Martha Stewart Living Year in Review: 2017

It's that time again: time for a look back at the year that was in the land of Martha Stewart Living magazine. Overall, as a general assessment, I think that 2017 was a successful year for the magazine, mainly because there were clear signs that it was reassessing its core principles and bringing them to the fore once again.

This was the first complete year with Elizabeth Graves heading up the magazine as editor in chief. She took over the post from Eric Pike in March, 2016, but it was this year that I feel she really took stock and began to mold the magazine into something that was pleasing to both longtime readers and attractive to new ones; it's a tricky balance but I think it's one that she was able to achieve this year.

I wasn't the only one who thought so. Ad Age named Martha Stewart Living one of its top magazines of the year, alongside Bon Appetit, The New Yorker and GQ, among others. Ad Age cited the redesign of the magazine with the October issue, which we'll talk more about below, as a big sign that the magazine is in it for the long haul. It had this to say about the look and feel of the magazine:

"The look is now modern and forward-thinking, yet still timeless, classic and always aiming to create trends rather than follow them. It's the Martha Stewart Living that millions of people love, but now even more."

Martha Stewart, herself, was also singled out as a visionary in 2017, winning Adweek's "Media Visionary" award on its annual Hot List in publishing. This is no small feat for a woman who's been setting trends since the early 1980's. To be honoured for being innovative and creative with a fresh perspective all these years later is indicative of her lasting strength and intuition as a leader in the publishing world.

For my review this year, I'm going to go issue by issue - with a few comments on each - to make a more complete assessment. I will finish each paragraph with one of two designations: KEEP or DONATE. The KEEP means it hit the spot. DONATE means it did not. My main criteria, as always, are these: does an issue meet its mandate of celebrating the month at hand with appropriate, meaningful content, beautiful photography and inspiring ideas? So, let's dive in and have a look!

JANUARY/FEBRUARY: A very pretty cover! In the midst of the winter doldrums it's always so nice to receive a January/February issue with a colourful, optimistic cover. The underlying theme of the issue is "success" with a nod to entrepreneurship via the American Made profiles in the well of the magazine. Martha, too, in her column looks back at the successes she enjoyed throughout her career. The column feels like a great introduction to the new year with its inspiring look at achievement. All of the expected components for a Jan/Feb issue are there: Valentine's Day, organization, citrus fruits, warm soups... I enjoyed the very thorough article on books and the joys of reading as well as the decorating feature on personalizing a space. Overall, a very nice winter issue that set the tone for the year ahead. [KEEP]
MARCH: I was pleased to see that the cover was not a food cover for this issue. In previous annual reviews I had lamented the constant appearance of food on the covers of Martha Stewart Living. The living room setting is pretty and bright: a nice harbinger of spring. The content of this issue, however, felt a little dull to me. I wasn't really engaged. I really liked the vegetable garden article; I thought it was extremely informative to beginner gardeners looking to grow their own produce. I also loved the Madhur Jaffrey profile - one of my favourite people! - but it could have been a bit longer and more focused on her eminent career. The rest of the content, however, felt a bit 'seen-it-before.' The home feature was okay but not memorable. The "New Way to Bake" preview felt a bit like a cop-out - a way to fill up some pages with previously published material; a single page preview in the front of the magazine would have sufficed. And the travel feature just felt way out of reach to me: places I either cannot afford to go or that do not interest me as a traveler. I'm not sure travel features really have a place in Martha Stewart Living for that reason: travel is so subjective and it takes you away from home - home being the core of the magazine's focus. [DONATE]

APRIL: A gorgeous cover! And it is not food related - two in a row! I like that! The Easter egg craft on the cover looks bright and just feels like spring: really, really pretty. (There were two versions of this cover: a newsstand issue, which did not feature the floral background and the subscriber issue, shown above, which did.) The issue, as a whole, is very strong with appropriate spring content that inspires with some new, fun ideas: I love the shower curtain project and those adorable spring chick cookies in the Good Things section. The article on dusting was very helpful (really, it was!) and I loved the article on "How to Get Rid of Anything." I'm a sucker for spring cleaning, so this was really informative. The article "The New Way to Eat" seemed a bit fad-driven but some of the recipes do look good. Dana Gallagher's photographs in "Foraging for an Easter Feast" were really beautiful as were the photos by Ngoc Minh Ngo in "Chic Eggs," the cover story. The issue definitely said spring. It definitely said outdoors. It definitely said Easter. And it was filled with some really great crafting ideas and some very helpful homekeeping tips that felt new. [KEEP]

