Martha Stewart Living: My Annual Review

Another year, another twelve issues of Martha Stewart Living magazine sent and delivered to millions of addresses across North America. I have all of mine neatly stored in their matching white magazine holders, spanning the lower row of my bank of book shelves. (Will I have room for another fifteen years worth? Eeek!)

As regular readers of this blog know, I've been doing an annual roundup of the year's MSL magazines since I started the site. I make some observations about any changes in the magazine, note some points of interest and also rank the year's best and the year's worst issue. A reader left a comment last week about this; she was wondering if I liked all the issues, since I so rarely seem to criticize any of them on the blog. All I can say is that MSL is clearly my favourite magazine and that I am appreciative of and grateful for every single issue that arrives in my mailbox. That said, there are definitely issues that I love more than others. I do pick favourites. I do spend more time with some. I am discriminating.

So, without further adieu, let's have a look at the year that was at Martha Stewart Living.
A grouping of the year's covers reveals a lovely spectrum of bright colours and beautiful images: lots of warm tones and interesting compositions on the 2009 covers. Martha took the cover three times this year (January, September and December), which has been the standard over the last three years.

This year was a fairly big year for Martha Stewart Living magazine. The publication brought numerous new features to the fold while maintaining its consistent presentation of ideas for cooking, crafting, decorating, gardening and entertaining. The photography remains the centerpiece of the magazine and is likely the main draw for most of its readers. Acting as the vehicle that carries the editorial ideas and concepts to spectacular realization, Martha Stewart Living's award-winning photography remains unparalleled in the lifestyle magazine industry, in my opinion. It is, hands down, the best.

NEW CONTENT: There were several new additions to the content of Martha Stewart Living in the April issue, as well as an overhaul of regular columns and the reintroduction of old ones. Martha's Calendar returned to the pages with this issue, one that had been sadly missed by so many readers after it vanished in 2003. (I had never read the calendar, to be honest, and still don't to this day. Maybe I'm just too overwhelmed by my own schedule to bother reading someone else's!)

The Gentle Reminders column, as well as Dessert of the Month and Object Lesson all got the axe in this issue.

The new columns were made to help incorporate some of the content that was lost when Blueprint folded the year before, primarily content focused on the recommendation of commercial items, such as beauty products, books, furniture, fashion and accessories. The content was divided into three new sections: The Briefing, The Apothecary and a section on Fashion.

The Briefing promotes various objects of desire, from decorative home accessories to books, new computer software and gadgets to brand-name gardening clogs. It also offers interesting tidbits of information, such as ways to use lemon as a cleaning agent and air freshener, while also promoting gallery exhibitions. The Apothecary is exactly what you think it is: the promotion of beauty and hygene products for women, from perfume to make-up to toothpaste. Both of these columns are still ongoing and have been met with enthusiastic reader response.

The Fashion section, however, only ran for six issues and stopped with the printing of the September issue. Its primary focus was on a particular fashion theme or 'must-have.' The first issue was about mid-length trench coats while subsequent issues focused on scarves or on regional style elements. I enjoyed the column but I have to admit that I don't actually miss it. It only dawned on me recently that it hadn't appeared in the last four issues.

The April issue also heralded a new periodical column by Martha Stewart called Travels With Martha. So far, the April issue has held the only example of this column, although it is likely to reappear in subsequent issues. It was not set up as a regular column. Also in the April issue, the "Cookie of the Month" column on the last page of the magazine was renamed "The Last Course." This was quickly changed to Save Room For in the May issue.

September saw the debut of Kevin Sharkey's new column, Home Design. The column will ostensibly follow the renovation and decoration of his new Manhattan apartment. So far, the column has made two appearances in the magazine. A much more immediate version of the column is available on his blog by the same name at marthastewart.com. Kevin frequently updates it with new treasures and discoveries. I read it regularly!

Also in September, a new column on Historic Homes made its debut. (The Martha Stewart Show will also be featuring the chosen historic home on its programming.) The houses that have been chosen so far have been spectacular examples.

