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Ruling Her Editorial Kingdom With Focus, Dedication & Humor – The Reigning Queen Of Magazine-Making Bestows Everything Her Subjects Need For The Good Life – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Ellen Levine, Editorial Director, Hearst Magazines

June 12, 2015

“No, I can’t see that. I don’t think that will happen. There may be some transition in people’s personal needs, but no, we will continue to do print. I do remember reading how excited everyone was when they looked at the first printed Bible and how excited people were when they found, I think it was in Israel, some original writings in a cave. They wouldn’t have been as excited if they’d found somebody’s laptop back then.” Ellen Levine (on if she can ever envision a day print will not exist.)

If there’s one thing that Oprah Winfrey knows, it’s that Ellen Levine is the queen of magazine-making. And Mr. Magazine™ is in total agreement with Ms. O on that statement. From making publishing history in 1994 as the first woman to be named editor-in-chief of Good Housekeeping since the magazine was founded in 1885 to her current position as editorial director for all of the Hearst brands, Ellen is a woman who deserves the moniker launch queen of magazines.

She is devoted to the audience and believes in the innate ability of her staff to reflect the reader’s likes and needs sometimes before they even know what they are and she uses that confidence in her team to the audience’s benefit. She is the preeminent regent of providing print experiences for her readers that they can’t get from the virtual world.

I spoke with Ellen recently about her life today as the reigning queen of magazine-making and how that role had changed over the years. It was, as usual, a lively, fun and totally absorbing discussion that I always hate to see end. Ellen’s personality of strength, good-humor and dedication to her brands is something that can’t be ignored. She is without a doubt an amazing professional.

So, I hope you enjoy this engaging conversation with Ellen Levine as she talks about all of her many subjects, from Oprah to Dr. Oz The Good Life; she is a continuous source of guidance and focus for all of them.

But first, the sound-bites:


HCI On a day-in-the-life of the queen of magazine-making:
Oh my goodness, the queen? Thank you for that compliment. The days, I have to admit, are different. So, on a normal day in the office I will be spending time reading ideas, seeing editors-in-chiefs, seeing art directors, looking at pages, tossing out ideas on what might be a good assignment for one of their reporters and it would be a good assignment because the audience would particularly like that idea, and trying to figure out what’s a new way to approach those ideas.

On the transition from brand to brand that she has to make mentally as editorial director of Hearst Magazines:
Do you remember how in high school you had to go from class to class; you went from Algebra to English Poetry? I kind of think about it in those terms. It’s just the way of the day. You just move on to something else, and actually I think it’s extremely exciting and interesting.

On whether she has ever saw an article or design in one brand that she felt would be better suited to another:
Generally, our editors are pretty good at understanding what’s right for them and what images are right for them. But what does happen is I will have calls from people I know that are, let’s say, in Washington D.C. and they may in fact be in charge of pushing stories from different points of view, so I will get a call from an important person on the Republican side and they will share a story and I’ll say that’s a good story, I want to have one of our magazines follow that, so I have to think which magazine would be right for that story and then I’ll speak to the editor.

On when Hearst bought Hachette and Woman’s Day came “home” whether the brand held a special place in her heart over the other titles: I really did. I mean, that was the first big magazine that I ever had the opportunity to be editor-in-chief of and it has been a while ago, to say the very least, but I was there when Hachette bought it from CBS.

On whether her past experience at Woman’s Day, which was a newsstand-only publication at first, had anything to do with the newsstand success brands such as Food Network and HGTV are having:
I don’t think it was my experience from back then that had anything to do with that. Of course, if you throw in Oprah and that launch, we did go out on newsstands with Oprah and she sold out in five minutes. But what that tells us is that we have a strong brand and obviously we pitched then for subscribers and the steadiness of the subscriber base.

On whether she believes magazine makers are more than content providers; they’re experience makers:
An experience maker; I like that. I’m going to steal that. (Laughs) I like to think that here at Hearst we focus on originality, but there remains a vertical past to original. When we were first outlining Oprah, she is an original; she has done so well and there’s nobody like her. There is no one that women feel more attached to and respect, even though they may have never met her personally. She is part of their heart.

