Reinventing An Icon: The Saturday Evening Post’s Editorial Director Steve Slon to Samir Husni: I’m Trying to Create a Contemporary Magazine That’s Relevant, Beautiful, and Interesting. The Mr. Magazine™ Interviews.February 1, 2012
Imagine you are in charge of reinventing one of America’s icon magazines: The Saturday Evening Post. How would you react? What will be your first step? What are some of the obstacles facing you doing that? And do you think you can really reinvent such an icon? The aforementioned questions raced in my mind as I read the news that Steve Slon has been appointed editorial director of the iconic magazine The Saturday Evening Post and has been charged with the mission to reinvent the legend magazine.
Rather than trying to answer the questions myself, I opted to go to the newly appointed editorial director, the man who has led the AARP publications for years and consulted on many other magazines in his many years of professional editorial experience. Mr. Slon was gracious enough to answer my questions, even those that were casting more than a shadow of doubt on his new assignment for this “mission impossible.”
After all, mention the name The Saturday Evening Post to anyone and they will directly think you are talking about the past. So, how does Steve Slon plan to change this “past” stereotype to a present day 21st Century magazine? Well, in the typical Mr. Magazine™ Interviews, here are first the sound-bites followed by the very lightly edited transcript of the interview.
On his plan of action: To take some of the historical magic of the magazine and look for a contemporary application.
On the obstacles to reinvent the magazine: the first obstacle is that everybody thinks the magazine went out of business fifty years ago.
On the future plans to get the word out: To accomplish getting the magazine out, we’re developing some social media strategies… I’m not trying to recreate something that existed in our fantasies more than in reality…. I’m trying to create a contemporary magazine that’s relevant, beautiful, and interesting.
On the humanization of the magazine: It is a really well-rounded person with a liberal arts education who is curious about the world, who had personal concerns such as pocketbook concerns, maybe weighing a few pounds more than they wanted to and was just looking for good ideas about weight loss and money and that sort of thing.
On the name of the magazine: Magazine titles start out having a meaning and then the meaning sort of evaporates from it and it just becomes what it is.
On the future of print in a digital age: The experience of wrapping yourself in a magazine, opening it up and seeing it on nice paper, and seeing the beautiful images; the great magazines, like The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, just digging in and enjoying it and having a great read with the magazine in your lap, cannot really be equaled electronically.
On the audience of the magazine: It’s never going to be a magazine for twenty-year-olds in its current form.
On what keeps him up at night: Typos. I worry about interviews with people like you. I want to say the right thing.
Samir Husni: The first obvious question: This is a big, big, big job to reinvent an icon in the magazine industry, The Saturday Evening Post. How do you propose to do that?
Steve Slon: Well, I’m glad that you used the word reinvent because I think that’s a key word. The way that I propose to do it is really to take some of the historical magic of the magazine and look for a contemporary application. So in other words, I want to make it clear from the outset that this is not in any sense of the word a nostalgia magazine. But at the same time we are a little bit always going to be trading on the wonderful legacy of the publication. So basically what I do is I deconstruct what the Post was in its hey-day that was a mix of an appreciation of art, of fiction, great writing, great journalism and I’m distilling that and bringing that into a modern context.
Samir Husni: What are some of the perceived obstacles that you see in front of you, preventing you from succeeding?
Steve Slon: Well, the first obstacle is that everybody thinks the magazine went out of business fifty years ago. No, seriously, the first mission is to get some word out that we are still publishing. My super secret strategy, and I’m going to put it on the line, is to build the magazine and make it a good read and fun to read and enjoyable. And then, strategically, we need to just get people to hear about it any possible way we can. And then get them to come and check it out. Then say, “Hey, this isn’t some old-fashioned thing, this is a contemporary magazine that’s really interesting. Because to my mind, what makes a magazine relevant is very plain and simple: Is it enjoyable to read? You know, it’s a very simple solution. So to accomplish getting the magazine out, we’re developing some social media strategies. We’re already… I’m not sure if the word would be syndicating, but we’re giving permission to the Hearst Wire Service to republish, every week or two, a story from the Post with a Post credit line at the end. Just to get the word out. We’re saying here’s the story, have people read it in the various newspapers that subscribe to the Hearst/New York Times Wire Service and put the magazine out there. And then people read it. My hope is…well, I don’t want to say hope actually, and my intent is for people to say, “Hey, that’s really interesting That’s the Post? Wait, the Post is still going? Wait, I better get that. I gotta’ check it out.” Then they come to the website and subscribe.
Samir Husni: I’m sure you wouldn’t have accepted the job if you weren’t up to the challenge.
Steve Slon: Yes, well I like a good challenge, yes.
