Saturday Evening Post Turns the Page

Four decades after a businessman from Indianapolis saved the publication, his daughter, Joan SerVaas, faces an even tougher challenge: getting America to read it again.

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Almost everything about the headquarters of The Saturday Evening Post seems dated. The squat cement building and the inner-city office park. The Quaker spindle chairs in the conference room, which doubles as a museum with antiquey artifacts from ads that appeared in the Post in the early 1900s. The display cases in the lobby filled with collectible painted plates and porcelain figurines arranged in charming vignettes, all of which depict scenes from Norman Rockwell paintings that graced Post covers in simpler times, when American boys had cowlicks and all the little girls wore dresses.

Licensing those images is how publisher Joan SerVaas, an attorney by training, cut her teeth at the Post. Her father, the prominent Indy businessman and politician Beurt SerVaas, acquired the magazine when she was in high school and later put her to work pulling old issues from the archives, photographing Rockwell covers with a tripod-mounted camera, and cutting deals to place the images on stuff that grandmas bought from mail-order catalogues.

Despite having worked here in some capacity for almost four decades, Joan SerVaas is still one of the freshest things the 193-year-old Post has going for it, and not only because she is a comparatively young—and spry—60 years of age. On this particular day, her slim black slacks, red scarf, and jaunty white blouse are splashes of style on the country-crafts backdrop of the Post’s offices. In her free time, she says, she likes to make novelty business cards. She plops down a fat binder of her handiwork, arranged neatly in plastic sleeves, and pulls one out. On the front is her name and title: “Joan SerVaas, president and CEO, publisher.” On the back, a 1928 Post cover by artist Penrhyn Stanlaws, with a fashionable lady holding up a golf ball. “One ball in the hand,” reads a SerVaas-added inscription, “is worth 2 in the bush.”

It was said of the Post’s readers that they expired before their subscriptions did.

Most of the time, though, SerVaas is driven by an altogether more-serious pursuit: returning the Post—a publication that was, until recently, nearly as dated as its offices—to its rightful place among the nation’s great titles. But more than a year after a revamp of the magazine, SerVaas continues to struggle with getting noticed. “One of the biggest problems we have,” she says, “is that people don’t know we’re still publishing.”


Just a generation ago
—when the magazine printed enough copies to reach roughly one in 10 U.S. households—it would have been difficult to imagine The Saturday Evening Post ever having a visibility problem. It has a much-touted (if apocryphal) historic tie to Ben Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette, and, at its circulation peak in the 1960s, readership was close to 7 million. It was a general-interest publication in the broadest sense, reflecting the lifestyles, concerns, and anxieties of Middle Americans living in the middle of the 20th century. And while the Post might not have carried the intellectual prestige of The New Yorker and The Atlantic, it had clout. The December 14, 1963 edition, printed after John Kennedy’s assassination and featuring a now-iconic Rockwell portrait of the slain president on its cover, included bylines from Jimmy Breslin, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and Dwight Eisenhower. (The Post reissued the magazine in its entirety this past winter to mark the 50-year anniversary.) And it was pedigreed: Over the years, the Post published short fiction by the likes of Edgar Allen Poe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Kurt Vonnegut Jr., and infamously rejected manuscripts by Ernest Hemingway, who never forgave the slight.

But while the Post could boast a large audience in the ’60s, the business side of what was once the most profitable of any magazine in America had little to brag about. Ad dollars were flowing away from print and toward television. To Madison Avenue, the Post’s conservative viewpoint and celebration of “traditional values” seemed particularly out of step with the changing times. Parent company Curtis Publishing bled red ink throughout the decade and finally fell into insolvency. “This is one of the saddest days of my life,” president Martin Ackerman lamented at a press conference on January 9, 1969. “Indeed, it is sad for the American public. Apparently there is just not the need for our product in today’s scheme of living.”

Beurt SerVaas, owner of a successful cleaning-products company in Indy, had a reputation for turning around failing businesses. But he had no intentions of reviving the Post when, in 1971, he bought 700,000 shares of Curtis Publishing stock for pennies on the dollar, becoming the Philadelphia-based company’s majority stakeholder and president. “I came into this company to preside over its death,” he told The New York Times. His plan was to liquidate corporate holdings, settle accounts with creditors, and take home whatever was left. (In pursuit of an anachronistic vertical-integration strategy, previous management had amassed printing presses, shipping fleets, warehouses, paper mills, and even timberland in order to control distribution from tree to doorstep.) SerVaas was more interested in the still-profitable Jack and Jill, one of Curtis’s children’s magazines, than the Post, whose primary value, he thought, lay in its stash of intellectual property; he figured he could squeeze a few bucks out of the moribund title by printing Norman Rockwell calendars.

As SerVaas bounced between Philadelphia and Indy, assets in the Curtis building, including original paintings by Rockwell and other artists, began to disappear, presumably carried off by employees as they picked up their last paychecks. SerVaas had whatever was left in the building loaded onto Mayflower trucks and delivered here, including a vast archive of newspapers, magazines, and corporate papers dating back to the mid-19th century.

