Wednesday, January 16, 2008
Shelter magazine publishers adjust to changing housing market
By Davis Kho, Special to The Chronicle
The housing market isn't the only sector that was dealt a blow by the mortgage-financing crisis of 2007.
The publishing industry's once white-hot "shelter" segment - those magazines covering home design and living - also felt the reverberations of contractions in the economy, with Condé Nast's venerable House & Garden ceasing publication after 106 years. Martha Stewart's Blueprint magazine, with its "Design Your Life" tagline, ceased production of its print edition and moved to a less-expensively produced online version.
But are the jump in foreclosures and tightening of credit markets solely to blame? A range of factors - from the inevitable shakeout of an overserved market, to the growing preference for do-it-yourself design, to rising interest in sustainable living - is affecting the market for so-called house porn, at least as much as the economic slowdown.
Michela O'Connor Abrams, president and publisher of San Francisco-based Dwell magazine, says the demise of House & Garden was a calculated move on Condé Nast's part. "Condé Nast is one of the most successful magazine publishers and magazine marketers around," she said. "This wasn't a case of financial distress."
Steve Cohn, editor in chief of the Media Industry Newsletter, which tracks the magazine business, concurs. "I'm not sure House & Garden was hurting that badly. It seemed more of a strategic than an economic decision, done to help Condé Nast's other two shelter titles, Domino and Vogue Living."
Maurie Perl, a spokeswoman for Condé Nast, says that "while House & Garden had a strong connection with its readers, it just didn't have the currency with the advertising community" for it to continue after the sudden departure in October of Publisher Joe Lagani, who left to join online media company Glam Media. Perl confirmed that House & Garden print subscribers are now receiving either Architectural Digest or Domino for the months remaining in their subscriptions, and visitors to the House & Garden Web site are being redirected to Domino.com, giving credence to the theory that this was a move intended to shore up other Condé Nast titles.
Shelter magazines really came into their own in the post-9/11 environment. Gayle Goodson Butler, editor in chief of Meredith Corp.'s Better Homes and Gardens magazine, summarizes the lure of glossy home-design magazines at a time of national insecurity: "People wanted to create comfort and order in their lives. They might not have been able to control the world outside, but they could control their own home environment."
The availability of low-cost mortgage loans over the past five or six years, which made home ownership attainable for many for the first time, also broadened the potential readership. And with housing prices on the rise, it made sense for existing homeowners to seek ideas for keeping properties in tip-top condition.
According to the National Directory of Magazines, published by Oxbridge Communications, the number of shelter magazines increased by 57 percent between 2002 and 2007, from 148 to 233 titles. Nearly half of those - 110 titles - were added from 2005 to 2006. It seemed that you could tack the word "Living" to the end of any magazine and have a viable publication, and there was no segment too small. Thus, Men's Health Living, O at Home and Lofts joined home-design stalwarts like Architectural Digest and House Beautiful (owned by the Hearst Corp., which owns The Chronicle) on the magazine rack.
But in the past year, the directory found, only 16 new shelter magazines were launched. A number of those that had been spun off from established titles, like House Beautiful Kitchens & Baths, have failed to gain traction. In this changing market, even the magazines that have stuck around are reassessing what it takes to be successful in a post-housing-bubble world.
Dwell magazine has undergone a major overhaul that will be visible in the February issue. Abrams says the redesign began well before the mortgage problems. "Sam Grawe became editor in chief a year ago, and he brought in a new creative designer, Kyle Blue. We began at that time to reimagine what Dwell could be, seven years after it was founded. We felt that in order to continue to lead the discussion about modern architecture and design, the magazine needed to be brought up to date."
One of the most obvious changes readers will notice is a slimmed-down size; starting with the February issue, Dwell has kept its height the same but changed the trim width from 9 inches to 8.375 inches. The narrower size, along with a switch to soy-based inks and recycled-content paper, saves the equivalent of 935 trees' worth of paper per issue, according to Abrams.
"These changes are completely in step with our driving philosophy that great design is sustainable design," she says; the magazine had been looking for high-quality recycled paper stock for some time, she says. Abrams confirms that the recycled paper costs more but "because we need less of it thanks to the new size, we just reinvest those savings to cover the higher cost."
