Corner Office: Painting a New Picture
Think about America's oldest magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, and you're likely to think about Norman Rockwell's famous cover art. Steven Slon, Editorial Director and Associate Publisher of the magazine, will remind you that Rockwell "did quite a few covers, but not all!" Nonetheless, the wholesome styling of Rockwell's art is what comes to mind when one thinks of this venerable publication.
So how to update the book while remaining true to its history, its image and its place in our Rockwellian hearts? This is the challenge Slon confronted head on when he joined the periodical in January 2012. The results, previewed in this interview, will become officially apparent when the magazine's January/February issue arrives in the mail in late December and hits the newsstands on January 4th.
While the magazine can trace its roots back to Benjamin Franklin's Pennsylvania Gazette, it wasn't until the early twentieth century that it came to prominence, under the ownership of Cyrus Curtis and the guidance of legendary editor George Horace Lorimer. Slon describes this time as "a serendipitous moment for American magazines" when Lorimer and the Post "helped define what America was." With a focus on spending money for good writing and illustrations, Lorimer brought circulation to a peak of 5 million in the 1920s and established a dominance that lasted decades. Well into the '60s, says Slon, The Saturday Evening Post was still a magazine of record.
Hard times inevitably came, however, in the late 60s, with rising paper costs topped by a lawsuit thrown at the magazine by football coaches Bear Bryant and Wally Butts over a story accusing them of fixing a game. Bankruptcy was declared in 1969, and the magazine passed into the control of Dr. Beurt SerVaas, whose role it was to help with liquidation of the company.
As SerVaas prepared to close down the Philadelphia offices and ship the archives to his hometown of Indianapolis, including roughly 300 pieces of original art from the Rockwell covers, he received a visit from the iconic artist himself, who drove down from Vermont in his station wagon to pick up his paintings. Upon meeting SerVaas, Rockwell mentioned what a great idea it would be if SerVaas started the magazine up again. Being polite, but with no intention of following through, SerVaas assented.
A few weeks later, Rockwell was being interviewed on television and mentioned SerVaas's plans for a relaunch. Excited readers sent "bags and bags" of grateful letters to SerVaas, who turned to his wife, Dr. Cory SerVaas M.D., and suggested she consider a career change. Despite some hard times in 2007—suffering the same advertising and newsstand sales challenges as so many other magazines—the magazine has stayed afloat and in the SerVaas family hands ever since; daughter Joan is currently the publisher. When Slon came on board, he says that "the perception in the market was that they went out of business long ago." Slon quotes Mark Twain when he says his #1 challenge is to let everyone know that "rumors of our demise have been greatly exaggerated."
Following is a Q&A in which Slon goes into more detail on the redesign, revenue channels and his vision for the future.
What are the next steps and goals for the magazine?
My goal is to get the magazine well-known, and to widen its circulation and its ability to influence thinking in America. We're not there yet, but we're taking steps in that direction.
Today the challenge is to rebuild the image and perception of the magazine. It's a magazine about contemporary America, about issues and trends with our unique spin on things. We have historical depth and a perspective on contemporary events that gives us a unique way to talk about them. If we're talking about, say, the banking crisis, we can compare it to 1909, compare it to stories in the archives.
We have this tremendous reservoir of extraordinary material. The magazine documents most of the 20th century and beyond that. There are stories of [Abraham] Lincoln and Mary Todd [Lincoln]… As a weekly publication we wrote about Hollywood, Einstein. We have work by some of the greatest writers—everyone but Hemingway!
We made some recent mistakes, like trying to get by with a minimal sales effort.
We can't really work that way. Another mistake was a little too much relying on the nostalgia factor. You can sell the magazine as a nostalgia item to a certain audience but you're never going to grow doing that.
What changes are in store?
We don't want to completely go away from our roots. Piece by piece we've been making changes, so the magazine already looks very different than a few years ago. It's already bolder and more dramatic.
Next we're changing the logo, using a new typeface that's very clean and contemporary. The seraph italic logo captures the nostalgia market. The logo changed many times over the years. In the new logo, the word 'Post' is big and 'Saturday Evening' is small and in the top left quadrant. There's emphasis on the word 'Post.' It's part of the brand, but it doesn't come out on Saturday or in the evening. It will be the Post.
In the interior, the type is changed for the next issue. There are some reading and some visual pieces, some big typographical treatments, a contrast between big and small, effective use of white space. With new fonts it gives it another 50% lift. Our designer has the highest quality design sense.
The redesign will also feature a stronger and more disciplined organization of the editorial content. There will be three major subsections: Post-Its (front of book shorts, similar to the current section by that name, but absent the archival content); back of book "Your Health" and also back of book "The Vault" (which will provide a deep dive into our archival material, Rockwell and other artists plus archival photographs). Wrapped around these sections, of course, will be our usual front of book service (tech, money, food, etc.) and a feature well. Plus fiction in every issue.
My philosophy on redesigns is, people who like something don't like to see change. So the intent of the redesign is to be largely not that noticeable. We've already made some changes in terms of subject matter covered. For example, on the cover we talk about contemporary issues such as: the wealth gap, health stories, adult ADD, technology.
Who's your demographic?
We have a circulation of 350,000 loyal readers. We have the freshness to draw in a slightly younger readership [current average is 56]. We're not going to get 20 year olds but we want 40-45 year olds. That said, I will also jealously protect the interests of our current readers, whatever their ages. This isn't about abandoning older readers, but about expanding the demo while keeping current loyal readers. My point is that, by making the magazine more contemporary, more relevant, it will naturally open up the demo.
Any other changes in store?
We have some interesting financials. Everyone talks about the three legs of the stool—circulation, newsstand and advertising sales—we have a fourth leg. We own the copyright to everything published in the magazine for years: all the art, the covers. That's thirteen million dollars a year in retail licensing: t-shirts, mugs, etc. We're also expanding into the Asian market. They're getting excited about Rockwell. There are new 3D tablets coming out—we've licensed some content to the leading software maker for that. [A new partnership with SD Entertainment, an LA-based animation and 3D production studio, was announced in late November.]
Our circulation is solid, but newsstand is really hurting. We partnered with a national sales firm (James G. Elliott Co. Inc.), and are cautiously expanding that area, trying to widen the brand inch by inch. We're looking particularly at SIPs and buying some placements. Now we have a team: marketing, research, sales offices in five cities. Ad pages are up 10 pages for November/December.
My mandate to them was get back to the display image type advertising. Nothing against direct response—we welcome anything that pays the bills—but it should be more of a visually engaging experience. Some of those ads are not based on beauty.
As far as digital, we're on Google Play and are doing well with that. By January we will have a full mobile app for all tablets. We are a little late to that game [the first digital edition was released in June] but no one's made any money on it yet anyway. We're learning from other people's mistakes.
Where do you see the magazine going next?
We have to evolve from a print-centric company to a media company that looks to wherever the opportunities are. I'm still a little bit old school. I believe that some great magazines will survive the digital age as physical magazines. There's some satisfaction in holding a magazine that you lose in the digital format. I strongly support the classic magazine and hopefully readers will too, if you make it good enough.
We're a general interest magazine and we overlap many areas: fiction, travel, a little bit service…Our biggest core is covering trends with a historical perspective. It's like AARP: The Magazine meets Smithsonian meets Garden & Gun.
Another thing coming up is that this year we're about to complete the first annual Great American Fiction Contest. We're hoping to discover new writers. We got 250 applications for the first year that closed July 30th and just finishing judging – they're quite good. PE