A brief history of time with Gray’s.

Gray’s Sporting Journal
November/December 2015

Hippocrates had a novel idea about good care. First, he advised, do no harm. It’s debatable whether that concept actually is attributable to his famous oath, but there is no doubting its wisdom, which informs human attitudes toward everything from modern medicine to fixing that which ain’t broke.

Back in 1975, Ed Gray had his own original notion—to make a sporting magazine that he, and presumably others, would actually enjoy reading. Discerning sportsmen, he believed, wanted more than their current diet of hook-and-bullet red meat. In today’s outdoor media, which sometimes expresses more pent-up rage than fair chase, more rampant commercialism than reflection, a magazine like Gray’s seems more necessary than ever. We are simply the stewards of Ed Gray’s original mission, the first manifestation of which arrived in his mailbox on Halloween Eve, 1975.

That makes the magazine you now hold our 40th-anniversary issue. Some of Gray’s contributors, advertisers, and even readers have been with us since the beginning. I’ve been involved with the magazine for about 10 years now, having first seen it on my father’s desk back in the early 1990s, not long after Georgia newspaper publisher William S. “Billy” Morris III acquired the publication from Ed and Becky Gray.

Magazines were new to the Morris portfolio back then, and eventually Billy hired a former city magazine editor and son of the South named David C. Foster to help run Gray’s. I had first met Foster in 1986 while he was group publisher at Atlanta magazine, where I was a freelance writer. By the time I went to work for him 18 years later, he was the well established, second-generation persona behind Gray’s. A seasoned magazine editor, manager, feature writer, and carnival barker all rolled into one.

Nonetheless, Dave struggled to find his métier in those first couple of years at Gray’s. But with his hiring of James R. Babb as the magazine’s angling columnist, editor, and literary compass, and Terry Wieland as his shooting editor, he built upon Ed Gray’s tradition of publishing great sporting art and fine writing.

“There’s no reason it should work,” he said one day as we sat in his musty old Land Cruiser outside the office. “We don’t sell covers. There’s no right-hand ads. We don’t make story assignments. You’re not gonna learn anything about hunting and fishing. It’s litra-chure!”

Through clouds of pipe smoke (think Foghorn Leghorn with a Bent Dublin) he championed the preeminent quality of Gray’s content and drawled to the point of pretension about the sophistication of its readers. He cowed rivals who dared dispute this, and endeared himself to anyone who might aid the magazine’s cause. From the time I met him until the day we fired our share of his ashes from his favorite muzzle-loading shotgun, I can honestly say that people either loved or hated David Foster. Sometimes both. There was no in between.

The effect of his advocacy was a magazine that went from boutique publishing to a mature, profitable business. But he knew from whence we’d come. When I once asked him why he called his column “David Foster’s Journal,” which to me sounded a bit presumptuous, considering Ed Gray’s long-running “Gray’s Journal,” he said with uncharacteristic modesty, “I was just trying to do what Ed did.”

In other words, Gray’s doesn’t find new readers so much as new readers find Gray’s—when they’re ready for it.

We are all still trying to do that. And while one is free to debate the results, there’s no disputing that the magazine’s vital DNA is intact. Perfect bound. Quality stock. Caslon type. White space. Original art. Genuine literature.

Despite that winning formula, Gray’s almost didn’t survive its early years. At one point, the magazine offered lifetime subscriptions to raise capital and keep all sails aloft. Though that might not have been the best long-term revenue strategy, it helped the magazine navigate whatever narrows it faced at that time, and Gray’s still honors those lifetime subscriptions with only one requirement—you have to be alive. We cut off the file several years ago, figuring the ensuing protest was the only way to identify who was still kicking.

And that brings us to a pivotal point. Gray’s has always been the magazine of choice for more seasoned sportsmen, which is at odds with contemporary publishing wisdom that insists we must pursue younger readers like wolves after sheep.

Well, consider the average Gray’s subscriber—who may deem a year rereading all of Faulkner time well spent—with the average millennial, an avid consumer of media who doesn’t so much read as scan, ingest, and absorb information in ways our 20th-century gray matter cannot even process.

Though we value every reader, the reality of Gray’s is that its average subscriber matures into our demographic sweet spot. In other words, Gray’s doesn’t find new readers so much as new readers find Gray’s—when they’re ready for it.

Will there be another 40 years for a “dead tree” magazine with such an idiosyncratic approach to publishing? One can only hope that the pursuit of quality never goes out of style, and remember that a tree’s roots are its most important part, even though the landscape may change.

For example, in the print-publishing heyday of the late 1990s and early 2000s, Gray’s was the flagship of an entire national magazine division that included nearly a dozen print products and upwards of 30 employees. Today there are four of us on staff serving three sporting titles. Manuscripts that once arrived in Ed’s mailbox in manila envelopes with handwritten addresses are now zapped to us at the speed of light. We couldn’t process a 35 mm slide on Fuji Velvia if we wanted to. Magnifying loupes and hot-wax machines are as obsolete as top hats and corsets.

But at the end of the day, the sensation we get when a new issue arrives feels much the same as it must have for Ed and Becky—and for David. The presence of fresh ink is something an editor learns to intuit based on the circadian rhythm of print publishing. When Gail makes her mail rounds, I know before she even enters the office that there are hot copies in the crook of her arm. The package doesn’t sit on my desk any longer than it takes to slide a skinning knife from my pencil holder. I slice open the envelope, blade edge up—careful not to cut too deeply—then peel back the poly bag like fascia around a metaphorical heart. We have chased down another issue, as fairly as we know how, and finally laid hands on it.

I take a few minutes to thumb through the pages, to relish the look, the feel, even the scent of a new issue of Gray’s Sporting Journal. There is always a moment when I wonder whether anyone else will care. That doubt passes in the first few pages, and then we quickly move on to the next one.

Primum non nocere.