Think about America’s oldest magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, and you’re likely to think about Norman Rockwell’s famous cover art. Steven Slon, Editorial Director and Associate Publisher of the magazine, will remind you that Rockwell “did quite a few covers, but not all!” Nonetheless, the wholesome styling of Rockwell’s art is what comes to mind when one thinks of this venerable publication.
So how to update the book while remaining true to its history, its image and its place in our Rockwellian hearts? This is the challenge Slon confronted head on when he joined the periodical in January 2012. The results, previewed in this interview, will become officially apparent when the magazine’s January/February issue arrives in the mail in late December and hits the newsstands on January 4th.
While the magazine can trace its roots back to Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette, it wasn’t until the early twentieth century that it came to prominence, under the ownership of Cyrus Curtis and the guidance of legendary editor George Horace Lorimer. Slon describes this time as “a serendipitous moment for American magazines” when Lorimer and the Post “helped define what America was.” With a focus on spending money for good writing and illustrations, Lorimer brought circulation to a peak of 5 million in the 1920s and established a dominance that lasted decades. Well into the ’60s, says Slon, The Saturday Evening Post was still a magazine of record.
Hard times inevitably came, however, in the late 60s, with rising paper costs topped by a lawsuit thrown at the magazine by football coaches Bear Bryant and Wally Butts over a story accusing them of fixing a game. Bankruptcy was declared in 1969, and the magazine passed into the control of Dr. Beurt SerVaas, whose role it was to help with liquidation of the company.
As SerVaas prepared to close down the Philadelphia offices and ship the archives to his hometown of Indianapolis, including roughly 300 pieces of original art from the Rockwell covers, he received a visit from the iconic artist himself, who drove down from Vermont in his station wagon to pick up his paintings. Upon meeting SerVaas, Rockwell mentioned what a great idea it would be if SerVaas started the magazine up again. Being polite, but with no intention of following through, SerVaas assented.
A few weeks later, Rockwell was being interviewed on television and mentioned SerVaas’s plans for a relaunch. Excited readers sent “bags and bags” of grateful letters to SerVaas, who turned to his wife, Dr. Cory SerVaas M.D., and suggested she consider a career change. Despite some hard times in 2007—suffering the same advertising and newsstand sales challenges as so many other magazines—the magazine has stayed afloat and in the SerVaas family hands ever since; daughter Joan is currently the publisher. When Slon came on board, he says that “the perception in the market was that they went out of business long ago.” Slon quotes Mark Twain when he says his #1 challenge is to let everyone know that “rumors of our demise have been greatly exaggerated.”
Following is a Q&A in which Slon goes into more detail on the redesign, revenue channels and his vision for the future.
What are the next steps and goals for the magazine?
My goal is to get the magazine well-known, and to widen its circulation and its ability to influence thinking in America. We’re not there yet, but we’re taking steps in that direction.
Today the challenge is to rebuild the image and perception of the magazine. It’s a magazine about contemporary America, about issues and trends with our unique spin on things. We have historical depth and a perspective on contemporary events that gives us a unique way to talk about them. If we’re talking about, say, the banking crisis, we can compare it to 1909, compare it to stories in the archives.