When Doug Olson, the president and general manager of Meredith magazines, reaches for an analogy to describe the launch of The Magnolia Journal, his mind goes immediately to O, The Oprah Magazine.
“It’s the first time in our history at Meredith that the largest retailers in the business called back on day one, and said, ‘We’re already sold out. Can you send more copies?’”
The quarterly lifestyle magazine, based on a partnership with Joanna and Chip Gaines, the stars of HGTV’s “Fixer Upper,” debuted in the fall of 2016 as a newsstand-only title with an initial run of 400,000 copies. Within a year, the publication claimed a rate base of 1.2 million through full-price, direct-to-consumer subscriptions and newsstand placements with an average sell-through rate of 60 percent, Meredith says, more than twice the industry average.
Those numbers can’t put The Magnolia Journal in quite the same league as O, a Hearst title whose rise was so meteoric it was outselling the top women’s magazines in the country with a circulation of over two million within months of its launch in 2000. But the intervening 18 years have seen audiences move en masse from print and live TV to digital platforms, making the magazine’s apparent success all the more remarkable.
Even more striking is the genesis of its founding partnership. O, multiple sources say, would never have come to fruition had editor Ellen Levine not persuaded the TV personality she needed an outlet with the quasi-religious power of the written word. Olson says it was the Gaineses who approached Meredith through their agent: “[Joanna] had a lot of things she wanted to say that she couldn’t cover in the television show.”
So why should the TV host turn to print, and not digital media? Because it seems a business model dating back to the days of the internet’s infancy may be working now better than ever before.
Identifying potential partnerships
For celebrities and high-profile brands with their eyes set on a new print venture, the appeal of partnering with a publisher like Meredith—or the former Time Inc., as Martha Stewart did, all the way back in 1990—is infrastructure and experience.
When Joanna and Chip first approached Meredith, the company quickly identified their vision as aligning closely with the more domestic-oriented titles in its Des Moines, Iowa-based special interest media group, such as Midwest Living and Traditional Home. Meredith’s existing staff, with its expertise in areas like story planning, photography and production, would help the couple execute their ideas. An added benefit was that cost-sharing partnerships inevitably save both parties money.
But the investment for publishers only proves worthwhile if the personality or brand can deliver a sizable, loyal and focused fan base.
Nearly two decades after introducing O, Hearst looks to not only TV ratings, but web and social media followers as evidence of a potential partner’s influence, says Michael Clinton, president, marketing and publishing director of Hearst Magazines.
In June 2017, when Hearst launched The Pioneer Woman magazine as a joint venture with Scripps Networks, Ree Drummond could point to the 25 million followers of her “Pioneer Woman” blog, her Food Network show of the same name, and a line of branded products as evidence of her reach.
“Finding those uber influencers, there’s a great recipe for a print magazine,” says Clinton, who points to Hearst as the original incubator of the joint-venture model.
For Meredith executives, it was not only the scope but the diversity of the “Fixer Upper” fan base that made a magazine from its stars such an attractive prospect: “[The show] really transcended [age], from young millennials all the way through retirees, and everybody liked it for a different reason,” Olson says. “There was the subject matter, the home improvement; [Chip and Joanna’s] relationship, how they interacted with each other; and others really liked the family aspect of it, how the kids were involved.”
Starting off slow
Meredith launched The Magnolia Journal with two test issues displayed on newsstands, mailed to targeted readers and advertised digitally, taking a page of out the Hearst playbook.
Both Olson and Clinton describe these early editions as data points in the companies’ research on consumer demand. Soliciting feedback and gauging the public’s interest is an important part of the magazine launch process because name recognition doesn’t guarantee success, notes Samir Husni, director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi’s Meek School of Journalism.
Take the example of Lifetime magazine, based on the popular women’s cable network: a year and a half after its debut in April 2003, Hearst and the Walt Disney Company shuttered the publication amid disappointing results.
Hearst’s attempt to duplicate the success of O was a failure, Husni says, because Lifetime’s audience had no one unifying interest or idol: “There was no center point; there was no gravitating point that would be the magnet. People watched it for the movies, there was no uniqueness to it.”
While Lifetime leaped into the market with a circulation of 500,000, the industry average today is a more modest 350,000, Husni says.
Less can be more. Titles like The Magnolia Journal and Goop—Gwyneth Paltrow’s new magazine, produced by Condé Nast—have proven that printing at the reduced frequency of a special interest magazine, ideally, signals to readers and advertisers that a publication is a collectible item meriting a heftier price tag and higher CPMs. Both magazines—the former priced at $7.99 a copy, the latter at a lofty $14.99—are published on higher-quality paper than the typical glossy. While quality raises demand for ad inventory, a limited supply (TMJ in particular limits ads to a relatively low 25 pages per issue) gives publishers the opportunity to charge more for each unit.
Since its launch, The Magnolia Journal has developed a “really nice mix” of advertisers from sectors as diverse as food, auto and tech, Olson says. Goop’s premier issue, of which just under 250,000 copies were printed and released in September, featured ads from luxury brands including Gucci, Neiman Marcus, and BMW.
The reviving value of print
With its own clothing label, fragrance, book imprint and vitamin collection, why does Gwyneth Paltrow’s company need a print magazine?
The editor-in-chief and CEO herself, in an interview with Business of Fashion, insists the publication is “very legitimizing for the brand—and a really interesting way of … getting across our point of view and what our values are.” The magazine may be an attempt to burnish Goop’s image in the wake of mounting attacks from journalists, watchdog groups, and doctors who accuse the lifestyle company of making “deceptive” health and disease-treatment claims to market many of its products.
At Hearst, Clinton agrees that print enjoys a perceived credibility that other platforms lack: “We’re living in a very tipping-point moment, where consumers and advertisers have begun to step back and say, ‘What are the environments I can trust? What is the content that I can trust? How do I know real people are reading this content, that it has true authority?”
Hours upon hours of time can be invested in a story by editors, fact-checkers, photographers, designers and other magazine professionals before it’s printed, and Clinton believes that “the consumer … spends time with the magazine knowing that.”
Print’s cachet appears to be so high at the moment that even hospitality startup Airbnb jumped on the bandwagon last spring. Airbnbmag, which hatched last spring out of conversations between Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky and Hearst chief content officer Joanna Coles, “offers a three-dimensional look at the brand,” Clinton says. (And, with a controlled circulation among Airbnb hosts, it attracts advertisers looking to place their wares in front of millennial travelers.)
While Hearst has a couple of other joint-venture ideas “cooking,” Clinton hints, Meredith is for now focused on tending to The Magnolia Journal and other high-performing titles like Allrecipes.
The magazine’s growth is “even more amazing,” Olson says, considering that it has almost no online presence, with the exception of a few downloadable PDF files.
Meredith isn’t committing to any increase in rate base at the moment, but Olson expresses confidence in The Magnolia Journal‘s future. And Chip Gaines may have confidence enough for the whole company, which doubled down on its commitment to print with the purchase of Time Inc. this spring.
“From day one, Chip came in and asked me, ‘So, what’s your biggest magazine?’” Olson recalls. At the time, Better Homes and Gardens had a circulation of 7.6 million.
“He said, ‘‘That’s our goal.’”