Niche Media’s Top Execs Predict ‘A New Cachet’ For Publishing

The roster of media mavens, moguls and bold face names spotted today at Michael's.

lunch at michaelsAfter last week’s head-spinning scene, where my lunch dates caused the most rubbernecking I’ve ever witnessed on a Wednesday at Michael’s, today I was more than happy to dine and dish with a trio of smart, savvy women whose accomplishments elicit applause, not raised eyebrows.

I was joined today by Katherine Nicholls, CEO of Niche Media and Mandi Norwood, the company’s SVP and editorial director. This afternoon’s confab was arranged by Cynthia Lewis, who, besides being the hardest working woman in publishing, happens to know just about everyone. A squadron of folks stopped by our table to say their hellos (Jack Kliger, Mickey Ateyeh and Jon Steinberg among them) before getting down to business at their usual perches, because lunch at Michael’s is never just about lunch. But you knew that already, didn’t you?

Katherine Nicholls, Diane Clehane and Mandi Norwood
Katherine Nicholls, Diane Clehane and Mandi Norwood

Katherine and Mandi have transformed what has always been a stable of glossy, eye-catching lifestyle publications — Gotham, Hamptons and Ocean Drive among them — into a luxury brand that is equal parts substance and style. Niche Media is a subsidiary of Greengale Publishing, LLC and publishes city-specific publications which, in addition to the ones I’ve already mentioned, include: Aspen Peak, Boston Common, Capitol File, Los Angeles Confidential, Michigan Avenue, Philadelphia Style and Vegas magazinesThe titles have a combined annual distribution of 4.6 million copies nationallyKatherine, who joined the company in 2007 as its chief marketing officer, has risen through the ranks as COO and president before assuming her current position last year. British-born Mandi, who edited her first magazine at the tender age of 25 and has topped the masthead of several publications at Hearst and Condé Nast, came on board in 2011. Working as a team, they’ve seemingly achieved the impossible in this era of rapidly shrinking (and vanishing) print titles. Not only have their books gotten thicker with ads over the past year (I needed two hands to pick up the latest issue of Ocean Drive), but they’ve added to their stable of regional titles with the very timely launch of Austin Way last fall. “There was a big gap in Austin,” said Katherine of the company’s decision to launch their first new title in five years. “There’s a huge benefit to being the first in this incredibly exciting market.”

In relaunching the brand, explained Katherine, it was important to develop and refine a collective mission statement for the titles. After canvasing the editors that helm each book, she came up with the three C’s. “We’re connectors, we captivate and celebrate with a conscience” is now the guiding principle. Lest you think the books aren’t focusing on the visual aspect of capturing an audience, Mandi told me that Niche Media’s Ann Song, vice president of fashion and creative, has “taken our content to the next level, made it sing and look super-stylish.” All the better to appeal to that “incredibly important” fashion crowd.

Each book is edited, said Mandi, with editorial covering “national trends seen through the local lens.” To wit: the upcoming ‘Women of Influence’ issues for each title, which will feature an impressive array of accomplished women, all with a connection to that respective area. NBC’s Tamron Hall is Philadelphia Style’s headliner, Arianna Huffington will be featured on the covers of Capitol File and Boston Common and Renee Fleming will grace Gotham‘s cover. (Full disclosure: I profiled the rest of the city’s most influential women for Gotham.)

Last summer’s special Arts issue featured original works by Peter Max across 10 covers, which were later auctioned off by and raised $100,000 for the Humane Society of the United States. The coveted issues became collector’s items overnight. The highly successful concept has been given a more regional point of view this year. In July, the Art of the City summer issues of all Niche Media’s titles will feature works of emerging artists from all 11 regions on the books’ covers, with in-depth profiles inside. Each book will contribute to a local 501C3 organization benefiting the arts. “A lot of magazines do these big events selling themselves,” said Mandi. “We’re not about that. We have to have a reason for doing things. We want to make a difference.”

Katherine told me Niche Media gets forty percent of its audience through a significant investment in verified data from Nielsen Claritas and reaches the “aspirational reader” through its strategic distribution model in haute hotels, restaurants and resorts. With a “core target” of affluent readers aged 35-55, I asked Katherine where millennials fit into the brand’s overall strategy. Clearly, the magazines’ sleek, lively websites attracts younger readers who will find exclusive and constantly refreshed content there. But both Katherine and Mandi believe that it’s the magazine’s informed point of view and expertly curated content that lures younger readers from their mobile devices to actually picking up a magazine. “There’s a level of insider knowledge and expertise [in the magazines] that they can’t get from social media,” said Mandi. To that end, virtually all of Niche Media’s editors live and work in the cities they cover year in and year out. “We’re in the Hamptons all year,” said Katherine. (Mandi is a year-round Hamptons resident with regular forays into the city) “We don’t just come drop in for the season. Over the winter we held small business seminars for the locals there. We’re very engaged with the community.”

When dessert arrived (Fern Mallis’ red velvet birthday cake served up by Michael’s GM Steve Millington), Mandi and Katherine offered an intriguing assessment of the future of magazines. While other executives might bemoan the decline of print, Mandi and Katherine beg to differ. “If I had a crystal ball, I’d say bookstores will come back — not in a big way — but they will come back,” predicted Mandi. “In the not-so-distant future, there is going to be a new cachet about publishing, books and bookstores.” Katherine offered what would seem to be the best case for Mandi’s prognostication: “For the many millennials who apply for jobs with us, it’s still their dream job to work for a magazine.”

Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd:

1. Fashionista Fern Mallis celebrating her birthday (thanks for sharing your cake!) with three pals including Mickey Ateyeh. Fern is going to be plenty busy in the next few weeks with her upcoming interview with Tim Gunn for the 92nd Street Y and her new book, Fashion Lives: Fashion Icons. Saks Fifth Avenue is throwing her a chic soirée next month. See you there!

2. Peter Brown

3. Cheri Kaufman

4. Jack Kliger and Greg Osberg

5. Allen & Co.’s Stan Shuman

6. Katherine Nicholls, Mandi Norwood, Cynthia Lewis and yours truly

8. New York Social Diary’s David Patrick Columbia and a well-heeled blonde gal we didn’t get to meet

9. Sara Beth Shrager

11. Uber agent Boaty Boatwright

12. David Poltrack of CBS

14. Simon & Schuster’s Alice Mayhew

16. United Stations Radio’s Nick Verbitsky

17. Playbill’s Bruce Hallett

18. Attorney Bob Barnett

20. NBC’s David Corvo

21. Daily Mail North America’s CEO Jon Steinberg and Mark Suster

23.  Mark Makepeace

24. Philip Tedeschi

26. Peter Feld

27. The New York Post’s Richard Johnson, Chuck Pfeifer and Michael Mailer

28. Gotham’s Juliet Izon and celeb wrangler Jami Kandel of Vision PR

29. The Wall Street Journal’s David Sanford and Lewis Stein

Faces in the crowd: The dashing Theo Spilka, who we learned bikes to and from his office at Firmenich every day. I asked him how he fared during the past few months and he admitted that “the snow did get in the way.” I finally met one person that just might be a tad happier than I am that this endless winter is finally coming to a close.

Diane Clehane is a FishbowlNY contributor. Follow her on Twitter @DianeClehane. Send comments and corrections on this column to LUNCH at MEDIABISTRO dot COM.