MENLO PARK -- Sunset, the 114-year-old magazine that survived the San Francisco earthquake, introduced California to the backyard wooden deck and continues to be a must-read for foodies, garden lovers and armchair travelers, faces an uncertain future amid rumors of the planned breakup of the country's biggest magazine empire.
Sunset was sold to Time Warner in 1990 for $225 million and has continued to follow its popular formula of focusing on living in the West. But unconfirmed reports suggest that Sunset and its book-publishing arm could be part of a deal with Des Moines, Iowa-based Meredith Corp. that would allow Time Warner's magazine division, Time Inc., to retain magazines including Time, Fortune, Sports Illustrated and Money while shedding properties including People, InStyle and Real Simple.
That has loyal Sunset readers worrying about the future of their beloved magazine, which has not been mentioned in news stories.
"Certain magazines have done well, and Sunset is one of those," said Tim Hendrick, who teaches advertising at San Jose State and has worked with some of Time Inc.'s magazines. "It's a very strong magazine and a great regional publication that focuses on cooking, travel and gardening. The Sunset brand itself is very viable on the West Coast."
Representatives for Time Warner and Meredith have not commented on a possible sale. Sunset's 12th and current editor, Kitty Morgan, referred questions to the magazine's public relations department.
David Renard, who tracks the magazine industry as the managing partner for New York-based mediaIDEAS, said the magazines most often mentioned for sale to Meredith "are much more news focused than entertainment and lifestyle focused. If that's the case, Sunset would probably fall in those titles that would be sold. ... Meredith has its own views on what's going to sell and what's not going to sell (among readers). So it's very difficult to predict how that could affect the editorial direction of the magazine."
Meredith publishes Better Homes & Garden and Ladies' Home Journal.
Scott Fosdick, who teaches magazine courses at SJSU, said "the good news for Sunset is that Meredith is a good publisher. They're likely to be more sensitive toward a regional magazine like Sunset than a publisher based in New York."
Other magazines, such as Good Housekeeping, have test kitchens like Sunset, and other competitors have succeeded by focusing on particular cities or regions. But few have put all of the pieces together like Sunset, which regularly invites readers and advertisers onto its picturesque 16-acre Menlo Park grounds, which include a garden where it tests new plants and concepts.
And few magazines have continuously published for so long, even through the 1906 earthquake that disrupted Sunset's then-San Francisco headquarters.
"Sunset's unique because they've got a wonderful property and all this real estate devoted to their own gardens and their own chickens, and they throw these great events that I've been to," Fosdick said. "Sunset has a lot of service in their magazine, defined as 'news you can use.' If you can get a reader to tear out a page and actually do something the magazine has recommended, you create a bond and a kind of loyalty you just don't get from reading and enjoying an article. You've actually changed their life in a small way, and Sunset excels at that."
Sunset -- and its folksy, midcentury "Sunset" logo -- continues to draw 1.1 million readers, who tend to skew older and female. The median age of Sunset's readers is about 52, and 71 percent are women, according to data on Sunset's website.
But Sunset has never been a traditional "women's magazine," said Michael A. Keller, a Stanford University librarian who wrote about the magazine for its 1998 centennial.
"I don't see it as particularly pitched to women at all," Keller said. "It's about Western living."
Keller, who was born in Colorado and educated on the East Coast, always had Sunset around the house as a guide for him and his family in the Bay Area.
"We looked to Sunset for advice about where to go and what to see," Keller said.
Sunset was born in May 1898 as a marketing tool for the Southern Pacific Railroad to get Americans excited about the potential of America's "Far West."
Sunset's first issue included an article on the wonders of Yosemite and pushed an early pro-environment bent that can still be found in its current emphasis on food, gardening, travel and the home, Hendrick said.
Early Sunset contributors included a young Jack London reporting on his journey to Alaska's Klondike, and authors John Muir, Sinclair Lewis and Western writer Zane Grey.
Sunset's current do-it-yourself focus began to take shape under former owner Larry Lane Sr., who also maintained Sunset's pro-environmental agenda by editorializing against the use of the pesticide DDT in home gardens in 1969. Sunset not only lost millions of dollars by dropping all DDT advertising, but its largest pesticide advertiser, Chevron Corp.'s Ortho subsidiary, later established its own line of books to compete with Sunset's book-publishing arm.
Sally Lehrman, a journalism professor at Santa Clara University, believes a potential new owner for Sunset should respect the magazine's legacy and its current editorial focus.
"We think of it as old-fashioned because it's what we grew up with," Lehrman said. "It was on our parents' dining room table. But the things that Sunset has stuck with are the things that matter to us today. And Sunset continues to tell the intimate story of the West in the home."
Contact Dan Nakaso at 408-271-3648. Follow him at Twitter.com/dannakaso.
Female readers: 71 percent
Male readers: 29 percent
Median household income of readers: $87,869
Median age of readers: 52.6 years
Percentage of readers who are college educated: 82 percent
Source: Sunset magazine, based on 2012 data