HEAVY ON CRAFTS: Each year, I find there is a predominant core-content area that gets the most focus in the twelve issues of Martha Stewart Living. Some years it is very clearly food that takes center stage on the pages month after month. Other years it is decorating. This year, 2009, I found that crafts played the most significant role in the pages of the magazine. Martha Stewart's Encyclopedia of Crafts was released in the spring, and it just seemed to take off from there.

The April issue saw page after page of whimsical, inventive and truly remarkable Easter crafts - some that will no doubt go down in the company's history as being among the best ever conceived. This craft theme continued as the months went on. A lovely article on sea-print crafts for fabric and paper made a strong case for staying indoors and crafting in the summer months. July saw Independence Day decoration crafts and August was all about beading necklaces. Naturally, the October and December issues were loaded with craft ideas for Halloween, Hanukkah and Christmas - too many to mention here, really.

I have to say that I was so impressed by the way the magazine incorporated the magazine content into the web content. It was a lovely marriage this year. The website was beautifully linked to the magazine's ideas with free, downloadable lists and templates, clip-art and instructions. It was truly beautifully handled this year, clearly and effectively cross-promoted in both web and print platforms. It was synergy at its finest!

Just a year after signing on as co-CEO of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (a position she shared with Robin Marino) Wenda Harris-Millard left the company on somewhat tricky terms. She had been hired, along with Marino, to fill the CEO role after Susan Lyne's departure in 2008. There were rumours that Harris-Millard, as president of media, did not see eye to eye with Martha, nor with Marino, who is president of merchandising. Harris left MSLO in April to head up Media Link. Robin Marino is now the CEO of the company, with a focus on merchandising.

Another key departure in 2009 was Michael Boodro, who was the editor-in-chief of Martha Stewart Living between September, 2007, and March, 2009. Speculation is that he was fired from his role, although it was announced that he had 'stepped down' from the position. Stepping in to take his place temporarily was Gael Towey, chief creative director for the company. It was announced just last week that Vanessa Holden, who had worked for Martha Stewart Weddings, will be the new editor-in-chief of Living.

In years past, the average number of supplemental special issues that Martha Stewart Living releases on newsstands is six. This year, with the economy in the state that it is, we only saw two special issue magazines from the publisher. The first was released in September and was devoted to the subject of Halloween. This is the fourth special issue by Martha Stewart Living focused on All Hallows Eve but is the first one to actually be titled "Halloween." The second special issue was a special "Holiday" issue - the eleventh of its kind. Both are beautiful examples of advertisement-free publications of previously-published content, featuring ideas on a similar topic gathered together and printed under a new title with a beautiful new cover. If you are not a regular collector of the montly magazine, these are great supplements to collect. (If you're a collector, like me, you simply must have them all!)

Gone this year are the Good Things digests, which had a steady run between 2006 and 2008. They were small magazines, in the style of Everyday Food, devoted to crafts for kids or kitchen techniques or decorating DIY ideas, organizing and homekeeping. I enjoyed most of them, but they were not my favourites and I did not collect them. What I sincerely missed this year was another edition of the Outdoor Living publication that debuted in 2007. Only two issues have published so far and I am hoping for a third in 2010.

As I've stated here before, it is so hard for me to pick the best and the worst issues of Martha Stewart Living. What I should technically be calling it is the worst of the best, since I do think each issue has its virtues. As mentioned above, I am happy for any and all issues that arrive in my mailbox.

But, I am a purist and I know what I like and dislike. I know when a magazine holds my attention and when it does not. And most of the time I know why. (I am fully conscious of my expectations and disappointments.) So, here we have it:

