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When The Word Beautiful Is In Your Title – You Know What You’re Reading & Have Been For Almost 120 Years…The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Sophie Donelson, Editor-In-Chief, House Beautiful.

August 12, 2015

“We enter our 120th year in 2016. The reason House Beautiful has been successful for that many years is because of the stories. This is what you can still turn to print magazines for; you have the luxury of dealing with experts, in fact-checking articles, in creating a photo shoot whole cloth, something brand new to show the reader. This is indulgent in this day and age. Content moves fast and there’s great demand in the digital space to do more and more and more. And I’m sitting here asking: how do I do less better? I want to create the richest, most indulgent experience. This is a chocolate mousse; this is a special treat. And our readers recognize that. I think a great deal about every inch, every page of that magazine. I want to make sure it’s the best that it can be.” Sophie Donelson

House Beautiful July Aug 15 Cover As the leading authority on American home design and decoration; House Beautiful sets the standard for upscale treatment of homes that are lived in and enjoyed, not just viewed. From color schemes to the tiniest detail such as fringe on a pillow; the mission of the magazine and its new editor, Sophie Donelson, is to take readers to a new, richer level when it comes to the soul of their domain.

Next year the magazine will realize its 120th anniversary and there’s a reason it has withstood the test of time and not only survived, but thrived in this shifting world of digital content: the stories and the tactile nature of the beauty it presents.

Recently, I spoke with Sophie about her vision for House Beautiful’s future and the experience she feels the magazine gives its readers. She was both honest and extremely passionate about the brand and what it represents to its audience. From bringing more urgency to the written words on the magazine’s pages to energizing and brightening the entire book, Sophie has a definite handle on where she believes the magazine should be heading.

So, I hope you enjoy this open and honest conversation with a woman who lives to make your house as beautiful as the one she’s leading into its 120th year; the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Sophie Donelson, Editor-In-Chief, House Beautiful.

But first, the sound-bites:


HBX080115_014 On whether today’s editor has to practice what they preach in order to stay at the top of their game:
Absolutely. It’s not really any fun to have a job unless you do it. There are times during meetings where I’m talking about home and what it means to have a home that reflects your style and really your soul, and I feel like walking out of the meeting and just going home and tinkering on the things that I’ve been working on.

On whether it feels any differently as the editor of a magazine that has mass reach like House Beautiful than when she worked in the same position at the more regional publication, Hamptons Cottages & Gardens:
I think it was actually a very similar audience that we were talking to at Hamptons Cottages & Gardens. It was just in a more specific way, because the joy of a regional magazine is that you know where they live, what they drive, what their supermarket is; I mean you know that consumer intimately.

On her vision for the future of House Beautiful:
I’m lucky to be at a magazine that’s a beloved title, but at the same time we have this incredible passionate and allegiant audience and so no fast moves. I’m making incremental changes and just sort of trying to energize and brighten every single page of the magazine. When you have the word beautiful in your title, you have no business doing anything that’s just pretty.

On her desire to bring more urgency to the magazine and how she plans to achieve that in print: That’s a great question. Part of it just has to do with the tone of the writing. I always think of the phrase: show, don’t tell. And now I’m going to try and tell you how to do it. It’s about having energy in the writing and seeing people get excited when they read it. That’s as simple as I can put it. And showing things, like the ginger jars, which are resonating right now.

On how she envisions herself as an experience maker who provides good content:
For one, I hear firsthand about how people do experience House Beautiful. This is a weekly, if not daily event where somebody says, I got my magazine in the mail and I can’t wait to go to bed early tonight. These are people who set aside time in their lives to enjoy the magazine. And I would say specifically print often.

On whether she believes that she could create experiences for the reader without a print edition: I would say no because I can explain it in a digital platform and I can explain the decorating aspect that we just talked about, but this is a magazine that’s tear-sheeted and dog-eared and no amount of screen shooting or texting an idea makes up for the fact that I have run into women that have crumpled up pieces of paper in their bags that they’re dying to show me that they found a paint swatch. We deal so much in color and in paints and we do color corrections specifically to that; it’s brutal to do that online, I’ll be honest with you.

On how her role as editor-in-chief has changed over the years, specifically from before the digital explosion up until now: You just have to recognize that women have so many options today on where they get their stimulus. The fact that her phone is tethered to her hand; I don’t see that as an obstacle because in fact when she puts the phone down; I feel like what she picks up is a House Beautiful and that’s a happy moment for me. But what it means is I just have to create the best version of print possible.

On the major stumbling block she might face moving forward and how she plans to overcome it:
With help. (Laughs) I have been a writer, reporter, producer, editor, copywriter my whole life. And I love this field. I love doing it. I love being onset; I love line editing; I love writing cover lines and headlines, but the reason they hired me to sit in this chair is not to do that. They hired me to come up with a vision that drives this magazine forward and engages a new crop of readers and knocks the socks off of a reader who thought they already loved House Beautiful.