Samir Husni: But the critics will say that Life tried to come back and could not, Look tried to come back and could not, Collier’s, somebody bought the trade mark but still did not know what to do with it. What’s different about the Saturday Evening Post?
Steve Slon: Well again, I’m not trying to recreate something that existed in our fantasies more than in reality, the magic of the magazine. I’m trying to create a contemporary magazine that’s relevant, beautiful, and interesting. The same thing that is a negative is also a positive, which is if you tried to launch a new magazine in the current environment you would have everything else going against you that we’re dealing with today, the splintering of media and the news. And you’d also have to create a brand; well we have a brand, for better or worse. We have a brand that people know instantly that it is a magazine and what it stands for, which is good quality, solid journalism, great fiction, great art, etc. So, it is a challenge. But look, when I went to AARP, it was called Modern Maturity; it was dead as a door nail. The MRI numbers on that were plummeting and we said, look, what can we do to make this better. We basically turned it around with quality stories, good articles, good pictures, etc. It can be done. We have every confidence that it can be done. To me, it’s really no fun going to a magazine where you’ve already hit your formula and you’re just doing it over and over. I love the excitement of saying, “Wait, let’s try this, let’s tweak it a little bit and let’s see what connects.” One of the things that I wanted to tell you about is that I’m finding is that the essay, the opinion piece; it’s hitting like a pinging for us really well. We certainly have our little collection of service stuff; we cover tech, we cover money, we cover health, etc. But when we did a piece by Diane Ravitch this fall on what’s wrong with American school systems and we got a flood of letters, the kind of letters you never get from an article about 5 ways to get rock-hard abs or 5 ways to lose weight or that kind of thing. So that was very exciting and that has inspired me to push a little further with the opinion side of the magazine.
Samir Husni: If I give you a magic wand and you can strike the ink on paper The Saturday Evening Post and a human being comes out of it, who would that person be?
Steve Slon: I like that because I like that image. I do think of the magazine as having a personality analogous to a human personality and so what I see is, well, let me back into this a little bit. I see the magazine as a balance between really useful, practical information and really stimulating ideas, with an overlay of art and design and, fiction of course, being a part of art. So I would consider it a really well-rounded person with a liberal arts education who is curious about the world, who had personal concerns such as pocketbook concerns, maybe weighing a few pounds more than they wanted to and was just looking for good ideas about weight loss and money and that sort of thing. But at the same time was equally, perhaps more interested, in the bigger questions in life, such as education, such as…you know we just did a big story on outsourcing military equipment to foreign countries and the implications for the defense of America. So I would say it’s a person with mostly catholic interests. I don’t want to characterize it and say it’s a single person, I’m not going to name a name, but I think it’s that kind of person, with a wide-ranging interest. And the thing is, this has the potential to be huge, because we’re all really people like this. The key is to find that mix of subjects that really click and we’re approaching it.
Samir Husni: Does the name keep you up at night? Would people, no matter how great the writing, how great the stories, pick up a magazine today called The Saturday Evening Post?
Steve Slon: I think that magazine titles, it’s really interesting, these magazine titles start out having a meaning and then the meaning sort of evaporates from it and it just becomes what it is. So for example, Gentlemen’s Quarterly is actually a monthly magazine, not a quarterly, nobody calls anybody a gentleman anymore; it’s an archaic word. Esquire is a similar word, Esquire is an old-fashioned word, nobody uses it. And yet, as a magazine, we just know what it is. GQ changed it, of course, to just the letters GQ. AARP, the organization that I used to work for, changed its name; it used to be the American Association of Retired Persons, it changed it to just AARP for a reason, because they didn’t want to be associated with only retired people because they had broader issues. But the thing is, it just became those initials. So I think that The Saturday Evening Post, you know arguably, yes, maybe it’s a little long, but I certainly don’t worry about it. Because it ceases to mean that it’s published weekly or anything to do with Saturday. It’s just a phrase that we know and we know it’s a magazine. So, no, it doesn’t bother me, short answer.
Samir Husni: Who’s the audience that you’re after now? Are you trying to maintain an audience that remembers that name, an older audience? Or are you going to try and move the magazine a little bit toward a younger audience?
Steve Slon: Well I think we all know that targeting older readers is difficult in the magazine business because advertisers aren’t curiously…I mean, again going back to my experience at AARP, our sales department did all kinds of studies showing that boomers, from 45 and up, spent more money on cars, more money on gadgets, electronics than anybody else, they have money, whereas people in their thirties and forties don’t have any discretionary money. But, nonetheless, Madison Avenue has a bias against older readers. That said, our average age of our readers is 55, we would like to bring that down a little bit to being the trailing edge of the boomer demo, so bring it down, our target might be say, 45. It’s never going to be a magazine for twenty-year-olds in its current form. Although we’re considering some electronic versions that might, specifically target a younger audience. But yes, for the foreseeable future, that will be a tough market even at 45+, for sales. Everybody has the same problem. If you look at our competitors, say a Smithsonian, an AARP magazine, or Prevention, or magazines that serve the 40+ demo, More magazine, it’s a tough market. A lot of your income has to come from serve. We’re looking for creative ways to get around it, of course. But it is hard. But we’re doing it.