MAY: Back to a food cover, but that's okay, since we were given some variation in March and April. It's pretty in pink with simple, attractive styling. A nice cover. The content, once again, delivers in this issue. I was obsessed with the article on cakes! I even asked one of my readers, Bernie Wong, a talented baker, to make one of the cakes from this issue, which he did. Click here to see it. The cakes are original and really beautiful. The story on lilies is gorgeously photographed by Gabriela Herman and beautifully laid out on the page. The decorating feature is one of several this year that was photographed in California, which is refreshing. In previous years the decorating features were almost always focused on the northeast and it always felt like the southwest was being left out. I like the inclusion of homes in some of the warmer states. The standout article for me was "How to Build Character." It's a brilliant incorporation of DIY style and creative thinking to achieve something unique in the home. I'll be looking back at this issue for sure; it's an issue that inspires and informs. [KEEP]

JUNE: The cover definitely says "summer" with its assortment of picnic foods but something a little more creative would have been nice: perhaps an actual picnic scene that was a bit more organic looking. The June issue feels like June; I will give it that. My one concern is that some of the content seems rehashed from previous years: how many June issues have we seen with stories on burgers and baked fruit desserts? Yes, I love burgers, but I don't necessarily want to read about them, year after year. The cover story is quite good; I like how they created regional menus for the picnics and the recipes all look delicious. The "Heaven on Earth" article was beautifully photographed by Jake Stengel and the desserts in "The Time is Ripe" look extremely delicious. My favourite article was the garden feature "Back in Bloom" about the long-lost garden of Beatrix Farrand; an excellent article by Marilyn Young and beautiful photos by Jesse Chehak. It is an average June issue and I do feel they could have pushed the creative boundaries a bit and given us something a bit more unexpected and unique, but there was enough good content, such as the feature on Toronto artist Jason Logan and his natural dyes, to give it a pass. [KEEP]

JULY/AUGUST: Hmm... Third food cover in a row. But I'm such a sucker for a good fish fry that I actually love it. I think the cover looks striking and iconic with that hit of bright yellow against the heavily-textured gray background. I love how the newsprint in the basket features stories about fishing and sailing: I love details like that! Some readers may have lamented the lack of patriotic pride on the cover, but as a Canadian I was okay with it. The July/August issue suffers a bit from a similar ailment as the June issue: same old, same old. We've seen the stories on wicker and grass furniture before, the tomatoes, the grilling techniques, the red-white-and-blue desserts. What felt fresh in this issue was the fish fry cover story and the article "The Natural Order of Things" about Amy Jedlicka's lakeside property in Connecticut, which she landscaped entirely using native plant species. That feels new to me. The photographs by Christopher Testani of the tomato salads save the article from feeling predictable and the designs of the woven furniture in "Weave it In" are so beautiful that it's hard to turn away. Again, it's an average issue - and not particularly groundbreaking - but there's just enough beauty to save it. [KEEP]
SEPTEMBER: When I received this issue in the mail I thought, at first, that it was the new IKEA catalog. I don't like the cover. It seems cluttered and off-brand. I don't see "Martha" when I look at this image. This issue, I'm afraid, left a lot to be desired. I didn't connect with it at all. The project shown on the cover, which is detailed inside, is not especially attractive or alluring. I would even say it is prohibitive to style and organization. The article "Raising Your Home's IQ" was promising, in theory, but with so much small text interspersed with product placements and rather boring photographs, it felt disengaging, especially for the lead feature. The "Slow Cooker" retread was, again, a bit of a cop-out: using previously-published imagery and recipes from Martha's cookbook to fill up some pages. The urban gardens in "Emerald City" were kind of lackluster and "The Joy of Juggling" felt a bit insincere and out of step with a culture trying to minimize multitasking. (Do people truly experience joy juggling a roster of commitments and obligations)? I did like the collecting feature "Ripe for Decorating" - the only collecting feature to appear all year in the well of the magazine. September has historically been one of my favourite issues of Martha Stewart Living but this is not an issue I'll be looking at again. [DONATE]

