N&O’s Living in Style breathes its last

livinginstyleWake County subscribers to The News & Observer last Friday received  the final issue of Living in Style magazine, a bi-monthly published by the newspaper since 2006. Jim McClure, vice president for display advertising, told his staff in an e-mail this morning that, “Given our focus on Print & Deliver [a preprint insert program] and Yahoo sales, and taking into account the staffing changes that have recently taken place … [and] in light of the economic pressures on our building and home furnishings customers” the company will discontinue publication of the magazine.

All but one of Living in Style’s staff members left the company through layoffs and buyouts this year, and the publication itself, which once had a circulation of 87,000 per issue, has dwindled from a high of 92 pages in May/June 2007 to 32 in the past week’s November/December issue.

Living in Style was a huge undertaking by The N&O’s Display Advertising Department, setting out to publish a lifestyle magazine that would capture revenue being lost to other glossies produced in the Triangle. It was headed by the local advertising manager, and staffed by a single writer/copy editor – the author of this blog – in addition to a creative manager, design staff and ad sales representatives. Freelancers were enlisted for photography and additional coverage; staff members eventually took over most photography duties.

Each issue presented a cover feature about a large home, a food feature with recipes, seasonal fashion, a gardening feature, a trio of first-person artist profiles, a books column, a short travel article and a lengthy events calendar. When page count allowed, additional features focused on consumer technology and general home/décor topics. It pursued stories from across the state in addition to the Triangle, and was well-received from the start.

After two issues in 2006, the four planned for 2007 became six as the contribution that additional issues would make to all-important fourth-quarter revenues became apparent.

By 2008, the company had established the Niche Publications Division, with Living in Style on a bi-monthly schedule; a quarterly called About Downtown Raleigh published in cooperation with the Downtown Raleigh Association; skirt! Magazine, the local franchise of an established women’s monthly based in Charleston, South Carolina; and a local semi-annual edition of Carolina Bride, which had for years been published by The Charlotte Observer, a sister newspaper.

A talented young journalist was hired to write and edit skirt! and Carolina Bride, and the new division had three dedicated sales reps, a creative/design staff of three and an administrative aide, in addition to Living in Style’s writer/editor and the ad manager now dubbed the director of niche publications and new business development (with a mandate to develop a fifth publication by year’s end). Later in the year, a veteran newspaper editor was brought in under the director as publisher, bringing the staff to 11.

The parent McClatchy Company proclaimed that it was looking toward its newspapers’ niche publications as a reliable and growing revenue source, and N&O Publisher Orage Quarles III backed that sentiment at a company gathering and in a newspaper ad. But consensus among the advertising department was that department management didn’t support Living in Style, seeing it as simply one more product among nearly a dozen with sales goals to be met. Meanwhile, advertising department staff openly opined that Living in Style should be written by a woman instead of the 40-something man assigned to the job.

When the economy turned in late 2008, the fortunes of The N&O and its Niche Publications Division quickly followed. About Downtown Raleigh, which had never caught on, had become an insert in Living in Style and was discontinued at year’s end. Carolina Bride could not compete successfully with established local bridal magazines, and the Winter 2009 edition was its last. One of the division’s three sales reps and its administrative aide were reassigned. In April 2009, the skirt! editor and the creative manager were laid off (the latter after 18 years with the company), and the division’s publisher became the skirt! editor. The two sales reps were told that one had to take a buyout, and the second resigned rather than live with a pressure-packed situation, leaving all sales to the department at large. Living in Style’s distribution was cut to 57,000 as an additional cost-savings measure.

Some 90 days later, I was laid off, as was the skirt! editor/publisher and one of the two remaining designers. The division director, who over the course of the previous year was also assigned to direct Classified Advertising, was re-assigned as a territory ad manager, and the remaining publication designer was transferred to the artists’ pool for the newly merged (Display, Classified and Online) advertising department.

The layoff orders came from the vice president(s) in charge of the advertising department(s) with no consultation with those below them. The niche publications director said in April that “there is no plan” moving forward. She also said at the time that Living in Style was “making good money for this company.” In August, she said she didn’t know how they’d continue to publish nor for certain that she was still in charge of magazines.

It was understood that Living in Style wasn’t making revenue goals and, as the economy sank, advertising dwindled steadily. The 32-page June/July 2009 issue just managed to cover its costs when a full-page ad came through at the last minute. Managers quickly decided to cancel the August/September and October/November issues and pin hopes on a year-end issue bolstered by holiday advertising. It proved a futile expectation as the company moved forward with additional buyouts in November. This round fell most heavily on advertising staff, including the niche publications director, Living in Style’s last advocate.

Living is Style was a lightweight publication, by design providing “fluff,” as the division director put it. But it was written and designed well, and not entirely without useful information. Despite the “advertising supplement” tag that publications of the advertising department must carry, it was not advertorial, as many assumed. (The final issue, produced without a writing staff, carried advertorial for its back-page travel feature and in an article by the president of the Raleigh Regional Association of Realtors – who quotes himself in the story!) It also benefited from distribution inside home-delivered copies of The N&O, as opposed to other local magazines that sit in stores and may or may not go any farther. This was supposed to make the publication more attractive to advertisers.

The magazine was hurt by a poor online presence, in which images of pages were reproduced instead of a true Web site. The division director, in response to my suggestion that Living in Style needed a stronger online presence, replied that “by definition” Niche Publications were print. “We’re doomed,” I thought to myself. The head of the N&O’s online division, in response to the same suggestion, said it had “been decided” that the page-image setup was “good enough.” The good-enough setup went through at least three different vendors. The last was more user-friendly than the earlier ones, but only the first provided functioning links for URLs printed in the magazine. (I always enjoyed giving people the www.livinginstylenc.com address and telling them to be sure to remember the “nc,” because www.livinginstyle.com goes to a much different magazine.)

Skirt! magazine’s local edition (which has had a strong online presence through its parent firm and its editors’ efforts) lives on under the direction of The N&O’s head of community papers and features, at least in part because The N&O signed a 10-year contract to publish it.

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