THE BEST: APRIL I simply could not stop reading this issue when it first arrived. It has a definite edge over all the other issues in that it played host to all sorts of new content and fresh ideas, which is what keeps me motivated as a reader. I loved the new content. I loved (and still love) the Briefing. I generally read it first before reading anything else, even Martha's column. My favourite article of the year was also in this issue: the redecoration of Susan Lyne's apartment in Manhattan by Kevin Sharkey. What a fabulous place!
Along with the introduction of the new content there was a revitalization of design and page layout that felt so fresh and vibrant to me, as a reader. It was exciting to turn the pages. Above are examples of the page layouts for these new columns. (Even the "Good Things" section of the magazine got a makeover with a new layout.)
Above and below are examples of the layout for the Briefing column, which touts the latest in books, gadgets, exhibits, tools and homekeeping tips.The Apothecary pages, below, are not really something a male reader, such as myself, tends to linger on. Having said that, I feel the introduction of this column really does round out the "Living" concept nicely, extending the lifestyle genre to also include beauty and hygene. (It also likely means some added product-placement revenue for the magazine. Let's not kid ourselves.)The Fashion section of the magazine was something I did tend to read when it first appeared in the April issue. It lasted only six issues before it was cut. I thought it was a nice addition. It felt Blueprinty to me, which is a good thing.
The Good Things section, shown above, got a nice facelift with a fresh, new layout, bigger, brighter photos and lots of great links to the website for templates, clip-art and instructions.The Easter ideas in this issue were truly extraordinary. I bought a second copy of the April issue simply to cut out the pages shown above to place in my scrapbook. I think these egg crafts are amazingly innovative and beautiful.

THE WORST: MAY When I first saw the cover of the May issue I knew I wasn't going to like it, despite the old adage about not judging a book by its cover. First of all, it looked recycled. It looked like the leftovers from the September, 2008, photoshoot with Martha standing on a red ladder against a yellow wall. There was just something unimaginative about it, unoriginal. Inside, too, the content felt a little lackluster. There wasn't an article that I felt compelled to read, a recipe I felt compelled to try or a craft I was particularly wooed by. I suppose, for me, that's what my rating really comes down to: Does it engage me and it is compelling? In this case, the answers were no on both counts.
An all-too-convenient replay of colours: September 2008 on the left, May 2009 on the right.

This is not to say the May issue was completley without virtue. I did like the column on ornamental grasses. (I had suggested this article to the editors a couple of years prior to its publiction, so maybe I had a small hand in bringing it to fruition.) I also like the use of heading font in both the gelatin and pizza features at the back of the magazine. But that was not enough to get me to browse long through these pages.

It's certainly my hope that Vanessa Holden, the new editor-in-cheif of MSL, will continue to uphold all the wonderful things we all adore about this great magazine. I'm sure 2010 will prove to be fruitful and exciting! What were your favourite and least favourite issues? I'm curious.

My friend Kenn did a marvelous job reviewing the business developments at MSLO in 2009: the new mergers and acquisitions in merchandising and publishing. He also some makes some fun predictions for 2010! Check out his review at House Blend.


Anonymous said...

Interesting review. But let's be honest here. . .this beautiful magazine with great content has definitely moved more and more toward thinly disguised *product placement,* as has Martha and especially Kevin's blog and Martha's TV show. There's no law against it, certainly, but there it is!


I don't think this in any way diminishes the magazine, as long as its kept to a minimum. We live in a product-conscious society. It would be pretentious (dare I say irresponsible?) for MSL to ignore this.

Anonymous said...

Of course, Andrew, we are a product-conscious society, but I have seen a change in emphasis in the magazine and TV show. When I visit NYC I often visit restaurants and shops that Martha mentions, and I look to the Martha Show to keep me up to date on the latest NYC venues. That's different, however, from new multi-page columns in the magazine--Briefing, Apothecary, Fashion--devoted to thinly disguised product placement. Let's call an advertisement an advertisement!

I wonder how your other regular readers feel. . .


I appreciate your point, but I don't really see how it's different. These restaurants you mention are benefiting from Martha's recommendations just as the nail polish makers are from a placement in the magazine. Just as you watch the show for her recommendations on where to eat in NYC, there are likely thousands who read these new columns to see what the editors feel are the best in books, hand creams, etc. I don't think they're 'thinly disguised' at all. These columns aren't pretending to be anything other than what they are: product recommendations, a.k.a. advertising. It doesn't take away at all from the magazine, in my opinion, and it's not a new phenomenon, especially in lifestyle publications. Even years ago, MSL still had 'the guide' at the back of the magazine, which was essentially a list of vendors who sold the items we saw in the imagery. I guess whether you like these columns or not depends on your views on advertising ethics, journalism and consumerism. Mine are quite liberal, I guess.

Kenn said...

Overall, I thought it was a good year for the magazine. Most issues captured my attention and provided content that I found useful and informative. The December issue, with it's somewhat odd three cover format was by far my favorite this year. It represented everything I love about Martha Stewart Living magazine. Loaded with ideas, inspiration, and how-to.

