Like so many enduring enterprises, it began with one man’s dream. Following his graduation from Harvard in 1922 (where he’d served as editor of the Harvard Lampoon and the Harvard Business Review), Robb Sagendorph of Boston had tried working for his father’s steel business, Penn Metal Inc. He’d tried farming at his wife Beatrix’s family summer home overlooking Mount Monadnock in Dublin, New Hampshire. He’d tried writing for national magazines. Then back to the steel business. His father, George A. Sagendorph, related that he’d hired and fired Robb, his only son (there were also three daughters), no fewer than three times. But throughout those years, Robb Sagendorph maintained a gut feeling that the six-state region known as New England ought to have a magazine of its very own.
In September 1935 he made his dream come true. While driving from Dublin to Boston earlier that summer, he’d decided to call it Yankee Magazine. It would, he wrote later, be “for Yankee readers, by Yankee writers, and about Yankeedom.” Its “destiny” would be “the expression and perhaps, indirectly, the preservation of that great culture into which every Yank was born and by which every real Yank must live.”
The initial subscriber list totaled 614 names, of which 600 had been purchased from a fraudulent subscription agency that had simply picked names at random from the Boston telephone book. So it could be said that Yankee actually began with 14 subscribers.
With a subtle mixture of sophistication (publishing writers such as Robert Frost, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Robert Tristram Coffin, and Gladys Hasty Carroll) and homespun country atmosphere (such as “The Original Yankee Swopper’s Column”), Yankee Magazine managed to survive the 1930s. Sagendorph’s wife, Beatrix, not only painted all the covers in those days and for many years thereafter, but also helped finance the fledgling enterprise in times of trouble.
In 1939 Sagendorph purchased the publishing rights to The Old Farmer’s Almanac, America’s oldest continuously published periodical, from Little, Brown in Boston and became its 11th editor since its first appearance in the fall of 1792. It had fallen on hard times during the Depression years, even omitting its famous weather forecasts from the 1938 edition, a blunder often blamed for the circulation’s plummet to fewer than 80,000 readers. (It had, for instance, been twice that during the Civil War years.) However, Sagendorph immediately restored it to health, both financially and editorially, and managed to publish it each year during World War II, even while serving full-time at the Bureau of Censorship in New York.
Yankee Magazine suspended monthly publication during the last two war years, but published a four-page issue annually to maintain the copyright. After the war, Yankee’s size was reduced from 9"x12" to “digest” size, and then, to better fit the old letterpress printing presses, to the unique 6"x9" trim size for which the magazine became widely known.
Circulation grew to over 40,000 monthly during the late 1950s, but the principal moneymaker in those days remained The Old Farmer’s Almanac, which truly blossomed, thanks in no small part to the national publicity that its annual weather forecasts, now written in rhyme, began to enjoy. Sagendorph appeared regularly on national radio and television programs and was a much-sought-after speaker at events throughout the New England states. (One of his favorite “props” was a wind-up moth that, when he opened an old book from which to quote, would fly out over the audience.)
In 1958 Judson Hale, Sagendorph’s nephew, joined the company on the editorial side, and seven years later, in 1965, Rob Trowbridge, his son-in-law, came onboard to help with the business end of things. Five years later, shortly before his death on July 4, 1970, Sagendorph called both Hale and Trowbridge to his bedside. He told them that about 80 percent of YPI stock would be held in trust for his two daughters, Jane Kauppi and Lorna Trowbridge. Most of the remaining minority shares would be held by the Hale and Trowbridge families.
Then Sagendorph beckoned Trowbridge and Hale even closer to his bedside, saying, “But don’t grow the company any more, boys.”
“Why not?” was the obvious question, and both Hale and Trowbridge expected profound advice. “Because,” replied Sagendorph, “the plumbing won’t take it.”
Despite the warning, the company did grow dramatically during the 1970s and 1980s. Yankee Magazine and The Old Farmer’s Almanac did so well that the company chose to start and purchase additional publications to expand the company even further. These new ventures didn’t perform as expected, however, and the company had to close or sell them to get back on track. A change in management coincided with these events, with Joe Meagher becoming the company’s president. The years 1988 and 1989 brought dramatic organizational change, resulting in a business that was leaner, quicker, and more profitable. Strategically, YPI returned to focusing on its core businesses: Yankee Magazine and The Old Farmer’s Almanac.
By the end of the 1990s, YPI had repaid its debt from the losses of the late 1980s. But the publishing industry was changing dramatically. Media conglomerates were buying up magazines, radio stations, newspapers, and television stations. It wasn’t clear that small independent publishers such as YPI would be able to compete in a marketplace dominated by media giants. At the same time, the industry’s landscape started to shift with the introduction of “new media,” most notably the emergence of the Internet as a medium through which consumers could get information and entertainment. What should the company do in the face of these challenges?
YPI’s board and shareholders resolved to remain independent and to embrace the Internet as a publishing platform. Jamie Trowbridge took over as CEO in 1999 and led the company through many changes to position it for success in the 21st century. The company aggressively experimented with new products from The Old Farmer’s Almanac; completely overhauled the structure of its Yankee Magazine business, changing the publication’s format, frequency, and circulation in 2007; and invested in launching and growing a portfolio of Web sites and digital initiatives related to YPI’s magazine brands.
In 2012 YPI acquired McLean Communications as a way of growing its media footprint within New England and diversifying the types of media businesses it owns. Based in Manchester, New Hampshire, McLean produces some of the state’s best-known and most-respected publications, including New Hampshire Magazine, New Hampshire Business Review, and New Hampshire Home. McLean extends its publication brands with Web sites and many ancillary products and events.
In 2019 YPI acquired Family Tree, the premier magazine about genealogy in the U.S. In addition to the bimonthly magazine Family Tree has a robust digital business including ecommerce and Family Tree University, its online learning platform of courses and webinars.
Despite all the changes in the media landscape and in its businesses, YPI’s mission is to remain a successful independent media company committed to creating outstanding products that serve its customers and enhance its communities. The company is in the process of transitioning from family ownership to employee ownership through the sale of stock to the company’s Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP), established in 2019.
Since 1935 YPI has held tight to the vision of its founder, Robb Sagendorph, who was so inspired by the spirit of New England that he started a magazine about it. Independence, integrity, ingenuity, perseverance, self-sufficiency, community: These are the values that have made both New England and Yankee Publishing successful. We continue to adhere to those values today.