On the major stumbling block she had to face during her career at Hearst and how she overcame it: I don’t feel like I’ve had a major stumbling block. I do think it was quite a rough time when there was a shutdown of a major distributor; you know the bankruptcy. It was very difficult for everybody to cope with and it was an issue that had to be solved by the top executives here. So, I think that was one of the things that I never expected we would see in people who we had depended so strongly on.

On her most pleasant moment so far:
I’ll give you moments. I think when you get a great story, a great feature or a great photo shoot; those pleasant moments are knowing that whatever it is you were looking for has just clicked. I can feel that every day when I see something that comes in and it makes me just say, “Wow!”

On what she looks for today when hiring new people:
First of all, I look for somebody who loves journalism. I still use the old-fashioned words journalism, stories, and features, as opposed to content. And they need to know that they’re going to have to work hard and that they appreciate working with smart people. And one of the things that I really like is when they understand that the goal of this is to tap into a part of themselves and pull that part out so that they are also the reader.

On whether she believes magazines and magazine media are in better shape today than in the 1980s when it comes to morality issues:
I personally think that we’re a lot better off, but I think there are thousands of miles to go. Certainly, on the pornography commission the attitude then was that anything you read that was sexy would lead you into crime of one kind or another and that’s what they wanted to prove so that they could repress publication of books, magazines, etc.

On whether she can ever envision a day there will be no print: No, I can’t see that. I don’t think that will happen. There may be some transition in people’s personal needs, but no, we will continue to do print.

On anything else that she’d like to add: I love what I get to do; I just love it. I was born this way. I drove people crazy with questions. There was a certain point in my house where they would say, enough with the questions.

On what keeps her up at night:
When my husband doesn’t put the air conditioning on? (Laughs) I don’t actually wake up with that kind of stuff. If I was thinking about something, it would probably be in the shower instead. I get ideas in the shower.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Ellen Levine, Editorial Director, Hearst Magazines.

Samir Husni: From a creative side, tell me about a day-in-the-life of the queen of magazine-making?

Ellen Levine: Oh my goodness, the queen? Thank you for that compliment. The days, I have to admit, are different. So, on a normal day in the office I will be spending time reading ideas, seeing editors-in-chiefs, seeing art directors, looking at pages, tossing out ideas on what might be a good assignment for one of their reporters and it would be a good assignment because the audience would particularly like that idea, and trying to figure out what’s a new way to approach those ideas.

Women in particular, there are certain subjects that they really love, but you don’t want to feed them the same kind of story this year that you may have fed them two years ago. It has to be original and these days it needs to be shorter than it used to be, and certainly there has been a lot of talk about that.

And then if I’m lucky, I have lunch. And that’s usually in the middle of the day. Actually, I’m sitting here with some tuna fish now; I’m not eating while we’re talking though. (Laughs)

Samir Husni: (Laughs too).

Ellen Levine: But you do stay at your desk and because we read so many things about staying strong and healthy and we’re interested in new ideas, a lot of us are walking around in the office during the day, script in hand and I find standing actually helps me think. It’s a very different kind of day than it was 10 years ago, but I find it even more exciting.

Samir Husni: I know that almost everything that’s created throughout the Hearst building comes across your desk before it goes to the printer, so that’s a lot of different content. How do you keep your thoughts straight between reading Good Housekeeping, then you’re looking at Town & Country and suddenly it’s Dr. Oz The Good Life in front of you; how do you make those transitions in your mind?

Ellen Levine: Do you remember how in high school you had to go from class to class; you went from Algebra to English Poetry?

Samir Husni: Yes.

Ellen Levine: I kind of think about it in those terms. It’s just the way of the day. You just move on to something else, and actually I think it’s extremely exciting and interesting. You know how Olympic swimmers have those ropes between one swimmer and another; that’s not how it is. We’re not in one lane at all times. We’re moving and this would be true of a lot of the editors as well, we move from one lane to another.

