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So What Do You Do, Martha Nelson?
As Barbra might say, the person who edits People is the luckiest person in the world.- August 19, 2003
A bit more than a year ago, Martha Nelson took over as managing editor—the top job—at People magazine, widely considered to be the most profitable magazine in the country. More than that, though, the People people say more people read their magazine each week—nearly 36 million—than catch any other entertainment product during a week, including all the top-rated television shows and highest-grossing blockbuster films. Before coming to People, Nelson helmed another Time Inc. success story, InStyle magazine, which she co-founded in 1994, so she's no stranger to celebrity news. But People also has a strong tradition of breaking news coverage, and Nelson's been settling into that area while also confronting critics' charges that the venerable magazine has been forced to move in a more tabloidy direction, driven by new competition from outlets like Us Weekly and In Touch Weekly. Nelson spoke to mediabistro.com late last month about that marketplace, her magazine, and why she's got to keep her celebrity crushes secret.
Birthdate: August 13, 1952
Hometown: Pierre, South Dakota
First section of the Sunday Times: "I read the front section first, except on Mondays when I first look to the business section."
Walk me through your career as it leads to InStyle and then People.
In college, I started as an editorial assistant at an academic journal. I began working at Ms. magazine after graduating, and later I became the editor-in-chief of Women's Sports and Fitness, in San Francisco. I next was the editor of Savvy magazine in New York before working for Who Weekly, a People offshoot in Sydney, Australia. I was then an assisting managing editor at People before I left and launched InStyle—only to return a little over a year ago to People.
Why did you make that switch from InStyle back to People?
Well, I had a fantastic experience with the launch of InStyle, but the magazine was on a very strong course when the People job became available. The switch also meant that I would be returning to something I'd had a fantastic experience with before InStyle. Besides, it's amazing to run one of the most influential magazines in the world, with one of the broadest readerships and the greatest breadth of subject matter that you will encounter. The mix of the entertainment-industry and celebrity news, combined with hard news and human interest, basically means that every topic I am interested in I can find a way to cover in People. There is no significant event that escapes us and I know what that was like, coming from InStyle. There, during 9/11, I watched the spectacular work that was done at People, and I thought about what a great job they were doing and how amazing it is to be on top of the news when something truly significant happens.
Have you found it difficult taking over such a well-established and perhaps set-in-its-ways magazine? I would imagine trying to make your own mark on it is a little like steering an oil tanker.
The thing about People is that while we are a big magazine with an enormous readership, we also are an organization that can move incredibly fast. This week we came to work on Monday and realized that what had happened in Miami with Celia Cruz was rather extraordinary, so we started up a story and did a special limited edition of the magazine with a cover of Celia Cruz just for Southern Florida—and it closed on Tuesday. So the organization can move so quickly and still thoroughly cover the news. We did a 10-page story basically overnight and arranged for a special distribution in Florida and created a cover for that special issue, all at the same time that we were also putting out the regular issue for the rest of the country. That is perhaps the benefit of our midweek deadline. A lot of things happen over the weekend so it is nice to have those extra two days in the beginning of the week. Plus, we are all about getting into consumers hands as much as possible before the weekend.
What sorts of changes would you like to see made to the magazine as your tenure continues?
Well, we're always undergoing changes, but it's a very slow evolution. Because our readership base is so loyal and so large, you can't just come in and put a bomb under the magazine—because, frankly, it ain't broke. But the magazine has evolved a lot in its history, and I think that right now with Rina Migliacchio as the creative director we are sort of stripping out some of the excesses of the previous design and streamlining it and really cleaning it up.
If you take over a magazine that is broken, it is almost imperative that you do something radically different because you have to announce to the world, "Hey, look, this really can get better, and this is different, so give us another try." But with People, we didn't have to face that situation. I walked into a magazine that was very strong and had a very loyal and dedicated readership. I don't make all the design changes in a week—I make them as part of a process.
