12.28.2008

Martha Stewart Living in Review: 2008

And so we come to the end of another year with the promise of a new year ahead to bring us fresh insights, new opportunities and…new issues of Martha Stewart Living!

(Part of what I try to do here on the blog is archive the achievements of Martha Stewart and her many colleagues, so forgive my slight obsession with her ventures. I’m sure it must seem weird to at least some of you out there!)

Last year I compiled some observations about the 2007 issues of Martha Stewart Living: noting some changes, some trends, some Good Things and Bad Things about the issues at hand. You can read last year's review in the 'magazine review' link at the side. This year, I’ve conducted the same exercise with the 2008 issues.

COVER TO COVER
I began by laying out all of the year's issues on the floor and studying their covers. I took the photograph below of each issue, lying side by side. My first observation is that there was a lot of green in the photography used on the covers this year – an unwitting suggestion, perhaps, of our ecologically-conscious times. The second observation was that Martha appeared on the cover twice in 2008 – three times if you count her tiny image on the little countertop television set in the January issue. She appeared three times on the cover in 2007 as well, including the May and September issues, whose covers she also appeared on this year.

The covers are striking for their simple elegance. Subscriber issues of the magazine are slightly different than the issues that appear on the newsstand. They are particularly spare in their design, since the bar code has been removed and many of the sub-headings that appear on the newsstand covers are not included on the covers that subscribers receive in their mailboxes. I like this very much. I enjoy the more unfettered cover photograph and the magnetism of the unadorned design. Sometimes, subscribers receive issues with a completely different cover than the one that appears on the newsstand, but 2008 had no such double covers. And now for some specific observations...

2008 ‘LIVING’ OBSERVATIONS
*The Ask Martha column moved from the beginning of the magazine to the middle of the magazine in the January, 2008, issue.

*The June issue heralded some subtle design makeovers, including the following items:
1. A revamped layout of the "Gentle Reminders" page
2. Slimmer, quieter heading font for the various articles
3. Bold, different font for the headings in the "Table of Contents" listings
4. A revamped layout for the "On the Web" page
5. A revamped layout for the "From My Home To Yours" column: a large, single photo on opening page instead of two smaller photos.
6. Different department-heading font: Gardening, Homekeeping, etc. The font is smaller, bold and underlined.
7. Dashed lines between the "Ask Martha" segments instead of dotted lines.
8. White background on the "Where to Find Martha" section. (The pages used to be tinted a pale hue to set them apart from the rest of the content.)
9. Larger photographs in the well of the magazine, with particular attention paid to clarity of style and colour harmony.

*More people! Many of the issues in 2008 featured several pages with prominent photographs (some of them full-page) of people, of all ages and both sexes. It was nice to see a man doing the baking in the “Hidden Assets” story in last January’s issue, just as it’s nice to see men who collect and decorate. There’s nothing like seeing a bit of yourself in your favourite magazine.

*The May issue marked the second-annual Color Issue. May, 2007, was the premier Color Issue.
*The February issue saw the debut of a new column called “Object Lesson.” The column is about the latest and greatest versions of a particular object, from candle sticks to lanterns, key rings to notebooks. It’s ostensibly a design article with subtle advertising benefits, since most of the ‘objects’ featured are current commercial items on the market.

SPECIAL ISSUES
There were six beautiful special supplemental issues to feast our eyes on this year. (Six tends to be the average number of special issues MSLO releases each year.) In 2008 we saw far fewer Good Things digests than in previous years. This is not a disappointment to me, since I was never really enamored of them. Two Good Things issues came out this year: Good Things for Kids (the fourth of its kind in the series) and Good Things For a Healthy Home, which I found very helpful and nicely structured.

The Good Things digests are essentially compilations of repurposed content from the vaults of Martha Stewart Living under a new banner topic, like kids or home or organizing. If repurposing is necessary at all, I prefer to see the content more lavishly illustrated in a form that is more luxurious, like the larger special issues I’ll describe in a moment, and preferably mixed with some new content as well.

It’s not clear if the Good Things digests have now been shelved as a concept or if we’ll see new ones in the year ahead. If they do continue, I hope that they will be more in the vein of the Healthy Home issue: a collection of very helpful, green tips and information for making one’s home as healthy as possible. An annual issue with the latest health information, as it relates to house and home, would be welcome.

