Magazine Mavens Talk Spirituality, Readership

Magazine editors Suzan Colon of O, The Oprah Magazine; Dawn Baskerville, of Essence Magazine; and Anita Malik of East West Magazine discuss the topics and the people gracing their pages this month. They also talk about the dangers of the magazine industry and how they hope to keep readers engaged.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News.

It's time to check in with the Magazine Mavens, editors of some of our favorite magazines. We gather every month to talk about the stories in the pages of their latest editions. In May, they take on spirituality. The sometimes very high price of generosity and of course, celebrity. Plus, we'll say good bye to one Maven, who's stepping down for now. That also got us thinking about what it takes to run a magazine today, especially magazines that try to give voice to both the uniqueness and diversity of women of multicultural backgrounds. Here to talk about all of this are Suzan Colon, Senior Articles Editor for O, The Oprah Magazine. Dawn Baskerville, Executive Editor of Essence Magazine and Anita Malik of East West Magazine. Welcome Mavens, all.

Ms. SUZAN COLON (Senior Articles Editor, O, The Oprah Magazine): Hello.

Ms. DAWN BASKERVILLE (Executive Editor, Essence Magazine): Hello.

Ms. ANITA MALIK (East West Magazine): Thank you.

MARTIN: Suzan, if we could start, spirituality was a major focus of the magazine this month. What drew the editors to this topic?

Ms. COLON: It's just a big topic with us and with Oprah. You know, it's something that Oprah is - I think she said, that it was the thing that she was most excited about. Talking about, doing new and innovative things. As many people know, she's chosen to do her book club this time as a web cast chapter by chapter, with Eckhart Toler "A New Earth" and that's a huge, huge thing. So, since she's so excited about spirituality and we are always thinking about spirituality, and we are getting the message from the readers that they are always thinking about it. It is an easy thing to do, an entire issue devoted to it.

MARTIN: And you do an interview with the writer with whom she's doing her monthly web chats, tell me his name again?

Ms. COLON: Yes. His name is Eckhart Tolley.

MARTIN: The other thing that intrigued me, though, you have a whole package of interviews with people from a wide variety of backgrounds who talk about what defines spirituality for them. And what intrigued me about this, some of these are people you'd expect, you know, like the writer and holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel.

Ms. COLON: Yes.

MARTIN: But you also have people like Evan Handler.

Ms. COLON: Yes.

MARTIN: An actor of "Sex and the City" fame who survived leukemia.

Ms. COLON: Yes.

MARTIN: As a young man. And I'm just wondering what drew you to all of these people? How did you know they had something important to say on a topic like this?

Ms. COLON: Because everybody has something important to say on this topic. If you grab the woman on the street, or a child, or an elderly person any where, famous, not famous, you will find that they have something very, very unique and resonant to say about the subject of spirituality. You know, yes, we did want to see what Elie Wiesel thinks because we always - who doesn't want to hear what he has to say? But there are also people like Elizabeth Streb, the choreographer. I don't know if you've ever seen her choreography. It is amazing and kind of deadly, in a way that is just like throwing herself around and asking her dancers to, you know, weave in between cinder blocks. Now, this is a person I want to know what does she think about spirituality? It's really - there are a lot surprises. We wanted to get artists. We got singers like Patti Smith and Tracy Chapman and Wintley Phipps. Joan Snyder, the artist and Francisco Clemente. Everybody has something to say about spirituality and the answers that we got were incredible.

MARTIN: I think there's a lesson there of going to the unexpected choice.

Ms. COLON: Yes.

MARTIN: And speaking of surprises, Dawn, you have boxer Laila Ali on the cover and she has a - I think, a side to her that some people would find surprising?

Ms. BASKERVILLE: Oh definitely. A much more warm and nurturing side to herself. She's retired now, actually, at age 30, after having won all 26 of her professional fights. And we were happy to be able to feature her and her husband on the cover and share with the world their news that they are expecting their first child.

MARTIN: That kid is going to be so..

