’t just start a magazine.”
But she couldn’t shake her aunt’s suggestion. She started reading business books and thinking about what it would take to start a publication. One of those books advised any hopeful entrepreneur to establish a mission that would serve as their company’s guiding principle.
For Bowman, the magazine’s mission was obvious. “Growing up poor in the rural part of the state, I knew people perceived us as ignorant, uneducated, and backward,” she says. “If I can change perceptions of West Virginia, I will have done my job.”
When it came time to incorporate her company, she called it New South Media. “West Virginia is the northernmost southern state and the southernmost northern state, so let’s be the ‘New South’ and own that dichotomy,” she says. She also chose the name because it would allow her to produce out-of-state publications in the future.
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As she became more convinced the idea would work, Bowman began making regular 19-hour drives from Mississippi to West Virginia to conduct focus groups at rotary clubs, Bible study groups, and any other group that would give her a few minutes and a microphone.
Every audience was enthusiastic about the prospect of a statewide lifestyle magazine. So enthusiastic, in fact, they were willing to buy subscriptions to the as-yet-nonexistent publication. “After I would talk, they were, ‘OK sign me up,’” Bowman says. “They didn’t just subscribe for themselves, they bought five or 10 gift subscriptions.”
Then Bowman started meeting with investor groups—and found a much less enthusiastic crowd. “They just looked at me and said, ‘This has been tried before, it won’t work. Nobody in Charleston cares what’s going on in the Eastern Panhandle, nobody in the Eastern Panhandle cares about what’s going on in Morgantown.’”
Bowman suspected the suits didn’t know what they were talking about, though, because all those focus groups she had conducted left her with a different impression. “My gut told me there was an audience.” She decided to move forward with her plans and fund the first issue herself with money from her savings and retirement accounts.
Then the Great Recession of 2008 hit. Mortgages defaulted, stock prices plummeted, and the U.S. economy teetered on the brink of destruction. It was the worst time for magazines, ever. Because advertising budgets are usually among the first things struggling businesses cut—and because the publishing industry is almost entirely dependent on advertising revenue—publications all over the country closed their doors. Those that survived faced massive layoffs.
Many experts declared print media was dead.
The tanking economy didn’t affect Bowman at first, since she planned to finance the first few issues on her own. But that money would eventually be used up. The magazine’s long-term success would rely on advertising revenue—provided there was anyone willing to advertise. “I was going to know really quickly whether we were going to fail,” Bowman says.
Nevertheless, she pressed forward with her plans, driving back and forth between Mississippi and the Mountain State to conduct interviews and take photos for the magazine. She put more than 100,000 miles on her minivan in the process, but discovered a side of her home state she’d never known. It only served to give her more faith in the idea.
“I had grown up in West Virginia and had never been to Lewisburg. I’d never been to the Eastern Panhandle. I’d never been to Parkersburg or Wheeling. If I could grow up and not know the hidden gems in my backyard, there had to be other people just like me.”
She filled the magazine’s pages with stories about these hidden gems, like Hillbilly Hot Dogs in Lesage and Holl’s Chocolates in Parkersburg. She wrote travelogues about Berkeley Springs and Lewisburg. She even conscripted her aunt to write a story about Ron Hinkle, a Buckhannon glass artist Braley had long admired. Bowman also included stories of West Virginians who had made their own far-fetched dreams come true—Parkersburg native and QVC personality Kim Parrish, Teays Valley mixes founder Roy Elswick, Huntington-born cookbook author and celebrity chef Katie Lee, and Nitro-born Nashville star Kathy Mattea.
And because this was meant to be a lifestyle publication, Bowman also included cooking, decorating, and entertaining tips. For a story about throwing a girlfriends-only Christmas party, she organized a get-together at the home of her mother, Sharon Holcomb. “It had to be wintertime, so my whole house was decked out in Christmas,” Holcomb says. “I had garland on the handrails and a Christmas tree.” Which was a bit odd, since this was all taking place in July.
Holcomb invited friends over to eat the food and appear in the pictures, and they were decked out in holiday garb, too. “We all had to wear wintery clothes. I remember getting really hot.” The photographer was careful to blur out the windows so readers wouldn’t be able to see the bright, green summertime grass outside this Christmastime soiree.
