The wizard of Oz

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Dr. Oz with Levine. (Courtesy Dr. Oz: The Good Life)
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Nicole Levy

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The first issue of Dr. Oz: The Good Life flew off newsstands, according to an announcement yesterday from Hearst Magazines. The publication, an O: The Oprah Magazine with popular television health guru Mehmet Oz—not Oprah—as its figurehead, hit stands Feb. 4, and Hearst president David Carey told Women’s Wear Daily his company has had to print “tens of thousands” of additional copies to meet demand.

This was welcome news to a struggling magazine industry, but insiders won't be surprised at the success of Oz, given its maker. Hearst has over the last several years perfected the formula for launching the celebrity-brand-as-magazine, and the single person most responsible for that is someone far less famous than her Condé Nast counterpart, Anna Wintour. Meet Hearst editorial director Ellen Levine.

HEARST NOW GREATLY FAVORS WHAT CAREY calls “50-50 joint ventures” or “marriages” with media companies such as Scripps Networks Interactive and Harpo Productions. “We would rather own half of a highly successful business, than all of an unsuccessful one,” Carey said in an interview with Capital.

In media analyst Ken Doctor's opinion, Levine and Hearst “understand the power of promotion, and if you’re essentially getting free promotion from these pre-existing food and home and health personalities and channels, it’s worth a lot of money," he said.

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By this point in time, Hearst has a step-by-step process with every new composite magazine. Identifying and securing a partner with a brand, a distinct following, and promotional resources is step one of the magazine launch playbook. Step two: identify target advertisers. Steps three, four and five: assemble a launch team, create a prototype and solicit feedback from potential readers.

“We do these in the early stages with pretty modest teams” of about five employees, Carey said. Levine helps choose the embryonic editorial boards, then steers them as they envision their publications.

“You can write 25 words as a mission statement,” Carey said, “but that’s a whole different thing than producing 100 pages of content that have to live up to it.”

Levine, 70, likes to call herself “the average reader” of the women’s service titles under her purview, and to some extent, this explains their commercial success.

By the time Levine took on the role of editorial director, which was created for her in 2006, nearly seven years had passed since she'd delivered the first of Hearst’s brand-driven magazine concepts: O, The Oprah Magazine debuted in 1999.

She had noticed that magazine sales spiked when Oprah Winfrey appeared on the covers of Redbook and Good Housekeeping. As Levine and then-Hearst president Cathie Black would later retell the story on "The Oprah Show," the two flew out to Harpo Studios in Chicago for an appointment on Jan. 19, 1999. At a meeting with Oprah and her executives, Levine and Black screened a $1,500 video they had produced at a shopping mall, its footage documenting women's exuberant responses to the question, "What would you think of an Oprah magazine?"

They presented possible covers Levine had brainstormed and suggested titles. (Spirit Magazine was one that Winfrey's longtime boyfriend, Steadman Graham, rejected: "That's God, not you," he said.) After an hour and a half, Black wanted to close the deal, but Winfrey was still indecisive.

"I need to pray on it," Winfrey said. "But if I do a magazine, it will be with Hearst."

Condé Nast and Time Inc. had approached Winfrey before, but they had tried to incentivize a magazine deal with profits, which didn't interest the millionaire.

Levine's gut told her how to sway the prayerful decision in Hearst's favor.

"I said, 'Because it is about the word, and I know you are about the word. And television, as wonderful as it is, is gone the minute it leaves, and the word is on paper, and it will stay forever." In Levine's reasoning, Winfrey heard religious resonance.

Under Levine’s guidance, O Magazine set the Hearst record for turning a profit in the shortest time and survived not two, but 15 years. If the magazine is worse for the wear—ad pages have fallen for three years in a row as of Dec. 2013—its slumping revenue likely proves rather than disproves the Hearst celebrity brand model, since Winfrey ended her daytime show in 2011.

1999 was a friendlier time for magazines, but it’s clear that not just anyone at the start of the new millenium could make a launch like O as successful as Levine did. Two years after McCall’s partnered with Rosie O’Donnell and rebranded itself Rosie’s McCall’s in 2000, its eponym pulled the plug. “I decided that I could not participate in a magazine that bears my name when I could not be assured it would reflect my vision, values and editorial direction,” O’Donnell said in a statement at the time.

Making these magazines successful is, in other words, partly a question of personal touch.

Levine is “part diplomat, part editor, part entrepreneur,” former Time Inc. editor in chief Martha Nelson said. “She can establish these relationships and create trust and interpret these well-known brands in a way that makes them appealing to print readers.”

(Levine, who said the common-sense key to smooth business relations is addressing miscommunications early, finds the description of herself as a diplomat amusing: "I'm not John Kerry—let's get that our there right now," she said.)

“She’ll warn you about things that you wouldn’t have thought of, because she wants to make sure you trust the process,” Oz said at a press preview of the premiere issue of his magazine. “She’s able to make decisions, which is a very valuable tool.”

And Oz, who practices heart surgery at the same hospital as Levine’s husband (an obstetrician), knows the value of decisiveness well: “[The] biggest enemy in medicine is indecision, because not deciding is deciding," he added.

The failures in Levine’s track record have been as instructive as the successes—sticking with Levine through those has given Hearst a deeper expertise than if they’d thrown in the towel at the first bump.

