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So What Do You Do, Stephen Drucker, House Beautiful EIC?

Why "the Internet is too hot" for shelter mags and other nuggets of wisdom from House Beautiful's savior

By Greg Lindsay - December 12, 2007
When Stephen Drucker was hired two years ago to remake Hearst's House Beautiful, he decided to chart a third path between his predecessors two extremes. Marian McEvoy had attempted to be avant garde; after 9/11 and a million trends stories on "cocooning," she was replaced by Traditional Home's Mark Mayfield, who was traditional to the point of terminal dullness.

Enter Drucker, the former editor-in-chief of Martha Stewart Living, to reboot it with a Q&A format and a formula that blends the best of traditional shelter 'porn,' i.e. richly photographed rooms, with the unstuffy service to younger competitors like Domino. It seems to be working -- ad pages are up so far this year, while Hearst has doubled down on the title by increasing its trim size and its cover price to chase more affluent readers. More to point: Drucker found an identity for a magazine that, by his own admission, "had lost its way," which is more than can be said for the late House & Garden," which Cond� Nast closed in November after reportedly losing nearly $100 million over the past decade. Shelter editors were shocked, but not surprised at the decision, which begged the question: What is the model of a modern shelter title?


Name: Stephen Drucker
Position: Editor-in-chief, House Beautiful
Resume: Editor, The New York Times Home section; launch editor, NYT Styles section; editor-in-chief, Martha Stewart Living
Birthdate: June 24, 1953
Hometown: New York City
Education: BA Vassar College; MS Historic Preservation, Columbia
Marital status: 14 years with Frank
First section of the Sunday Times: Real Estate
Favorite television show: Mad Men
Guilty pleasure: London at the current exchange rate
Last book read: John Fowler: Prince of Decorators by Martin Wood


I'll cut to the chase. What does the untimely death of House & Garden -- if not quite the doyenne, then the former belle of the ball -- mean for the shelter category as a whole? When you consider the rise of 'makeover' television, the advent of interiors shopping magazines like Domino, and the invention of design blogs, are the classic shelter magazines' days numbered?
It doesn't necessarily say anything about the rest of category. It's terrible to see any magazine die, but you can also read too much into it. It's a reflection of one magazine's strategy and one company's business. It's like saying, because one store goes out on Madison Avenue, that "Uptown is dead." They're not really connected. There's always competition, there's always turmoil in media, things are constantly changing, and that's the ins and outs of running a business. We've had enormous successes here in the last two years at House Beautiful, that really show you that it's about creating a magazine for what the marketplace wants.

And what do the readers and advertisers want, exactly, from a classic shelter magazine today? How will they be forced to evolve?
House Beautiful has been around since 1896; this is not the first time it's evolved to reflect the times and the current marketplace. What's happening now in shelter magazines, is that there used to be a few, and now there are hundreds. How people think of their homes has changed enormously when you live in a world where people go to work in short sleeves, and get on airplanes practically in their underwear. They're not necessarily living in homes with Georgian furniture, either. What they think of as "home" is different, and you have to reflect that. I'm trying to create a magazine that is a reflection of American homes and American life, right now.

But you can't rewrite the magazine's DNA, either. How do you strike a balance between readers looking for DIY information and the decorator crowd?
Well it's an over-simplification to say that it's either for do-it-yourselfers or decorators. What really has happened is: everybody is involved in every decision. Nobody says, "I want that decorator's look, give it to me." Everybody is involved, and you never know who's going to do what. A person with all the money in the world can get their kicks from painting a room themselves. A person who has more modest means can go out now and buy a $5,000 or $10,000 bathtub because that's what their dream is. It's the high/low thing that happened in fashion -- there really are no rules anymore. The only rule is that people do it their way, and you have to give people a lot of choice. You used to be able to tell people what that was, and now people really want to choose.

You recently increased the page size and the cover price while cutting back on the circulation. It seems like you're trying to move more upscale. Is that your strategy?
It's really very simple. People buy shelter magazine because of the pictures. That's what it's all about. They want beautiful photography, and they want to see every detail, in every corner of the room, and with a bigger page, the more they see.

Color is to decorating magazines what sex is to women's service magazines.

Does that help make shelter magazines Internet-proof?
They are safer in a lot of ways. In a funny way, shelter magazines are like books -- readers keep them, and they really can't bring themselves to throw them away. It's not the same looking on the Internet at a photograph of a room. The Internet is a stimulating medium, and when people read a shelter magazine, they go into a very introspective, relaxed mode. It's like the opposite of being on a computer, they want to get lost in the magazine."

That's very Marshall McLuhan of you. You're saying the Internet is a hot medium, while magazines are cool?
It is, in a way. It's almost as if the Internet is too hot for the core readers of shelter magazines. The Internet is still great for commerce, and it's great for that needle in the haystack search. We recently launched a fresh design of the Web site. We have this amazing tool called "Paint a Room," where we give you this library of rooms and about a thousand different paint colors, and you can change the colors of any of room into any color. Now that's great use of the Internet.

The most endangered parts of print are the really time-sensitive ones. There's nothing urgent about a shelter magazine. You can't become yesterday's news; you never feel like you got it out a month late. But nobody wants to read business news a month late.

