A Rodale Refugee Reunion; Christine Lahti Penning a Memoir?

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1003_mockup.gifAs faithful readers of this column know, in the meta media universe that is Wednesdays at Michael’s, there is no end to the way fellow diners are connected. I was joined today by Liz Vaccariello, editor-in-chief and chief content officer of Reader’s Digest and the author of New York Times‘ best sellers The Digest Diet and The Digest Diet Cookbook. Minutes after Liz sat down, David Zinczenko arrived and the two Rodale refugees exchanged a big hug and chatted while I made the rounds in the dining room. When things settled down, Liz explained that both she and Dave got to know each other during “The Steve Murphy Era” at Rodale when she was Prevention‘s EIC.  “It was Dave who paved the way for so many editors to write books — including me,” she added. During those halcyon days at Rodale, Liz penned Flat Belly Diet!, which sold a million copies, and the equally successful Flat Belly Diet! 400 Calorie Fix and became an in-demand health and fitness expert on television, securing a spot as a regular guest host on The Doctors and appearing regularly on Good Morning America, which she still does for Reader’s Digest. She’s even logged two seasons on The Biggest Loser.

Liz left Prevention to helm Every Day with Rachael Ray and, in 2011, landed her “dream job” at Reader’s Digest, which has even taken her to the Oval Office. In an interview she scored with President Barack Obama, he told her that his grandfather would have been proud to see him featured in the magazine’s pages since he tore out the jokes in his issues to save for his grandson. It’s easy to see why the stunning and energetic mother of twin eight-year-old daughters, Sophia and Olivia, finds the EIC job at the iconic publication (which as a 99 percent brand awareness rating among Americans) a perfect fit. Between bites of her kale chicken Caesar salad, she enthused about the “positive, life-affirming” stories that have been RD‘s signature throughout its long history. In fact, she told me that she had plans to bring more of that signature all-American optimism into the mix by “returning [the brand] to its roots.” But make no mistake about it — while  features like its well-loved jokes, “Quotable Quotes” and “Word Power,” are an enduring part of the mix, this is not your grandmother’s Reader’s Digest.

Liz Vaccariello and Diane Clehane

I was fascinated to learn that the magazine was the first publication to be available on Kindle and one of the first to offer readers an app. In December of last year, digital sales overtook newsstand sales, and the magazine now has over 1.2 million Facebook fans. All this bodes very well for Liz’s plans to unveil both a print and digital redesign of the magazine next year where, she says, there will be even more opportunities for readers to share and engage with the magazine and with each other.

“Our readers are readers and I want to engage them at all different levels,” says Liz. “What I love is being able to go through the best of the best of the most uplifting stories out there and bring them to our readers in print and online.” The content team “leverages all our resources,” says Liz, to fill “the three emotional buckets” of storytelling: funny, FYI and fuzzy (as in warm). “People want to feel something,” she explains of the categorization. “The magazine is an oasis from the politics, celebrity (obsession) and snarkiness” that permeates today’s media. Celebrities are welcome in RD, explains Liz, but only if their story has resonance with readers who want to be inspired by their optimism and courage.

The June issue’s cover featured the much buzzed about “Most Trusted People in America” with cover gal Robin Roberts named as the most trusted woman in television. (Liz told me the beloved GMA host broke down at the news she’d earned the title.) The survey, conducted by The Wagner Group, polled 1,000 Americans and found that Tom Hanks ranked No. 1 with the magazine’s readers followed by Sandra Bullock. Others on the list included Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton. Liz told me exclusively that she is planning to turn the feature into an annual event. “It will be interesting to see how people track as the years go on,” she said. The July issue offers the terrific cover story “50 Surprising Reasons We Love America” with Olympian Missy Franklin‘s decision to turn down millions in endorsements to finish her senior year in high school topping the list.

