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Cooking Light: Bringing Readers Home To A Healthier, Happier Kitchen – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Hunter Lewis, Editor, Cooking Light.

October 7, 2015

“I don’t believe in the death of either of those (the homepage and the tablet) because, you know yourself, the “death of print” has been covered extensively over the last few years; we’ve read hundreds of articles about the death of print and we know that prediction was BS. It’s not about the death of the tablet or the death of the homepage; it’s about where the audience is and how they’re getting their information.” Hunter Lewis

Cooking Light-2 The day magazines and magazine media can conduct business and engage readers on all the various platforms without singling out which is which and who’s in charge of print or digital or mobile or whatever the next phase of our fast spinning world is, will be the day the industry knows true success. Working as one wheel with many spokes is the only way to succeed for the majority of the folks in today’s publishing world.

Cooking Light magazine has achieved that non-biased, non-prejudiced viewpoint and is kicking it in the healthy food space. From its 28-years-old print product to its many arms in the digital realms, the magazine goes beyond recognizing that it’s not an either/or stratosphere, nor is it a simply an integrated one anymore; it’s a normal workday around the magazine offices. It’s innovation that’s become second nature and habitual. And without habitual innovation in today’s magazine media world, the industry as a whole is lost.

Hunter Lewis has been at the helm of Cooking Light for one year now and this matter-of-fact way of looking at the many platforms that magazines must be on today in order to stand out in the very busy marketplace of food magazines, is the main reason for the title’s ability to shine on each and every one: their captain-at-the-wheel sees very few choppy waters when it comes to platform distinctions. To Hunter, each and every one is vital, necessary and all a part of a day-in-his-life.

I spoke with Hunter recently and we talked about how each platform Cooking Light maintains for its content is important to the magazine’s success, and yet, works as one entity instead of many to achieve it. A man as passionate about his brand as he is his cooking, Hunter believes that food brings joy to the people and healthy food brings a happier, healthier life too. His spot-on insights when it comes to print and digital working as one is refreshing and oh-so true in the 21st century. Visual, interactive and written are the elements needed in magazine media today and Cooking Light is serving them up, right along with some of the most delicious recipes around.

I hope you enjoy this cooking lesson that’s on the light and bright side as you read the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Hunter Lewis, Editor, Cooking Light.

But first, the sound-bites:


On whether he’s still as excited about Cooking Light as he was a year ago when he took the editor’s position or whether he’s had any second thoughts:
(Laughs) No second thoughts; I’m more fired up now than I was even then because I feel like I understand the brand much better, it’s become part of my DNA and I understand who the reader is.

On the many responsibilities of today’s editor and how he balances his day-to-day duties and whether he feels he has too many pots on the stove: It’s funny, I keep my daily to-do list in a notebook and I use to divvy up the to-do list for all the jobs, from print to digital to my staff, social and video, and about six months ago I just stopped doing that because now everything is so intertwined. And now it’s about the stories and the content and the recipes and where they go first. And how you deliver them and tell the story on any particular medium.

Hunter Lewis Photo On whether or not he believes in the latest phrases, death of the homepage and death of the tablet:
I don’t believe in the death of either of those because, you know yourself, the “death of print” has been covered extensively over the last few years; we’ve read hundreds of articles about the death of print and we know that prediction was BS. It’s not about the death of the tablet or the death of the homepage; it’s about where the audience is and how they’re getting their information.

On what he’s doing to ensure the future of the printed edition of Cooking Light with its mass audience:
It’s interesting, from on the outside, before I came to Cooking Light, I thought of Cooking Light as a service book. We’re serving up 75+ recipes and 25+ tips a month for readers to go out and use. But it’s not only a service book; it’s an enthusiast’s magazine as well. All of our staff; we’re all passionate about home cooking and we’re bringing that joy to the page. So, when people buy the magazine and they open it up, we want it to be a joyful experience. And we want our readers to go out and act upon the tips and to use the recipes.

On why he believes there has been such an explosion in food magazines in the last few years:
I think it’s a reflection of our culture and it speaks to the explosion of interest and passion for food. If you think about the way that we ate in this country fifty years ago, we don’t eat that way anymore. And if you think about the level of overall food knowledge of the average American, it’s much greater now than it used to be. Our access to good ingredients, at least for the folks that can afford them, has gotten much better. If you look at what’s on the supermarket shelves now versus 10 years ago, supermarkets are following the trends of what’s happening in restaurants, the chefs are the point of the spear for new American cuisine. And you’re seeing those flavors and tastes evolve and then trickle down to consumers in a mass way in supermarkets.

