Publishing Stalwart Maria Rodale on the State of Magazines

And her pick for the ultimate Men’s Health cover

Going on six years as CEO of Rodale, the company her grandfather founded in Eastern Pennsylvania in 1930, Maria Rodale has strengthened the roots of the health and wellness publisher that's home to magazines like Men's Health, Prevention and Runner's World even as she has refashioned much of it in her own style. She shook up the ranks, worked to make the company's products more accessible to real consumers and pushed Rodale forward in the digital space, most notably with the launch of e-commerce site Rodale's, purveyor of everything from recycled glass lanterns to sage smudge sticks. Keeping her busy at the moment: the relaunch this April of 73-year-old Organic Gardening magazine as Rodale's Organic Life. We caught up with her recently in New York's Chelsea neighborhood to talk about the company's long-standing mission, what she'd like to see more of from the feds—and that dream magazine cover. 

Adweek: How do you see the state of the magazine industry right now?
Maria Rodale: The magazine industry is ready to get on with being a great industry. We've had a lot of trauma, but the reality is, digital is stabilizing. Consumers are really ready to just enjoy what a magazine is and can be when it's great. And so we as an industry have to adapt to giving people what they want in the way they want it, how they want it, when they want it.

How do you see traditional magazine publishers competing in a digital world?
I try not to ever think about competition—I think about the customer. Rodale, being a mission-driven company with a theme around health and wellness, we look at what are the customers looking for in that area of their lives and how can we deliver it to them in a way that they want it and need it the most? Sometimes it's print, sometimes it's digital.

You have been outspoken about issues like public health and the environment. What is the most pressing national health issue now?
Well, if we did one thing to improve everything, [it would be] shifting to organic food and agriculture. Organic impacts people's health, the environment, all in a positive way. … The biggest issue right now is, there are not enough farmers who have switched to organic to provide the supply consumers are demanding. I'd like to be optimistic and say we need government to support the shift, but sometimes I'm not an optimist.

Talk about the debut of Organic Life.
When [Rodale president] Scott Schulman came in [October 2013], I said to him, how are we going to evolve Organic Gardening? He came back with [the idea to] make it a lifestyle magazine. The world is ready for that now. [Editor] Jim Oseland is an incredible person who actually worked on [Rodale's] Organic Style in the original days and then went on to become a huge success himself [including as editor in chief of Saveur], so I'm thrilled to have him back. He's putting together an amazing brand.

What sort of content will be featured?
It will cover home, food, garden and wellness, so it's really your whole life living kind of organically and close to nature and in harmony with nature. It's going to be incredibly visual. Chris Gangi is our creative director, and I love his design sense.

Will it follow the celebrity formula? Are we going to be seeing a Hollywood star in her garden on the cover?
In fact, what we've been finding over and over again in multiple magazines is that other things besides celebrities work better. For example, the cover of the Men's Health Reader's Issue [last November, featuring Iraq War veteran Noah Galloway, who lost his left arm and leg to an IED] was our best cover of the last year—it went gangbusters. It shocked but in a way that was so positive because it spoke to real life, a real person, real issues. That's inspiring, and I do think that's a huge role of a magazine, to inspire.

You have another launch on the horizon with EatClean.com later this month.
It's going to be a little irreverent in tone; it's going to take a different approach to food coverage, with information about the food you're eating. One of the strategic issues Scott and I have made a priority is, we know readers love our food content, but we don't have a food [magazine], so we're going to be looking at different ways of tackling that content.

Is being a smaller, more focused publisher an advantage when it comes to launching a food site or the e-commerce site?
The difference between companies like Rodale and other, bigger companies is that we're in it because we love to be in it and we're passionate about it. We're devoted to its success. I'm not the kind of CEO who's looking for my package and then I'm going to go retire somewhere or go on to my next gig. I'm in it for the long haul.

Which public figure do you most admire?
Bruce Springsteen.

That's a good one. Why?
He's an artist who continuously reinvents himself. He hasn't rested on his laurels. He's got an incredible fan base, an incredible team. And he looks awesome in his 60s.

Has he been on the cover of Men's Health?
I tried, I tried, believe me.

I think I have a fangirl here.
It gets back to, again, authenticity, and inspirational people. We want to create customers as fans at Rodale, not just customers as cash flow.