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Martha Stewart Living’s CEO on What Makes a ‘Good Thing’

On the first truly warm evening of spring, last Thursday, about 50 journalism students, including myself, sat inside the main lecture hall of the Columbia Journalism School. We listened to Susan Lyne, CEO and president of Martha Stewart Living, recount the high and low times in her career.

On the first truly warm evening of spring, last Thursday, about 50 journalism students, including myself, sat inside the main lecture hall of the Columbia Journalism School. We listened to Susan Lyne, CEO and president of Martha Stewart Living, recount the high and low times in her career. From founding and editing the now defunct Premiere magazine for eight and a half years to running one end of Martha Stewart’s empire, Lyne iterated that key to a successful magazine is producing a product with a new concept that “somehow feels right,” that has a voice and that has an approach to its topic subject manner. And of course, it has to be unique.

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Her perspective on the future of magazines and the Internet: a magazine can’t survive without a decent website. “We’ve tried to do something different,” Lyne told the audience full of budding journalists, “We look at our content with fresh eyes for a web user. It is organized around categories not around our brands. We produce a fair amount of original content, but its really about repackaging and rethinking content libraries that is more intuitive for an Internet user.”

MSL isn’t meant for your average housewife and there is a definite high-end, highbrow approach to the layout and content of the magazine. “What she (Martha) was able to do was serve an audience that was underserved,” Lyne said, “It was for the homemaker, for a woman who saw her work not as drudgery but with pleasure.” Indeed, while the content and stories filling the pages (well, the spots without full-page photographs or white space) the magazine has an exquisite layout and talented art direction team. (is this sentence missing something?) My magazine production class has even copied the fonts!

The magazine was so successful that it spawned a television show, versus Oprah Winfrey, whose show spawned a magazine. The company has produced several other magazines since, including Everyday Food, Body + Soul, Martha Stewart Weddings and the now closed Blueprint, a magazine targeted towards younger audiences, who Lyne said researchers never found. Several daytime television personalities have tried to spawn magazines and create a brand for themselves. Lyne said the difference between MSL versus Rosie O’Donnell’s defunct magazine is that “[O’Donnell] though it was a magazine about her, and that whatever she was interested in was what the reader was interested in.” A successful magazine has to cater to its readers’ interests – not be a mogul’s platform.

While in college at the University of California, Berkeley, Lyne said it was there that she realized she wanted to be a journalist. After graduation, she got her first real job at City Magazine, Francis Ford Coppola’s attempt at a New York magazine in San Francisco. In 1978, she moved on to being the managing editor at the Village Voice until 1982. She briefly got involved in the movie industry, and, in 1987, pitched Premiere to Rupert Murdoch. After describing in detail her days working at Premiere (although, several people around me and myself were quite unsure if she ever mentioned the movie magazine’s title until brought up in the Q&A session), she noticeably glossed past talking about her time at ABC. Perhaps since it was a lecture for magazine students, she didn’t feel it was relevant. Or just maybe, she didn’t feel the Disney magic anymore.

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