On one moment that happened throughout his first year at the helm of Cooking Light that made him know he had made the right decision and that he was where he belonged:
I think that there are a few touchstones; certainly interviewing Michelle Obama and talking to the First Lady about her goal to get more people in this country back in the kitchen to cook for good health; that was one moment where it really began to crystallize for us to think more about what we were doing here in Birmingham.

On the major stumbling block he’s had to face and how he overcame it: I think our biggest stumbling block is just what we’re fighting every day in the sense that, back in the day print was everything. It was the product that we were working on every waking moment. And so the big challenge has been to take a team that’s used to working on that one product and to marshal them together to work on all the different platforms. And that’s not something that happens overnight, because part of the game right now is that the digital platforms are changing so quickly that you have to stay up-to-date and you have to try new things and move into new spaces, while you’re also maintaining the core part of your brand which is print.

On whether he thinks his staff feels more gratified seeing their work appearing in print or digital or it doesn’t make a difference: With print you work on something for many months and you put it out and you might not hear anything. With digital what’s fascinating is that you know immediately whether or not you’ve pleased people and you know immediately, or pretty soon after, if that content has gone viral. So, you can measure that. And I think that’s important. To think about what you can measure and how you can analyze that.

On whether he’s trying to come up with ideas to bring the print audience to the editorial table and make them a part of the creation process:
Absolutely. I think a lot about Cooking Light Diet, which is a new product for us, it’s a completely different digital entity than cookinglight.com; it’s a completely different revenue stream than the magazine and to date we have thousands of subscribers for this new digital product. It’s this amazing, healthy meal planner. And what we’ve seen from these folks that are using the diet is that we’re getting these testimonials on a daily basis and it’s changing their lives. People are losing dozens of pounds on this and their cholesterol is dropping and they’ve convinced their families to eat healthier. So, what we’re doing is taking these testimonials and bringing some of those rock star subscribers to the Cooking Light Diet, some of our most engaged subscribers, and we’re starting a Facebook community with them and we’re featuring them in the magazine.

On what he’d like to accomplish and talk about one year from now when it comes to the magazine:
I hope that we’re talking about video and social video and just increasing the levels of engagement with video. I guarantee that we’ll be talking about the Time Inc. Food Studios and this massive new sweets test kitchens and photo and video studios that we’re opening here in Birmingham. And how Cooking Light and these studios will play together to create best-in-class video and recipes and stories. It’s a big, big deal for Time Inc.

On anything else he’s like to add: A couple of things are the huge November double issue which comes to mind because we’re shipping the last pages today. That’ll be coming out soon and I’m really excited about it. It has twice as many recipes and twice as many pages as we typically publish. Cooking Light Diet is top of mind and then also January is a big, big time for us. That’s when people are making their New Year’s resolutions and they’re thinking more practically about how they’re going to live a healthier life in the New Year. And so right now we’re working on the January issue and making it the absolute best that we can.

On what keeps him up at night:
The exact same thing that I said one year ago and I have it on a sticky note here on my wall. It’s the quote from the guy over at Microsoft, what drives me every morning and what keeps me up every night is one thing, “this business is not about longevity; it’s about relevance.” Every day what we’re doing is prioritizing and reprioritizing, based on how the game is changing.


And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Hunter Lewis, Editor, Cooking Light.


Samir Husni: It’s been a year now since you became editor of Cooking Light; are you still as happy and excited as when you first took the job? Or maybe you’re having second thoughts in hindsight?

Hunter Lewis: (Laughs) No second thoughts; I’m more fired up now than I was even then because I feel like I understand the brand much better, it’s become part of my DNA and I understand who the reader is. I also understand my team and what makes them tick more than I did a year ago when I was just starting out.

So, I’m really fired up about the next year and our next two to three years and the changes that we’re going to continue to make and what we’re going to be doing in the digital space.

Samir Husni: This is something that I hear form almost every editor, that no one is talking about either/or, nobody is talking print or digital; it’s all about the experience and print + digital, plus whatever else is going to be invented. How are you balancing your day-to-day as compared to when you were just working at a magazine? Do you feel that you have too many pots on the stove, so to speak?

