Bringing Back the Good Times Again: Reminisce Magazine Rediscovers Its Roots. The Mr. Magazine Interview With Editor-In-Chief, Liz Vaccariello.November 3, 2014
“The biggest challenge, and it’s a daily one, is to listen to the readers. You know, I put my personal email address in Reminisce and Reader’s Digest. I read every consumer letter and I respond to every one of them. That engagement with the audience is so very important.” Liz Vaccariello
In the spirit of celebrating Reminisce’s history as a place for reading and sharing memories – and to attract new generations of consumers steeped in nostalgia, Reminisce magazine has turned to the editor in chief of Reader’s Digest Liz Vaccariello and her team to breathe new life into the magazine. Ms. Vaccariello’s first goal is to reaffirm Reminisce’s mission “to touch and inspire readers with stories of cherished memories as told by some of those same readers.” ( Right: The New Reminisce)
After all, the magazine that was started by Roy Reiman in 1991 (and given the name Reminisce by his wife Bobbi) was one of the fastest growing circulation magazines in recent history. It went from zero to one million in less than a year and when the magazine was sold in 1998 it had a circulation of 2.5 million. The magazine, by design, did not carry a single ad and was totally circulation driven. Reminisce was one of many other titles in the Reiman group that in 2002 was sold to the Reader’s Digest Association (RDA).
After the sale, the magazine drifted from its original mission and DNA. The once 2.5 million circulation is now around one million. However, 12 years after the RDA ownership, an awakening is taking place. Reader’s Digest Association is moving the magazine from its original home in Wisconsin to New York City and placing it in the tender-loving hands of the editor in chief of Reader’s Digest magazine. Liz Vaccariello, who successfully reinvented Reader’s Digest magazine just a year ago, was given the additional responsibilities of Reminisce. Ms. Vaccariello brought Reader’s Digest back to its roots and reconnected the magazine with its DNA and audience.
Now, together with her Reader’s Digest team, she plans to do the same thing with Reminisce. I reached out to Liz Vaccariello, and we made some wonderful conversational memories of our own. We spoke about the magazine’s past, present and the possibilities for the future, with a great deal of emphasis put on the importance of getting back to the magazine’s roots of being an audience-first publication.
As witnessed on Facebook and other social media sites, the millennial generation has revived nostalgia and grand old memories in mammoth proportions just with “Throwback Thursdays” alone, so wistful reminiscing is more popular than ever. And the magazine plans on returning to their roots and in turn, capturing that new gene pool through the art of “remembering when,” while keeping their loyal and long-time core audience happy as well.
I hope you enjoy the Mr. Magazine™ conversation with Liz Vaccariello, and maybe you’ll relive the original tag-line of the magazine “that brings back the good times…by taking you on a walk down memory lane.”
But first the sound-bites:
On whether she took a reinvention or a return-to-roots route for the magazine: I went back to the roots and that’s what makes this magazine so extraordinary. Readers spend an average of 3.5 hours with this magazine. They want to lose themselves in other people’s personal histories.
On the fact that young people enjoy reading nostalgia more today than ever: That’s absolutely right. First and foremost, it connects the generations, but more than that there has been research done on nostalgia. And people as young as six can feel the emotion of nostalgia.
On her biggest stumbling block: This is a consumer magazine. And like many publications, we hadn’t been marketing to a new gene pool, if you will, of readers. We’d been marketing to the same audience over and over again.
On whether she considers her new job an easy reward for past success with Reader’s Digest: No, but it is an easy job when you’re given a magazine that is beloved by its audience and you have to be humble about the brand that’s now in your care.
On whether her dual-editing role gives her twice the excitement in the office than before: Oh my goodness, I’m living the dream. I don’t know any other way of putting it.
On what she hopes to have accomplished a year from now with Reminisce: I would hope that I can tell you that I’ve pleased the nearly one million current subscribers of Reminisce, that they feel as if they have a publication that lives up to the importance of their stories.
On whether she believes the magazine can ever attain its 2.5 million in circulation again: I think it absolutely could.
On what keeps her up at night: What keeps me up at night, to be honest; nothing.
And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ conversation with Liz Vaccariello, Editor, Reminisce and Reader’s Digest Magazines…
Samir Husni: Congratulations on your dual positions with Reader’s Digest and now also Reminisce Magazine.
Liz Vaccariello: Thank you, I’m so delighted. Reminisce and Reader’s Digest has a lot in common. They’re about reading and sharing and in the case of Reader’s Digest, people throughout history have shared jokes with each other, parents have ripped out articles and shared them with sons, daughters and neighbors.
