Exceptional Woman in Publishing for 2009

Dorothy Kalins

Dorothy KalinsDorothy Kalins delivered the following speech at Women in Periodical Publishing’s Women’s Leadership Conference in San Francisco on January 29, 2010. She was presented with the eleventh annual Exceptional Woman in Publishing Award by the 2008 award recipient, Alix Kennedy. Photograph by Jeanne Stack

IT HAS BEEN MANY, many years since I have thought of myself as a woman in periodical publishing.Yet, in the early 1970s, when I stopped being a girl writer and moved into my first editorial position, there were hardly any women in the magazine business.

No women publishers, no women ad sales folk, no women circulation directors. And the editors of all the major women’s magazines were men. During bathroom breaks in all-day meetings, you’d never have to wait on line at the ladies’ room.

I was fairly recently out of college then, and the men I first encountered in publishing really did wear three piece suits and drink three martini lunches.They were gentlemen, not hustlers. They were the kind of guys who knew how to wear suspenders. They could dance on the tabletops if it would snag a page of advertising. They were the charmers, the hot shots, the silver foxes, the Willie Lomans, “riding on a smile and a shoeshine.” And it never even occurred to me to want to be them. At least at first.

Guys like that were the bosses of young editors like me. They were only too eager to tell me how it really worked out there in the real world: how to manage up, play the bean counters, finesse the clients.

The women you’d encounter in the halls of America’s magazine publishers were not management. They were called secretaries (assistants hadn’t been invented yet) and often smarter than their bosses. They’d held the same job for 10 or 20 years. They knew how the company was really run. They knew how to get anything done. They were the heart and soul of any magazine business.

And some of us were them, starting as secretaries. Those who could type, that is. Straight out of college, I presented myself to the personnel department (Human Resources hadn’t been invented yet) of Look Magazine and took a typing test: 9 words a minute wouldn’t hack it when you had to type some guy’s letters all day. On an IBM Selectric, rolling in the carbon paper, making onion skin copies that had to be reverently filed away in metal drawers. It was a happy flunk out.

Those of us in this room who are pretty freaked out by the current state of periodicals, who do not yet know what to make of e-readers or point-and-touch or video covers or this week’s bombshell: the Apple iPad—for goodness sake—need only conjur up those early days of publishing to understand that change has always been our part of our landscape.

How all these multi-media electronics will change the world as we know it is a question with no answer yet. What I do know, however, is that these devices are just the delivery systems.

Sometimes its words on paper, sometimes its voices on a screen. Sometimes images are pixels and sometimes they are dots; Sometimes pictures move and other times they’re static. But in our business, what we’re always about is ideas: how to frame them, how to brand them, how to market them.

No matter whether our content is printed, or sent out on an electric tablet like the iPad, whether it shows up on eReadres like Kindle, or Barnes & Noble’s Nook, or Skiff or PlasticLogic or: Our delivery systems may be changing, but it’s our brands that power them.

Thinking about this, I realize I owe the momentum in my own professional life to change. When I really think about it, my whole career in magazines has been pretty subversive.

I began as an editor at a Special Interest Publication called Apartment Life, which had been launched in the late ‘60s by the yes, male, editor of Better Homes & Gardens. This very smart fellow, who, upon observing the disruption being caused by such things as the burning of bras and draft cards among the children of his readers (their parents)—readers who were the very models of Middle American values—came to understand that this generation just might not share the same ideas his readers held sacred. And, given the predilections of this publishing company, it made all the sense in the world to base this rebellion in the living room.

Well, who doesn’t like to consider herself a rebel (even with a degree in French Literature, and even though I still wore pleated skirts with dyed-to-match sweaters). The idea that Apartment Life would be a magazine whose central credo was “Not our Mother’s living room!” was simply too juicy to resist.

Apartment Life was my life. About that time, I had a really big wine crate I’d dragged home from the street, screwed wheels on the bottom and rolled out in front of my sofa. It worked as a coffee table, but its real function was to irritate my mother.Every time she came to my apartment she never disappointed: “Darling,” she’d say, “that table drags the whole room down.” And just her saying that would put another couple of years on that crate’s life. I knew about rebellion in the living room.

Apartment Life was the first truly Baby Boom magazine. It became a spokesman for our generation. In Apartment Life, every object we possessed was a political statement, charged with meaning, an extension of our personalities.

Leading-edge boomers, born between 1946 and 1964—some 32,217,944 of them—were against many more things than they were for: the establishment, the Vietnam War and, when it came to style, the utterly boring, materialistic values of their parents. But the look of their homes and the fern bars they frequented was far more than decoration; it was an act of defiance: We are not you! we said with every supergraphic on the wall.

Like distinctive tribal patterns, very long hair, and Frye boots and blue jeans, our style was a new way to recognize each other:
Oh! I get it! You’re hip, like me.

It took chutzpah to make a lamp out of anything: turn a spaghetti colander or a fruit basket upside down, drill a hole in the center, add a wire, a socket and a bulb, and voilà, a hanging fixture.

In the name of self-expression and cheap rent, we became urban pioneers, pushing the boundaries of conventional housing, moving into chopped-up Victorians and storefronts, bowling alleys, even former gas stations.