Let’s say you are a general interest lifestyle magazine; while you’re talking about fashion in one moment, you might be talking about emotional stories in another, and then you’re in a situation where you have to check out the food pages, so it’s an athletic exercise for your brain, but basically it’s extremely engaging.

Samir Husni: And have you ever stopped and said that article or that design would look or fit much better in House Beautiful or Veranda or vice versa?

Ellen Levine: Generally, our editors are pretty good at understanding what’s right for them and what images are right for them. But what does happen is I will have calls from people I know that are, let’s say, in Washington D.C. and they may in fact be in charge of pushing stories from different points of view, so I will get a call from an important person on the Republican side and they will share a story and I’ll say that’s a good story, I want to have one of our magazines follow that, so I have to think which magazine would be right for that story and then I’ll speak to the editor.

So that does happen. And it also happens in the health world, but it’s not only an Oz theme, so many of our magazines, if not almost all of them, have health coverage and when you have an incredibly positive story coming out of a hospital in the country or an advance that the NIH (National Institutes of Health) is sharing, you have to decide what is the best brand for that particular story and call the editor.

As a matter of fact, we have a couple of different things going on right now in the mental health arena. Then I have one sitting right in front of me where I had gotten a great idea from an institution that treats young children. So, you can sit around and think all night: alright that probably won’t fly with one of the fashion magazines because it’s for kids. It might be interesting for a magazine that’s more adult-oriented, however. And then it’s like you’ve struck gold because you find an editor who is interested in the story and who knows his/her readers will be getting positive information and guidance from that particular piece.

Samir Husni: So, the magazines have to be like your children and you don’t differentiate between your children. I know you have two sons and if someone asked you which you loved more; I’m sure you’d say you loved them equally.

Ellen Levine: Oh no, that varies day-to-day; don’t use that comparison.

Samir Husni: (Laughs).

Ellen Levine: (Laughs too).

Samir Husni: When Hearst bought Hachette and Woman’s Day came home, did it feel like a reunion for you since it was such a big part of your earlier career? Did you have a special place in your heart for Woman’s Day, compared to the rest of the magazines?

Ellen Levine: I really did. I mean, that was the first big magazine that I ever had the opportunity to be editor-in-chief of and it has been a while ago, to say the very least, but I was there when Hachette bought it from CBS. And with the transition of the magazines coming over from Hachette to Hearst, I actually met a lot of old friends, some of them were in circulation, some had been editors and it was a little bit like a college reunion.

Samir Husni: With the launch of new magazines such as Food Network, HGTV and Dr. Oz The Good Life, do you think the newsstand skills that you learned at Woman’s Day since it was for a while a newsstand-only publication, did those newsstand skills help you at all in the creation of the new magazines, because those titles especially, are bucking the trends and doing very well on the newsstands?

Ellen Levine: While I was still there they were switching because part of the financial reason they were newsstand-only was because the food stores gave free racks to those two brands. And then when they decided they could no longer give the free racks was when those brands pushed for subscriptions. So, that was happening while I was still there.

As for our newer titles that are doing so well on the newsstands; I don’t think it was my experience from back then that had anything to do with that. Of course, if you throw in Oprah and that launch, we did go out on newsstands with Oprah and she sold out in five minutes. But what that tells us is that we have a strong brand and obviously we pitched then for subscribers and the steadiness of the subscriber base.

And Food Network, our tests generally start with newsstand racks and seeing how we go, but very shortly, even sometimes during that first issue, we are mailing to a subscriber base. The fact is Food Network and HGTV are doing so well with newsstand is because those are both brands where women just can’t resist them on the newsstand. They have to have it. They are both fulfilling unique needs that women may not have known that they even had.