Then Reminisce is all about reader’s sharing their memories and their nostalgia with likeminded people, but also with their families: “Look son, here is my first car” or “this is the story about how I met your mother” and it’s here in this magazine. So it becomes more of a collectable experience by being in the magazine.
So there is a lot of similarity in terms of the missions of both magazines and their audiences.
Samir Husni: Historically speaking, since we are talking about a magazine that deals with nostalgia and history; when the magazine launched in 1991 it was one of the few magazines that in less than 12 months exceeded one million subscribers. And then of course by the time it was sold, it had almost 2.5 million. So it was a huge magazine that back then was totally written by readers before anyone was really talking about audience-generated content. Then the magazine drifted a bit into the celebrity-oriented topics. So tell me, what is your vision now for the magazine? Did you re-invent it or, like with Reader’s Digest, did you go back to the roots?
Liz Vaccariello: I went back to the roots and that’s what makes this magazine so extraordinary. Readers spend an average of 3.5 hours with this magazine. They want to lose themselves in other people’s personal histories.
But to your point; the magazine had drifted away over the years and had become more, as I call it, “magazinified” and they put more editor’s voices in the magazine and they used stories from other places.
Reminisce is the reader’s magazine. They tell us what they want to write about by what they send in. And so the re-launch is really about committing to that user experience; which is personal histories. We’ve taken out almost all of the stock images and Getty images and now almost all of the images inside the magazine are submitted by readers.
Over the years the magazine had developed a little more white space and it tried to feel a little breezier, but our reader wants a sea of stories, they want pages that are packed with information and words. They wanted smaller photographs and more stories.
We really wanted to return it to that scrapbook feel and have that sense of discovery as the reader goes through the magazine. They don’t know if they’re going to stumble upon a story about growing up or about how someone met their first love, beautiful stories like that.
Returning the magazine to its roots is just about having as many stories as possible between the pages and gets the editors out of the way. My job is just to create a setting that does the people’s memories justice and honors them.
Samir Husni: And those stories are important. I even hear it from my students; you don’t have to be ancient to enjoy those types of stories. Even young people in their late teens and early twenties are looking for content to read about memories and life when their parents or grandparents were younger.
Liz Vaccariello: That’s absolutely right. First and foremost, it connects the generations, but more than that there has been research done on nostalgia. And people as young as six can feel the emotion of nostalgia. And they have found that people are at their most nostalgic in times of transition. They found that people who have recently graduated from college feel very nostalgic for high school or for when they were actually in college. People who have just started a family of their own feel nostalgic for their own childhoods. And of course, empty-nesters feel nostalgic for when their children were young and seniors feel nostalgic for when life was simpler and times were better.
So you’re absolutely right, there is no demographic for nostalgia.
Samir Husni: What do you think is going to be your biggest stumbling block?
Liz Vaccariello: This is a consumer magazine. And like many publications, we hadn’t been marketing to a new gene pool, if you will, of readers. We’d been marketing to the same audience over and over again. So for 20 years we haven’t found a new generation of likeminded people to subscribe to Reminisce.
The biggest stumbling block is going to be to continue to appeal to the older reader who wants to reminisce about the 30s, 40s and 50s, while also getting their sons and daughters to consider the magazine their own as well, so they can reminisce about the 60s, 70s and so on.
To do that we’re trying something called “Decade Diversity.” We might do a story on Friday night television and no matter what the demographic; you have a Friday night television show. For my grandmother maybe it was “I Love Lucy,” for my mother maybe it was something else and for me it was “Happy Days” or “Dallas” or “Full House,” so there are ways to introduce the later decades and those stories as part of the mix.
Of course, we don’t want to alienate the readers who have been with us 30 years and who loves this magazine and wants to spend hours and hours with it. We don’t want to all of a sudden turn it into a magazine that’s nostalgic for the 80s.
Samir Husni: By the way, “Sanford and Son” was my favorite television program. (Laughs)
Liz Vaccariello: “Sanford and Son,” I love it. (Laughs) “All In the Family;” we all had a favorite and our destination television.
Samir Husni: In addition to that, which is a big stumbling block; what other hurdles do you see looming before you to clear? It’s a given that you have done great with Reader’s Digest, that it was the cruise ship you were able to turn around; so now does it feel like it’s going to be an easy job? Do you feel as though you’re being rewarded with Reminisce and the powers-that-be think you can also turn around this magazine?
