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My Interview with Eleanor Griffin, editor in chief of Southern Living magazine
Southern Living, the south’s largest magazine, is sporting a new look this week. The Time Inc.’s southern publication is under the helm of a woman editor for the first time in its 43 years history. Eleanor Griffin, editor in chief, of Southern Living, a native southerner, came to the magazine from its now departed sister publication Cottage Living, the magazine she founded at the company once know as Southern Progress. She has one mission in mind: Keep it Southern.
This is the second magazine that Time Inc.’s Lifestyle Group restyles and redesigns in less than two months. Last month it was Cooking Light, this month it is Southern Living. The pace of change begs the question why and why now? I asked Eleanor Griffin this question and a host of other questions including the one that is on every southerner’s mind: are those Yankee New Yorkers messing up with our Southern Living and are they moving the magazine up North?
What follows is the Mr. Magazine’s™ interview with Eleanor Griffin, editor in chief of Southern Living magazine:
SH: Why now? Last month Time Inc. restyled Cooking Light and now Southern Living and the rumor mill in the southern United States is that there is something going on at what used to be known as Southern Progress Corp. A lot of people are leaving, losing their jobs, and at the same time all of these changes are taking place. Is Time Inc. taking over literally and moving Southern Living from here to New York?
EG: No, we are still born and bred Southerners and we will always be based in Birmingham, Alabama. As for the change, primarily two factors come into play: one, Time Inc. is giving us the resources. They’ve given us resources to spend money and improve the magazine; and the second thing is coming in as a new editor, I’m old and ornery enough to want to put my stamp on the magazine and they gave me permission to do so. The reason we changed now is that it was part of my deal coming to Southern Living. I was born here and I worked here for 30 years, however I wanted to make the magazine a little more contemporary.
SH: I saw the October issue of Southern Living and somehow it had the feel of Cottage Living. Is it only me, or is this the plan?
EG: I will not argue with you. It’s still very Southern Living; that is our goal. But I’ve brought in a touch of informality–and that’s on purpose–to reach out to our younger readers. That’s intentional.
SH: How did you do that?
EG: We did the dreaded focus groups and listened very closely to my mail and my email, and I was hearing from a younger reader that said, “Oh, I like Southern Living, but I don’t have the time for it I used to. I’m too busy. I wish you had more for the novice.” Two of the areas they mentioned were that they assumed that we assumed they knew more than they did on cooking and gardening, so that’s how we started two columns. One of which is “Gardening 101” and the other is “Southern Living Cooking Class”. I kind of expanded that thought to kind of break it down a little bit. Then, I added “Half-Hour Hostess” to our food section, which is busy people who want to entertain after working all day, and we also added “Done In A Day”, which is a quick home project. I’m very proud of it because Southern Day Homes projects are Bedazzlers and sewing walls, and they look so dated. This is very, very stylish and much more contemporary.
SH: One thing that stopped me while flipping through the pages of the magazine is the fact that there is a lot of “How-To” with the exception of one or two of the feature articles, I asked myself, “Are we missing that storytelling aspect Southerners are known for? Are we moving toward a direction of making Southern Living a “How-To” magazine rather than a “Know-How?”
EG: That’s a great question: absolutely not. We did a lot of “How-To” in the magazine because I want a younger reader to know that you can find solutions in Southern Living, not just pretty pictures and recipes. I want her to know we have solutions. But to your point, you will see the soul of the South in this magazine. We had Pat Conroy, who we’ve gotten terrific response to in August. We had the Rosenwald Schools in September, and I’ve got the Everglades in November. So, granted, I didn’t have the signature soul of the South story in October, but if anything, you’re going to see more of that in the months to come. One example is we’re starting a new tradition in January that we’re going to have the “South Ten Comeback Neighborhoods.” I’m very pleased about that. You’ll see more historic preservation. We’re trying to do it all. My problem is that I don’t have the pages I need due to the economic and advertising situation. But, we’re very pleased that advertising started to come back in the fourth quarter because I want to do it all.
SH: One of the things that I have noticed with the October issue is that you’ve gone places where, if my memory serves me right, only for a brief, short moment in the history of Southern Living, which was back in the late 80s I think when the late Nancy Woodhall was the editorial director, dared to change the yellow color of the name to purple and other things and that did not last long. Do you expect any response from readers that all of a sudden the yellow nameplate is gone, it’s white. You have pink cover lines. Are you messing with Southern tradition? Or, as your editorial says, “Keeping it Southern?”
