By WILL HIGGINS The Indianapolis Star
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Saturday Evening Post, famous for its Norman Rockwell covers and at one point 6 million subscribers, is attempting a turnaround -- a redesign and move of its editorial staff to Philadelphia.
Its new look, which targets baby boomers, debuted in the January/ February issue. On the cover: Shirley MacLaine, 78, who later this week appears as a character on the PBS hit series "Downton Abbey."
"The important thing is to get (the Post) to be part of the national conversation," said Steven Slon, a publishing industry veteran who recently was named the Post's associate publisher. "I want to hear people saying: 'Did you read that article in The Saturday Evening Post?' "
The effect he's shooting for: "Vanity Fair meets Smithsonian." The magazine has been published in Indianapolis since 1970.
The upcoming issue, Slon's first in his new position although he began consulting with the Post in 2010, features an illustration of a frisky-seeming, fortyish-looking MacLaine alongside a tagline promising readers they'll learn her views on "love, laughter & when to quit yoga."
"It has been a long time since the Post put celebrities on the cover," Slon said. "Now we're entering a long phase of celebrities either on the cover or at least interviews inside."
Slon's cover-folk wish list: Alan Alda, David Letterman, Jay Leno, the original "Saturday Night Live" cast, Dick Van Dyke, Roseanne Barr, the Smothers brothers, Goldie Hawn.
Graphically, the magazine's iconic, old-timey logo has been altered to emphasize "Post" and downplay "Saturday Evening," Saturday evening having long ago ceased being a time people set aside for magazine reading.
"Shirley MacLaine?" said Lorraine Shanley, dismissively. Shanley's a media consultant who works with AARP, the Magazine, among other publications. "Sounds like AARP."
The Post "had a storied past," she said, "but it's hard to know whether to get excited about it. I haven't seen (the Post) in like a million years."
The magazine's would-be turnaround comes at a hard time for print magazines.
"You look at some of them, and they're having difficulties," media consultant Jack W. Perry said. "I'm thinking of Newsweek and Time. But with The Saturday Evening Post being more featurey, it'll have a longer shelf life, which could certainly help it."
Newsweek ceased printing last month and is now digital only. Dozens of other magazines have gone out of business since the recession, and many of the survivors have struggled not only with the economic downturn and slump in advertising sales but also more broadly with the paradigm shift in publishing brought on because of the Internet.
The Post, founded in 1821 (it predates indoor plumbing), has battled new technology before. Decades ago, the new story-telling medium of television took a toll on the readership of all general-interest magazines, including the Post.
For most of the past four decades, until 2008, the Post was the domain of the wife of Indianapolis businessman and politician Beurt SerVaas, who purchased the distressed title from Philadelphia-based Curtis Publishing. Dr. Cory SerVaas, a physician with a crusader-level interest in public health, used the magazine to educate readers on various diseases and their prevention, in effect converting what had been a general-interest magazine into a health journal.
In the 1980s, though it was losing money, Cory SerVaas' Post did not veer from its health-centered editorial course. But its ownership did change somewhat: The magazine became property of a nonprofit headed by the SerVaas family.
Beurt SerVaas is 93, Cory, 88. They have five children. A daughter, Joan SerVaas, is the Post's chief executive and publisher. It is she who's behind the magazine's new direction.
"I need to get subscribers," she said. "The magazine needs to stand on its own."
The goal: to double the number of subscribers in five years, to 750,000 and to charge more for subscriptions, which now cost $9.95 a year.
"I've got the right people, and we're set to go," Joan SerVaas said.
She refers to Slon, Media Industry News' editor of the year in 2010 and formerly editor of AARP, the Magazine, with which the Post shares a target audience: baby boomers (Slon is 60, Joan SerVaas, 58).
The new Post returns to its roots as a general-interest publication -- celebrity profiles, recipes and in-depth pieces on serious topics, such as prison reform.
But it will continue to cover health news, the upcoming issue containing a long piece on the placebo effect. The reason there is to keep current subscribers, who've come to expect it. The magazine still has 350,000 paid subscribers, according to the Alliance for Audited Media.
That's not quite half Conde Nast Traveler's and just 10% of Sports Illustrated's; it's nearly 10 times Gun Dog's.
Most Post readers are in the South and Midwest, and Slon pledged to keep the magazine's "Midwest sensibility."