And that’s what we go for, putting something out there that’s different from everything else and newsstand buyers have a strong sensibility about what’s unique. After they buy it once, they stay with it for a while, and then they move on to a subscription. And we have incredible covers on those and the cover lines are terrific too and the editors of those are fabulous.

Samir Husni: Do you believe that you, as a magazine maker, are much more than just a content provider; you’re in actuality an experience maker?

Ellen Levine: An experience maker; I like that. I’m going to steal that. (Laughs)

Samir Husni: (Laughs too).

Ellen Levine: I like to think that here at Hearst we focus on originality, but there remains a vertical past to original. When we were first outlining Oprah, she is an original; she has done so well and there’s nobody like her. There is no one that women feel more attached to and respect, even though they may have never met her personally. She is part of their heart.

In terms of Food Network, Maile Carpenter essentially invented a new way to appeal to women who love to cook. And HGTV is similar, so they do have in a way the personality of who they are on television, but it morphs when you put it into print.

And in terms of an experience maker; I will credit you for the first five days with the phrase, and after that it’s mine. (Laughs)

Samir Husni: (Laughs too).

Ellen Levine: You asked me earlier about what kind of changes editors have had to make today; are the scales the same ones that we needed yesteryear when we launched Food Network and HGTV? Food Network launched in the fall of 2008 when the financial crash had happened. And we were thinking oh no, this is not the best time to launch anything and oh no, it’s rough spending money these days. As it turned out people had stopped going to restaurants as often as they had been before and they wanted to eat at home. And so we hit the hotspot unknowingly. But we have expanded them now so it’s broader.

And ditto on HGTV. We’re inviting the need for fun in the pages of these magazines and change is good. And I would say really speaking to the women out there; most of the editors on these brands have a sense of who that person is because inside of them they can tap into that as well. And that is a good thing. Consequently, I think that’s why they’re having such wonderful success right now on the newsstand and in subs and of course, in monthly sales. Generally, they’re in the top five if not higher in newsstand sales on a monthly basis. And really, they’re babies.

Samir Husni: In the last five years, Hearst has doubled in size, from all the new titles they acquired and by adding new magazines. During your career at Hearst, what has been the major stumbling block that you’ve had to face and how did you overcome it?

Ellen Levine: I don’t feel like I’ve had a major stumbling block. I do think it was quite a rough time when there was a shutdown of a major distributor; you know the bankruptcy. It was very difficult for everybody to cope with and it was an issue that had to be solved by the top executives here. So, I think that was one of the things that I never expected we would see in people who we had depended so strongly on.

So, that was rocky. And of course 9/11, which was another moment in time that had really shutdown things in a way that we didn’t expect either. Americans were stopped from what had normally been a wonderful time in reading.

I’m looking at major changes; I can’t really say to you that there was an unusual stumbling block. I would say everybody is absorbing and being very smart about it in the switch to digital. Our magazines remain very, very strong.

I think one of the hardest things for all of us is the search for great talent because the people who run our magazines, the editors and yes, the publisher; it’s extremely important for them to have the people who get it and who know how to create change themselves.

Samir Husni: And what are the criteria for the phrase “to get it?” What do you look for today when you’re hiring new people?

HCI Ellen Levine: First of all, I look for somebody who loves journalism. I still use the old-fashioned words journalism, stories, and features, as opposed to content. And they need to know that they’re going to have to work hard and that they appreciate working with smart people. And one of the things that I really like is when they understand that the goal of this is to tap into a part of themselves and pull that part out so that they are also the reader. But they’re not solely reading it as who they are; they’re reading it as though a part of them reflects the readership base and that they will direct what they’re doing toward that meter they have in mind.

Samir Husni: What has been the most pleasant moment in your career so far?

Ellen Levine: I’ll give you moments. I think when you get a great story, a great feature or a great photo shoot; those pleasant moments are knowing that whatever it is you were looking for has just clicked. I can feel that every day when I see something that comes in and it makes me just say, “Wow!” Or, “That’s it. Women are going to love that.” Or, “Men are going to love that,” “Car-drivers are going to love that.” And we just hit it, dead-center.