On anything else she’d like to add: We wouldn’t even be having this conversation if it wasn’t for Newell Turner (Editorial Director, Hearst Design Group), one of your former students and my mentor. Newell hired me out of college from a Mediabistro ad. I came to this city on a sublet off of Craig’s List and I was saying: well, I hope this works. (Laughs) And thank goodness that Newell found something in me and I got to work, not just side-by-side with him, but I think our knees knocked under the desk.

On what keeps her up at night:
I’m usually tired from a big day; I don’t have too much trouble falling asleep. But when I do, it’s basically possibilities. It’s as simple as that. My mind is racing with interesting people I’ve met, things we could do together, story ideas, meetings I should make, places I should go. It’s an overwhelming place to be and it’s the best case scenario.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ conversation with Sophie Donelson, Editor-In-Chief, House Beautiful.

Samir Husni: Does an editor today have to practice what they preach? I noticed in your prior job you were in charge of the Cricket’s Circle while you were expecting, and then you had your child and renovated your apartment; your own House Beautiful. Does an editor today have to actually practice what they’re preaching to stay at the top of their game?

Sophie Donelson: Absolutely. It’s not really any fun to have a job unless you do it. There are times during meetings where I’m talking about home and what it means to have a home that reflects your style and really your soul, and I feel like walking out of the meeting and just going home and tinkering on the things that I’ve been working on. It’s really funny; we’ll be in these really deep conversations and I’ll stop and say – I really need to finish that thing I’ve been working on or I really need to change that pink color. We talk and talk about ideas here in the office and then we’re all just really eager to get home at night and really live out what we’ve been talking about all day.

So, yes, I do. This morning alone I hung a piece of art and moved a piece of furniture and in my dining room right now I have drop cloths on the floor because my toddler and I spent the weekend painting little pieces of furniture to kind of brighten up spots in the house that look forlorn. I’ve been traveling a lot, so when I’m home, I don’t want to even leave the house.

Samir Husni: How does it feel to now be the editor of the largest mass home magazine in the country? You were at one time the editor-in-chief of Hamptons Cottages & Gardens with its very upscale audience and now you are editor-in-chief of a magazine that reaches more of a mass audience; does it feel any different now than it did then?

Sophie Donelson: I think it was actually a very similar audience that we were talking to at Hamptons Cottages & Gardens. It was just in a more specific way, because the joy of a regional magazine is that you know where they live, what they drive, what their supermarket is; I mean you know that consumer intimately.

But for the most part, the men and women that I talked to at that magazine are very much this reader. It’s a very affluent reader; it’s a reader who is incredibly passionate about her home and it is a larger audience, but that’s just because it’s national. We have a greater reach. House Beautiful has distinction of covering the most of America. As you know, those magazines get coastal readership, strong on the East Coast and the West Coast; we talked about the smile when you get the Sunbelt and the southern states; House Beautiful gets all of it.

I was told in Nebraska there are few newsstands with a few magazines on those newsstands, but House Beautiful is one of those magazines. And I love that we can speak to just a much broader audience. But at the end of the day these are mostly women that care deeply about their homes, so that idea has been the longstanding, defining point of my shelter magazine career. It’s fun when you say this is the biggest home magazine and it’s a thrill. I never pictured myself in this position, because I’m a doer. I love writing and I never really wanted to be the boss in that way, because I love doing the work. And that’s one of the things that has been a great way for me to grow.

Samir Husni: Can you describe your vision for the future of House Beautiful? What do you want to see House Beautiful continue to do or change about itself; what’s your vision as editor-in-chief? I know August was your first complete issue and now your second is coming up with the September issue. Tell me where you hope to see House Beautiful heading in the future.

Sophie Donelson: I’m lucky to be at a magazine that’s a beloved title, but at the same time we have this incredible passionate and allegiant audience and so no fast moves. I’m making incremental changes and just sort of trying to energize and brighten every single page of the magazine. When you have the word beautiful in your title, you have no business doing anything that’s just pretty. You have to blow people away every single page, and so at the end of the day that’s the space line of my job, to wow our reader.

In terms of where I’d like to take the magazine, I truly feel that we have a reader that adores the home and is very passionate about this space, but I want to encourage her to take the next step and make it a reality in her own life.

This magazine is really special because it’s not for the gallery of look-but-don’t-touch houses; they’re not trophy houses; they’re not homes done for celebrities that don’t live in them. These homes are lived in and enjoyed by families and people all across the country. And yet, they’re exquisite.