Ms. BASKERVILLE: Gorgeous.

MARTIN: Gorgeous. It's just sickening. Again, how did you know that she had this surprising side because she talks very much about, you know, home, family. I mean, here's a woman who really grew up in the spotlight, in some ways, having such a famous father. Who is still an icon of graphic figure and her mother is a famous person.

Ms. BASKERVILLE: Absolutely. Absolutely.

MARTIN: To hear her longing for a home and family of her own, I think was very moving.

Ms. BASKERVILLE: Well, actually, we are coming to both her and her husband. It's kind of like a second time around thing. They've both been married before and so this is a second marriage for each one of them - for both of them, rather. And she just kind of wanted to put the celebrity aside for a moment. She talks about not actually wanting to go after a celebrity as a mate. She wound up marrying her husband, Curtis Conway, who is a retired NFL player. And didn't even want to deal with an athlete because she just thinks that the business is a little sleazy. And just wanted to bring it home and focus on family because that's really very important to her. So, they're both very, very excited to be expecting. First child for her, and I think this might be his fourth.

MARTIN: Interesting. And this month we unfortunately have some sad, sad news, at least for now. We're going to say good-bye to maven Anita Malik, she's been part of our group since the beginning, but she's made the difficult decision to halt production of East West which is a bi-monthly, geared toward the Asian-American lifestyle. I think many people consider it to be, you know, the Essence magazine for Asian-American women, and Anita, if you could just share, to the degree you feel comfortable, what do you think is the difficulty there? Do you think that the market for a magazine for this particular audience just wasn't there...

Ms. MALIK : Yeah.

MARTIN: Or was it - what?

Ms. MALIK: It's two-fold. I mean I think overall the magazine industry is seeing that the print model is challenging right now, with the web and what's happening there, and then on the other side of that it really is our market. It's a market specific problem. Asian-Americans are a broad group and advertisers - corporate America has not figured out yet how to target them, and that's a problem because there's so many stories, there's so much information that needs to get out and you just - you need that platform.

MARTIN: And I think it's been a very interesting experience finding out how Asian-American women are living their lives in America - kind of the richness of their experience, the fields that you find - Asian-American women in that perhaps might be a surprise to some people. One of my favorites I think was the story you did about the woman - the sommelier in Chicago who's not just that she's Asian, but she's one of the youngest people ever to achieve this particular certification.

Ms. MALIK : A master sommelier, yes.

MARTIN: A master sommelier, so - well kudos to you for the effort...

Ms. MALIK: Yes.

MARTIN: But you are going to try to reinvent, as a web based publication, correct?

Ms. MALIK: We are. We are. We are looking into that right now . I decided to take a step back. You know, I think with a lot of magazines are also struggling with the web. What do you do there necessarily? At the end of the day the content is the most important thing and getting those issues out about healthcare and different things that really affect our community specifically, so the best way to get the content out, to me, is a priority. And so we're taking a look at that, and I will say, I won't write off the print product. We're also looking at maybe a way to do that. I think that both going forward for the industry, both print and web, are both viable mediums. There are readers for each, you just have to find a way to make the two work together.

MARTIN: Dawn, you have a goodbye in your magazine this month as well. You're saying goodbye to such a towering figure for this magazine. She was a beauty editor, editor-in-chief. What's she going to do?

Ms. BASKERVILLE: Oh, Susan Taylor is an icon and in Essence's 38 years, she was a part of the magazine for 37 of them, so who gets to say that? But Susan Taylor is busy, has never stopped working and probably never will. She's very involved in an initiative that she started, National Care's Mentoring Movement, and that's a nationwide crusade which seeks to enlist one million volunteers, adults, into a massive mentoring initiative, so she is quite busy. She's an ambassador to different countries, just, you know, spreading the word of mentorship and you know, you haven't seen the last of Susan Taylor.

