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Saveur Publisher Talks Magazine Success as Chefs Party

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[Photos: Krieger, 12/8/09]

Last night, Saveur Magazine hosted a potluck party with/for a pantheon of New York chefs like Bill Telepan, Scott Conant, Alex Guaraschelli, Michael Psilakis, Seamus Mullen, Gavin Kaysen, and more. The occasion was to celebrate the success of Saveur: in a year that saw most print magazines struggle mightily, Saveur has been doing incredibly well: the December issue was up 32% in ad pages and ended 2009 #2 for ad page growth among all monthly mags. So what's the secret? We decided to ask the powers that be that very question in a special two-part interview series. Today we talk numbers and industry with publisher Merri Lee Kingsly (on the left); check back tomorrow for musings on the editorial side with ed-in-chief James Oseland. Our chat with Merri Lee Kingsly follows:

So, in a world where most print publications have been bleeding, Saveur has been this weird anomaly? Publishing-wise, this industry has been really crazy lately. Even prior to Gourmet going under, we were on such a successful streak, so even if that hadn't happened, we were still in good shape. It says a lot about the whole mission that Jim [Oseland] and his editorial team have stuck by, and in an environment where our competitors chased the recession, our editorial team has really stayed true to Saveur. We were so different from everyone else. We ended 12% up in ads, which is number six in the industry. That's the whole industry, not just the food realm? Yes, the whole magazine industry. I believe if you look up the entire list of 283 or so, we're number six, and for percentage growth we were number two. We had over 70 new advertisers. We just closed our first issue of 2010, and the Jan/Feb is up 49%.

OK, so the big question: why? I think a big part of it is our approach. We're not fancy. We're not high maintenance. We're simple. We were with clients in here the other day and they were like, "Have you created apps? Are you mobile?" and things like that. And we haven't done any of that, at least yet. People love that, people love that we don't have to shove media tools out out there just for the sake of launching them. We want to achieve our goals, not prostitute them, not over-commmercialize them. For example, the only partner for this party tonight is Godiva Chocolate ... you wont see 15 brands of wine and signs all over the place.

Has Saveur adjusted to the economic times at all? We never, ever adjusted the edit. There's nothing there to change. We were never about what restaurant is hot and what chef is hot, so we were never affected in that way. In terms of content, we never talked about people hovering in their kitchens and opening a can of tomatoes and just making a recession stew. Our competitors put words like inexpensive and 10 cheapest wine on the front page. We don't put words like that our covers.

Were there any ripple effects from the passing of Gourmet? As far as Gourmet not being around, I definitely think there were several advertisers that were long-standing in Gourmet, and regardless of Ruth's changes, they were going to stick around Gourmet no matter what [at the time]. Now they've maybe given Saveur a second look and while some of it remains to be seen, I'm optimistic. In the past week, we've won two new businesses, so I'm hoping it'll be an amazing year. But another part of it is that we're probably like you guys—we're a small team and we work together really well. Marketing works closely with sales and we feed off each other.

Speaking of the internet, what's been your online strategy? The website is doing really well. We relaunched in August, and the concept is to aggregate content. Most magazines don't know how to run a website. Most just regurgitate their print content on to the web because they think their magazine is so terrific ... We're not a recipe-driven magazine, so we created an aggregator so it becomes an umbrella of what Saveur is about—the experience, tradition, authenticity. And the numbers are encouraging? Yeah, we're at 1.4 million pageviews and growing at a clip of 40 percent month to month and up 102 percent over last year so we're growing at an amazing rate and the response is amazing.

What are your thoughts on the future magazines, and print journalism in general? I think it depends on what category you're asking about. I think for recipe magazines, it will be very interesting to see what happens. I think it's really great to be able to go to the web and get a recipe. On the other hand, I think people love to get lost in the pages of a great travel story, especially with the photos and all the detailed information. I think the business magazines will have a hard time. Fashion magazines too; as the luxury market embraces the web, those magazines will probably have a tougher time. Everyone is panicking, but I think there's a way to go before we even get there. We can't even get all our books online yet, let alone magazines.