Hunter Lewis: It’s funny, I keep my daily to-do list in a notebook and I use to divvy up the to-do list for all the jobs, from print to digital to my staff, social and video, and about six months ago I just stopped doing that because now everything is so intertwined. And now it’s about the stories and the content and the recipes and where they go first. And how you deliver them and tell the story on any particular medium.

So, who we were a year ago as a brand and how we approached digital has changed immensely. And a lot of it is just the mentality of the staff and getting them to think about digital in a different way than they previously had. I think the old way of doing it doesn’t work where you’ve got print editors and digital editors, and where several years ago what we put on dotcom or what we put on Facebook was sort of what was left on the cutting room floor from a print story. And you can’t do that anymore. Everything has to be compelling on every medium.

And every time we are coming up with an edit calendar, we think about what we’re planning and photographing, and how we’re going to make the story compelling on Facebook and the Cooking Light blog, and compelling through a series of 140-character Tweets? How are we going to take that story about chili and make it resonate on Instagram?

So, it’s always a part of who we are everyday to think about how we’re going to surprise and delight people in the digital space.

Samir Husni: I was in New York few months ago with a group of my students and we heard two things that were really stunning to me, one was the death of the homepage and the other was the death of the tablet. That today it’s all mobile and it’s all video; everything is on your Smartphone. Do you agree that after a very few years people are already talking about the death of the homepage and the tablet?

Hunter Lewis: I don’t believe in the death of either of those because, you know yourself, the “death of print” has been covered extensively over the last few years; we’ve read hundreds of articles about the death of print and we know that prediction was BS. It’s not about the death of the tablet or the death of the homepage; it’s about where the audience is and how they’re getting their information.

So, when we think about the rise of mobile and how important it is, in particular for food content, if you’re a consumer and you’re looking for that chili recipe, whether you’re at your desk or you’re at the supermarket and you’re looking at ingredients, you have to think smartly about where the consumer is; what they’re doing at that hour, and what device they’re using, and not only what device; what platform.

For us, we’ve grown Facebook exponentially over the last couple of years and we’ll probably hit five million Facebook followers in a few months. So for us it’s just as important to think about how we’re reaching those people and entertaining them and surprising and delighting them, getting them to come back to the site.

We talk a lot about social referrals and that’s a big, big deal. We talk about more about social referrals now than we do the homepage because if you think about general search and SEO (search engine optimization), those are hugely important, but you have to divvy up the pie with the audience and you have to figure out ways to get people to come back to the site through a compelling video on Facebook, let’s say, or through a compelling Tweet or Instagram. However, not Instagram as much per se; linking back is getting better on Instagram, but it’s really about Facebook at this point and how you use Facebook as its own platform to attract people, but also how you use it to compel people to come back to your site.

Samir Husni: What are you doing at the same time to ensure the future of the printed edition of Cooking Light with its mass audience?

Picture 35 Hunter Lewis: It’s interesting, from on the outside, before I came to Cooking Light, I thought of Cooking Light as a service book. We’re serving up 75+ recipes and 25+ tips a month for readers to go out and use. But it’s not only a service book; it’s an enthusiast’s magazine as well. All of our staff; we’re all passionate about home cooking and we’re bringing that joy to the page. So, when people buy the magazine and they open it up, we want it to be a joyful experience. And we want our readers to go out and act upon the tips and to use the recipes.

So, it’s about making delicious recipes and it’s about creating beautiful photography; as I said last year, the recipes have to be delicious and the photography has to be beautiful. And those two things have to be working hand-in-hand. It’s about writing sharp copy and it’s about writing sharp display; it’s about all the fundamentals that have always been important. Always bringing passion to the page and making people happy.

One thing that we’ve really worked on this year is thinking about our print and about how we can use it to empower people to get into the kitchen, because part of our mission moving forward is teaching people how to cook and getting them excited about being in the kitchen. Healthy is the new mainstream. And we know that when people cook for their families, those families are healthier. And Cooking Light is a real empowerment tool for good health.

Over the past year has really been about dialing in that message and I think it started with the March issue, which was our family dinner issue, and putting Michelle Obama on the cover and really making a splash with that. But it was great to see the staff come together and really think about our weeknight recipes in a different way. We’ve always been known for our healthy weeknight recipes, but we had to dial in the messaging and talk more about how Cooking Light is an empowerment tool for people to manage and take control of their own health, because how you eat can dictate your health.

