Gary Lifetime Achievement Award CRMA- The Finalist article

Attending CRMA in Minneapolis is a bit of a homecoming for Gary Whitaker. It was May 2001 when Gary and his wife, Joan, took all the cash they had and bought the fledgling 417 Magazine. It was losing $15,000 a month and had little to no circulation. Gary jokes, “If it had been a good magazine, we wouldn’t have been able to afford it.”

Why even consider the offer? There was a nostalgic pull. Gary grew up in Springfield, Missouri—where the area code is 417. After moving his family all over the country building a 25-year career in television, he and his family found themselves back in his hometown. His parents had recently passed. Publishing a magazine all about his hometown pulled at his heartstrings a bit. The owner of the magazine wanted a lot of money for his losing magazine. Gary told him: “I have $39,000 from my parent’s estate. You have until 5 p.m. tomorrow to accept my offer.”

Gary wasn’t playing hardball. He had sought the advice of Dr. Don Ranly at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Dr. Ranly’s best advice? Join the City and Regional Magazine Association, which happened to be meeting in Minneapolis that weekend. Gary told the owner the deal was off the table unless he and Joan could get to Minneapolis to learn from the CRMA how to publish a magazine. It came down to the wire. With the owner’s verbal agreement to accept Gary’s offer, Gary and Joan jumped on a plane to Minneapolis.

Gary recalls sitting in a publishers meeting that first day with titans such as Milt Jones, Ken Neal, Jim Fitzpatrick and a host of others. They asked Gary to introduce himself and say how long he had been in publishing. He stood up and said: “I’m Gary Whitaker, 417 Magazine, Springfield, Missouri. I’ve been in publishing since 5 o’clock yesterday.”

They laughed and said he was in the right place and they would help. And they did.

Returning from CRMA, Gary determined the editorial focus for 417 Magazine, which holds true today:

  1. Is it here and now?
  2. Does it tell someone’s story?
  3. Is it something readers can act on?

With the editorial focus determined, Gary thought about what kind of company he wanted to create. He wanted a company that was a fun place to work with very few rules. That philosophy morphed into what Gary calls “interdependent autonomy.” The business runs on deadlines. As long as an employee gets their work done on time and doesn’t hold up the next person down the line, they can set their own pace. The other policy is “no gossip.” If you have a problem, only talk to the person who can do something about it. Gossip is not tolerated.

With that framework, Gary and Joan went to work. No bank would loan them operating money, so they took out a home equity loan and thought they had enough money to get them to the end of the year. They had inherited a well paid staff with a questionable work ethic. Gary called them together and explained they would all have to take salary cuts, but if they would stick with him and help him turn it around, he would share fifty cents of every dollar of profit. All but one staff person quit within eight weeks.

That was good news. There was a bit of a recession in 2001, so Gary was able to hire high-quality talent that had previously been at major magazines. By the end of September the home equity loan got within $63 of running dry. But in October, the tide turned.

Gary never looked back.

The success of 417 Magazine spawned other titles such as 417 Home, 417 Bride, Biz 417, a successful web presence, the area’s best produced and attended events and a healthy custom publishing division. 417 staff went from coming to CRMA conferences and gathering every good idea possible to being track chairs and leading discussions. Gary was asked to serve on the CRMA board and served consecutive terms as president from 2015 to 2017, guiding the association through some challenging decisions.

After 21 years in publishing, Gary has guided 417 to be known as THE source for enjoying the good life in 417-land. Gary famously calls 417 Magazine “a love letter to my hometown.”