This year also marked the first year when two Holiday issues were released, back-to-back. The Season’s Eatings issue and the Handmade Christmas issues were beautifully put together and were brilliantly conceived as companion collectors’ editions. Both issues felt fresh, despite a reliance on repurposed content, and they both succeeded in being inspiring and helpful.

We saw the second annual Outdoor Living issue this year as well, and I’m really crossing my fingers that this will be an annual issue we can consistently look forward to. I love the garden and the outdoors, so these Outdoor Living issues are treasures for me. They’re beautifully designed with gorgeous photography and information. They are definitely keepers.

Since 2004, Martha Stewart Weddings has also been periodically releasing an annual special issue. We’ve had Good Things for Weddings (2004), the 10th Anniversary issue (2005), the Special Color Issue (2007) and this year the Collector’s Edition. While it obviously wasn’t advertised as such, the Collector’s Edition is basically a reprint of the 2005 10th Anniversary issue, so it’s not much of a gem for collectors, unless you absolutely adore the new cover.

There wasn’t a special edition of Everyday Food this year, unlike the last two previous years when we saw a special cookie issue and a special baking issue, consecutively.

“RESTRUCTURING”
It was a rather tough year at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, from a human resources point of view. The year marked the departure of some very key individuals from the corporate head offices as well as 100 layoffs across all platforms to help restructure and streamline the company’s mandate. These layoffs were confirmed by company spokesperson Elizabeth Estroff earlier this month.

In March, Margaret Roach, formerly the chief editorial director of MSLO, resigned to pursue her goals and “get back to the garden” (literally) but stayed on in a consulting capacity working on the marthastewart.com websites. She was replaced by three staffers (Kevin Sharkey, Lucinda Scala Quinn and Hannah Milman) who now run the various editorial departments, indicating her tiny yet enormous shoes were not so easy to fill. Among other names to vanish from the editorial masthead in 2008 include Jodi Levine, who was editor of the Kids department for over a decade. Her position (indeed the entire Kids department) appears to have been eliminated, as it no longer appears in the editorial list.

Also gone, of course, is Blueprint magazine, which published its last (eighth) issue in January/February 2008 before shutting down. Many of the staffers there have slipped out from under the MSLO umbrella, including editor-in-chief Sarah Humphreys. Last summer, the Bluelines blog, associated with Blueprint, was also shut down, although it remains up in archive format to peruse. I was very sad to see Blueprint go. I felt that it was just beginning to hit its stride and find its voice and personality. I enjoyed the last four issues of the magazine immensely and I treasure all eight of the Blueprint issues.

June saw the surprising departure of Susan Lyne as CEO, who went on to become the CEO of Gilt Groupe (a luxury goods distributor) in September. Lyne indicated that she was looking for a new challenge and a smaller company where her influence would be more strongly felt in shaping the direction of a young start-up. Lyne was replaced with two co-CEOs, Wenda Harris Millard (president of media) and Robin Marino (president of merchandising) raising some eyebrows on Wall Street about the viability of having two people running the show. The jury is still out on how effective the co-CEOs have been in handling the company. Rumours surfaced late this year about some professional discord between the CEOs and company founder Martha Stewart, but these rumours are unsubstantiated.

The CEOs are also ultimately responsible for the decision to lay off 100 people this year and it remains to be seen whether their HR methods prove to be beneficial to the bottom line. Among the layoffs was Dr. Brent Ridge, who lost his title as the vice president of Healthy Living at MSLO, but who still remains active as a contributing editor to the magazines. A friend of mine who worked in the merchandising department at MSLO was also let go. Since 2007, there have been four rounds of layoffs at the company, something that is both an indication of the economic times at hand and the difficult decisions associated with them.

Another significant departure in 2008 was Howard Hochhauser, who had been the chief financial officer at MSLO for eight years. He resigned to pursue new career opportunities in Arizona as the chief financial officer of The Generations Network Inc., the parent company of Ancestry.com.


For Michael Boodro, however, 2008 marked the first full year as editor-in-chief of Martha Stewart Living magazine, the company’s flagship. He replaced Margaret Roach in that capacity in September, 2007. Under his direction, I feel the magazine has taken on a more fresh and lively personality – dare I say more youthful? The changes to the magazine layout in June, mentioned above, are just one aspect of his influence. I also feel the content is more focused but with a broader range of topics. The inside look at the offices of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia in the January, 2009, issue is an example of his understanding of the readers’ interest in the people who put the content together, as much as the content itself.

