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Monthly for Southerners, by Southerners. Small staff aims to produce a regional magazine that succeeds

In 1974 Alan Leveritt was an obituary writer moonlighting as a cabbie in Little Rock when he scraped together the $200 he needed to launch Arkansas Times, an alternative campus publication. The newsprint magazine - whose ambitions were glimpsed in the lofty title given its publishing company, the Arkansas Writers Project - served primarily the Arkansas capital's small academic community. But even then, the Little Rock native dreamed of something much broader: a general-interest magazine focused on the South, for the South, and written, edited, and designed by Southerners.

``For decades the national magazines, Time and Newsweek and others, have undersold the South,'' says Mr. Leveritt, adding that when the South was covered, it was through Northern eyes. ``I thought we needed a magazine that would write about what's real here.''

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Today Arkansas Times is a slick and successful magazine with a statewide circulation of 34,700. Now Leveritt has brought together a small, young staff of kindred Southerners to launch Southern Magazine, a monthly chronicle he hopes will not only provide a mirror for the South, but will also help Southerners better understand their region and the choices it has to make.

``A hundred years ago there was one crop, one party, one race, really, and one way of thinking,'' Leveritt says. ``Now there are all kinds of ways of thinking, and we want to be part of Southerners looking at that. I hope this magazine will be a shaper.''

The idea to provide the South with its own magazine is not new. Of those actually started, some have folded, while others still struggle. Virtually all have remained obscure. Southern Living and Southern Accent successfully serve the region, but are specialty magazines focused on food, home decorating, and leisure.

``This is not the era of general-interest magazines,'' says John Egerton, author of ``The Americanization of Dixie,'' ``Generations,'' and, by his own account, a frequent contributor to struggling (or now-defunct) magazines focused on the South. The only successes he sees are the ``Southern-Living-type magazines'' that are faithful to what they set out to do, but which limit themselves to ``noncontroversial subjects'' so as not to offend major advertisers.

In addition to a half-dozen feature articles, each issue of Southern Magazine includes departments ranging from Southern art, politics, business, and sports, to ``Dixiana'' and ``Sense of place.''

Mr. Egerton says he had often considered launching a magazine on the South. ``I never had either the guts or the money to do it,'' he says, ``but [Southern Magazine] appears to have both.''

The magazine's $6.7 million in financial backing comes from Little Rock financiers Jackson and W.R. (Witt) Stephens, brothers who own Stephens Inc., the largest investment banking firm located off Wall Street. But it's the small staff of lifelong Southerners and ``repatriates'' from other parts of the country that is providing the journal's heart and soul.

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In addition to an associate publisher and a circulation director, the magazine has a production manager, four editors, and two artists. Most of the writing and photography are done by free-lancers. The first two issues, which went out to 180,000 subscribers, included pieces by ABC-News correspondent James Wooten and former Mississippi Gov. William Winter.

``What I want this magazine to say to readers is, `Yes, there is a South; let's address it, let's talk about it,''' says Associate Publisher Olivia Myers Farrell, who recently returned to her native Arkansas after living in the Northeast. ``There is a lack of a Southern voice. Living away, you realize that either [the South] has no image, or it's an antiquated, distorted image. And that foreign picture is the one we're most often presented with.''

Editor Linton Weeks says the lack of a market has discouraged development of magazine-article writers in the South. ``On the other hand,'' he adds, ``we have such a tradition of storytelling, and we want to encourage that.'' And he says it's important that Southerners hear about their region from fellow Southerners, since they ``appreciate and understand the history that has made us ... the confluence of an old South and a new South that shapes us today.''

Despite the lack of success that other Southern magazines have experienced, Egerton says a steady rise in the Southern standard of living - and the improved literacy and increased leisure time that go with it - could paint a brighter picture for this newest venture.

It's a ``mystery of the region,'' he says, that the South has produced more good literature than any other region in the United States, yet has had the highest illiteracy.

``But that's changing,'' he adds, ``and I think this magazine will profit from that. In turn, if it's done right it can serve an important need by helping people in the South get a clearer sense of identity.''

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