What has been the most rewarding change for you, or the thing that you have appreciated most, about switching from InStyle back to People?
In terms of personal satisfaction, I think it has probably been the work we've done on the issue of missing children in the last year. Both the magazine and I were recognized by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and also invited to the White House for the signing of the Amber Alert Bill. We have been credited by any number of people for the kind of attention that we brought to this issue last year and the fact that we were useful in the campaign in the California legislature to pass the Amber Alert Bill, simply by the fact that we had made the missing girls in California a cover story and we did another cover story on missing girls in Oregon. We also followed up with a number of other stories about this issue, and it is something that People magazine has consistently focused on. Usually, the kind of impact we have on such stories goes completely unnoticed, but for the people who are involved in this particular issue, the attention that we paid to them was and continues to be enormously impactful. These really are heartbreaking stories and our work does make a huge difference so, on a personal level, it is great to know that we have actually been able to be an agent for positive change.
How do you feel about the recent comparisons between People and Us Weekly?
I think this question is all about the competition in the field. It has become a more competitive field of late, but I actually enjoy the competition. I wouldn't really know what to do if I was the lone player in this market. The competition is fun and energizing, and it helps to keep us on our game, and, really, it's a very normal thing. Most magazines have competitors. That's normal.
We are a very, very different animal from Us Weekly. You know, we compete on the newsstand with these other magazines, but we're really uniquely differentiated in terms of our content, our size, and the loyalty of our readership.
Has this newer competition forced you to make any changes at People? Has Us, as some people say, forced People to move to more tabloidy coverage?
I think that one of the founding principles of our company, which People remains very true to today, is the notion that what we do is good journalism. We certainly see and hear a lot of stuff out there based on rumors, and we have a lot of reporters allowing us to hear every kind of news and non-news, but in the end, we don't run on rumor. We run on fact. We sometimes see stories that are in other magazines or show up in other outlets that are based on reports that later are refuted, and that's the kind of situation we will never find ourselves in. For us, it is really about the quality of the reporting and the trust with the reader, and that's the No. 1 priority. People began as a celebrity magazine almost 30 years ago, as a chronicle of popular culture, and I think that we are basically staying very true to that mission. I don't know if you have looked at our current issue, but it's a good example of the kind of mix that is very natural to us. We have the Kobe Bryant story, the Jessica Lynch story, and the cover story on Angelina Jolie—a true mix of news, human interest, and celebrity. I am very comfortable in the celebrity world; I spent a lot of time covering celebrities and edited a celebrity style magazine for the last 9 years. So I don't think there is anything unusual in our recent coverage. Celebrities are basic to People's makeup, and they always have been. People is about what's happening this week, and our current issue is a good example of that.
Are there any issues from the last year that you felt would do better than they did saleswise, or that you were surprised about how they were received?
Well, last year, when we did the 9/11 anniversary issue, it didn't sell as well as I had hoped, but I was still very proud that we had done it. I thought that it was the right thing for us to do. Every once in a while, you take a risk—we did a story called "When Baby Won't Wait," a human-interest story about all sorts of amazing births in unusual places, and that didn't do as well as I would have liked either.
What have been some of the bigger newsstand winners in your editorship?
Oh, gosh, they range all over the place. Certainly Laci Peterson, Jessica Lynch, and Elizabeth Smart were all big sellers on the news front. On the celebrity front, Ben Affleck as the Sexist Man Alive was big, as were the stories on Joe Millionaire's Evan and Zora, our exclusive interview with Britney Spears last year, and our cover on Rosie O'Donnell as a gay parent.
Finally, who does Martha Nelson think is the Sexiest Man Alive?
That's a good question. I don't want to tip my hand because, you know, Sexiest Man is coming up very soon. I think that maybe you have to wait and read it in People. You can't give these things away, you know. It's proprietary information.
Jennifer Baker is a former editorial intern at mediabistro.com.
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