One of the party’s attendees, Holcomb’s neighbor Golda Pickering, had much earlier insisted that she would be the magazine’s first subscriber and had written Bowman a check. Because the magazine didn’t technically exist yet—let alone have a subscriber management system—Bowman carried the check around in her purse for months afterward.
Although Bowman had written many articles and taken many photographs at her previous jobs, starting her own magazine forced her into a brand-new challenge: selling advertising. “I knew nothing about that side of the business.”
She was nervous about the idea. Other, less ethical magazines require interview subjects to buy an ad in exchange for a story. Bowman didn’t want to run her business that way. So when she approached Ron Hinkle about purchasing an ad, she made clear this wasn’t a pay-for-play situation. “I said, you know, I’m doing the story whether or not you buy an ad.”
Hinkle was more than happy to buy an ad, though. “I’d been in several West Virginia magazines before WV Living. They didn’t stick. I could see the value in what she was doing. She said she was coming home to West Virginia and wanted to do this in West Virginia.”
Johnnie Wells, owner of Wells Home Furnishings in Charleston and Morgantown, had a similar reaction. “It was the perfect medium for us because it was a publication for the whole state. That was one of the things that really drew me.” He was also impressed by Bowman’s commitment to high-quality paper and full-color photography. “It makes the furniture we sell pop off the page. A newspaper doesn’t get it. I knew she really knew what she was doing. She had the confidence. I didn’t want to let it go.”
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Bowman was doing most of the writing and photography herself, but she needed someone to handle design. She contacted freelance graphic designer Anne Meyer and set up a meeting at Taylor Books in Charleston.
“I told her what I was looking to create: high-caliber, great photography, a lot of white space,” Bowman says. Meyer liked the idea but was wary. “I was a little bit hesitant, because magazines go under all the time. I’d worked on several magazines that, for one reason or another, didn’t make it past the second issue,” she says. Still, she agreed to help Bowman out.
One of the first matters to address was the magazine’s logo. Meyer prepared several versions with different fonts and colors. “Everything was so new, so there were lots of decisions to make,” she says.
But it didn’t take long before they landed on a logo: WV Living in all lowercase letters, rendered in two different but similar colors, with the words “celebrating life in the Mountain State” written underneath. That probably sounds familiar—although it has undergone a few minor changes, it’s still the logo used today. “She had a vision of exactly what she wanted. That’s what was great about working with Nikki. She knew what she wanted,” Meyer says.
Coming up with the rest of the first issue’s cover took a bit more work. Bowman originally hoped to use a photo of the front door of Montwell, Mary and Paul Lindquist’s home in Lewisburg. One hot summer day, she showed up and asked the couple if she could stage a winter scene with fake snow, a sled, mittens, and wreaths on their front porch. “I thought she was crazy,” Mary Lindquist says.
When she got back home, Bowman realized the photos weren’t quite right. “It didn’t have the feel that I wanted,” she says. Instead of returning to Lewisburg, she traveled to her great-grandfather Acree’s farm in Clay County. She shot photos all over the property, but it was the homeplace’s weathered, peeling wooden door that made the cut.
Nikki’s Aunt Virginia, who had inherited the homeplace, wasn’t exactly flattered. “She was horrified when she saw the door with peeling paint on the cover of the magazine. She thought people would think she didn’t take care of her property.” By the time the magazine hit newsstands, she had repainted the door.
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As the magazine came together, Bowman knew she had to leave Mississippi. She moved her two young children to a rented townhouse in Morgantown while her husband at the time, a law school professor, remained behind. This only added to the stress of starting the magazine. “I worked into the wee hours of the morning when they were in bed. And then during the day when they were in school, I was doing all my running around to get back at 2:30 to pick them up.”
Bowman and Meyer spent many late nights mailing Word documents, photos, and PDFs back and forth. Since Bowman was in Morgantown and Meyer was in Charleston, they couldn’t work side-by-side. When Bowman needed to make a change to the design, she would call Meyer and dictate the changes.
Finally, in mid-November 2008, the first issue was finished. Meyer sent the digital files off to the printer and, a few weeks later, a semi truck pulled up outside Bowman’s townhouse. The driver rang the bell and informed Bowman that, because she did not pay extra to have a liftgate on the truck, she would have to get the magazines off the truck herself. So, box by box, she moved 10,000 magazines into her garage.