I only wish there was a bit more decorating and home organization content. MSLO in general has become very heavy on food content and I see less and less about decorating, gardening and homekeeping. I always go back to my January issues for those helpful reminders on how to become more organized, how to get that 'fresh start' with a new year.

Gael Towey seemed to have brought back the 'classic' feel to Martha Stewart Living during her run as acting editor-in-chief. While I appreciate change, I love the classic Living issues; the look, the feel, the content. Perhaps it's a generational thing.

I would love to see the return of Outdoor Living. It was always a bit of warmth in our coldest month! For 2009, I give Martha Stewart Living Magazine a strong B+


I can't wait to read your full review, Kenn! A B+ is a grade I definitely agree with.

Ashli said...

I think that was a great review I couldn't agree more! As for the Calender I was so happy to see that they put that back in! I love it, it's the first thing I read!! Although it says she sends out her Christmas Cards on the 15th of december (somehow I don't believe it's that late). haha

Anonymous said...

I don't care for the multi-column format for this magazine. It's too much like a standard fashion mag - I feel like I'm reading Elle or Vogue, and have to flip over to the cover to remind myself that it's MSL!

Anonymous said...

In this stunted economy, where many magazines are becoming a thing of the past, the ones that continue to exist must do what they can to stay afloat. Like other publications out there, Living took a hit. While people may not like the product placement, or product heavy columns, they are absolutely necessary to attract more advertising. At the end of the day, you have a magazine to read, because of the advertising.

I agree with you about the May issue, although I have to disagree about the December one. While I enjoy the content, I can't stand the covers, and enough with the glitter already...been there, done that way too many times now!

Pru said...

It was as though Christmas came early when I logged onto your blog today Andrew, the review post is earlier than last year - thank you.

I agree about the May issue and when I first picked it up I checked it against the September issue and had the same thoughts. I have loved the magazines more since April with their new content and fresher look. I too enjoy that the website is complimenting the magazine better as well.

A wonderful review Andrew.
With best wishes for Christmas, the New Year - and your birthday of course!

Pru x

Stacy said...

Thank-you for this great review. It's difficult for me to remember each issue as I generally spend a lot of time going over each monthly issue from several years back. Right now I've got 9 different December issues piled up beside the nighttable!

Product placement does make me a bit uncomfortable but I also really appreciate it. I like being informed on new products and items to check out. I trust that the editors are presenting items they have tried and tested themselves. I loved Blueprint so I think all of these new sections are fantastic.

This year brought one of my all time favourite pieces in the August issue with the Originals article in the Style section. I loved loved loved this and will be referencing it for years to come I'm sure.

I think the magazine is moving in the right direction and I'm as excited as I've ever been about receiving my new issue each month.

Happy Holidays to you!

Anonymous said...

I miss the dessert of the month.

vitamine e said...

I m a regular reader of this magazine and its the best magazine to help you out in every situation.Anything you want to know about fashion or living or any help in kitchen.this magazine is always ready to help you.I love it.Good post!Keep up sharing.

Anonymous said...

I loved that there was so much craft content. My wish for Living in 2010 is that there would be more ideas about gardening and home organisation. The photographs are really beautiful.

By the way, you mentioned Vanessa Holden. I got a beautiful Christmas food book over here in England from Santa this year by our best-selling food writer Delia Smith. Called Delia's Happy Christmas. It was so beautifully designed and put togther that I looked at the credits and it had at the top Art Direction & Design Vanessa Holden. Wonder if it's the same person? Happy holidays, Irene

Christina said...

Andrew, you've got me all upset. 11 holiday special issues? I only have 8! And I thought I had them all! Can you tell me the first year they started? Thanks.


Hi Christina! I have the full list of special issues (with photos) under the "Special Issue Magazines" link on the side bar of my blog. Check it out! They're all there! (Holiday issues started in 2001.) Happy New Year!


Christina, here is the direct link:


Christina said...

Thanks! I thought I had seen most of your blog but I missed this list. And pictures too! It will make it a lot easier to see what I am missing. Just saw the news that you get to be on Martha! Color me green!