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Telling and re-telling history

Roger Vance, editor of the Weider History Group in Lansdowne Town Center, stands in front of their collection of books on the Wild west Oct. 24. The world’s largest publisher of history magazines draws from a large internal library of historical sources.Times-Mirror Staff Photos/Beverly Denny
Every magazine has its cover models. Brad Pitt. Kate Upton. Jennifer Aniston. George Clooney.

But in the history magazine publishing industry, those models are a bit older.

Patton. Custer. Lee. Jackson. Earp. Geronimo.

For the Weider History Group, it's these cover models that draw readers to their 11 publications: America's Civil War, American History, Aviation History, British Heritage, Civil War Times, MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, Military History, Vietnam, Wild West, World War II and Armchair General.

Created in a Lansdowne Town Center office for the last six years, the magazines boast a total paid circulation of approximately 500,000 and a combined readership approaching 2 million. Its website, http://www.HistoryNet.com, is among the largest and most popular history sites on the Internet.

Despite its world reputation, many in Loudoun don't realize these magazines are published in their backyard.

Weider History Group is owned by Eric Weider, the son of the late Ben Weider and nephew of the recently departed Joe Weider, Canadian brothers who created the sport of bodybuilding and pioneered the health and fitness industry in the 1950s and '60s. They also boasted a robust publishing arm that included titles like Muscle and Fitness, Shape, Flex and Men’s Fitness.

The Weider publishing empire was sold to American Publishing in 2003. But Weider's interest in history and magazines continued due to his father.

“... Typical to Depression era men, he had to drop out of school and go to work. He and his brother decided to self-educate themselves by reading history and biographies. I grew up in a house where we spoke about historical figures over dinner like they were the neighbors,” Weider said.

Weider launched The Armchair General in 2003, but at the same time, he continued to try and rent the lists of Primedia History Group, which operated out of Leesburg. They refused. After all, Weider, at the time, was a competitor.

“It took us a long time to make our corporate masters understand 'don't rent our lists to competitors,” joked Weider History Group Editor Roger Vance, who also is the mayor of Hillsboro.

Weider took a chance and reached out to Primedia's CEO, asking for help from a fellow history magazine publisher.

“... He said, 'I can't rent you the lists, but I will sell you the magazines,” Weider said.

A year of negotiations, and the rest is, well, history.

“The Primedia experience was part of a huge magazine company on Wall Street ... The company was kind of breaking apart. We all knew it. At least my fear was we would just be sold to another company that would strictly try to maximize its profits and had no interest in history,” Vance said. “... When Eric bought the company, it couldn't have been a better fit.”

The majority of the magazines' readers are older men. However to attract a larger audience, the group has delved deeper into education and the digital age.

The group is a partner in National History Day, a year-long academic program with 300,000 to 500,000 high school student and 20,000 to 30,000 teacher participants.

All of the magazines are now digital and can be downloaded to e-readers.

“We've only been doing that for six to nine months, but we're seeing a lot of traction,” Weider said. “While many of the readers will still be 50- to 55-year-old men, I'm confident we'll be able to reach out to other readers as well ...”

And how do you continue to tell the story when it never changes? Well, it does change.

“We have 3,000 years of stories being created. So over the last 3,000 years of history, there's been an awful lot of stuff going on. It just takes the editors being alert and aware. When they go out and visit historical places, that often will stimulate new ways to cover a story,” Weider said.

The magazines' editors rely also on source material for inspiration – cruising through hundreds of years of publications, such as newspapers, and learning that perhaps an event unfolded differently than was written in the history books.

“There are always primary sources that do emerge or were published a 100 years ago and put on the shelf. So, it's a different way of looking at history,” Vance said.

The magazines also strive to meet new audiences each publication with the basic information, such as the events during the Battle of Gettysburg, but give it a twist that keeps loyal readers engaged.

But just like the magazines they publish, the Weider History Group is embracing a new era and making history itself.

“ … It's clear, I believe for at least the next 20 years, that a certain number of people will want to read in print. I don't think magazines or books are going to go away. I think like radio, it will become a smaller piece of an increasing media menu,” Weider said.


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