OCTOBER: And just like that, Martha is back! It was such a joy to see Martha on the cover again after over a year of absence. I'm hoping the editors give Martha at least one cover a year from here on out. I feel it's necessary for the brand. This issue heralded those aforementioned design changes, all of which I examined in this post from October. Please read it if you'd like to learn the specifics of how the editors and creative directors worked on improving the magazine's appearance and style. In short, the efforts paid off in a big way and I was really, really happy with this issue. Please read my other post for a full review of this issue. [KEEP]

NOVEMBER: The cover is a knockoff of the November, 2013, issue, which is almost identical. I'm hoping this was just an oversight and not a conscious decision to replicate it. This year's cover, however, was the better of the two. It looks more considered and appealing. But still...I hope this kind of thing doesn't happen again. This is actually a really good issue once you get past the cover. There is a warmth to it that just feels so inviting. I had expected the Thanksgiving themes and I always enjoy them, even though, as a Canadian, I celebrate the holiday a month earlier. Here, unlike the June and July issues, the 'typical' feels atypical. The crafts in "Say it With Grace" feel new and delightful. The Thanksgiving menu in "A Fresh Twist on Tradition" really does feel fresh and exciting. I also really love the incorporation of the staff in the issue: all of their unique traditions listed at the beginning of the well were fun to read. The food editors, too, sharing their favourite Thanksgiving pies was a lesson in regional flavour. It was a charming idea and it really worked to engage the reader and connect us to the editors. And how nice to have a garden feature in a November issue! I loved "Falling for Color" with those gorgeous photographs by Caitlin Atkinson. It's a November issue that I know I will return to, despite its copycat cover. [KEEP]
DECEMBER: The December issue of Martha Stewart Living is to its readers what the September issue is to Vogue readers: it's the final litmus test on how successful the year at the magazine has been, eagerly awaited by fans of the brand for much of the year. It has to have crafts. It has to have surprises. It has to have delightful imagery and inspiring ideas. It has to have Martha! It's no small task to achieve, I'm sure. Well, I think this is one of the best December issues we've had in a long time! It certainly surpasses last year's December issue. The cover is delightful and festive (no food, thank goodness) and inside, too, the ideas flow. From Santa's gingerbread ski chalet to the snow angel cookies in the Good Things section, to Martha's column on the festive holiday stockings she makes for her family and friends, it feels exciting. I loved learning about the Dolphin Studio calendars and the "Brunch for a Bunch" article in the Everyday Food section gave me some really good tips. Anytime there's a feature on one of Martha's holiday parties, I'm sold. And the "Wintry Wonders" layout with its pretty pale palette was so beautiful to look at. The styling in "Twice as Nice" was reminiscent of those luxe December issues of years past but the menu felt modern and rich with flare. The feature on wrapping was a little out there (using corrugated cardboard to wrap presents, etc.) but I admire its innovative spirit. One bit of feedback I heard from another reader is that she would have liked instructions on how to make the wreath on the cover. Basically, though, I think this December issue checks all the boxes and I'm pleased to have it. [KEEP]


Only two of the ten issues received the DONATE designation (March and September) which is really good. I suppose that means the magazine scored an overall average of 80%! The March issue was historically the special gardening issue and the September issue was historically the special home issue. I think the editors should really consider getting back to those roots for those issues, specifically. It's been a few years since I've been impressed by a March or September issue and this year they also fell short.

It was nice to see only half of the covers featured depictions of food. A comment I had made in previous reviews was that the covers were too food-centric for a lifestyle magazine with multiple core content subjects to focus on. Only five of the ten issues this year featured food on the cover, so I'm pleased with that level of diversity.

To me, the best issue is, not surprisingly, the October issue, but both the November issue and the December issue also felt really good to me. I see the October issue as a kind of threshold for the magazine - a catalyst for change - and I'm looking forward to seeing where that change takes us, the readers, in 2018.