Liz Vaccariello: (Laughs) No, but it is an easy job when you’re given a magazine that is beloved by its audience and you have to be humble about the brand that’s now in your care. You have to have enormous respect for what made the consumer become so attached to it in the first place. You can’t be dismissive and you can’t be like a bull in a china shop, run in and think you have all the answers.
The biggest challenge, and it’s a daily one, is to listen to the readers. You know, I put my personal email address in Reminisce and Reader’s Digest. I read every consumer letter and I respond to every one of them. That engagement with the audience is so very important. They will tell you the stories they like, what they want more of, what they want less of and to respond to that is a delicate task. You have to understand who’s yelling the loudest and that’s not necessarily the person you need to listen to. You have to look at the big arrows.
Samir Husni: Since the last time we spoke, and that was mainly about Reader’s Digest; do you now feel more excitement when you come to the office in the mornings or do you ask yourself what have I gotten myself into?
Liz Vaccariello: (Laughs) Oh my goodness, I’m living the dream. I don’t know any other way of putting it. To have two magazines actually in my care where the overriding emotion is optimism and looking at the world through a hopeful lens, where my job is to curate the most meaningful stories about family, history and about how to live a better life, with a sprinkle of humor in there; there is nothing to not like about that job. I love every minute of it.
And I also have a wonderful team, the Reader’s Digest team absorbed all of the work that’s done on Reminisce, so we didn’t bring the staff of Reminisce with us. We just absorbed it and threw ourselves into it and it’s been a wonderfully energizing project to work on.
Samir Husni: Why do you think as a major editor in our industry; why do you think that there aren’t more of those beacons of hope and light out there on the stormy ocean of doom and gloom stories that we are told? (Right: Cover of the first issue of Reminisce.)
Liz Vaccariello: That’s a wonderful question. I think it’s interesting because the media landscape to a large extent is this cacophony of snarky cynicism, darkness, worry and partisanship, particularly broadcast media. And I think they’re doing it, frankly, because that’s what people respond to. That’s a quick fix; the ratings heroine, if you will.
But if you look at other media and I think magazine media in particular, magazines tend to be an oasis from that, with a few exceptions. I look at the service magazines; I look at health and fitness magazines, at magazines like Oprah and Real Simple. When you get to the end of those publications, you feel wonderful.
So I believe the magazine industry has done a good job of being an oasis from that snarky cynicism. And frankly, I think radio has too. I was just reading this morning about 24-hour Christmas on radio stations. This is the number one trick that radio has found to boost ratings; go Christmas all the time and they’ve bumped it back so that now it’s happening even before Halloween, because radio knows that people want to feel good.
I think that there are pockets of cynicism and negativity, but many people, particularly in magazine media, have seen their role as being a place where people can feel good. You want to spend time with a magazine; you don’t want to spend hours with your snarky friend, you want to spend hours with the friend who’s going to make you laugh, teach you something, make you feel good and tell you a great story that will warm your heart. Those are the people who you want to spend time with and those are the magazines you want to spend time with.
Samir Husni: If we talk again a year from now; what do you hope will have been accomplished in that year with Reminisce?
Liz Vaccariello: I would hope that I can tell you that I’ve pleased the nearly one million current subscribers of Reminisce, that they feel as if they have a publication that lives up to the importance of their stories. That they feel like it’s a collectable experience and that they’re proud to have it in their home and they’re proud to have their stories inside of it.
I hope that I can say that and I hope that I can also tell you that the sons and daughters, the next generation of those readers, are starting to discover us on Facebook, Pinterest and on the web. And that they’re starting to share their photos and stories in that new digital way and that we’ve brought a new network of consumers and readers into the fold.
Samir Husni: Do you see the magazine ever going back to the 2.5 million in circulation?
Liz Vaccariello: I think it absolutely could. I think there is no limit to the amount of people to whom these sort of stories appeal to.
Samir Husni: Is there anything that you’d like to add about Reminisce specifically?
Liz Vaccariello: Just that I’m thrilled and honored to be working on Reminisce and Reader’s Digest.
Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?
Liz Vaccariello: (Laughs) What keeps me up at night, to be honest; nothing. (Laughs again) I have to answer you very honestly and tell you that I’m sleeping really well and it may sound corny, but I am filled with so much gratitude that I get to do this kind of work with this amazing team.
Samir Husni: You must be reading Reader’s Digest and Reminisce before going to bed.
Liz Vaccariello: (Laughs) And a little Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
Samir Husni: Thank you.