In the Beginning

Publisher Kenneth Neill reflects on the first 35 years of Memphis magazine.



By the time most of you read this column, 2010 will have quietly morphed into 2011. But I'm writing these words on what's maybe the chilliest Memphis December Tuesday I can remember. As is always the case in such circumstances, weather news dominates today's Commercial Appeal. But inside, there's a report in the business section about how seven FedEx employees rang the opening bell yesterday morning at the New York Stock Exchange, in honor of the fact that December 13th was shaping up to be the record-high-volume delivery day in the company's history.

I've been thinking a lot recently about "Fred Smith's Million-Dollar Dream Machine" — that's how we characterized the FedEx start-up on the cover of our August 1978 issue, when his fledgling, largely unknown company was just about to go public. What I've been focused on is not how "our" Federal Express has become a cornerstone of the global economy, but about how much of an institution the company has become in Memphis. In a very real way, I think, every Memphian feels like he's part of this company. With its 35,000-plus local employees, FedEx is to Memphis what Ford and General Motors used to be (and hopefully, may still be) for Detroit, what Anheuser-Busch has been to St. Louis, what Disney World is to Orlando.

Webster's defines the word "institution" as "a significant practice, relationship, or organization in a society or culture." FedEx certainly fits the bill, but so too, in a far more modest way, does this magazine. Both of these, ahem, civic institutions happen to have been born in the 1970s; the first Federal Express jet took to the skies in April 1973, while the first issue of this magazine hit the streets exactly three years later. Both are obviously still going strong, although admittedly, Memphis magazine is no threat to crack the Fortune 500 anytime soon. And hopefully, as is the case with FedEx, most Memphians also feel part and parcel of this magazine. After all, no other publication in town is so well-defined by its own one-word logo.

This April, Memphis will turn 35. In horse and magazine terms, that's a healthy age, scary and wondrous all at once. Getting this far with our wits more or less intact is a tribute to ownership continuity, and to several generations of superb editors and writers, all building upon the magazine's tradition of excellence so well nurtured in the early years by its founder, J. Robert Towery. We've never looked back because we always have, if that makes any sense.

We haven't quite figured out, however, just how to celebrate this coming historical milestone. We've done all kinds of crazy things in the past (the lampoon edition we did for our Tenth Anniversary remains my favorite), but it is often difficult in these anniversary-issue extravaganzas to avoid sounding corny and/or self-serving. So if you have any bright ideas about how Memphis should celebrate its 35th, feel free to send them along.

More importantly, we'd like to hear from you directly about what you think the magazine should be doing in the future. We like to think we have this magazine thing figured out after all these years, but trust me, we don't, not in this brave, new information world we all find ourselves living in. Just send us a note about what you'd like to see us do and/or stop doing at this address, thenext35@memphismagazine.com. Don't be shy; we'll be looking at and responding to each and every suggestion.

In the meantime, enjoy this first issue of the New Year. May 2011 be healthy, happy, and productive for us all!