This year there were no special issues, which was a bit disappointing. I hope next year we will get at least one special issue to collect. I'm sure that's a decision that is up to Meredith Corp.

Also up to Meredith is how it handles its subscriptions: the magazine's delivery and its renewals. I've heard from many readers that their issues arrive very late now that Meredith is handling the operation - often after the first of the month. One reader told me he didn't receive his issue until the end of the month in question, when the next month's issue was already on newsstands! That's not acceptable for subscribers who invest in the commitment of a subscription as a sign of loyalty and support. I hope that situation improves.

The subscription costs are the lowest they've ever been, now that the magazine is under Meredith's umbrella, which is great. However, some of the renewal incentives seem off the mark. When I renewed this year, for instance, I was given a link to an e-book called 'Gardening on the Cheap' (having nothing to do with Martha) to download. Yeah... No thanks. I remember in years past receiving beautiful, Martha-related calendars and notebooks and tote bags: collectible items that were really fun. Bring those back, please, or just avoid unrelated incentives at all.


One point worth mentioning is the expanding beauty and style sections in the magazine. I know they are a revenue maker, but I always skip over them since it seems like I'm reading ad copy. I don't read Martha Stewart Living for beauty and style - and it's not because I'm a man or because I'm not interested in it. Having worked in women's retail for eight years it is very much a part of my vocabulary but I read Vogue and other fashion magazines for beauty and style subject matter. To me, Martha Stewart Living is really more about the home and less about the skincare treatments and perfume choices of the woman running it.

I'm sure resisting its presence is a lost cause, since the revenue this section generates from advertisers and sponsors cannot be overlooked. And, it is quite possible that I'm in the minority. Perhaps there are hundreds of thousands of readers who absolutely love the beauty and style section of Martha Stewart Living and I should just shut up about it.

Please feel free to leave a comment about how you feel about Martha Stewart Living, 2017. I'm curious to hear your thoughts.


-Martha published three books this year: A New Way to Bake, Slow Cooker and The Newlywed Kitchen.
-Season five of Martha Stewart's Cooking School aired on PBS in the spring.
-Season eight of Martha Bakes aired on PBS this fall.
-Season two of Martha and Snoop's Potluck Dinner Party aired this fall on VH1 and was nominated for an Emmy Award.
-Martha launched a new line of bathroom cabinetry with the Home Depot as well as a new holiday decor line.
-Martha launched her first apparel line, a new gardening line, a new food line and a new beauty collaboration with Mario Badescu on QVC in August.
-Martha & Marley Spoon expanded with a new Thanksgiving kit and a Cookie Box.
-Martha Wine Co. launched in the summer, bringing Martha's favourite wines to consumers.
-Martha took part in the Food & Wine Experience series, making appearances around the country to conduct culinary workshops.


Anonymous said...

Thank you Andrew for your detailed review.
I would stress more attention be paid to the covers. In comparison to the early years, they are lackluster and look like many, many other publications.

HH said...

I feel the magazine has been "Meredithised" It's becoming too much like others of their publications. And I agree that we don't need all the beauty articles. Give me more ones about decorating or gardening or collecting - what I consider to be core Martha subjects.
My other huge beef is the inclusion of perfume ads - not only do these smell revolting - not anything that I'd wear - but they are inappropriate in this sort of magazine.
I have been a subscriber since the first issue - and have all of them - so I've seen many changes over the years. I'm sure I will renew my subscription but, for the first time, I have given it serious thought

Lorie ~ Ferndale Lane Vintage said...

I am so glad I found your blog!! I agree with you about the beauty section. I don't read MSL for that topic. I feel it robs pages from other "Living" sections. I absolutely hate that "Collecting" has been placed on the last page with barely a few paragraphs. I really miss all the photos and the 1 1/2 -2 pages of info for Collecting of the old days. I wish they would bring back Letters to the Editor and Martha's Remembering. I've been collecting MSL since 1996 and I only continue to collect it "just because". I will stop once she passes away or the magazine is discontinued. I'm sorry I'm being a complainer, lol, I'm just feeling nostalgic.


No need to apologize, Lorie! I feel much the same way. And I’m so glad you’re enjoying the blog!