When, as the 80s arrived, and our rebel-readers began to settle in and settle down, and horror of horrors, actually marry, and do the unthinkable— buy homes, have children—the 60s vibe of Apartment Life had run its course, especially with advertisers who deeply distrusted everything about Baby Boomers. Despite our earnest and heartfelt personal appeal, advertisers refused to be persuaded, that these readers had any money!

Like its readers, the magazine went through an identity crisis.
It changed into a whole new concept called Metropolitan Home. It was a gutsy thing for a mainstream Midwestern publisher to pull off and it worked. But even then, it was a subversive move.

In the 80s, the high end in shelter magazines was firmly anchored by Architectural Digest, and the twins House & Garden and House Beautiful. How could we NOT be like THEM? Easy! Met Home was Not Architectural Digest. Once more we had something to be against!

Metropolitan Home would go on to change the shelter category and become a journalistic magazine, not a totally materialistic one. Met Home, in fact, launched the concept of cause marketing when in 1989 and then again in 1991, we dedicated two issues to raising money and awareness for DIFFA, the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS. Our dreams were so gutsy they scare me now just thinking about it.

We would find a townhouse in New York (whose? Where?, no matter , it happened); we would get star architects, designers, artists to design the rooms. It would be a Showhouse.

Advertisers, who would be at first reluctant, then later grateful, would support our efforts with sponsorship dollars and donated product.

When we realized this house alone could not raise enough money, we were unfazed. We decided on a Gala dinner, with high-ticket tables and everything donated by manufacturers and advertisers. We even got David Hockney’s sets sent over from the Metropolitan Opera. Chutzpah.

These plans were so risky that when the publisher and I told our boss at Meredith, the President of the magazine group, he looked at us in horror and said: “This is a disaster waiting to happen.”
He said: “If you make this work, I’ll eat my words.”
But to his credit, he didn’t stop us.

After we landed Robin Williams, Bette Midler, and Billy Crystal to perform at the Gala, raised over $3,000,000, and won a National Magazine Award, he did indeed write those words on a piece of paper and gobble them up.

Did pure nostalgia motivate me to tell you this story? Certainly not. And can you dismiss it easily with the words: “The business was robust then. You could do things like that?” Hardly. That thing had never been done on such a scale. It was truly terrifying.

What it took was a group of like-minded creative folk on the business and editorial side willing to come together, to think big, to be creative and make it happen.

Bravado like that is exactly what we need today.

Indeed, I worry that we as an industry have lost our nerve. That the threat of change has diminished our ambitions. That we no longer pull together as creative groups. That we model the slash and burn mentality of our management.

I’ll tell you one more subversive story, because, this, I believe could be a model for growing our business.When, in the early 90s, Met Home was sold, I’d been editor in chief for 11 years and I decided not to go along with it to its new owners.

After some months, I met up with some new partners and decided to launch two national magazines at the same time: Saveur, a magazine about food and authenticity and Garden Design, dedicated to informing and inspiring Baby Boom readers as they discovered their own backyards. I was in the terrifying position of having limited resources, a demanding private board, and extremely lofty ambitions.

These magazines, our reasoning went, would use the very essence of magazine-ness— beautiful production values, big page size, intensely riveting images, and excellent writing, to give readers something they could not find elsewhere. To rebuild the bond between reader and magazine.

Even saying this now sounds slightly nutty, but the idea was to run them as a national monthly, with each title bi-monthly at first, and some shared staff. The plan was to grow the staffs as revenues increased. And that is precisely what we did.

It was the headiest time I’ve ever experienced, probably because I was scared silly most of the time. But I was smart enough to hire only great people, people with a lot of disparate talents in their baggage, to lure them with the promise of excellence in their work, to ensure an atmosphere of good values, and to inspire them with the mission.

Our business has always thrived on a mission. It’s what has kept us working so hard, producing products that are fresh and exciting. Entice a hardy band of extremely talented souls to take the trip. Inspire and reward them along the way. Even at Newsweek, I was able to push writers and editors out of their comfort zones. Make them do what they’re frightened of, because those are the accomplishments that will make them proudest.

And it strikes me, that is precisely what we do best: Alix Kennedy asked me what I was most proud of when I think about my career in magazines. Well, of course it’s the work, but mainly it’s the people.

Those wonderfully talented folks you get to know better that your own family. And they’re mostly women. At one point one of our editors (a man) accused me of running Ms Kalins’ School for Smartass Girls. He had a point.

There are people all over this business with degrees from that school and I like to think their training serves them well as they go on to work in environments that are usually not how shall I say… as supportive?

Last week I went to see one of those protegettes, a young woman who’d worked with me for seven years right out of college as we launched Garden Design and Saveur. She’s now running a magazine from a lofty office on a giddily high floor with sweeping views.

And she said “DK! I thought that the way I began in magazines was the way it would ALWAYS be. But I found out the hard way that this is not at all the case.” That girl may have a waterfall in the lobby, but she doesn’t have a lot of air cover.

So how do we navigate in this world of emerging delivery systems?

We do what we’ve always done: We gather in small groups to think up the next great thing. We figure out how to produce it. We strategize about attracting our readers, and clickers, and viewers. Then we figure out how to monetize it.

(Say all you want about Twitter and Facebook. Last time I checked, advertisers were still paying real money for pages in our magazines, and readers were still paying real money (just not enough of it) to buy them.

And we do not lose our nerve. Fear is never a good creative motivator. We do not become mean. We do what people in our business have always done:

We look around corners.

We interpret what we see.

And then, we tell the world.