A change in dimension is only the start of the story. The design team overhauled Dwell to improve its navigability and freshen the design, changing the cover design and some type fonts. Changes to the editorial content include new departments, such as Theme Attic, in which Dwell asks artists, designers and architects to interpret the issue theme, and Process, which shows readers how the things in our homes are made. Off the Grid has been updated to provide a deeper view into the systems that drive sustainable homes.
In the Modern World also has gone through a radical update. "When the magazine started in 2000, this section was supposed to be four to five pages long; over time it had expanded to 20 pages," explains Abrams. "Now it's back to its original purpose, like a newspaper of current design news tucked inside the magazine."
My House now offers the first-person perspective of the homeowner engaged in a home building project; the February issue chronicles a homeowner who overhauled an 1,100-square-foot home for $55,000 and sweat equity. The inclusion of this section speaks to another major trend affecting the industry: the democratization of design, as more homeowners feel emboldened to tackle their own projects when hiring an interior designer isn't an option.
"The idea of design in the home has been changing over the past five or six years," Abrams observed. "With stores like Ikea and Design Within Reach and Target, people are realizing that they don't have to be professionals to have an appetite for good design."
Better Homes and Gardens' Butler has also noted the shift away from professionally decorated homes to those that are in a constant state of renewal by homeowners. She joined the magazine in July 2006, and, through extensive discussions with readers and subscribers, found that their 7.6 million readers thirsted for the creative outlet that home design represented.
"The home television shows gave our readers a sense of permission for trying new ideas, and not worrying if they didn't work out perfectly," Butler says. "It gives them an expression of creativity and accomplishment" to update their homes without having to call an interior designer.
Butler and her creative team launched what she terms "a fairly significant redesign" in February 2007, in an effort to keep the traditions of the 80-plus-year-old magazine intact while making the content and design more contemporary and compelling.
"We have more balance now between wonderful homes created by homeowners across the country and do-it-yourself projects - how to pull off what you see," Butler said. The editorial content includes more step-by-step instruction, as well as a balance of project durations from short to long term.
Better Homes and Gardens readers are also looking for their "green."
In June 2007, the magazine launched a green column and introduced its Living Green Editorial Board.
For now, coverage focuses more on everyday practices that reduce environmental footprints (like performing an energy audit and comparing energy-efficient appliances) than it does on green design, but the response has been very favorable. "It taps into our reader's interest in 'how do I build on what I have, reuse what I have?' " she said.
While shelter magazines are reassessing their print publications to respond to a changing marketplace, their online versions have also come into their own in the past few years. Part of it is a chance to reach a different readership; Butler estimates that there is only a 13 to 15 percent overlap between readers of the print magazine and users of the Better Homes and Gardens Web site.
It's also true that evolving technologies allow magazine Web sites to provide content and draw in reader participation in ways that improve upon print versions.
"The BHG.com site is loaded with video," said Butler, with topics like how to organize your pantry or fold holiday napkins. Dwell's Web site includes editorial blogs, podcasts narrating walking tours of Berlin and Brooklyn, and video interviews with design mavens like Quik house architect Adam Kalkin and co-housing architect Kathryn McCamant. Both sites invite reader participation in the form of comments and ratings.
But there are certain aspects of browsing through a print publication that simply can't be replicated online.
"The photography in shelter magazines just can't be matched with what's on the Web, at least for now," Cohn said. And tearing out expensively printed pages to take with you to a paint store or show a roommate still beats showing them off on your laptop screen or computer printout.
Despite House & Garden's demise, there continues to be a market for shelter magazines aimed at professional interior designers and the clients they serve. According to real estate market intelligence firm Altos Research, the median home price in San Francisco as of December was $820,361, hardly a sign of a collapsing market.
Cohn said that "though there is a lot of worry about the economy, higher-end publications like Robb Report Luxury Homes and Architectural Digest won't be affected."
But for those publications who aim to make design more accessible and affordable for the rest of us, evolution is the name of the game.
Of Dwell's recent update, Abrams said, "We'll live with it for a couple of issues, and gather user feedback. And then we'll continue to refine and fine-tune the magazine."