Our conversation turned to fitness once again when we discussed Liz’s latest book, The Digest Diet Dining Out Guide, which was released in paperback in April just in time for the summer. Besides making the head-turning claim (tried and tested, says Liz) that one can drop up to 26 pounds in three weeks (!?!) on the plan, the guide lists more than 350 meals at 60 national fast food and casual dining spots. So, no more excuses for eating badly on your vacation! But Liz, who told me that her secret to staying fit is walking everywhere and weight training. (“I can leg press 450 pounds!”), is more focused on getting healthy than being a size zero. As the mother of two little girls, she says she feels a responsibility to send the right message to her daughters through her work rather than be a source of low self-esteem. “‘My mommy writes diet books’ just spells eating disorder!” quipped Liz before recounting this gem. One day when her girls where just shy of three, little Sophia asked for a piece of paper while riding in the car so she could ‘write’ about The Flat Belly Diet! “I was holding my breath,” she recalled. “Then, when I asked her why she wanted to write about it she told me, ‘I want to be healthy.'” Good job, mom!

Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd:

1. Literary agent extraordinaire Boaty Boatwright and Christine Lahti, who slipped in at the height of the lunch hour virtually unnoticed. Even with her hiding behind aviator shades, we spotted the Hawaii Five-O actress and marveled at her killer bod. What’s your secret? Perhaps that’s what she should write if she’s planning on penning a memoir. We’d certainly buy that book.

2. Fashion maven Mickey Ateyeh and designer Reem Acra, who, come to think of it, has dressed Christine Lahti for the red carpet. Just thought you’d like to know.

3. “Mayor” Joe Armstrong and David Zinczenko. Kudos to Simon Dumenco who gets my vote for best headline of the week for his piece on the fascinating (for the media mob, at least) new rivalry between Men’s Health and Men’s Fitness now that David and his team have taken the reigns of the latter. Entitled “Feel the Burn! Media Strongman David Zinczenko Gets His Revenge on Rodale,” the story is accompanied by a Lichtenstein-esque cartoon of ‘strongman’ Dave tearing through the magazines. Besides taking a few swipes at Maria Rodale in the story by describing her as “earthy”– ouch! — Simon offers this description of AMI chair David Pecker: “a perma-tan 61-year-old with a Saddam Hussein mustache.” Hilarious. Overall, one of the best reads of the week.

4. Jimmy Finkelstein and ex-Hearst honcho George Green

5. Stan Shuman

6. The Imber Gang: Dr. Gerald Imber, Jerry Della Femina, Jeff Greenfield, Andy Bergman and Michael Kramer

7.  Liz Vaccariello and yours truly

8. NewYork Social Diary‘s David Patrick Columbia and Alice Mason

9. Estee Lauder’s Alexandra Trower

10. Ellen Delsener

11. Bobby Friedman and author Michael Gross

12. Bob Gutkowski

14. Simon & Schuster’s Alice Mayhew and agent Rob Weisbach, who was kind enough to introduce me to Scandal‘s Tony Goldwyn who caused quite the stir in the dining room last Wednesday

15. Quest‘s Chris Meigher and Howard Lauber

16.  PR maven Trica Jean Baptiste (Long time, no see!), who stopped by my table to say hello and introduce me to lifestyle expert Moll Anderson (“I teach people how to live”). Alrighty then.

81. Wednesday Martin and Kelly Klein (Yes, the ex-Mrs. Calvin Klein, but that was another lifetime ago)

17.  Andrew Stein

18. PR princess Lisa Linden and Patrick Murphy

82. Katherine Oliver

20. Hearst’s Deb Shriver and Barbaralee Diamonstein Spielvogel

21. Rainbow Media’s Josh Sapan

23. TV Guide‘s acting CEO, Jack Kliger

25. Two PR powerhouses: Tom Goodman and Bill Southard of Southard Communications

26. Gerri Koppelman

27. Social swan Carol Mack

28. Hearst Design Group editorial director Newell Turner and Peter Sallick of Waterworks

29. First wave: The Wall Street Journal‘s David Sanford and Lewis Stein (Where you’d get those cool new kicks?) Act two: Lally Weymouh with, so we’re told, the ambassador to Sri Lanka

Please send comments and corrections to DIANECLEHANE at MEDIABISTRO dot COM and LUNCH at MEDIABISTRO dot COM.