“I think the biggest challenge is going to be to grow print, not just maintain it. This idea of maintaining print or maintaining a slow decline; no, I’m not down with that. I think it’s going to be about growing our print audience and growing our digital audience.” Hunter Lewis
Cooking Light has a new editor and it’s a man whose heart belongs to the kitchen and the brand. Hunter Lewis was executive editor of Southern Living since 2012 and oversaw the brand’s extensive food-related content in print and online and managed the test kitchen team that tests over 5,000 recipes annually. So he knows a thing or two about food, recipes and how to run a magazine and its digital components.
Hunter drove to Oxford, Miss. and to the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi from his Birmingham, Ala. headquarters recently to discuss his plans for Cooking Light and how he sees the future of the brand evolving. We talked about print, digital, the power of a good team of people and the passion and excitement he feels about heading up the Cooking Light brand. It was a most savory and delightful conversation.
Click on the video below to watch the interview and you can follow along by reading the lightly edited transcript of the conversation which is below the video.
And now, sit back and enjoy the Mr. Magazine™ conversation with Hunter Lewis, Editor, Cooking Light. I know you’ll find it most appealing.
But first the sound-bites:
On his expectations for Cooking Light: I’ve been on the job for a month and a week now and you go in with some preconceived notions about what you’re going to do and what kind of changes you’re going to make; my first impression is the state of the magazine and the state of the brand is really strong and it has a great team.
On the dating period before the Cooking Light marriage of print and digital: So it’s a lot of different things and there’s a lot of what could be distractions, but I look at each one of these platforms as a different opportunity. It’s not a one-size-fits-all case. What we do in the magazine doesn’t have to translate to digital.
On applying his experience as both a chef and a journalist to his Cooking Light position as editor: First off, it just starts with bringing a passion to the page and bringing the joy of cooking, the joy of sharing and the joy of hospitality to the page and the screen. So at the base line, there’s that.
On the incongruity of the lush, decadent covers of Cooking Light with the magazine’s “light” mission: I think there is a power in seeing chocolate cake and Cooking Light and it’s not a lie, we’re not saying that this is good for you when it’s not; we have the nutrition rigor behind it and the nutrition that runs through the recipe to back it up.
On his biggest challenge: We talked about digital; I think the biggest challenge is going to be to grow print, not just maintain it. This idea of maintaining print or maintaining a slow decline; no, I’m not down with that.
On his most pleasant surprise: As a former jock and someone who believes in teams; I’ve been very pleasantly surprised with how good the people on our team are and how strong they are.
On what he envisions for the magazine’s upcoming 30th anniversary: When we’re celebrating the 30th, I want us to be seen as a digital innovator and I want people to see Cooking Light as one of the brands that really set the example about what a food magazine can do with its recipes, of what a food magazine can do to create new products, to help people live healthier lives and to help people manage their health in a better way.
On what keeps him up at night: What keeps me up at night is still what the guy over at Microsoft says: it’s not about longevity in this business; it’s about relevance. And I think on a daily basis, if we are making a good product and if we’re making people happy with our recipes and our content is good, we’re going to be relevant.
And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Hunter Lewis, Editor, Cooking Light magazine.
Samir Husni: As the new editor of Cooking Light, tell me a little bit about your hopes, expectations and changes that you have for the magazine.
Hunter Lewis: I’ve been on the job for a month and a week now and you go in with some preconceived notions about what you’re going to do and what kind of changes you’re going to make; my first impression is the state of the magazine and the state of the brand is really strong and it has a great team.
For print it’s going to be business as usual; we’re going to build on the foundation that Scott built (Scott Mowbray) and we’re going to continue to produce great recipes, beautiful photos and good stories.
I think you’re going to see much more of a focus on digital over the next couple of years and it’s up to me and our team to figure out how we can shift some of our resources that have typically been dedicated to print over to digital in a smart way and not just maintain print, but grow it. And in the digital space, figure out how to tell great stories.
Samir Husni: No one is talking about the death of print anymore; people are saying print has declined, but at least the phrase “death of print” has vanished from our vocabulary. Yet, we are seeing more and more editors and brand leaders talking about the marriage between print and digital. Can you describe your plan for this dating period between print and digital before the actual marriage takes place?