I was in Washington not too long ago, listening to the newly-appointed attorney general and she had mentioned something that I can’t share right now, but I thought that story was head-on for one of our magazines. And the editor was going to love that idea and the story.

So, it’s like hitting a homerun. And since I’m not very athletic, it’s a homerun in your brain.

Samir Husni: See, I knew you were an experience maker, not just a content provider. I could feel it.

Ellen Levine: Oh good, thank you. I’m flattered.

Samir Husni: You mentioned the attorney general; I remember a while back, you serving on the Meese Commission on pornography.

Ellen Levine: You’re right, I did.

Samir Husni: Do you think we’re in better shape today than in the 1980s when it comes to moral issues? Or are things worse with the Internet and digital, where anything is available to anyone anywhere?

Ellen Levine: I personally think that we’re a lot better off, but I think there are thousands of miles to go. Certainly, on the pornography commission the attitude then was that anything you read that was sexy would lead you into crime of one kind or another and that’s what they wanted to prove so that they could repress publication of books, magazines, etc.

I think America has grown a lot. You can see the weddings that are now allowed, marriages that are now allowed for gay couples. I think we’re much better than we had been and I believe we will continue to hope for more change in areas that need change.

On a wide national front, I believe that we are in a better position than we were back then, but there are definitely miles to go. We’re in the middle of it right now with the issue of the number of shootings of Americans, the difficulty that police officers have in maintaining the law. There is just so much. I was a poli sci major in college; there is just so much that needs improving. Prejudice has to go away.

But I do think media is much more open than it used to be. And that’s wonderful. And in a lot of situations, media is leading the way.

Samir Husni: You have all these printed magazines, all the brands that are available now; can you envision a day in your lifetime that we won’t have print? That all these experiences we create through the printed magazine, we can replicate through the virtual?

Ellen Levine: No, I can’t see that. I don’t think that will happen. There may be some transition in people’s personal needs, but no, we will continue to do print.

I do remember reading how excited everyone was when they looked at the first printed Bible and how excited people were when they found, I think it was in Israel, some original writings in a cave. They wouldn’t have been as excited if they’d found somebody’s laptop back then.

Samir Husni: (Laughs).

Ellen Levine: There is just something about when you see the handwriting, you see the person; it visualizes things for you. Being on television, when we were trying to talk to Oprah about launching the magazine, she said I’m on television all the time; why in the world would I need a magazine? And I said it just came to me because it’s the printed word. And the printed word can be held in your hand and I continue to believe that now. Not that I don’t use online a lot for communication, that’s cool, that’s fine. I love it for certain things, but it’s not necessarily for the things that I want to keep forever.

Samir Husni: Is there anything else that you’d like to add about the creative process of magazine-making?

Ellen Levine: I love what I get to do; I just love it. I was born this way. I drove people crazy with questions. There was a certain point in my house where they would say, enough with the questions. I was one of those kids who were doing this in sixth grade and then I was editor of my high school newspaper and ended up editing it with the boys. So that was a great group because they generally had the guys doing it. Of course, when I went to an all-girls college, I got to be the girl who did it.

The main thing for me is those kinds of people that I worked with were the kind of people who I liked and I continue to like. And they’re people who like to ask questions and want answers. To me, that’s the best thing that you can do. Ask that question; get that answer, because it may be an answer that will change your life or someone else’s. And right now I am more dedicated to getting information out to women and men about things that are going to make them maybe see their lives in a different way; something that will help them and their children, their whole family.

I just love it. My husband gets a little tired of it, since I ask him questions all day long, he’s a physician and he’s responsible for letting me know if anything new is happening in his office. I love my job, although, I would have been a prosecutor or a cop if I could have done something different.

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

Ellen Levine: When my husband doesn’t put the air conditioning on? (Laughs) I don’t actually wake up with that kind of stuff. If I was thinking about something, it would probably be in the shower instead. I get ideas in the shower.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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