Southern Business & Development’s take: Southern Living’s “The South’s Best Cities of 2023”

By Michael Randle

You know the drill, right? Some media property publishes the “Best Of” series and Southern Living followed the crowd recently with its “South’s Best Cities of 2023.” Knowing Southern Living’s history, though, their piece, “The South’s Best Cities,” was most likely the first ranking of its kind back in the day.

When it comes to the South’s lifestyle stories, then and now, Southern Living was what you read. Now, there is Charleston-based Garden & Gun.

Southern Living is a Birmingham, Ala.-based publishing business, founded by Emory Orgustus Cunningham in 1966. Progressive Farmer was the publication that helped launch Southern Living. Progressive Farmer was first published in 1886.

Progressive Farmer is among the oldest and most widely read of the nation’s agricultural periodicals. The history of the publication reflects dramatic changes in Southern rural life and journalism. The paper was founded in Winston (now Winston-Salem, N.C.) in February 1886 by Leonidas L. Polk, a former Confederate officer and North Carolina commissioner of agriculture.

Southern Living has been owned by several different companies, such as Southern Progress and Time, Inc., when that conglomerate bought all of Southern Living’s media assets in 1985, including titles such as Cooking Light, Health and Coastal Living. Southern Living is now owned by IAC’s Dotdash Meredith.

Here is an excerpt of an article written and published by the New York Times when Emory Cunningham, the founder of Southern Living, died in Birmingham in January of 2000.

“Emory Orgustus Cunningham, a publishing executive who served up recipes for sweet potato pie and a rosy view of a new suburban South emerging from the region’s rural poverty and decades of racial strife, died of pneumonia on Monday in Birmingham, Ala., where he lived. He was 78.

“Mr. Cunningham launched his Martha Stewart-like vision of a glossy new Dixie in 1966 in a magazine called Southern Living. Its circulation grew from an initial 200,000 to 2.5 million.

“The magazine was acquired, with its sister publications, by Time Inc. in 1985. At the time, the price was the largest ever paid for a publishing company.” — New York Times, January 28, 2000.

Okay, so that’s enough about Southern Living’s history, which is a noted one. Let’s get back to the publication’s “The South’s Best Cities of 2023.”

On the list are the modern-day standards, you know, successful Southern MSAs that are great places to live, work and operate a business.

Richmond, Va., the old-line, blue-blood of the group, came in 20th place, or at the end of Southern Living’s ranking. Richmond was followed by Bentonville, Ark., at 19, which is growing its own Southern blue-blood population base since it is home to Walmart and much of the Walton family.

Huntsville, Ala. made Southern Living’s “Best Cities” in the South list, as did Dallas, Fort Worth, Orlando, Charlotte, Raleigh and Austin. Okay, you get it, right? Just another list of cities that readers kind of go, “Well, we’ve read that before.”

What impressed us? Birmingham, Alpharetta, Ga., Chattanooga, Greenville, S.C., and New Orleans ranked in the top 10 of the media property’s list.

Then the usual boilerplate rankings appeared. You know Nashville, Atlanta (how can any author list “Alpharetta, Ga.” – an Atlanta suburb – and “Atlanta” on the same list?). Then there was Asheville, followed by Savannah and Charleston at No. 2 and No. 1, respectively.

The North Charleston-Charleston, S.C., MSA and the Savannah MSA are rocking with huge economic development announcements such as Hyundai, Volvo, Boeing and the like. But to Southern Living, I guess they were just looking at pretty places. It’s always about the methodology, right?

Here is a sample of what was published in Southern Living in their latest “The South’s Best Cities of 2023.”

“Set your sights on these cities, and you’ll be in for a trip filled with the best museums, restaurants, shopping districts, and parks the region has to offer. Pack your bags and embark on a trip to one (or all!) of these treasured communities. You simply can’t go wrong with a trip to one of the South’s best cities.”

Author: Mike Randle