MARTIN: Well, we wish her all the best. If you're just joining us this is Tell Me More from NPR News and I'm speaking with our Magazine Mavens Dawn Baskerville of Essence Magazine, Anita Malik of East West, and Suzan Colon of O, about their latest publications. Well, speaking of the web, Dawn, I mean, Essence has just made a big announcement that they're actually going to daily on the web, with the help of your parent company Time Warner. Now that's a very interesting move, but I've also noticed that essence.com has gotten a lot more robust in recent months. Just curious as to why the move to daily?

Ms. BASKERVILLE: Well, because our credo at Essence is we put black women first, and we've also learned that we have to learn where black women go, and increasingly they are going into digital arenas to get their news and information. And, you know, every magazine is trying to figure out how they can expand their brand to extend to digital entities and so it's a natural, I think, segway - it just seemed like a natural fit to be able to open up the magazine brand, not only to the pages of the magazine, but also to other arenas such as video, television, other...

MARTIN: You have some web-only content, for example, which you refer to in the magazine, but which really kind of plays out on the web. Is there anything that you've noticed works better on the web than it does in the magazine, or I don't know just...

Ms. BASKERVILLE: I think relationships and commentary. Black women have no problem telling us what they think, and so if you give them a platform to do that, they are more than happy to do that. So to get them, you know, involved with things like our Will You Marry Me initiative that we did and 30 dates in 30 days where they actually could have an interactive experience. It works really, really well because you have to keep them engaged. Not only, you know, they look forward to the magazine every month, but they also want to be able to get up and see what is Essence talking about and we want to make sure that they actually have some fodder to discuss when they're at that water cooler.

MARTIN: Suzan, in contrast though, O is remarkable because it is one of the most successful magazine launches in history, but the other thing that's always intrigued me about O is it breaks a lot of the rules that people thought they had about magazines. For example, you don't have to wait, you know, forgive me, a ten - fifty, a million, fifty, eleven, ads before you get to the content.

Ms. COLON: That was Oprah's declaration. Where is the table of contents? I want it up front on page two.

MARTIN: And speaking of Oprah, same cover model every month, which is different.

Ms. COLON: Yes. I tell you something. It makes everything so easy for us. Not for her unfortunately...

MARTIN: Not for her.

Ms. COLON: Because she is a very busy women, but for us, you know, there's no jockeying which celebrity are we going to put on the cover, oh, that's right, we have our own.

MARTIN: But it also is - I don't know how to kind of express it, but it's very diverse and you don't shy away from the challenges that people of particular backgrounds confront. Like you'll say, look, you know what, women of a certain ethnic background often have certain body issues that you have to address, and of course you're really up front about it. But I'm just wondering if that diversity makes it harder to put the magazine together every month, or easier?

Ms. COLON: I think it makes it easier because I, you know, I've worked at magazines that had a specific target audience and I've never worked at a magazine actually, that had as broad an audience as this. It seems like most general interest magazines are still not as broad as this one because Oprah is every woman. People identify with her incredibly and so it actually makes the magazine easier for us to put out because we can address a wide range...

MARTIN: But, you know, it's also interesting, but, again, each magazine kind of does its own thing. Like, Dawn, one of the features in Essence this month, that I think really struck me is you talk about money, but you talk about the number one money mistake that all black women make, and you are very blunt. And one of those mistakes is being so generous with family and friends that sometimes women are hurting themselves financially, and I think it's one of those painful truths that a lot of people have to confront. Wondering what kind of reaction you've gotten to the piece? Has anybody said look you're airing our dirty laundry, we don't need, you know, creditors to know this about us. We don't need, you know, people to have this out there in the public eye. Or just, you know what I mean, what are people saying?

Ms. BASKERVILLE: No, the reaction is thank you because it kind of validates - I mean, we all do this. And you're thinking you're helping, you want to be nurturing and caring and it's very, very difficult to say no, but we find that we sometimes do it to the point of detriment to ourselves. You know, it starts this cycle of dependency where you give until it hurts you, and you don't have enough to give your children and they learn bad habits and it just goes on and on and on. So what we try to do is give people strategies on how to actually say no in a nice way and to actually maybe be helpful in other ways other than actually digging into your purse.