When it was over, she tore open one of the boxes and removed a copy. “It was like birthing a child. You’re carrying it with you and then all of a sudden, it’s real and tangible. It’s something you can hold in your hands,” she says. “I just cried.”
No longer would she have to sell a theoretical product to subscribers and advertisers. “Now I had something to take to people. Now my job was going to be a little bit easier,” she says.
But only a little bit. Bowman still had to get her magazines to readers. Because major magazine distributors—the ones who stock grocery stores, pharmacies, and big chain bookstores—don’t really accept small publications, it was up to Bowman to distribute that initial issue to retailers across the state. She and her parents criss-crossed West Virginia, dropping stacks of magazines off at shops that were willing to give the fledgling WV Living a spot on their shelves.
Bowman and her mother, with Bowman’s eight-year-old daughter in tow, also began going to fairs and festivals around the state to try and sell subscriptions. As people passed by the booth, picked up the inaugural issue, and thumbed through the glossy pages, Holcomb saw the same enthusiasm Bowman’s focus groups had exhibited so many months before. Except now, the magazine wasn’t just an idea.
“People were so excited because it promoted the positive side of West Virginia,” Holcomb says. “They said, ‘This is what our state needed.’ It makes you want to stand up a little taller.”
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The story of New South Media was only just beginning after the first issue of its flagship publication, WV Living, came out. Bowman immediately got to work on the next edition, and it was still a struggle. “I was answering phones, trying to write stories, trying to sell advertising, and taking photos.”
Then she got some unexpected help. Students from West Virginia University served as interns. Writer and photographer Katie Hanlon, a Bridgeport native, discovered Bowman and WV Living through a story in the Dominion Post and immediately emailed her, offering to help in any way she could. Around the same time, Casey Cid, walked into the office—which had moved from Bowman’s townhouse to a second-floor space in downtown Morgantown— unannounced and also offered to help out. She wasn’t a native West Virginian like Hanlon, but loved the magazine and wanted to get involved. “She showed up on my doorstep and said ‘You don’t know me, I don’t know you, but I have to work for you,’” Bowman remembers. Cid would become New South Media’s first office manager, and her presence freed Bowman up from answering phones and selling subscriptions to spend more time producing stories and selling ads.
Hanlon and Cid believed so deeply in the mission of the magazine, they agreed to work for free until there was enough money to pay them. “I couldn’t afford to have paid them—and I couldn’t have afforded to keep going if I hadn’t had the help.”
A lot has changed since that first year. True to Bowman’s original vision, New South Media has expanded its reach beyond West Virginia’s border. In 2012, the company published The Ultimate Sports & Travel Guide to the Big 12, which was sold at newsstands nationwide. Then, last year, the company was chosen to produce the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Small Business Resource Guides—the federal government’s premier marketing tool for small business growth and development. “In addition to all of our own magazines, we are really excited to be producing 72 magazines a year for the federal government that help small businesses from across the country grow and prosper,” says Bowman.
Although these publications are not solely focused on West Virginia, Bowman says they still contribute to her goal of changing perceptions. “As we’re able to work nationally, and people see these high-quality publications, it changes the way people think about our state.”
But even with those national successes, New South Media has remained a steadfast champion of all things West Virginia. In addition to WV Living, the company’s family of magazines has grown to include Morgantown magazine, WV Weddings, and Wonderful West Virginia, which the company produces for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. And that’s in addition to the custom travel guides, Explore, New South Media has produced for Adventures on the Gorge and the state tourism office.
Bowman’s team has also grown. What started as a solo act has become a team of 15 full-time staffers, plus a whole bench of talented freelancers.
The success of the company, Bowman says, comes from the same thing that sold her very first subscriptions. Although progress has been made over the last 10 years, there are still plenty of people who like to make fun of West Virginians and paint its residents with a broad, unflattering brush. But WV Living and the rest of New South Media’s publications are constant reminders of the beauty that is found among these mountains.
“We’ve struck an emotional chord and have high-quality products that people support,” Bowman says. “By telling West Virginia’s stories, we make people proud to be West Virginians.”