The cancellation of all Martha Stewart television programming on the Hallmark Channel, including the award-winning Martha Stewart Show (and the loss of the studio where it was filmed) represented the first tide of disappointment for many fans of the Martha Stewart brand. More recently, it was the announcement that Everyday Food would cease publiation as a stand-alone magazine - a popular read for nearly ten years – and would become a periodical supplement issued five times a year. This sad news came the same day it was announced that Whole Living magazine – a health and lifestye publication Martha Stewart Living had acquired in 2005 – would also be shut down.
In December, the resignation of Gael Towey, the company’s chief creative and editorial director, came as a huge shock to many. It represents an enormous loss of talent to the company, and as a fan of the brand, her departure certainly gives me cause for concern. Towey had been instrumental in rendering the company’s creative design principles through all its media since its inception in the early 1990s. Her loss will definitely be felt.
Other long-time talents, such as collecting editor Fritz Karch, publication designer James Dunlinson and decorating editor Rebecca Robertson, have also left the company, quietly slipping under the radar.
Finally, Lisa Gersh, the company’s CEO, announced just last week that she is resigning once a replacement has been found for her. Gersh was not able to bring the company to profitability, despite aggressive cuts and deals with new partners. (Gersh is the fifth CEO to leave MSLO in a decade.)
On top of these changes, the company is facing a problematic lawsuit from one of its longterm partners, Macy’s. It is alleged that MSLO violated its contract with the retailer by signing a new merchandising agreement with one of its rivals, JC Penney. The lawsuit is currently before the courts even as the new Martha Stewart line of home goods is set to roll out at JC Penney later this month.
How all of this change and turmoil has affected the morale of fans of the Martha Stewart brand cannot be adequately expressed without first discussing the path the company has identified as its new course. Compiling the sentiments expressed in numerous interviews with Martha Stewart executives and the company’s press releases, it seems clear that Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia intends to become a company more focused on merchandising than content. This aim has already been reflected in the company’s decision to shut down two of its magazines while simultaneously touting new digital platforms and launching a new product line with JC Penney.
Martha Stewart fans love the glitter, the kitchen products and crafts supplies. Yes, we love the furniture, the paint, the kitchen and bathroom hardware. But all of it is just ‘stuff’ stuck with a pretty round logo without a soul to support it. And that brings me to how we, as fans, are feeling about the Martha Stewart brand as a whole. I can perhaps sum it up with one probing question: “Who stole the soul of Martha Stewart Living and how can we get it back?”
Remnants of the soulfulness that first enchanted me still exist within the brand. I’ve seen it glimmering in Martha’s eyes on her wonderful PBS series, Martha Stewart’s Cooking School, a how-to program that was enthusiastically embraced by fans and critics alike. I’ve seen it sparkling on the crafts and cookies Martha shared with us from her kitchen in Bedford on her web series, Countdown to Christmas – another beautiful television supplement reminiscent of her television program from the 1990s.
I’ve seen it, too, in the pages of Martha Stewart Living magazine, although with less verve than I’ve seen in past issues. Features on make-up, clothing and skincare do not resonate with me as a reader, perhaps because I am male and not representative of the target market of 20-to-30-something females, but more likely because I am not a fan of advertising disguised as content. (A feature extolling the virtues of Botox in the April, 2012, issue nearly did me in.) Consistent product placement turns me off, especially in a magazine that began as a do-it-yourself, how-to guide that championed good taste, quality craftsmanship and carefully-curated style. I will not go so far to say that the magazine has ‘lost its soul’ because much of the content still inspires me, through photographs and ideas, but I do not sit with Living as long as I used to and I care less about whether or not these newer issues become damaged or dogeared. There is something missing, something off.
I have not ruled out the possibility that my tastes have changed, as well. I have been exposed to many beautiful publications that have emerged in 2012, magazines that remind me why I love magazines in the first place: Gather Journal, Kinfolk, Anthology, Uppercase, FOLK, Sweet Paul, Pure Green and Lone Wolf. These are artful, beautiful lifestyle quarterlies that reflect my interest in editorial quality and I am willing to pay more to read them. The paper they use for print is beautiful. The photography is stunning. The writing is thoughtful and eloquent and the design is modern. In short, the creators have invested true passion into their publications and it is evident in the pages.
