It's not every post-recession October that a new home magazine springs to life, but now—coincidentally roughly one year after masthead shuffles at nearly every major shelter magazine on the editor-in-chief level—Hearst drops the epic bomb that is HGTV Magazine. The first of two test runs, the inaugural issue was printed in a batch of 350,000 and hits newsstands Tuesday. Of course, this isn't the first time Hearst has taken an über-popular TV network and spun it into a little bundle of glossiness: Food Network Magazine is one of the country's foremost in its category. By that logic: take a bunch of insanely popular TV personalities who appeal to people from big cities and small towns alike, add a bunch of very talented editors who can create and package on-brand ideas attractively, and it's nearly a recipe for success. There's no telling how well HGTV Magazine will do at this point—whether it will rise to the top of the home category like its food-based cousin has done—but as editor in chief Sara Peterson starts production on the second test issue, due out in January, we caught up with her at her NYC office quickly learned that she doesn't view HGTV Magazine as an expressly shelter book. Perhaps because the bread and butter of traditional shelter magazines is really pretty and aspirational interior design that one loves to look at but often can't imagine actually living in. So does that make HGTV Magazine the anti-shelter pub? Catchy as that sounds, it's not quite true when all 144 pages of issue one have something to do with the home: maintaining it, decorating it, improving it, updating it, arguing about it, fixing it, asking questions about it, and even starting at the very beginning and buying it.
Curbed National: I know that Hearst announced this to the public and the media in April. When did you actually start working on it?
Sara Peterson: A year ago.
CN: And you came directly from Coastal Living?
SP: Yes, I was at Coastal Living. I was executive editor there for a bit and then editor for about six or seven months, I think, and then Ellen Levine—who is the editorial director here—called and said, “We’re thinking about this new project. I’d love to talk to you about it and teach you more about it.” And I said, well, when Ellen Levine calls, you know, sure. You say yes. So that’s how it kind of got started. It was about a year ago, I think, when we started talking about the project, and the more she talked about it the more exciting it sounded to me, and just that you just don’t get those opportunities to start something from scratch very often in life, and it just was such an opportunity to have that creative challenge, but also with a brand that I like, I respect, I watch, you know? I like the shows, I like the vibe of the network, I like the personality of the network, and the hosts, and I felt like this project has a built in audience. I mean, it kind of comes with a fan base. And that made it a good deal for me.
CN: What were those initial meetings like? What were you trying to imagine, create, conceive?
SP: Everything was about—and I talk about this with a lot of people—but just trying to get to the essence of the brand. You know, that is the number-one mission when you’re gonna start something from a print extension of this brand. It was like, get to know this brand, get to know why people talk about it and what they love about it. And they use these words, you know, “I’m addicted to HGTV. I’m obsessed with HGTV. I’m an HGTV junkie.” I’m not using these words; these are their words.
SP: And it’s true, and you start to just talk to more and more people about it, what they love about it, why are they watching, what particular things are they tuning in to. And just thinking and brainstorming about how you take that essence of the brand and put it into print, not that you want to be too literal about it. You don’t want to create a programming guide for the network. You know, it’s not a PR vehicle. It's a magazine with thoughts and ideas that captures the essence of the brand. So there’s just a lot of talk about how can we capture that personality and that vibe and put it into print. I felt like, okay, the number one thing I think about HGTV is that they're smart and helpful and give good advice but they always seem to package it and deliver it in a fun, entertaining way. So we can’t lose sight of the entertaining factor.
CN: So the editorial operation is here at Hearst, right? How do you guys interact with the network?
SP: It’s really easy to pick up the phone and call anyone I need to at HGTV. For example, we’re having lunch with one of the top execs who oversee a lot of the production and a lot of the programming, and we’ll sit down and have a sandwich at Hearst and talk about the new shows. Who do you think would make a great feature for our second issue? Or, we’d love to do a feature on some kind of kitchen roundup—who do you think would be good for that? So there’s a lot of collaboration and it’s key and it’s been great. HGTV has been very helpful in connecting with the talent and also just helping us with knowing what’s going on, what’s new, what’s upcoming. They share. We share our editorial ideas and our calendar and they share their programming stuff. As for the talent, it’s a fun way for them to express their ideas.
CN: So when you were first sort of talking about this did you have an ideal reader in mind?
SP: Gosh? no!
CN: So now that you’ve done your first issue, who would you say the ideal reader of this magazine would be?
SP: People who are really passionate about their homes. People who care about their homes and have a lot of fun trying new ideas and being creative in their home and they’re house-proud, you know? It’s the kind of person who... let’s say you paint your front door a new color or you buy a new set of sofas for your pillow. It’s fun to have people over and say, “What do you think?”
CN: Those who want to show their house off a little bit?
SP: Yeah, show off and feel proud of it. Feel like, "I only spent this or I did this myself, and look how I just used what I have around my house to make my new mantel display." And just have that kind of sense of fun and pride of their home. But it’s anybody who cares about their home.
CN: In a different way, it seems, than those who read the other shelter books at Hearst [Elle Decor, Veranda, House Beautiful, etc.]