Samir Husni: Somebody said that food magazines today are what celebrity magazines were in the early part of the 21st century. Why do you think there has been this explosion in food magazines? The specialization is tremendous, from crockpot cooking to how to bake the perfect chicken breast; the titles are plentiful. Why do you think there’s such a demand for food magazines today?

Hunter Lewis: I think it’s a reflection of our culture and it speaks to the explosion of interest and passion for food. If you think about the way that we ate in this country fifty years ago, we don’t eat that way anymore. And if you think about the level of overall food knowledge of the average American, it’s much greater now than it used to be. Our access to good ingredients, at least for the folks that can afford them, has gotten much better. If you look at what’s on the supermarket shelves now versus 10 years ago, supermarkets are following the trends of what’s happening in restaurants, the chefs are the point of the spear for new American cuisine. And you’re seeing those flavors and tastes evolve and then trickle down to consumers in a mass way in supermarkets.

And I think all of these food brands, whether they’re digital magazines or traditional print magazines have a place; the brand extensions of Cooking Light, with our special editions and books have a place. There’s a reason why we’re producing more of these, because the marketplace for all of these magazines has grown.

If we’re talking about Cooking Light in particular and about how we stand out in that very busy marketplace, I think for us in the past we were considered a mass brand and a healthy recipe book. And I’ve said this before, but I really believe it; part of our mantra everyday here with the team is to think about delivering content at that intersection where food and wellness meet. As I said, healthy is the new mainstream and our culture is coming to Cooking Light looking for healthy recipes, but also looking for accessible advice for living a better and healthier life with food at the core of it. But that’s really part of our mission moving forward is for press stories and our blog content, for our Facebook and newsletters to be more and more about how we can share that mission of health and wellness through food.

Samir Husni: Through this last year that you’ve been at the helm of Cooking Light, can you pinpoint one moment where you just knew that you’d made the right decision and you were where you belonged?

Hunter Lewis: I think that there are a few touchstones; certainly interviewing Michelle Obama and talking to the First Lady about her goal to get more people in this country back in the kitchen to cook for good health; that was one moment where it really began to crystallize for us to think more about what we were doing here in Birmingham.

We’ve got this program that’s a couple of years old called The Family Kitchen and we’ve partnered with Jones Valley Teaching Farm, which is a great, very progressive urban farm downtown. It’s also in Birmingham City Schools. And we’ve been preparing Cooking Light recipes and Southern Living recipes with these elementary school students and their families and it’s really broken down a lot of barriers and brought our weeknight recipes to life. It’s taught us more about healthy home cooking and how to reduce and lower as many barriers as possible so that the recipes will really stick and the cooking lessons will resonate. And by that I mean, recipes that are 30 minutes or less and $12 or less for a family of four, and you can buy every ingredient at Wal-Mart; you’re not using very many tools or pots and pans, but the recipes are delicious. And you see the responses and you see the way that these families come together at the table after they’ve made a meal with us; that’s a very empowering thing.

We took that experience with The Family Kitchen and the local elementary school students and we took Mrs. Obama’s message to heart with her “Let’s Cook” movement and her “Let’s Move” movement and we created a curriculum called “Let’s Cook.” It’s a curriculum that’s on our website and it’s in Spanish and English. It’s a series of recipes that fulfill those ideals that I was talking about; the 30 minutes or less and the $12 or less for a family of four. And that’s just a part of what I think really helped to bring our recipes to life and it helped our staff to think about our recipes beyond the page and how they can resonate with people. So, that was important. In terms of big, digital stories, that was a big one for us because we released the story online first.

We had a great summer cookbook this year in June and I think that was the first example for us where we’re going to deliver the story one way in print, but we’re also going to cover the 50 best farmer’s markets in the country and the way that resonated online and the way it resonated on Facebook and the traffic that drew was powerful. And it was a different way of telling a story than we would have done it in print. That was big.

And then we had a really big clean-eating package this spring that we released and that was important for us because clean-eating is in the news, it’s what a lot of companies are pointing to in terms of their value system and we saw a lot of traffic around that. All of this is a part of telling stories in different ways on different platforms.

Samir Husni: What has been the major stumbling block that you’ve had to face and how did you overcome it?

