Michael Caruso Dusts Off ‘Smithsonian’

Editor goes for 'smart and playful' in redesigning sober magazine

For those who associate Smithsonian magazine with hushed museum halls and doctor’s waiting rooms, Michael Caruso has another idea in mind.

Just under a year into his tenure as editor in chief, he’s rolling out a redesign that he hopes will make readers think “smart and playful” when they pick up the magazine. “It’s been a terrific magazine for 40-plus years,” Caruso said. “But it’s not necessarily front and center on people’s radars. The main idea was to rev it up.”

In recent months, that has meant hiring big-name writers like Ruth Reichl and Frank Deford, injecting more pop culture in the pages, running shorter articles, and riffing off the news—even occasionally breaking it.

The September issue, out Monday, completes the process with a new look that’s sleek, airy and more graphically driven. The issue (aptly, themed “style & design”) is printed on heavier, glossier paper stock. A striking black and white cover features a story by Walter Isaacson on Steve Jobs’ obsession with design. Inside is a piece by architecture critic Nicholas Ouroussoff on Rem Koolhaas’ new direction; a profile of Aung San Suu Kyi photographed by Platon; and an interview with John Waters.

Caruso, who swam in the world of fashion shows, celebrity interviews and bacchanals during a brief stint editing Details, may seem like an odd choice to edit the staid Washington, D.C.-based Smithsonian. He’s had a long and varied career in the New York glossy magazine world, having also worked at Vanity Fair, Men’s Journal and Condé Nast Portfolio. He most recently was an editor at WSJ., The Wall Street Journal magazine.

While Smithsonian may be a far cry in tone and content from those magazines, Caruso said what he’s learned about presenting information in interesting ways will apply there as well. He’s also eager to tap the resources of the Smithsonian Institution (actually a complex including 19 museums); the magazine belongs to its for-profit arm, Smithsonian Enterprises, but past editors historically kept the museums at arms-length.

A piece by Ruth Reichl on Julia Child’s kitchen (now part of the museum’s collection) that ran in June is one such example of how Caruso plans to change things. “If you can get Ruth Reichl to write about Julia Child for the Food Issue and get the resources to do it, that’s a no-brainer,” Caruso said. Later this year, he plans to work with the Institution to produce a Secrets of American History issue and create awards recognizing American ingenuity.

The revamp comes at a time when other venerable magazines have been investing, including The Atlantic, which has been aggressively expanding online; and The New Republic, whose new owner Chris Hughes has advertised big plans to grow the title’s audience.

Smithsonian has size and name-brand recognition on its side; it’s one of the biggest consumer magazines in the U.S., and growing—circulation was up 3.1 percent to 2.1 million in the first half of 2012 while most magazines maintained or declined. Ad pages rose 6 percent in the first half to 216 after charging ahead 19 percent in 2011.

“We’re continuing to reach the thought-leader audience,” said Jennifer Hicks, the publisher, adding that the changes Caruso has already made have helped attract new advertisers like Citibank and Thermador. “We’re Smithsonian. We were a brand before we were a media company.”

It may not be top of mind for New York media buyers, though, which is why the magazine has started throwing events here, like a recent one at the Lambs Club featuring Deford and another on Sept. 10 at Beacon Restaurant & Bar with Isaacson. A consumer marketing campaign is in the works for 2013, the first for the magazine in at least several years.