Recently, financial news website 24/7 Wall Street predicted that Martha Stewart Living magazine will cease publication in 2013, and other analysts seem to agree that in order to survive, Martha’s company may have to shutter its flagship publication in order to cut costs and achieve profitability.
What Wall Street analysts don’t seem to understand (shockingly!) is that more than anything, a company like Martha’s requires a vision, a sense of passion and a sense of duty. That’s how MSLO began and that’s why I fell in love with the company all those years ago. This vision and the entire crux of the Martha Stewart ideal is cradled in the pages of that magazine. Shut it down and you permanently eclipse the very life the magazine’s title encourages.
Year after year Martha Stewart’s vision is being chipped away with shrewd terms like “cost-cutting measures” and “layoffs.” High rates of employee turnover at the company, from the executive level down, reflect a corporate culture in deep turmoil and conflict, one that cannot seem to reconcile its mandate with its deep desire to make money.
Fans and readers, viewers and listeners want Martha Stewart Living to be successful. I want to see it thrive. I want to see it grow and prosper and develop. But when it comes right down to it, all that Martha Stewart’s readers and fans truly want is to be respected enough to be given the quality content and merchandise we expect from a name like Martha Stewart.
We, your bread and butter (and I am speaking now to the Martha Stewart powers that be) do not care about profit margins and bar graphs. We don’t care about ad sales. We just want to be inspired, to be dazzled and gobsmacked by the content you produce. We want to admire and adore the people who create it just as we want them to be inspired by our lives and our passions. We want beautiful things for our home made of quality materials, items that reflect a modern sensibility with traditional roots and great design. So, in the immortal words of Tim Gunn, “Make it work.” Figure out how to give us what we want and need and treat us longtime supporters and customers with the respect we have earned. Tough love, perhaps, but love nonetheless.
I designed these covers, above, to prove to myself that Martha Stewart Living could be a beautiful quarterly or bi-monthly magazine, should the magazine decide to downsize its operations. I "Kinfolked" the design and brought the Martha Stewart logo to the fore. Four issues would focus on a given season. The other two issues would be devoted to entertaining and Holiday.
CELEBRATING THE GOOD THINGSNow that I have that off my chest, I can tell you about what I want Martha Moments to become in 2013. This last year was a banner year for this blog, which saw a drastic increase in traffic over previous years. Fellow bloggers have linked to and highlighted Martha Moments on their blogs while digital magazines, such as Lonny and Sweet Paul, have also taken notice. I’m pleased and proud that the work I have done on this blog – completely independent of any support or encouragement from Martha Stewart Living, I must add – has been impressive to many of the blogs and magazines I admire.
One of the most popular Martha Moments columns was “Looking Back to Move Forward” – my monthly tribute to a former issue of Martha Stewart Living magazine that I cherish and find influential to this day. Readers have also come to rely on Martha Moments for news about Martha Stewart’s products, books and magazines, which I’ve always tried to provide by ‘mining’ the web for information and collecting it here for future reference. I have also enjoyed writing posts about the domestic subjects and special people who represent, in some way, the essence of what Martha Stewart stands for: entrepreneurship, artistry, design, excellence and domestic pride. Posts about people making their own mark in the sphere of lifestyle content, the same way Martha did all those years ago, keep me inspired and interested in how the culture of ‘living’ is shifting and evolving. So many of these artists, designers and writers owe so much to Martha’s groundbreaking efforts in the field, no matter how indirectly. This is a point that is never lost on me, which is why they are their own shining example of a Martha Moment made real. Most of all, I’m honoured that my opinion and perspective has mattered to the thousands of people who visit Martha Moments every day from all over the world.
So, 2013, will focus more on the things I love about Martha Stewart. If I don’t love it, I’m not going to write about it. The frequency of the posts here will be in direct proportion to how inspired I am (or am not) by Martha Stewart Living and its offerings. I intend to continue to consider Martha’s entire oeuvre (spanning two decades) and to dig stuff out of the archives to highlight here, articulating all the things I have fallen in love with over the years. Whether it’s a single photograph from one of her magazines, an article, a book, a television episode or a room in one of Martha’s houses, I will make a Martha Moment out of it.
Curated. That’s my buzz word for 2013. Thank you all for taking the time to read this and I wish you all a very Happy New Year.