Hunter Lewis: I think our biggest stumbling block is just what we’re fighting every day in the sense that, back in the day print was everything. It was the product that we were working on every waking moment. And so the big challenge has been to take a team that’s used to working on that one product and to marshal them together to work on all the different platforms. And that’s not something that happens overnight, because part of the game right now is that the digital platforms are changing so quickly that you have to stay up-to-date and you have to try new things and move into new spaces, while you’re also maintaining the core part of your brand which is print. So, that’s the real challenge and it’s a challenge every day for every editor.

Samir Husni: Do you think your staff feels more gratified if they see their work appearing in the print edition or in digital or it makes no difference?

Hunter Lewis: I think about it like a series of deadlines and I think about as a cook; when you cook for somebody, whether it’s at home or in a restaurant, you know immediately if that person is happy and you’ve pleased them. You know if they like that dish.

With print you work on something for many months and you put it out and you might not hear anything. With digital what’s fascinating is that you know immediately whether or not you’ve pleased people and you know immediately, or pretty soon after, if that content has gone viral. So, you can measure that. And I think that’s important. To think about what you can measure and how you can analyze that.

Samir Husni: Are you trying to come up with some ideas where you’re actually bringing the audience to the editorial print table, not to comment, but rather to be a part of the creation of the print magazine?

Hunter Lewis: Absolutely. I think a lot about Cooking Light Diet, which is a new product for us, it’s a completely different digital entity than cookinglight.com; it’s a completely different revenue stream than the magazine and to date we have thousands of subscribers for this new digital product. It’s this amazing, healthy meal planner.

And what we’ve seen from these folks that are using the diet is that we’re getting these testimonials on a daily basis and it’s changing their lives. People are losing dozens of pounds on this and their cholesterol is dropping and they’ve convinced their families to eat healthier.

So, what we’re doing is taking these testimonials and bringing some of those rock star subscribers to the Cooking Light Diet, some of our most engaged subscribers, and we’re starting a Facebook community with them and we’re featuring them in the magazine. We just went and shot video with a woman in Georgia who’s one of our star dieters and we’re creating a healthy meal plan for her that we’re putting into the January issue. So, yes, we want that kind of participation; we want that feedback. And just like with the elementary school students here in Birmingham and what they’re telling us about our healthy recipes and how they taste and work, we’re listening to the folks that are using the Cooking Light Diet and figuring out new ways to share their experiences in the magazine.

Samir Husni: Next year, if you and I are sitting down and having a second anniversary interview; what do you hope to tell me? What’s in store for Cooking Light and what’s in store for Hunter as we move toward the second year?

Hunter Lewis: I hope that we’re talking about video and social video and just increasing the levels of engagement with video. I guarantee that we’ll be talking about the Time Inc. Food Studios and this massive new sweets test kitchens and photo and video studios that we’re opening here in Birmingham. And how Cooking Light and these studios will play together to create best-in-class video and recipes and stories. It’s a big, big deal for Time Inc.

And I think we’ll be talking about the continued comeback of Time Inc. and where the company is going and how Cooking Light is innovating and helping to drive that comeback.

Samir Husni: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

Hunter Lewis: A couple of things are the huge November double issue which comes to mind because we’re shipping the last pages today. That’ll be coming out soon and I’m really excited about it. It has twice as many recipes and twice as many pages as we typically publish. And that’s exciting because it allows us to publish some long reads that we don’t typically have room to stretch and publish.

Cooking Light Diet is top of mind and then also January is a big, big time for us. That’s when people are making their New Year’s resolutions and they’re thinking more practically about how they’re going to live a healthier life in the New Year. And so right now we’re working on the January issue and making it the absolute best that we can. But we’re also working on a compelling digital package so that every day in January our audience is getting, not just one tip for one recipe, but scores of them that will help them to live a healthier 2016.

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

Hunter Lewis: The exact same thing that I said one year ago and I have it on a sticky note here on my wall. It’s the quote from the guy over at Microsoft, what drives me every morning and what keeps me up every night is one thing, “this business is not about longevity; it’s about relevance.” Every day what we’re doing is prioritizing and reprioritizing, based on how the game is changing. And thinking about the stories that we’re telling and the content that we’re delivering and making sure that it’s going to resonate the most on whichever platform we put it on.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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