EG: We changed the logo color this month only because I had so much yellow on the cover that it was a little redundant. So we will probably 9 times out of 12 be yellow. This is done for graphic reasons. I am not messing with the DNA of the magazine. I’m tinkering a little bit more with the presentation. We will always be the South’s lifestyle authority. We will always be the go-to place for recipes, and how to put your house together. All we’re doing is freshening the delivery methodology so it’s delivered a little bit quicker and little bit more precise—not dumbed down—but, just a little bit quicker. As one of the biggest things I’ve learned from our reader mail, and speaking to these young women saying, “I love being a Southerner, but I don’t have time to do things that my mom did. I don’t have that kind of time. Can you break it down for me.” And that’s kind of the genesis of our signature column “Mama’s Way or My Way.” Sometimes we have a guilt thing that we Southern women want to do it all, kind of the Martha Stewart concept, and that’s not possible anymore. So “Mama’s Way, Your Way,” although it’s just starting out as a food column with the apple dumplings the traditional way, and a quicker way, that column may grow to come into other areas such as homes and gardens, for example.
SH: That’s a great column, if you really want to reach that dual audience, especially with the mother/daughter relationship that exists in the South.
EG: I speak in bumper stickers. With the staff we speak about “Modernized, but in Moderation” and we talk about “Update but not Upscale.” We also talk about “Keeping it Southern” because I never ever want to be just another Service magazine. I want to always, always be Southern Living. The fourth building block is a phrase we all use called “New Icon, Old Icon” and that’s that in every issue of the magazine, there should be some stories that an old icon, like on classic garden in Raleigh, North Carolina that speaks to a traditional reader, or a party in The Grove at Ole Miss, but then we have new icon stories on a loft in downtown Austin. So, the mix will always tilt toward old icon, but it’s just going to be leavened with some of the new icon things we’re doing.
SH: Which is something you mention in your editorial in the October issue that you’re respecting the past and looking to the future.
EG: Absolutely. Southern Living has been too successful for too long without my help. I am not going to come in and mess it up. My job is just to continue the vision and just update where we need to be. Two other areas that are we are updating, we’re doing a three page “Go To the Source” section where in the past we weren’t as helpful as we could have been on sourcing because we all want it at the click of a mouse now. We’ve also introduced a recipe index. And again, these are not earth shaking changes, they’re just ancillary improvements to make this magazine more useful everyday. The third thing I’m real proud of is we’ve introduced the “Made by Southern Hands” shopping page, and you being Mr. Magazine, know that one of the pages magazines do worst are the awful popcorn product pages. I think they’re a total throw away waste of time, but I feel like “Made by Southern Hands” so differentiates us because it’s showcasing Southern crafts people that someday may be the next Kate Spade. That’s a great way of presenting current things women love, which is shopping, but differentiating it that it’s got to be by a Southern, small, crafts-person. It’s not Michael Kors.
SH: I’m sure you’re hearing all the rumor mills that all the Southern Progress magazines are no longer a domain of their own, that the folks from New York are running the show. What message can you send to the mass audience, outside the media people with the rumor mills, that this 43-year-old magazine isn’t having its roots cut and grafting some new identity (heaven forbid, a Yankee one) in this magazine.
EG: I’d like to say that Time Inc. is fertilizing us and I mean that in a positive way, no negative connotation. We are in what’s called the lifestyle group at Time Inc., which groups us with Cooking Light, Real Simple, This Old House and because Cooking Light and Southern Living are two of the largest and most profitable titles, we are getting some resource dollars to continue to do what we do best. I’ve gotten some extra money to help me do some things that I need to like hiring a photo director, just kind of editorial improvements the reader may not notice the underscoring, structural changes, but they will notice they’re getting a better magazine. So, also you can say that you have 87 people who are born and bred Southerners down here, I’m a native Kentuckian. We do what we do so well, and we will continue to do it because New York recognizes that yes, they’re going to help us, but we know country ham and biscuits, we know barbecue, we know Southern football, we know all those touchstones that national cultural magazines don’t necessarily touch on and Time Inc. knows enough to let us do what we do best and they’ve been very helpful so far. Southern Living still swings a pretty big bat in ad revenue and circulation and that’s why Time Inc. has invested resources in us because the larger titles aren’t getting the money now, and I’m taking it and running with it and delivering a better product each month if I can.
SH: Is the restyling and redesign of Southern Living an attempt to catch up with the changing editorial?
EG: I think that’s a great point. I don’t like to say we’re written in sound bites, I would never say we’re simplified, but we are written a little bit punchier, and we’re working extra hard on reader entry points because I know one of your questions was we are getting used to seeing things on a screen and digitally with shorter attention spans. The fun challenge here is to edit a magazine for people with shorter attention spans but still give them the richness they look for in a magazine like Southern Living. It’s a bit of a balancing act, but I feel like it’s working out with both our signature one page columns and then the longer reads, which we’re known for and will continue to be known for.
