After 25 years, Hilton Head-based LINKS Magazine works to stay fresh in digital age

dburley@islandpacket.comOctober 20, 2013 

Compared to a game that dates to the 15th century, a 25th anniversary might not seem like much.

But for LINKS Magazine, a Hilton Head Island-based golf publication that celebrates its quarter-century mark this fall, 25 years in print has delivered plenty of history.

Started as Southern Links in 1988, the magazine has evolved from its beginnings as a regional publication aimed at attracting affluent Northerners to the Southeast's second-home market and picturesque golf courses.

Now, it's a national quarterly best known for its vivid golf-course panoramas, reviews of world-famous golf destinations and notable guest contributors, including Ernie Els, Jim Nantz, John Updike and, in its 25th-anniversary edition, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

"I like to think of us as the Architectural Digest of golf," said publisher Jack Purcell, who bought the magazine in 1989. "We're an aspirational magazine. We get people excited to travel, to go play golf or live in different places."

These days, the family-owned LINKS faces challenges in an evolving magazine market, he said.

The industry's emphasis has shifted to digital content, and so far, the inability of publications to make as much online as they do with print advertisements has many magazines wondering about future profits.

Purcell, however, isn't worried.

As traditional media go digital, he said his magazine's position as a niche publication will continue to attract readers and advertisers.

"There's always going to be a market for the content we produce," he said. "It just depends on the way it's produced."

DOWNTURN INTO DIGITAL

Since its founding, LINKS has targeted a specific, high-end readership.

The average reader is 53, college-educated and makes $196,000 a year, according to statistics provided by the magazine.

That has allowed it to go after specific advertisers, Purcell said.

"Our advertising is streamlined to high-end resorts and real estate communities," he said. "Places like Colleton River, Palmetto Bluff and Sea Island."

While the economic downturn was tough for the entire publishing industry, the magazine's mutual relationship with real estate and travel -- two markets devastated in the recession -- dealt a particularly potent blow.

"We had a really good run; we were really cooking until 2008," Purcell said. "Then we had to hunker down."

The magazine cut its staff from 25 to 13 employees; its circulation dropped from 300,000 to 210,000, and it started publishing four times a year instead of seven.

But slimming down allowed the magazine to rethink its practices, Purcell said.

"We're never trailblazers on anything, but most of our emphasis in the last few years has been digital," said Nancy Purcell, Jack's wife and the magazine's editorial director.

"It's exciting, a little scary, but exciting," she added. "I compare it to the Wild West."

In addition to an iPad app and e-newsletter, LINKS has created a stand-alone real estate website that allows users to customize a search for property near golf courses around the country.

In December, it will debut a digital publication called HotLINKS.

The digital component is essential for selling ads, which make up 80 percent of the magazine's revenue, Jack Purcell said.

"We go in with a menu of digital and print ads," he said. "For $30,000, this is the best package for you to drive traffic. It's rare now we're saying, 'Buy one ad page,' like we did 10 years ago."

The magazine has seen its online clicks jump to 50,000 a month, more than double that of a year ago, and 100,000 of its subscribers receive both the print and online editions.

Nonetheless, it does not aspire to compete with Golf Digest or Golf Magazine, publications that each have about 1.5 million readers.

"We don't do instruction; we don't do weekly news and notes," Purcell said. "We do lifestyle and travel. And no one else is doing that."

While the shift to digital has allowed the magazine to stay fresh, Nancy Purcell said its quality is still only as good as its content -- print or online.

"We still have to find what's different, what you're going to read here that you won't in The New York Times or Golf Digest," she said. "I mean, what's new about the Masters every year? That's where our staff excels."

Asked whether he would ever be interested in selling to a larger publisher, such as Conde Nast, which owns Golf Digest, Purcell said he has talked about it, but nothing has ever moved forward.

"That will eventually be something we will consider," he said. "But we like it here -- a national magazine publishing on little old Hilton Head."

Follow reporter Dan Burley on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.

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