With her attention to detail and exacting standards, Martha Stewart built an eponymous media empire dedicated to the pursuit of perfection in the home. Her flagship magazine Martha Stewart Living broke the mold of women’s magazines, while her portfolio grew to encompass TV, satellite radio, Internet and household products. Stewart staged a successful comeback following her conviction and imprisonment in connection with the ImClone Systems stock sale case in 2004. Despite stepping down as director and chief creative officer, Stewart remains active at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia as it’s expanded its presence at retail, in books, online and more. Mediaweek senior editor Lucia Moses chatted with Stewart on the eve of her induction into the American Society of Magazine Editors’ Magazine Editors’ Hall of Fame on Jan. 29.
How does this downturn compare with earlier ones you’ve seen?
We’ve never had a downturn before except for when I was involved in that horrible lawsuit. Our customers have been there, buying the magazine. This is really an advertising problem for magazines, and it’s also an expendable income problem. When people are standing there with a finite amount of cash in their pocketbook, do they buy magazines at the newsstand?
That said, we have fared moderately OK. We’re kind of fortunate in the fact that we’re an omnimedia company, so we’re able to offer advertising in magazines and radio, on television and on the Internet, and we also have retail partners. And that model has proven to be the model everyone wants to emulate now.
Do you see a permanent change in the way people shop and consume?
I think people realize they can get along with a lot less. I’ve always been a careful shopper myself. I think that’s what people are realizing, that that is what they have to do. We’re lucky in that we make really high-quality merchandise for Macy’s; our sales there are really strong. And our mass-market business at Kmart has been strong. We’ve had two best-selling books this year, and we were lucky in that it came at a time when people stopped going to restaurants.
How do you adjust the magazine’s message for the times?
It’s not making it more simple, it’s not dumbing it down, it’s making it smarter and smarter. We have very sophisticated readers. We never, never, talk down to our readers. You just have to be smart about how you do it. [The cupcakes in the February issue] are not complicated, they’re easy, they’re delicious. That’s one way to make a simple dessert.
MSLO had an upscale women’s magazine in the works, but that was put on ice when the economy took a downward turn. Would you still start a magazine today?
We still have great interest in it because there’s a slew of women coming of age in the next five years who—hopefully, after this fiscal crisis—will have expendable income. This magazine really addressed that woman. So it’s basically on ice. If we do it online or as a tactile magazine, who knows? But the idea is excellent.
Would it have to meet different criteria?
Oh, definitely. We have to figure out how to give information in a way that’s accessible to the Internet user now. It is a conundrum. I don’t think people are going to stop looking at beautiful pictures all at once. I hope there’s going to be sort of a pause in what’s been going on so we can readjust our habits. There are a lot of blogs out there. What the heck are we going to do—read blogs all day long and not do anything? Or have a nice dinner with friends?
With all the extensions Martha Stewart has gone into, where do you see the brand going next?
I think we have a huge opportunity on the Internet, of content distribution and community and sharing, despite all the things I just said about the Internet. We have vast amounts of well-researched and well-written content. We want to have that in accessible form.
Were you surprised about the magazine’s comeback following your legal ordeal?
I wasn’t surprised at all. I really believe in our customers and I believe they’re intelligent human beings. I’m surprised more aren’t avid customers, that they’ll settle for what I think is less good information. I would’ve thought instead of having 12 [million] to 14 million readers, we’d have more than that. I always thought Martha Stewart Living would be more like National Geographic in its heyday.
Other thoughts, as you consider the future of the magazine industry?
I have never lived through this all, this economic disaster we’re experiencing. I have hope in our new administration. I like what I see so far. [President Obama] is a book reader and avid consumer of information, and he’s literate. And I think that will rub off on a lot of people.