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Revamped Saturday Evening Post still takes pulse of America

THE Saturday Evening Post, a centuries-old publication that helped make illustrator Norman Rockwell an American icon and showcased some of the greatest US writers, is returning to its roots to show readers the value of a quiet read in an increasingly frenetic digital age.

A redesign launching with its July/August issue combines the Post's hallmarks - art and fiction - with folksy commentary and health articles. The revamped Post promises a more relaxing option for people who are used to doing much of their reading online, or are simply tired of special-interest magazines crammed into tight niches.

"There is a void of magazines now that do emphasize art and creative writing and fiction," publisher Joan SerVaas says.

But industry experts say the Post - which traces its origins to Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), though it had a brief hiatus from 1969 to 1971 - risks alienating its core readers while trying to buck a decades-long shift away from general-interest magazines.

"The Saturday Evening Post is no longer my father's magazine; it's my grandfather's magazine," says Samir A. Husni, who publishes an annual guide to consumer magazines as director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi.

Although the Post is making concessions to the digital age, through weekly updates to its Website and a profile on the social-networking site Facebook, Husni says those efforts could shatter the habits of longtime readers without necessarily drawing new ones.

"Reading the magazine from A to Z should be a complete experience that I don't need to go some other place to fulfill that experience," he says.

And Husni warns that the changes to the print edition might come across to longtime readers as a lesser version of what the Post once was.

The magazine, whose circulation peaked at 6 million in 1960, now has 350,000 readers, most of whom are women over 45. That's low compared with the general interest, health and lifestyle magazines with which it competes, such as Prevention, with circulation of 3.3 million, and Guideposts, at 2 million.

Many publications have tried new approaches amid advertising and circulation challenges in a digital age. The large-format Rolling Stone shrank to standard magazine size last year, in part to help boost single-copy sales because it now fits better on magazine racks. TV Guide, meanwhile, grew into a full-size magazine in 2005.

"We've yet to see what will work," Husni says.

Maureen Mercho, chief operating officer for the Post, says ad sales had dropped because of the recession, prompting the magazine to look for ways to broaden its base. "That probably pushed us" to do the redesign, she says.

Post officials also hope that by mixing the magazine's popular art and health features with such content as commentary by former CBS News "Sunday Morning" host Charles Osgood, poetry by Ray Bradbury and fiction by John Hemingway, grandson of Ernest Hemingway, the magazine could boost circulation to 500,000 in the coming years.

Mercho says some people are surprised the Post still exists. She suspects that's because the magazine is primarily available only to subscribers; fewer than 5,000 copies an issue are sold on newsstands. But she believes the relaunch will increase awareness of the magazine.

"The thing the Post has done well over the years is interpret America for America," Mercho says, echoing George Horace Lorimer, who edited the magazine for more than 30 years in the early 1900s.

"America is going through seismic changes, and we want to make sure the Post keeps up with what is going on," she says.

To complement the magazine, the Post has relaunched its Website, offering new posts each Saturday evening - naturally - with retrospective, art, blogs, health coverage and other content. Amid the Iranian protests over a disputed presidential election, the Website offered retrospectives on the 1979 Iranian uprisings.

The Post also has begun a yearslong effort to digitize its historical content and offer it online.

"I think the key is keeping your hand on the pulse of what Americans are interested in," publisher SerVaas says.

"We're just trying to make sure we stay on that pulse."

America's love affair with the Post and its predecessor date to 1728, when Benjamin Franklin founded the Pennsylvania Gazette in Philadelphia. New owners changed the publication's name to The Saturday Evening Post in 1821, but it remained a newspaper for decades.

"It was a lot like a Weblog now," publishing its own articles and reprinting pieces from other papers, says Jeff Nilsson, who oversees the Post archives.

By the 1870s, the content had shifted toward entertainment, with fiction on the front page. The page count began creeping up as the Post became a true magazine with more advertising, human interest features, fiction, poetry and cartoons. Over the decades, the Post has printed work from such authors as C.S. Lewis, Agatha Christie, William Saroyan, Rudyard Kipling, John Steinbeck, Kurt Vonnegut and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Lorimer, who became editor in 1899, made the cover into an artists' showcase, featuring J.C. Leyendecker, N.C. Wyeth and others. In 1916, the Post began a nearly 50-year relationship with Norman Rockwell, whose cover work became a hallmark of the magazine.

"It worked well on both ends," says Stephanie Plunkett, chief curator at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. "I think he understood that the Post provided an outlet that was not really available in other places. He was able to reach a really broad audience with his art, and that's one of the reasons he became as famous as he did."

The artistic covers gave way in the 1960s to photographs of the Beatles, politicians, Klansmen and hippies. Fiction and poetry yielded to investigative reporting as the Post tried to compete with television and newsmagazines like Life and Look.

But mass-market magazines suffered as reading habits changed, more people watched television and specialty publications became popular, Husni says.

The Post ceased publication in 1969, crumpling under financial pressure the TV-print war placed on parent Curtis Publishing. SerVaas' father, Beurt, revived the magazine in 1971 as a quarterly publication after Rockwell announced on television that Beurt SerVaas was considering bringing back the Post, generating broad interest.

The magazine, now published six times a year, has been in the family since, with Joan SerVaas becoming publisher in 2007. It is now owned by a not-for-profit group set up by the SerVaas family that also owns children's magazines Jack and Jill, Humpty Dumpty and Turtle.

As part of its redesign, the magazine has appointed an editorial advisory board that boasts Osgood, former Reader's Digest editor-in-chief Jackie Leo and Richard F. Snow, former editor-in-chief of American Heritage magazine.

While Husni is skeptical about the magazine's future, media strategist Lou Ann Sabatier of Falls Church, Virginia, notes that the Post has a "brand aura" that has endured despite changes in owners and formats.

"I think there's a hunger for this," she says, referring to the Post's new approach. "In publishing, it's timing. I think the timing is very good for them."


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