We have these fine homes and we talk to designers in this conversational way. Truly these interviews and what the Q&A format, which was started several years ago here at the magazine does, is just get down to earth with the designer. This is the sort of access that no other magazine provides. We have a really conversational tone paired with this absolutely aspirational look.

At the same time, there are magazines that are sort of asking you to pick up a paintbrush; we’re not going to do that; that’s not who we are. Our audience is affluent and they don’t have to do that. In fact, I’m always saying please don’t paint your own room, I need you to hire professionals because I want you to have a good experience. We believe in experts. We believe in professionals and we believe that they can help you to take it to the next level.

But I think that I’d like to bring a little bit more urgency to the writing and a little bit more context as to why we show what we show each month. And what I mean by that is just, for example, our June issue was this cover of ginger jars. This was the issue that I started working with Newell on (Newell Turner, editorial director of the Hearst Design Group), so we paired up for that issue together. July/August was my first issue.

HB June 15 Cover But the ginger jars issue, an editor came to our team and said these jars were really hot right now, and it had sort of an historical bent to it. Ginger jars are something that has been used in decorating for really hundreds of years. And we were seeing them everywhere. They were on Etsy and Instagram; they were having this resurgence. We saw it on Kips Bay Show House. From the very peak, top-of-the-market to a more mass appeal; it was a trend that we were seeing everywhere.

We shot a story, ended up doing a cover off of it and then honestly found that it just went viral online. Our web team did the five things you don’t know about ginger jars; that was their approach to it, which was perfect for their platform.

We did an historical timeline, because in the magazine we get to geek out on decorating a little bit because our audience loves that and they’re bright and they get it. And then what was funny, on Instagram I just all of a sudden saw people tagging House Beautiful; they would take a picture of a tableau in their own home of ginger jars. They would take out the House Beautiful and put it on their coffee table and style something around it and tag House Beautiful. One girl had like a ginger jar skirt on and tagged House Beautiful in it.

It all of a sudden picked up in all of these corners and we realized that this was such a generational hit; I mean, my mother had ginger jars in her home; I know that my grandmother did as well; I have them, and it just became a classic. And I love when we can find a story that hits women of all tastes and at all angles. And I just thought it was a great idea.

Samir Husni: You mentioned the word urgency; that you want to bring more urgency into the magazine. How can you do that in a digital age, but show that urgency in print?

Sophie Donelson: That’s a great question. Part of it just has to do with the tone of the writing. I always think of the phrase: show, don’t tell. And now I’m going to try and tell you how to do it. It’s about having energy in the writing and seeing people get excited when they read it. That’s as simple as I can put it. And showing things, like the ginger jars, which are resonating right now. That’s the job of our editors, to have their ears to the ground and find decorating that feels right for right now.

Samir Husni: One of my mantras that I keep telling whomever is willing to listen is that we are much more than content providers; we are experience makers, magazine editors and magazine publishers. How do you envision yourself as an experience maker who’s providing good content?

Sophie Donelson: For one, I hear firsthand about how people do experience House Beautiful. This is a weekly, if not daily event where somebody says, I got my magazine in the mail and I can’t wait to go to bed early tonight. These are people who set aside time in their lives to enjoy the magazine. And I would say specifically print often. These are magazines, especially in the shelter category I would say, that are down time for our readers. She really does dedicate minutes of her day, especially before bed, I hear that a lot, or I didn’t open it yet; I put it in my bag and I can’t wait to read it on vacation. That in itself is an experience.

Another way that I want to talk about experience is that we are an incredibly visually-driven culture. I think about Instagram constantly, it’s just sort of image after image and it’s beautiful.

And we are creating something brand new. When you pick up House Beautiful, you have never seen this before and that’s on every single page. It’s brand new and created just for you. Nothing old, nothing duplicated, nothing repurposed. It’s all brand new for you. That in itself is another experience.

In terms of decorating, I want to bring that experience to a richer level for our reader. In November we’re exploring; it’s actually our first bath and beauty issue. This is an idea that we’re doing because this book will be about exploring home through the senses. It’s the idea of how do you create rooms that engage all senses, not just sight? What I mean by that is how do you use scent, and not just a scented candle, to enjoy your space more? And how do you use textiles, not just sheets that feel beautiful or a velvet cushion, but how does something like fringe or trim on a pillow heighten your experience in a room? The best designers in the world think of all the senses when they’re designing and I’d love to show our reader how to bring a couple of those things into their own home.

Samir Husni: Do you think that you could accomplish those experiences, such as in the upcoming November five senses issue, if there wasn’t a print edition of the magazine?