SH: How are you going to enhance this new approach, this new print identity for the magazine, via the websites and the mighty arm of Time Inc. and AOL? What are doing to use technology to enhance the print edition of the magazine?
EG: First of all, we’re working very closely on our website, and we’re putting much more original content on our website. We’re doing more, particularly in our Homes area. Our galleries and our slide shows do extremely well. On the food side we are hooked up, as you probably know with MyRecipes.com, which leverages us with a much larger audience. Our Home stories, they start you with SouthernLiving.com and those leverage you to MyHomeIdeas.com, which is an aggregate website of our sister publications. Again, not only for more audience, but for richer experience on the site. I think just as Condé Nast had success with Epicurious and Concierge.com, the aggregate site, we’re having similar luck where we aggregate our sites into MyHomeIdeas and MyRecipes.com. That seems to be the way to go these days.
SH: So you differentiate between the magazine experience and the brand experience on the web?
EG: I’m a magazine junkie, not quite as much as you are, but I’m probably in the top ten, I surf a lot too. I think the best magazine websites may start out as a vertical, but they need to funnel you into titles with similar appeal. Because if I’m looking for a travel story or a recipe, I really don’t want to go to eight websites, I want it all at one click. In the same way, when you’re buying a air ticket, it’s such a pain to bounce back between Expedia, Travelocity, and Orbits. I like to go to Kayak and all those windows pop up with my ticket. Same thing with MyHomeIdeas and MyRecipes, I like to go to one site and it gives me aggregate from the title I like and other titles with a similar look and feel.
SH: What makes Southern Living, today, as relevant as it was 43 years ago when it was started for Southern women?
EG: I wish I could just read you my November editors note, which I just wrote about that very topic. We’re even more relevant today than we were 43 years ago because there are so many magazines, so many websites, and so many TV channels clamoring for our time. We’re the one voice that says, “Yes, we are a lifestyle, shelter magazine but we speak with a Southern accent, we know your values, we know your traditions, we’re edited for you, and again, a eye for the past and a respect for the future.” No one has that differentiated Southern voice like we do. I think that’s what makes us relevant, it will make us relevant 10 years from now.
SH: Are there any plans to reach that woman, besides the traditional web and print that will enhance that Southern Living brand?
EG: We’ve got several brand extensions going. We’re doing quite a bit right now in licensing. We have seven licenses for towels, furniture, paint, which we are expanding through licensing. That’s probably our number one brand extension right now for this magazine.
SH: What do you expect once this issue hits the newsstands on September 29th, what are you betting on from the audience?
EG: I’m expecting quite a bit of email based on what Mary Kay Culpepper (the departing editor in chief of Cooking Light magazine) based on her experience at Cooking Light. I’m expecting my very oldest readers to not email me, they’re going to write me and say they’re a little disappointed. But I think the vast majority are going to go, “It’s about time. Thank you for taking the magazine I love and just freshening it just a little bit, not messing with it, but just making it a little bit fresher for the busy life I live. I went through it with Cottage Living where some people though, “Oh, gosh, I thought it was going to be retirement cottages on the Coast, I’m not happy.” But the vast majority were, “I love this magazine.” And I expect the same reaction here. You can’t include everybody all the time, but I have a staff that has worked very hard for six months to really tune into where the modern young Southerner is going and we think we’re on tap to what you’re looking for.
SH: In the midst of all these changes, Southern Living is known for the white cake cover every December. Am I going to see my white cake on the December cover?
EG: I knew you were going to ask me that. I’m testing two white cakes. The answer is yes, but we’re testing an old icon which is a very traditional white cake and then we’re testing kind of a young sexy one and I’m going to see which one wins and go with my gut. But you will see a white dessert. I will put it that way.
SH: You are known to say that you want to “seduce the readers.” What is Eleanor Griffin recipe to seduce Southern Living readers?
EG: My thought is, Samir, it’s such a busy, hectic world and if you open up a magazine and I’m just giving them a cheesecake recipe, that’s fine but I feel I short-changed them a little bit. I want to seduce the reader, and I mean that in G-rated way. I want to give them something pleasurable, I want to give them a memory, I want to give them an experience. When I talk about transforming or transporting, a mediocre magazine gives you a cheesecake recipe and a paint color. Those are a dime a dozen. We talk about seducing the reader, but in a good way. We talk about transforming the reader a little bit too. It’s not just ink on paper. But a magazine that speaks to readers, transforms them and transports them either to a place they’d like to live or like to travel, that’s the best of print journalism. Solving a problem is good, but transporting and transforming is the goal of all good editors.
SH: Thank you.