Freedom to Explore: Inside the New, Ad-Free Prevention
A conversation with Barbara O'Dair, Prevention's new editor-in-chief, as the legacy title undergoes a major revamp.
It's been a year of intense change at Rodale's Prevention.
In February, amid a flurry of budget cuts and staff reductions, Rodale announced a major revamp of the 66-year-old grocery checkout mainstay, removing all advertising from the health and wellness magazine's pages. A cost-cutting move, almost certainly, but also one that company chairman and CEO Maria Rodale said would afford Prevention more editorial integrity in what she called an "increasingly complex" healthcare landscape.
The move was a gamble for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that Prevention had a new business model, but no permanent editor-in-chief. Bruce Kelley, who had held the role for two years, was laid off days before the ad-free model was revealed.
The search concluded in May, with veteran magazine editor Barbara O'Dair named the eleventh editor-in-chief in Prevention's history. Fittingly, the editor tasked with pioneering Prevention's new era brings with her a formidable resume, including senior editorial experience at Reader's Digest, More, Teen People, Harper's Bazaar, and Details, among several others.
Folio: sat down with O'Dair to discuss the new role, the changing media and healthcare landscapes, and what to expect from Prevention going forward.
Folio: What attracted you to the editor-in-chief role at Prevention?
Barbara O’Dair: So many things. I know it’s a company that has great values and Prevention in particular serves an audience that I understand very well. I was excited to serve this reader again, but very specifically about health content and broadening the idea of what health content is.
Folio: What are you excited to bring to the brand?
O’Dair: It has such an amazing legacy and history and it has gone through a lot with its readers. Health is more important than ever and there are so many sources for it, so it’s even more crucial than ever that we get Prevention right.
One of the ways that I plan to change it up a little is to bring readers closer to the magazine, whether its calling out for comments in the editor’s letter or our letters page, which I just brought back. We have a coloring contest on the perforated back page. We encourage readers to send them in and pick one every issue and put it on our letters page. We’re doing all kinds of outreach to engage readers more. What I really want to create is a two-way conversation.
Another thing I want to do is broaden the notion of health. It could be someone who is struggling with a health problem, or someone who just wants to improve their lives and is new to the whole idea of a healthy lifestyle. I also want to bring more alternatives into the mix, so that we run the gamut from alternative practices and therapies to more of the medical establishment.
Folio: Is there any difficulty or a need to balance expanding your coverage into new types of stories while not sacrificing your core audience?
O’Dair: I think we’re bringing the emphasis back to health, where it has wandered a little bit into lighter lifestyle coverage. It’s important to the readers that we focus on health. That’s the feedback we get. I think it defines us and differentiates us that we are a health magazine, and we bring other things under that umbrella, whether it’s fitness or diet or any number of other things. We consider ourselves the number-one trusted source for health and wellness. That’s what we are and what we want to be.
Folio: Since the shift to the ad-free model, what’s the response been like from your readers?
O’Dair: It’s too early for numbers, but I know just judging by letters and word-of-mouth that the response has been very, very good. We’ve been getting a lot more letters than we used to. People are really paying attention.
Folio: Maria Rodale referred to the healthcare landscape in the U.S. as “increasingly complex.” Is this change in the magazine's format a response to that?
O’Dair: We do have some freedom to explore new areas. For instance, we ran a medical marijuana story that might’ve been difficult to get advertisers to buy into. We also ran a piece on the dangers of supplements and how you really don’t know what you’re getting. We are planning a number of other controversial pieces that would be very hard to produce if we had advertising, like a piece coming up on toxic fragrances. Stories that are hard-hitting, but might be too hard-hitting for an advertising model — medical misdiagnoses, for instance.
Folio: Is there anything else you can share about what’s planned for Prevention in the year ahead?
O'Dair: We have a special issue tied to a large national survey that we’re going to conduct. I can’t reveal the subject matter, but it’s designed to get a lot of attention. There’s a lot happening in digital and in print, and collaborations between the two.
Folio: Let’s talk a little bit about digital. Are you doing anything different there to grow your audience?
O’Dair: We have all kinds of ways that we encourage our readers to go online. Online is booming, especially video. We are discussing the prospect of a paywall for editorial content, and if video works in general, it’s nice to know that we can offer bonus content of that sort behind the paywall.
Folio: Does that have any impact on the types of editors and journalists you’re hiring?
O’Dair: Most editors at this point have had some digital experience. Every editor I’ve hired since I’ve been here has run some kind of digital product or business. That said, I just hired, for the print side, a new executive editor and a new executive health director, which were two linchpin positions that were open when I got here.
Folio: What do you see as some of your biggest challenges in your new role?
O’Dair: One thing is that there is just such a plethora of sources for health information and readers can access so much online. What they may not realize is that most of it is very superficial. That’s what’s great about the magazine. We can have news bites, but we also have long-form stories which can really delve into subjects and controversies in a way that you can’t get online these days.
Other challenges might be just the ever-present challenge of the newsstand. We have performed well on the newsstand, but I think everyone is challenged there. Luckily, we have an incredible and growing group of loyal readers.
Folio: That first part of your response echoes a lot of what we hear about the “gravitas” of print, that the printed page lends some authority and weight to these stories.
O’Dair: I agree with that, and I think that’s really what we’re all about: being the authority and the trusted source. If we establish that, they know to come to us.
Folio: What’s your advice for an editor just entering the magazine industry as it increasingly intersects with digital media?
O'Dair: Knowing your platforms and being imaginative in different ways on different platforms is really important. Basically, the same thing stands for print, digital, or anything else. You have to know your subjects and know your readers. That means you do a lot of research and a lot of reading and a lot of meeting and talking to people. You need a mastery of both your subject matter and who your readers are and what they want.
You have to hone your skills. You can’t coast. It’s a quickly changing industry and you’ve got to stay ahead of the curve. The best rise to the top, and there aren’t that many of them, so the skill set is really, really important.
In general, curiosity and positivity and flexibility are all really important for young editors to maintain, because you want to stay viable for a long time. That means you’ve got to be strong and open to all kinds of curveballs. I have to say, it’s incredibly fun, and that’s why I’ve been doing it for a number of years. I can’t seem to pull myself away. Outside of being in a rock band or something, it’s really the most fun I can imagine.