MARTIN: Well, it's tough love for sure.

Ms. BASKERVILLE: Yeah.

MARTIN: That's tough love for sure, and I do wonder if that's the kind of conversation you could have in another kind of magazine. I don't, you know, I don't know.

Ms. BASKERVILLE: I know it's something that's specific to black women, but I think women in general kind of fall prey to that as well and we've got to learn that you have to build boundaries around what you give. It doesn't mean that you don't, but it just means that you also have to remember to give to yourself first.

MARTIN: Well, we have to build some boundaries around time unfortunately. It's always that time where I hate to say good bye because we could certainly talk, but I always have to ask, what was your favorite article in this month's magazine? And Anita, I'm going to start with you because unfortunately this is our last time visiting with you for now.

Ms. MALIK: Oh, favorite article of all time maybe?

MARTIN: Sure. That sounds fine. That's fair.

Ms. MALIK: Oh, you know, my mind, the way it works, I can't remember. But I think probably the fun one that we did recently was how comic books are now adding more diverse characters and what that means for people and I think that was a real fun one, so.

MARTIN: Dawn, what about you? What was your favorite article in this month's magazine?

Ms. BASKERVILLE: I think I loved our bold and beautiful package. Anytime we can celebrate great women and the things that they're doing other than being celebrities and just being everyday people who are behind great causes, it's a great opportunity, so I would say that one where we talked to people like Malak Rock and Leah Dodre (ph) and Cookie Johnson and did philanthropic endeavors that they're doing in addition to being linked to famous people.

MARTIN: That was interesting. It was interesting to hear the kinds of things they're interested in and why.

Ms. BASKERVILLE: Oh, definitely.

MARTIN: That was interesting. Suzan, what about you?

Ms. COLON: I'm having a really hard time deciding. I know that it's got to be something. I think, you know, the entire spirituality package that we have this month is just - is really, you know, not to sound corny about it, but there's something for everybody in here. There's something for doubters, you know, called the Doubter's Dilemma. There's Evan Handler's "I Don't Know" where people are always asking him for, you know, his take on spirituality because he survived cancer and, you know, he's got this young daughter when he was never going to be able to do this. And people think he's some kind of guru now and he just doesn't have it figured out, and "Looking for Stillness" by Beverly Donofrio where she felt that she was just out of touch with God so she went on a series of retreats to try to rekindle that connection. I mean there's just so many, I think, you know, for a person with any interest in spirituality there's going to be something here that really speaks to them.

MARTIN: Can I tell you mine?

Ms. COLON: Yes, please.

MARTIN: The piece about the freedom riders.

Ms. COLON: Oh yes!

MARTIN: Your writer went back and found some of the people who went on the freedom rides, found their mug shots...

Ms. COLON: Yes!

MARTIN: And published the contemporary photos alongside them. I thought that was incredibly inspiring.

Ms. COLON: Isn't that a beautiful - such a beautiful story and got their stories from, you know, what they're like today and what it was like then and these people were really - they were taking action for a good cause and laying themselves on the line, going to jail and he got their stories. And that's an incredible piece, yes.

MARTIN: And the pictures are lovely, and also, Dawn, I have to say the money piece in Essence I thought was - not telling business, I'm just going to say...

Ms. BASKERVILLE: OK. Read, Michel! Read it. Live it.

MARTIN: That's all I'm going to say. Our magazine mavens Dawn Baskerville of Essence Magazine, Suzan Colon of O, The Oprah Magazine, they joined us in our New York studio, and Anita Malik of East West Magazine, she was at member station KJZZ in Tempe, Arizona. Ladies, thank you, and Anita, we wish you the best.

Ms. COLON: Good luck, Anita.

Ms. BASKERVILLE: Thank you, Anita.

Ms. MALIK: Thank you!

Ms. COLON: Thanks.

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