Hunter Lewis: I come from a newspaper background. And when I got into journalism it was right around the point where newspapers were on the verge of dying. We didn’t know that when we were studying it and practicing it right out of college, around the year 2000; we didn’t know that there was going to be this cliff.
When I got into magazines full time, it was when there was that huge cry about the death of print and the death of magazines, but I think we know now that that was BS. What we’re finding out right now is that we’re in the Wild West of digital media. And anyone who says they truly know what’s going on and that they have the answers, I think is full of it.
But we have a great deal of opportunity right now. And if we’re doing our jobs right, if we’re giving people exactly what they want and what they’ve come to expect of print with a great experience and with great service and we’re trying new things in the digital space and trying to figure out what’s going to stick; it’s all good.
The cool thing right now that I love is it’s not just what’s going on at cookinglight.com, it’s what’s going on at our Instagram account, and it’s our 3.3 million Facebook followers, which is a completely new front page. And as an old newspaper guy, the idea of having that kind of front page and that kind of audience to try new things and test new posts on, is a really cool thing. It’s sharpening our focus on Twitter; it’s making a tighter tablet version with different kinds of bells and whistles.
So it’s a lot of different things and there’s a lot of what could be distractions, but I look at each one of these platforms as a different opportunity. It’s not a one-size-fits-all case. What we do in the magazine doesn’t have to translate to digital. We can parts off different pieces of content and try them in new ways online.
I think that on cookinglight.com you’re going to see much more of an emphasis on digital storytelling down the road. We are at a point right now where we’ve got a great opportunity to capitalize on the interest of food in this country; we’ve never been more passionate about food. We have a great foundation that we’re building with chefs all across the country. There is this massive interest in home cooking.
We’ve also never been unhealthier as a country and what’s going on right now with obesity rates and diabetes, there is this wonderful opportunity with Cooking Light to find out where the intersection should happen between the passion for food and living a healthier way. And that’s going to be my gig; finding that perfect intersection and getting that onto the marketplace.
Samir Husni: And that leads me to the question: it’s also an intersection in your own life. You are a cook and a journalist. How are you going to apply those two professions into the pages and/or pixels on the screen of Cooking Light?
Hunter Lewis: I identify myself as a cook first and an editor second. There are some days that I wish I was at the stove more than at my desk.
But first off, it just starts with bringing a passion to the page and bringing the joy of cooking, the joy of sharing and the joy of hospitality to the page and the screen. So at the base line, there’s that.
My wife is an RD (registered dietitian) and she always says that you pay the grocer now or the doctor later. And I believe that. The best way to be healthier is to cook at home and cook with the right things. I’ve been more impressed with the test kitchen and the healthy recipes we produce more than anything else since I’ve started in the past month. And there’s nothing else like a Cooking Light recipe. We need to be proud about that, especially in this day and age with Pinterest and blogs; there is a lot of dilution of recipes out there, they’re undervalued. So a Cooking Light recipe is a special thing. It’s something that we need to go out into the marketplace and do a better job of promoting and finding new partnerships.
For people who don’t cook; a recipe is just a recipe. It’s kind of a diluted product, but our recipes, if you think about them like a product, like a baguette, they’re a top-notch baguette, being produced in a kitchen by a really, really talented crew of cooks and editors. That will be part of my job as a cook and as an editor; getting the message out about the value of Cooking Light recipes.
Samir Husni: Cooking Light has been known for its shocking covers. For example, the brownie on the November 2014 cover, someone might say what’s “light” about this. Is that going to be part of your technique as the new editor; are we still going to sell to the eye and then let the brain ask later, is this really light?
Hunter Lewis: Absolutely. We eat with our eyes first. Back in the day you could run recipes without images and people would understand, but we’re such a visual society today that the image has to be just as good as the recipe. And when it comes to our covers, there is a power in that tension between the logo of Cooking Light and an indulgent chocolate cake that you may see there. It just so happens that Deb Wise, who is our recipe goddess, our dessert goddess, created a 5-ingredient cake that takes no time to make; it’s indulgent and it’s not bad for you, it’s good for you.
So I think there is a power in seeing chocolate cake and Cooking Light and it’s not a lie, we’re not saying that this is good for you when it’s not; we have the nutrition rigor behind it and the nutrition that runs through the recipe to back it up.
Samir Husni: What’s going to be Hunter’s biggest challenge?