BEST AND WORST
I really don’t like this part very much, but it must be done. I have to pick the best and the worst issues of Martha Stewart Living from 2008. Rather than look at the worst issue as “the worst” I simply look at it as the “least best” from a series of excellent issues. There. How’s that for optimism.

The worst issue of the year was the July issue. I traditionally don’t enjoy the summer issues as much as I enjoy the fall/winter issues to begin with, but the July issue stood out to me as being just a tad lacking, or perhaps a bit unsure of itself.

The cover is summery, but not particularly celebratory or patriotic. My favourite July issues of years past have always been the ones that tout the old Red, White & Blue – which is strange, considering I’m not even American. But I do love Americans, so there you go. Canadians keep their national holidays on the quieter end of the spectrum, so I rely on Americans to really pull out all the stops and toot all the horns. The July, 2008, issue was disappointing primarily for its lack of Americana and its somewhat generic content. The subheading on the cover reads: “The easiest entertaining ever.” This falls below the “Summer Made Simple” tag.

I suppose this vocabulary is the magazine’s answer to its ever-growing number of competitors, like the derivative Real Simple magazine, which consistently relies on keywords like ‘easy’ and ‘simple’ and ‘no fuss’ and ‘relaxing’ on its covers to thwart Martha Stewart’s more hands-on approach to living. It gives over-worked consumers at the newsstand a guilt-free exit strategy when they feel too pressured to take on a project or a recipe in DIY fashion. But I never like seeing “easy” on the cover of Martha Stewart Living. That’s not why I buy it.

The features in the magazine were good enough, but a tad predictable. There was the requisite article on grilling and barbecued hamburgers, saved only by the incredible photographs by James Wojcik. There was also the typical article on ice cream desserts. (Ice cream in July? Wow, that’s different!) The “Swedish Accent” article was sort of a blend of decorating and entertaining technique, but neither pursuit seemed adequately observed in this feature.

The same is true of the “Shore Dinner” feature. It was a lovely place in Rhode Island with a lovely family celebrating a lovely holiday. But there was something lackluster about it. Perhaps it was the continued use of words like “relaxed” and “laid-back” and “lifestyle.” I have no problem with relaxing or being laid-back. But I don’t want to read about other people relaxing or being laid-back, thanks.

There were some saving graces in the magazine. One of my favourite articles of the year was found in the July issue: a feature on one of my favourite flowers, the astilbe. Martha’s column was delightful and so was the Object Lesson on pitchers. But, overall, the July issue just fell short of the month associated with traditional Americana.

A magazine as lasting as Martha Stewart Living, which has many longtime subscribers, must struggle to balance its reliability with the precarious peril of predictability. The magazine must offer reliable content while not disappointing with too much retread and regurgitation. It must surprise without straying too far off course. It’s a difficult task.
The Best issue was the December issue. It was, hands-down, the most exciting issue of the year for me. Its cover is so striking with that plethora of holiday cookies against a vivid green background. The content behind the cover matches that vibrancy. This December's issue was a magazine heavily devoted to crafts. Many of the past December issues have relied very heavily (too heavily) on food and entertaining. The 2008 issue was more for crafters. Hannah Milman and her team came up with some wonderful projects in this issue, from gift tags to paper Christmas trees, from wrapping techniques to table decorations.

I loved the article on making cameo ornaments and the article on homemade natural beauty projects felt fresh and updated. Doily crafts were updated in a beautiful article about using them as decorative motifs on cushions, cakes, wreaths, cookie tins, picture frames, table cloths and ornaments.

What made the craft projects this year all the more accessible and modern was the very helpful link to downloads and instructions on the website, marthastewart.com. I’m a total sucker for beautifully-designed templates and the December issue heralded dozens of these! All of them could be easily accessed and downloaded at the website, printed up in the various colour schemes that were offered and used for the projects at hand. These also came with very clear and detailed instructions about how to put them all together with new photographs that were not featured in the magazine.

It was all a triumphant example of the synergy concept at work: projects conceived in the magazine could be realized via the website, and even demonstrated on the television show. It was very useful.

As always, the December issue is filled with beautiful photography and wonderful ideas, but this issue felt fresh while still managing to pay tribute to the classicism and elegance of holiday issues past. Definitely a job well done!

10 comments:

Runspud said...

Enjoyed your comments on MSL 2008. I look forward to 2009. Even though her show has been repeats this week, i taped them anyway as watching in the morning during breakfast is a routine i hate to miss :-)

The Blog of Pru said...

Andrew, I have been looking forward to your review since November and it did not disappoint - thank you.