SP: We tried very hard to be—we call ourselves "Home Lifestyle Group"—and I think this is one of the things that will surprise people the most is that we’re much more than a decorating magazine. We want to talk about everything involved with your home life. So it could be about lightbulbs, it could be about, oh my gosh, what kind of mattress should I buy next? Or what should I plant in the yard, what do I do if my neighbors are driving me a little bit nuts? So going beyond the paint chips and the fabric swatches—which we love. We love makeovers, big and small, but we just listen to people and how they talk about their homes and what kind of issues they’re dealing with and what’s on their minds about their homes now.
CN: So it sounds like this fits a very specific niche within shelter media.
SP: It’s a different kind of home magazine.
CN: It’s a different kind of home magazine and it doesn’t seem like something like this exists right now. You have pieces of it in, let’s say, Better Homes and Gardens, Martha Stewart Living—although that’s sometimes out of reach. But it seems like you guys are really doing something new.
SP: It’s interesting to hear you talk about other magazines. It’s just when you said “out of reach.” That’s a big goal for us here, to make sure that it’s inspiring but it’s within reach. It’s aspiring but it’s attainable. You know, you do feel like you go through this and go, "I could do this." I could live like this. I relate to this magazine and I kind of see myself on page 15.
CN: Would you say there's an aspirational aspect?
SP: Getting some looks for less, yes. That’s true. And I always think about value, if it is something that’s, say, a medium price point. Explain to people why it might be worth it to invest in something, to spend maybe $10 more than you would feel comfortable because it’ll last longer, or just explain the value of it. But I would say that I think it’s important to be devoted to the little changes that have a big impact. We love the mini-makeover. I feel really passionate about that because I feel it’s not only what real people are doing now but especially in a time when the economy’s not so great and you’re still looking for ways to express your creativity at home without spending a ton of money. You can’t always remodel your kitchen. I don’t know about you, but I could probably redo my countertops every 20 years. But this is a monthly magazine, so let’s give some ideas that you can do every day. I think about what you could do in just 15 minutes or in an hour with a pint of paint. What could you do that would make you feel really good about your home? So I think, —let’s not talk about what colors you have throughout your house; let’s talk about what color you have on your front door.
CN: That outlook has to have been a transition for you, right? Relating to this reader as opposed to the Coastal Living one?
SP: Totally different! But, you know, I grew up in Nebraska where there’s no coast. [Laughs.] I’ve always been in magazines and I just love magazines, but I originally left New York because I wanted to buy a house. I was talking and writing about decorating and entertaining a home and I thought, "I want that life, I want to buy a house, I want to have a yard, I want to plant some flowerpots and have a dog in my yard." So I went for that and got to actually do a lot of the things that I was talking about and you learn a lot when you own a home. I think about, well, how do you feel at home? What’s your emotional connection to your house? That’s a way that we could be really different, that it’s not just the superficial things you do in your house—it’s the things that you come home to and make you feel good and you invest and lot in your house—money, patience, blood, sweat, and tears. [Laughs.]
CN: Let's talk a little bit how real estate factors into HGTV Magazine.
SP: Yeah, well that’s another thing—HGTV real estate programs are really popular. People are really into them. They’re among the most watched shows on the network, so that was another thing we had to think about—how can that translate to print? Because it’s very interactive on TV. You can sort of play along and you watch them house hunt and wonder what decisions they're gonna make. And again, you don’t want to be a literal translation, but how can you take the essence looking at really estate and put it into print? Just thinking: it’s really fun to look at what houses cost all across the country and play that game with yourself of, "Could I move there? What kind of deal could I get here? If I sold my house could I live on the water? Where could I retire?" Ellen [Levine, editorial director at Hearst] and I thought a lot about what what women want in a magazine now. You know, you want to be entertained, you want it to be easy to read—I didn’t want people to work too hard. I wanted it to be a pleasurable experience. You do learn a lot and you get into a lot of different things. I felt like we really wanted this magazine to be dense with topics. Just like your home life is filled with stuff, so is this magazine and if you’re gonna pay $3.99 for something, let’s give ‘em a lot. Give ‘em a lot of bang for their buck.
CN: So it seems like the HGTV personalities are woven into this magazine in a lot of different ways and scattered throughout. You have quotes, you have columns—those are the general two ways you’re working with them?
SP: Sometimes they can answer single questions or give a tip here or there on a story in the magazine or sometimes we’ll do a bigger feature on them and even go home with them and see how they really live. I think you want to see the real life of the talent, too.
CN: It sounds like you really enjoyed the process.
SP: It was fun. I enjoy the topic, I enjoy the network, I had fun pushing myself to make it really original.
CN: And what was most challenging for you? You just launched a magazine from scratch.
SP: Well, the first issue is always the hardest with any launch—getting it out there. But I think getting it—making sure we were addressing as much as possible with the home life. Did we do enough cleaning stories? Could we have done more entertaining stories? Because that’s part of your home life. You know, it always has to go back to life at home. Otherwise the story is not for us. Did we give enough real estate? Did I give enough tips on DIY stuff? Should we have more projects? So it’s just more did we give enough diversity in the magazine in topics. Because there’s just so much on HGTV that you want to hit on.
CN: Are you thinking about doing a home shot for every cover or are you thinking about putting personalities on the cover as well?
SP: For now, we like doing it this way. Something that says: bright, colorful, cheerful, has some energy to it—that says: life at home. But not: you must decorate this way. We don’t like, sort of decorating rules. We just think, it’s your house, if you want to live with this, if you want your look this way, great, fine with us, we’ll help you think of ideas and we’ll help you get that look, but we’re not here to help you decorate.