Sophie Donelson: I would say no because I can explain it in a digital platform and I can explain the decorating aspect that we just talked about, but this is a magazine that’s tear-sheeted and dog-eared and no amount of screen shooting or texting an idea makes up for the fact that I have run into women that have crumpled up pieces of paper in their bags that they’re dying to show me that they found a paint swatch. We deal so much in color and in paints and we do color corrections specifically to that; it’s brutal to do that online, I’ll be honest with you. It’s an amazing thing to have that tear sheet and actually bring it to your designer or if you’re being really ambitious to the hardware store and ask: can you match this? Or what is this or I want to buy this.

A-one on our minds is making sure that the paints and the colors that we talk about are reflected in a way that when women bring it home they can share that experience they feel in print.

Samir Husni: You’ve been an editor now for over a decade; how have your experiences as editor-in-chief changed from before the digital age, 2007, and after the digital explosion up until today in 2015? How has your role as editor-in-chief changed?

Sophie Donelson: You just have to recognize that women have so many options today on where they get their stimulus. The fact that her phone is tethered to her hand; I don’t see that as an obstacle because in fact when she puts the phone down; I feel like what she picks up is a House Beautiful and that’s a happy moment for me. But what it means is I just have to create the best version of print possible. And I have to earn her attention every single page.

It’s not enough to just create a great decorating magazine, I need to create a magazine that changes her relationship with her home and makes her feel a certain way. That makes her do that tear-sheeting and dog-earing and makes her want to take a picture and text it to a friend. I need to be the best version of print possible. It’s not enough to just be a great magazine anymore because she has so many other places to go for inspiration.

We enter our 120th year in 2016. The reason House Beautiful has been successful for that many years is because of the stories. This is what you can still turn to print magazines for; you have the luxury of dealing with experts, in fact-checking articles, in creating a photo shoot whole cloth, something brand new to show the reader. This is indulgent in this day and age. Content moves fast and there’s great demand in the digital space to do more and more and more. And I’m sitting here asking: how do I do less better? I want to create the richest, most indulgent experience. This is a chocolate mousse; this is a special treat. And our readers recognize that. I think a great deal about every inch, every page of that magazine. I want to make sure it’s the best that it can be.

Samir Husni: As you move forward with House Beautiful; what do you think will be the major stumbling block that you’ll have to face and how will you overcome it?

Sophie Donelson: With help. (Laughs) I have been a writer, reporter, producer, editor, copywriter my whole life. And I love this field. I love doing it. I love being onset; I love line editing; I love writing cover lines and headlines, but the reason they hired me to sit in this chair is not to do that. They hired me to come up with a vision that drives this magazine forward and engages a new crop of readers and knocks the socks off of a reader who thought they already loved House Beautiful.

So, learning to be, not just a manager because I have great managers, thank God, but a leader and somebody that rallies not just our team, but the world at large; that’s the next big step for me. This is an evolution in my career and just because you can write the article doesn’t mean you should.

I’ve been really blessed to inherit a terrific team who are incredibly knowledgeable and skilled. Christine Pittel and Vicky Lowry sat down last month and edited my editor’s letter and it’s such a gift to have two experienced women give me a couple of pointers. And I love that. And I love that my market editors are the best out there; they’re just a team of people who are sweeping the market to find the most important stories to tell today.

So, I have to recognize that talent and just let them do their job and I can focus on my job, and likewise in digital. I’ve got a terrific digital team and they’re the best at what they do. And we come together and we talk ideas, but at the end of the day, I have a certain role to play and they do too.

Samir Husni: What motivates you to get out of bed in the mornings and makes you say it’s going to be a great day?

Sophie Donelson: My three-year-old son and it’s so much easier to go to the office than parent. (Laughs)

Samir Husni: (Laughs too). Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Sophie Donelson: We wouldn’t even be having this conversation if it wasn’t for Newell Turner (Editorial Director, Hearst Design Group), one of your former students and my mentor. Newell hired me out of college from a Mediabistro ad. I came to this city on a sublet off of Craig’s List and I was saying: well, I hope this works. (Laughs)

And thank goodness that Newell found something in me and I got to work, not just side-by-side with him, but I think our knees knocked under the desk. We worked incredibly closely in a tiny office on Hamptons Cottages & Gardens and on launching a couple of other magazines together and his Rolodex became my Rolodex.

And then to enter this incredibly warm and gracious design world and publishing world by Newell’s side was the greatest gift. But he entered me without knowing, which was such a blessing. And it has been a blast and it’s just wild to come home again. Home is the shelter world and home is Newell being my neighbor down in the other office and it’s been a great gift to me.

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

Sophie Donelson: I’m usually tired from a big day; I don’t have too much trouble falling asleep. But when I do, it’s basically possibilities. It’s as simple as that. My mind is racing with interesting people I’ve met, things we could do together, story ideas, meetings I should make, places I should go. It’s an overwhelming place to be and it’s the best case scenario. How do you funnel that energy and all that opportunity into something tangible for the reader?

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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