Saturday Evening Post looks to its past in effort to spark revival

August 28, 2009

In its heyday, The Saturday Evening Post boasted 6 million subscribers and propelled Norman Rockwell to international fame. Now, the centuries-old magazine—yes, it still exists—has a more modest circulation of 350,000 and a plan to resurrect what was once the nation’s most popular publication.

The Indianapolis-based magazine, which publishes every other month, launched a redesign in July reminiscent of its glory days, with a retro masthead, narrative cover art and fiction writing. Publisher Joan SerVaas is also attempting to kick it new school with updates on Facebook, Twitter and the Post’s Web site.

“We want to expand our demographics, but not to a point where it’s alienating to our current subscribers,” most of whom are older than 45, SerVaas said.

But Samir Husni, director of the national Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi, said success is a long shot.

“The brand no longer has the feet to stand on to attract newcomers,” Husni said. “There is no logic in their argument. I think what they need to do is cater to those readers that they still have. Re-creating the Post experience does not exist on Twitter or anywhere on the Internet.”

Husni, who calls himself “Mr. Magazine,” thinks providing readers with necessary and efficient content will allow the Post to survive another 20 or 25 years—then die out with its readers.

“The average age of the American adult is getting older. There is still a huge population over 55,” he said. “Look at AARP [magazine]; they have over 20 million readers. The Saturday Evening Post doesn’t have a fraction of that.”

Post Chief Operating Office Maureen Mercho said the magazine’s adaptation to the changing times will not tarnish the company’s long-standing traditions.

“There’s a trust that’s there with our readers. Everything online still reflects who we are as a magazine,” she said. “We see it as a way to expand and improve.”

These improvements are “some of the old with new twists,” SerVaas said. After years of looking like other commercial magazines with celebrity covers, she would like to establish the magazine as a showcase for artists again, as well as a more prominent focus on fiction.

Under the leadership of longtime Editor George Horace Lorimer, the Post originated the idea of featuring art on a magazine cover—most notably Rockwell. It also published fiction by greats like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Agatha Christie and was the first magazine to sell 1 million copies. In 1960, it had 6 million subscribers.

Rescued from bankruptcy

When magazine owner Curtis Publishing—and in turn the Post—went into bankruptcy in 1969, the SerVaas family bought the company and moved it from Philadelphia to Indianapolis. Family members resurrected the Post with a special edition in 1971, after Rockwell announced on national television that he would be illustrating the magazine once again.

By 1982, Curtis was $2.5 million in debt, so Joan SerVaas’ father, Beurt, sold the magazine to the not-for-profit Saturday Evening Post Society, headed by his wife and Post Publisher Cory. Curtis and the SerVaases still hold some licensing rights.

SerVaas grew up at the Post and took over about a year ago, when her 85-year-old mother retired.

“What I have always enjoyed most about the magazine is its ability to put life in America in perspective,” she said. “Young people think health care is a new issue, but if you look back at articles from the Post in the ’30s … you can really put it in perspective.”

“Being the oldest magazine in the U.S., we feel there is no better place to address these issues,” Mercho added. “The evolution our country has made transcends generations and speaks to people of all ages.”

The Post’s Midwest location is an advantage in capturing that American way of life, Mercho said. It’s also a plus when it comes to the cost of producing the magazine and housing its extensive archives.

“We have a loyal work force here and we have never considered leaving,” SerVaas said. “My father was the president of the City-County Council for 40 years and was always dedicated to serving this city.”

The Post employs 35 in the Indianapolis office adjacent to IUPUI’s campus, but its advertising director lives in New York.

Overseeing the redesigned Saturday Evening Post will be Stephen George, who joined the magazine this month as editor-in-chief. He most recently served as deputy editor of Better Homes and Gardens.

After a decrease in ad sales over the past year, revenue has begun to bounce back since the announcement of the redesign last month, Mercho said. She hopes the Post’s circulation increases to 500,000 in the next few years.

Prevention and Guideposts magazines, which also appeal to older readers, have far more paid subscribers—3.3 million and 2.2 million, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

Indeed, with only 3 percent of its sales from newsstands, The Saturday Evening Post is operating in near obscurity. The magazine’s managers have no plans to change to a news-rack-driven model, however.

“I read that only 33 percent of magazines on the newsstands get sold,” SerVaas said. “The rest of them are just shredded. Not only is this a waste, but you have to pay for all those shredded magazines to be printed. We knew this wasn’t the way to go a long time ago.”

Reader’s Digest, an Illinois-based general interest magazine, sells about as many single copies as the Post’s entire subscription base—plus almost 8 million to subscribers.

RD has also seen declines in the past few years, losing 2.5 million subscriptions since 2003. This month, its publisher announced plans to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, but said the magazine will continue operating.

In response to the financial struggles, the magazine’s management has taken a more conservative approach, increasing the focus on spirituality. The magazine also has added more visual aspects such as time lines, photo galleries and infographics.

“We redesigned the magazine last June to bring visual level up to the verbal level,” Executive Editor Tom Prince said. “I think consumers are more sophisticated than ever about design.”

The 82-year-old publication has always catered to the wholesome, Average Joe crowd, but Prince said the magazine focus will be more centralized on its “core audience.”

Reader’s Digest is trying to find its focus,” Mercho said. “We know our focus, we know our demographics. We found out what is unique about us, and we are going to stick to our strategy.”

Licensing images

SerVaas spends much of her time on licensing and promoting the magazine’s famed artwork. She works with organizations like the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art and the Norman Rockwell Museum to display originals and uses her background in law to make money licensing the work.

“One of our goals is to make our archives more accessible to the public,” Mercho said. “We are working on digitizing them to make them searchable.”

A team of interns works diligently in the temperature-controlled archives to scan issues dating back as far as the 1800s, handwritten memos between editors and writers, and meeting minutes signed by the original owner of Curtis Publishing, the Post’s previous parent.

“Right now, people are looking at the life they’ve been living on the fast track,” SerVaas said. “People want to simplify their lives. They want something that is time-tested.”•


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