Samir Husni: You mentioned that there is the possibility of a digital edition or something for the younger reader, how do you see the future of print, ink on paper, in this digital age, in general, and then specifically.
Steve Slon: In general, for the foreseeable future, they’re a generation who are reared on print, on paper, and there is something about the experience, I hope I don’t sound too old-fashioned here, but the experience of wrapping yourself in a magazine, opening it up and seeing it on nice paper, and seeing the beautiful images; the great magazines, like The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, just digging in and enjoying it and having a great read with the magazine in your lap, cannot really be equaled electronically. That said, another 10 or 15 years magazines are going to be viable on paper, and probably indefinitely for a smaller audience. But certainly it’s true a younger generation is coming up where they’re reading things first online, and second, maybe in print. It’s an evolution that has to happen. And we are, like everybody else, in the process of strategizing how to transform ourselves from an ink on paper magazine to a media company. And what’s needed at the Post actually… we have these incredible archives going back to the early 1800s that we have in an actual library, physical editions of the magazines under a curation that we are digitizing. So for example, we could create e-books, compiling some of the writers who wrote for the publication in its heyday, some of that stuff which is always going to be relevant. I made a list of some of them, in our archives we have: Ray Bradbury, Agatha Christie, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, I could go on. Kurt Vonnegut wrote for the magazine. These are stories that we own the rights to that we could create SIP’s or digital reader editions. What we’re struggling to figure out now is how to humanize that, can we give some of it away and then create custom collections for people. You can see it the way it actually appeared in the magazine with the original illustrations and so on. So, it’s pretty exciting stuff. We really have something that other magazines don’t.
Samir Husni: It’s exciting to you; it’s exciting to me. How can you spread this virus of excitement to the general community and to the public at large? What’s your marketing plans? What’s your promotion plans?
Steve Slon: The social media is probably the number one way. I’m not saying it isn’t anything you haven’t heard before, but I was at the IMAC conference. A lot of people were talking about how people were trying to reverse engineer Google’s search engine, while no one had the precise answer, all the arrows point to the number one trigger SEO ranking is Facebook. We’re lagging in that front I will say, but we’re working on it. You develop a community of people who like and share and want to hear about what’s new and learn about a free story from William Saroyan or something like that. I just want to go back to your earlier point, we might get excited, but what’s to excite the general public. The thing is we’re going to excite them with what we’re doing now, not what we did an hundred years ago, that’ll be just like a bonus. It has to be good now. And the magazine in its heyday was not a nostalgia magazine and we almost think of it that way because you know, Norman Rockwell. But it was a contemporary magazine. We talked about, in the last issue, about Rockwell discovering this very hot trend in the nineteen-teens with couples playing with Ouija Boards. And that was like all the rage and he did a cover of that. And that was a hot cover.
Samir Husni: A year from now, I am calling you for an interview and I am asking you: Steve, tell me where The Saturday Evening Post is today. What will you answer be?
Steve Slon: Well I have a modest, very reachable goal. We’re at 350,000 circ now; I want to get it to 500. We’re actually working with, I can’t name the name, a major internet publisher to do a co-op product, to do an online newsstand version and that would be Q1 and that’s another way we’re going to get the magazine out there. So I guess at a minimum we want to get up to 500,000 and more advertising. The other thing is I want the magazine to have a currency in social discourse, so an analogy is again, when I went to AARP, in the beginning I said to our staff, can you imagine someday that people will be saying to each other, ”Hey did you read something that was in the latest edition of this magazine.” It was something that we almost couldn’t conceive of because it was thought of as a magazine that was so limited in scope even though it was massive. And it was only about five yeas ago that we were mentioned on Saturday Night Live that AARP Magazine gets mentioned. So maybe a mention on Saturday Night Live would be our measure of success.
Samir Husni: One final question: What keeps Steve up at night?
Steve Slon: Typos. I worry about interviews with people like you and I want to say the right thing. Let me think about that for one sec. Some of the things that aggravate me are the Byzantine distribution system in single copy sales, so that because The Saturday Evening Post went through a sort of fallow period and fell off the map and basically gets hardly any newsstand distribution, which is very important just for people to see, you know walk into an airport or a supermarket, just to see it, and have the exposure, that people would know it’s there. We don’t have good newsstand distribution. That’s one thing.
Samir Husni: Thank you.