You once said in an interview that some shelter editors "over-intellectualize" their subject in an attempt to imbue it with significance. How do you strike a balance between being that and just being a resource for someone who wants to decorate?
It really isn't that hard. I've been involved in shelter magazines for nearly 30 years. One of things I've noticed over the years is that editors feel the need to make it really important, and they make it important by over-intellectualizing it. It's really about pleasure. It doesn't need a big intellectual justification. It doesn't have to be puffed up into something big and important. What often happens is that while everyone is intellectualizing, all the reader just wants to know is, "What's that great color blue on the wall?" Every good design magazine is a balance of some level of service, and some level of dreaming and aspiration. Even the magazines you think of as compete dream books are filled with the service; it's just a question of how you package it. People want to see beautiful pictures, but you also have to give them some tools to get them there. For us, the main tool is color. Color is to decorating magazines what sex is to women's service magazines. There is an endless fascination with this unknowable subject. It's always mysterious and one step ahead of everyone, and no one has figured it out. As with everything else in our world.

How have the skill sets for shelter editors changed over the course of your career? My understanding is that the staff is composed of visual people -- the stylists -- and words people, the writers and editors. Are those skill sets merging, or is your staff still composed of editors who do one or the other?
When I started, it was really very simple. You started as an editorial assistant. You hoped your boss left, retired, or died, and you stayed, stayed, and stayed, and the last person standing, with luck, got to be editor-in-chief in their 40s or 50s. [Ed. note: This is almost exactly how Margaret Russell became editor-in-chief of HB rival Elle D�cor.] It was really a very linear career path. It was about digging in, and one person rose to the top.

Now, it's very different. It's much more of a meritocracy. Staffs are much smaller than they were 25 years ago. It used to be that every assistant had an assistant, and jobs were incredibly specialized, and you started out writing one caption an issue, if you were lucky. Now, there is much more respect for people at every level of a magazine, because the staff is smaller. It's recognized that a 24-year-old editorial assistant may have a lot to contribute with voice, their knowledge of the Internet, and what they like, because it's an indicator of what's to come. It's very different from what it was. It used to be, "Go stand in the corner and be quiet until you are spoken to, 10 years from now." As staffs have gotten smaller, the specialization has ended. A person who is a stylist may jump in there and write a story. Look at our magazine; it is a Q&A magazine. It's very deliberately not about formal writing and word-smithing. It's about good ideas and straight talk, and the way people say it is the way we print it. You can do that whether you are an editorial assistant or a senior writer, you can be equally good at it.

Where have you looked for staff? Are shelter books a very self-contained world with a self-contained pool of talent, or have you looked outside the usual suspects when hiring?
At a national magazine you have the advantage of being able to recruit from other publications, even for the entry-level jobs. Very often we'll recruit from regional magazines, where we've seen people that show real talent. Or we'll recruit people from interior design offices, people looking to make a career switch. They started off as interior designers but decided they don't like being designers, although they do love the industry. We usually don't get people who just want to work at a magazine.

Yes, shelter magazines always struck me as being similar to fashion magazines that way. Each is a universe unto itself in terms of the talent.
It's a great art to write fashion copy. It is a really specialized and under-appreciated skill to write those haikus that go into fashion magazines. To write captions for magazines like ours, they have to sound really musical. It's all in the ear, and you either have it or you don't. There is such a thing as a natural writer. Writing is all in the ear -- people think it's in the eyes, but it's not. When you read, you are really hearing it as you read, and it's like having perfect pitch; it's a musical talent. You can teach a person to be a serviceable writer, but you can't teach them to be a good writer.

You've been on the job for two years now, and you were essentially brought in to lead a turnaround effort at a magazine that had lost its way, at least editorially speaking. The turnaround would appear to be over, and a success, but is it? When you arrived, did you have a one-year plan, a two-year plan, or a five-year plan, and when did the magazine stop "turning around" and find its stride?
When you come to a magazine, it's a mistake to think you can just walk in and succeed. No matter how much experience you have, you have to come in and get to know the reader of your particular magazine, even if you've worked at five other magazines in your category. The reader of your particular magazine has very particular likes and dislikes, and it takes an ear to learn what they are, no matter how astute an editor you are.

I would say the rebuild of any magazine is about a two-year process. The first year, you're learning. The second year you get to put it all into action and see if it's working. From then on, it's just fine-tuning and evolving it. Personally, I hate it when a magazine changes its identity all the time; it drives me crazy. It is to your benefit as an editor-in-chief to get it to where you want it to go as fast as you can, and then just keep fine-tuning it, but the key is you can't change the it of it.

Here's a good analogy for you. Think of a hit TV show. Hit TV shows usually do not generally become hits out of the box. The first year, you are getting the rust out of your faucet. You are learning what works and what doesn't work, and everyone on the team is learning to work together, while just a few people out there are discovering the show. The second year, you start to hit your stride, and audiences start to talk about it. The third year, that's when a show really becomes a monster. It's not until the second or third year that cast and writing team are firing on all cylinders, and it spreads like fire through the culture. It's really the same as a magazine. It's not fair to an editor-in-chief to think, "Oh they just put out their first issue, and it's brilliant and they are there."


Greg Lindsay is a freelancer writer and frequent contributor to mediabistro.com. He's currently working on his first book.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]



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