I could only find two of the specials in the UK this year - Outdoor Living and Season's Eatings which I enjoyed very much. The Living magazines this year for me haven't been as exciting and I have barely cooked or used one of the ideas which is a great pity. I look forward to what 2009 brings, and I hope that we have more of Martha in the magazine, bringing ideas of what she does for the holidays etc.

Wishing you a wonderful New Year.



Pru

MarthaAndMe said...

This was a wonderful, detailed post and I enjoyed it so much. I really appreciate your perspective and thoughts. Although I have watched Martha from time to time over the years and occasionally bought a magazine, I am now two months into my Martha project where I am trying to spend a lot of time with her. It was interesting to see how the magazine has changed this past year. Very insightful. Thanks again.

Kevin said...

Andrew, I really enjoy these annual re-caps. I agree with your "Best" cover choice - December's was beautiful and very creative. Here's wishing you and yours (and all of your readers) all the best for 2009! :-)

Kevin

Anonymous said...

Hi everyone,
I liked your round-up, Andrew. I am with you there Pru on your comments about the past year's issues. I have found them pretty poor overall and when I looked at the new January issue yesterday I felt something I never thought I would feel: namely, that I may stop buying the magazine altogether. And I am a real long-time reader.

Unlike you Andrew, I couldn't stand the article about all the desks - it struck me as totally lazy and self-regarding. More like blog copy, in fact! I remember a time when Martha did an article on desks and showed her off-kitchen desk and another in a NY hallway but that article was packed with ideas about creating a great working space. The desks article '09 is just point and shoot camera work. Frankly, I couldn't care what Darcy Millar has on her wall. A big mess from what I could see. I guess you can tell I was a bit insulted by the inclusion of that article. And if it was Martha's idea, as it states, more shame.

This is a hard thing for me to write but I wonder if the magazine has outlived itself? No pun intended. All good things come to an end. Again, no pun intended. Favourite novelists or film-makers, for example, eventually go off the boil and it can feel sad to watch or experience their decline.

One photo in the January issue in particular made me sad and that is a portrait of Martha with Hannah Milman. Hannah's eyes are sad and as I looked at it I thought, "If ever anyone needs to work somewhere else or do something different with her life it's you Hannah." I hope she finds peace and excitement in '09.

And that is my New Year wish for all of you too. Best wishes from Ireneberry in London

ANDREW RITCHIE said...

Ireneberry of London,

I had the exact same experience of disappointment in the magazine...but it was in 2005/2006. I just didn't relate to it. I didn't want to relate to it. I don't know if the magazine has outlived itself, but I do know that people outgrow magazines as they change, as their lives and expectations change. There is such a thing as 'brand fatigue' and boredom after many years with a publication. I mentioned in my article the difficult balance that must be struck by the editors between predictability and dependability. Every magazine has a mandate that it must fulfill. It must also struggle to lure new readers while not disappointing the old ones with its content. It's a tough thing to do. I think everything goes through ebbs and flows. I've come to accept the magazine for what it is and still take enjoyment from it, but just not as obsessively as I used to. I don't cling to it and I've let go of a lot of the nostalgia I used to have for it. To quote Martha, "When you're through changing, you're through."

Eddie Ross said...

WOW you should be on the MSLO team!
Happy New Year!
Eddie

ANDREW RITCHIE said...

Eddie, I can SO live with your design! Thank you so much for the comment! Your blog is glorious. Happy New Year to you and yours!

Anonymous said...

Hi Andrew, I always look forward to your Best and Worst, and generally I always agree with your assesments. I just have a small disagreement this year. I actually like the holiday issues when they concentrate on the food/entertaining aspect of the season. I do not craft -I don't have the time or the patience, so this type of this is lost on me.And although Martha and her staff work hard to come up with new ideas every year, some are tired old, retreads, ie. how to make Christmas stockings.

As for one poster's comment about Hannah Milman's sad eyes - she has had that expression for as long as I've seen her on TV and in the magazine. That's just her. Perhaps she works very hard, and that is her "I'm tired" expresssion! Wouldn't read too much into it. But I have to agree with Eddie Ross when he exclaimed that you should be working at MSLO, Andrew. You really should. You are a very talented guy! Thanks for all the work you put into this blog, and Happy New Year!

LindsB said...

Andrew, that is quite the review of the year- I love it!! I very much look forward to see what Martha has in store for us in 2009, and even more your comments on it all! Keep up the awesome work, I love reading your blog!