Before she became editorial director and Hearst hit its launch stride, Levine consulted informally on a few magazines that folded quickly, including Weekend and Quick & Simple. As a member of the Quick & Simple prototype team, Ellen Kunes, puts it, Levine has remained “tireless, relentless … She keeps going, keeps putting out, working to create new things year after year after year.”

And several victories have followed. In the case of the Food Network Magazine, a partnership with Scripps Network that launched during the 2008 recession, Levine assembled different groups of Hearst editors to discuss the seven national magazines that already existed in the food category, and to ask themselves, thinking of women readers and advertisers, "So who's not here? Who's not getting what they need?"

Later, she guided Maile Carpenter and her team as they crafted a prototype—determining its page length, its production value, its pacing—and showed it to focus groups. Levine has since stayed hands-on, reviewing budgets and reading through each issue before it goes to print, and she says she suspects that their editor in chief has a weakness for fried eggs; there was at least one in the first ten magazines.

By the time Hearst rolled out HGTV Magazine in 2012, the launch sequence was comfortingly familiar.

LEVINE COMES ACROSS AS THE ANTI-ANNA WINTOUR: she works collaboratively, she shares credit for her victories, and “she’s not one of these fancy pants editors who’s above the audience and dictates” to them, her friend of 14 years, ABC President Ben Sherwood said. She’s elegant, favoring bright lipsticks and muted ensembles, but she’s also approachable, offering suggestions and compliments rather than issuing instructions. Over the years, she has mentored women willing to work hard for her and her magazines (“She is famously very tough and exacting,” Sherwood said), and they remain devoted in spirit, whether or not they stay at Hearst.

“If she’s interested in you, she goes the extra—forget mile, I would say three miles—which is nice. I was grateful for it,” said Janet Chan, an editorial consultant who once worked as Levine’s executive editor at first Redbook, then Good Housekeeping. It’s not every boss that would have arranged for a home fax machine and send assistants with manuscripts when her employee’s pregnancy had left her bedridden.

Levine has always been interested in more input than just her staff's.

“She’s a true believer in man-on-the-street opinion,” Carpenter said, recalling the time that Levine showed an unpublished cover of Food Network Magazine to a stranger sitting next to her at a corporate conference. “Excuse me sir, what do you think of this cover?” Levine asked, holding out the image on an iPad. To which he replied: he didn’t immediately recognize the featured objects as hot dogs. The design team tweaked the image and the cover sold better than most.

In part, that willingness to listen to the reader was born from Levine’s strained relationship with the magazines of her own youth and the domestic image of women’s lives they projected.

The daughter of a housewife and an inventor, Levine came to the early decision that she wasn’t going to spend her days playing golf or bridge at the country club. She met her future husband at 18, but she left Englewood, N.J. anyway: she studied political science and wrote for the school newspaper at Wellesley College in the early 1960s, just as the contraceptive pill came on the market and Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl arrived on bookshelves.

At 21, she married Richard Levine, then a medical student on scholarship, and contributed to their household expenses with money she earned writing for the Bergen Record. (Once objecting to the fact that a male reporter with the same responsibilities made twice her salary, she was told that he had a wife and child to support, and she had her father to depend on — she didn’t protest.) When she worked for Brown’s racy Cosmopolitan in the ’70s, Levine and her female coworkers parted ways at 5 p.m.; she would head home to her husband and two sons; everyone else would head to the party at Studio 54.

It wasn’t until Brown recommended her senior editor for the top editorship at Woman’s Day, a women’s service magazine then owned by Hachette, that Levine found her niche and her readership, the American woman who is trying to find herself neither completely at the stove nor at a Midtown desk, but somewhere between the two. She’s lived the “work-life balance” that women's magazines are always addressing and that feminists are tired of hearing about these days (why should the subject define women's lives, if it's a non-issue for men, they argue).

At Woman’s Day, Levine hired female writers "who embodied the new kind of woman," said Anna Quindlen, a journalist Levine first recruited more than 30 years ago. "Here's Ellen: she lives in the Jersey suburbs, her husband is a doctor, she has two little boys, but she also wants to continue to work, and I think she was kind of at the leading edge of understanding that that was the future."

Levine sees her 1994 appointment as the first female editor in chief of Hearst’s Good Housekeeping since its founding in 1885 as a shrewd business move, rather than a feminist milestone: “I lived the life that women were living,” she said of balancing her family and her career. “And I brought the perspective into the brand of ‘this is how we live,’ and ‘how do you get the dinner on the table,’ which still remains complicated.”

In Levine’s Good Housekeeping, the content reflected a woman who was only part homemaker, a woman who wanted to read home-decorating tips and interviews with Hillary Clinton.

That kind of reader will probably be giving Hearst her feedback after reading Dr. Oz The Good Life.  The company's plan is to convene small focus groups and conduct big surveys to evaluate the first issue, then adjust the April 15th edition accordingly.

And “soon we’ll start to think about what comes next for 2016, but we’re committed to a regular cycle of new products, and I have to believe all of them will be partnership based,” Carey said.

Behind the curtain, for as long as she wants to, Levine will be pulling the levers of the operation. But in her office on the 42nd floor of the Hearst Tower, she still knocks on wood, so as not to jinx it all.