Hunter Lewis: We talked about digital; I think the biggest challenge is going to be to grow print, not just maintain it. This idea of maintaining print or maintaining a slow decline; no, I’m not down with that. I think it’s going to be about growing our print audience and growing our digital audience.
The biggest thing for me is figuring out with all these different platforms that I was talking about, with everything from Facebook to our site, our blog and Instagram; it’s about delivering the best kind of content and the sharpest content to the right platforms as quickly as possible.
The other thing is Cooking Light is now a mature brand. When it spun out of Southern Living in the 80s, it was seen as a very innovative product. I still believe it’s an innovative product, but I think we need to get out into the marketplace more and we need to get out faster. There is so much paranoia right now that’s going on with health and wellness; there are all of these different trends and studies with whether it’s good fats, bad fats, good carbs, bad carbs; Cooking Light reports on this. We’re at the point right now where we’re bound by the magazine news cycle. We have to get out the “day of,” the “week of,” the moment when these things are being reported on and we need to step out and have more of a point of view.
That would be a big challenge and that’s something that I’m excited about taking on and being in charge of; putting Cooking Light more into the national conversation. It’s a magazine for home cooks and it will always be a magazine for home cooks, but it’s also a magazine and a brand, both print and digital, that people are going to use as a resource to figure out how to live a more balanced life.
Samir Husni: With these multiple audiences and as you grow into these multiple platforms, let’s say, I just want the magazine, the print edition because it is necessary, sufficient and relevant to me, and then if I go to Instagram or Twitter or the digital edition and that’s not necessary, sufficient or relevant to me and there is no link between those audiences; do you think there can be a completely different audience?
Hunter Lewis: Absolutely. What we’re going to find and what we’re already finding is that oftentimes there is very little crossover between people who are consuming our mobile edition, our mobile version of our site, or the print, Instagram, Facebook or our books. I think we’re going to see over the next couple of years that we have our core print audience and we want to grow that, but we’re going to gain a whole new audience over the next few months and in the next year with new digital products. And if that’s how they come to Cooking Light, in that way and that’s how they consume our content and use our recipes, I’m OK with that and if that springboards into a subscription, that’s great. But it’s up to us to create new digital products that people want and that they use. And if that’s all they’re going to use, that’s great too.
We’ve got this Cooking Light diet that we’re watching right now. It’s in beta mode. And we have more than 3,000 subscribers to it. It’s unlike anything else in the magazine world; it’s unlike anything else under the Time Inc. umbrella. And if that’s how people learn about Cooking Light and that’s how they come to it, that’s great. It’s a whole different product.
Samir Husni: What has been the most pleasant surprise that you have encountered since you assumed this new position that you’ve had for less than two months?
Hunter Lewis: As a former jock and someone who believes in teams; I’ve been very pleasantly surprised with how good the people on our team are and how strong they are. From the art department to the test kitchen to the production team; we’ve got a really, really great crew that looks after one another, that works hard, that believes in the brand and that number one believes that giving and producing great content for our readers is important. So I’m really lucky. I don’t have to build a whole new team. It’s just about cultivating and refining what we do.
I think that’s my biggest surprise and probably the biggest blessing is that we have a great crew.
Samir Husni: In a few short years you’ll be celebrating the 30th anniversary of Cooking Light and if we’re sitting here at the Magazine Innovation Center talking about it; what will you tell me about the 30th anniversary?
Hunter Lewis: Well, I’d love to come back, but I hope you’ll come over to Birmingham and break bread with us for the 30th. But when we’re celebrating the 30th, I want us to be seen as a digital innovator and I want people to see Cooking Light as one of the brands that really set the example about what a food magazine can do with its recipes, of what a food magazine can do to create new products, to help people live healthier lives and to help people manage their health in a better way.
So I think the big message that I expect us to convey on our 30th, that I expect us to be celebrating is that we’ve been innovators of the visual space.
Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?
Hunter Lewis: Last night it was my one-year-old, the next was my three-year-old. (Laughs) No, what keeps me up at night is still what the guy over at Microsoft says: it’s not about longevity in this business; it’s about relevance. And I think on a daily basis, if we are making a good product and if we’re making people happy with our recipes and our content is good, we’re going to be relevant.
And if we’re getting it to people on the right platforms quickly, then we’re relevant. But it’s not about longevity.
Samir Husni: Thank you.