In the meantime, Rockwell reached out to request the return of some of his paintings, and SerVaas obliged. As the story goes, the two men had a cordial conversation, and Rockwell later retrieved several canvases. A few weeks after that, Rockwell told the Today show about the discussion and that the Post’s current owner was planning to bring back the magazine—which came as news to SerVaas. But the enthusiastic phone calls and thank-you letters that flooded his office after the “announcement” convinced him to give the public what it wanted. He rushed a new issue to press in 1971, and the Post has been published out of Indianapolis ever since. 

When Joan Servaas took over as publisher in 2008, however, the Post was a mere shadow of what it had been. It had a circulation of 750,000 at its post-relaunch peak—a respectable number for all but the largest national publications. (Vanity Fair, another general-interest mag that folded and found new life, reaches more than a million readers.) But by the start of SerVaas’s tenure, the figure had dwindled to around 300,000. It was often said of the Post’s loyal remaining readers that they expired before their subscriptions did. Suffice it to say, at the time SerVaas took charge, a lot of subscriptions—and advertising contracts—were going un-renewed. 

Readership and revenues weren’t the only areas in which the Post had declined. In 1986, Beurt SerVaas turned the operation over to a nonprofit foundation headed by the family. And it became, in essence, a passion project for his wife, Cory, a physician with an undergraduate degree in journalism—and a near-fanatical interest in preventive medicine. “She was a crusader,” Joan SerVaas says of her mother (who, appropriately enough, also hosted a television program on The 700 Club). Instead of focusing on broadly appealing health and wellness topics, she often ran what Joan calls “blood and guts” articles about diseases and procedures. The Post was, for all intents and purposes, a medical journal, complete with covers that sometimes featured doctors in white coats.

As the downturn in the U.S. economy dried up advertising budgets and brutalized print publications—none worse than the Post—SerVaas realized the magazine was no longer viable. But her attempts at reviving it have proceeded in starts and stops. In 2009, she brought in some fresh editorial eyes and directed a content makeover that incorporated more topical articles but also left much of the medical focus intact—and, ultimately, did little to grow the magazine’s subscription base. She enlisted consultants, including industry veteran Steve Slon (who, in an interesting twist of fate, got his first-ever clip as a freelance writer in the Post in 1979). Slon was on the original staff of Men’s Health—he claims credit for the line “rock-hard abs”—and served as chief editor at AARP The Magazine. What he saw at the Post was a book with a famous title but no clear direction. “It wasn’t that good, frankly,” he says.

In 2012, Slon agreed to come on board as editorial director and associate publisher, and, less than a year later, the Post unveiled another overhaul, and SerVaas announced that the magazine was moving some of its offices back to Philadelphia. The title also enjoyed some of the fruits of a new relationship with the Rosen Group, a New York PR firm that managed to get stories about the magazine in USA Today and The New York Post. (SerVaas’s claim that the Post was moving to Philly proved premature, however. A year later, the offices remain in Indy and will indefinitely, SerVaas now admits.)

The new-look Post is indeed an improvement, with updated typefaces, contemporary design cues, and a more modern-looking nameplate (adapted, ironically, from a version in the 1930s). The story lineups seem tailored to a demographic perhaps best described as “Baby Boomers in Autumn”: aging and nostalgic, but still young and affluent enough to enjoy life. Recent issues have included a 50th anniversary retrospective on the Beatles’ U.S. invasion, a travel piece on Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail, and conversations with the likes of Robert Redford, Alan Alda, and Helen Mirren, as well as a return to short fiction.

The revamped Post is at its best, however, when it mines its own archives for material that resonates in the present. The cover of the March/April issue featured an illustration of a high-rise office adapted from a ’60s Rockwell classic, populated with the characters of Mad Men. Inside, a roundtable Q&A with the show’s stars and creator is followed by a stunning portfolio of actual illustrated advertisements from the Golden Age of Madison Avenue. In one, a woman holds a steaming cup of freshly poured coffee under her nose, above the words “Husband Pleasing Coffee.”

The challenge is drawing on old material without seeming, well, old. “The Post has this glorious past, but I didn’t want it to be a nostalgia magazine,” says Slon. “We want to bring it back to the level of prominence it had in the midcentury.”

“If you isolate the new Post from the history, it’s a very good magazine,” says publishing-industry expert Samir Husni. “The problem is, you cannot separate it from the past, and that is an incredibly high standard. Can it ever reach the same scale that it used to? No.”

SerVaas admits that while she is pleased with the Post’s new look and feel, readers and advertisers have been disappointingly slow to notice. After the redesign, she told USA Today that her goal was to double its 300,000 subscribers within five years. A year on, she has seen only a small uptick. And although the content is livelier by leaps and bounds, most of the ads—for hearing aids, walking canes, life insurance, and the like—still speak to the geriatric crowd.

But SerVaas seems determined to remain for the long haul. On a recent tour of the Post, she opened up the archive—a climate-controlled room behind a secure steel door at the end of a long, dim corridor—where dozens of racks, lined up from wall to wall and loaded floor-to-ceiling, hold stacks of printed documents chronicling nearly 200 years of American life, from the Civil War to the Titanic. “All this stuff was in two buildings in New York and Philadelphia,” says SerVaas. “Dad thought it was important to bring it home and keep it. If it had stayed on the East Coast, it probably would’ve been in a Dumpster by now. It would all be gone.”

SerVaas is directing an effort to scan every page in that archive, with the hope of someday making it all available in a digital, searchable database. After that, she wants to donate the pile to a good home—a library or a university, perhaps located somewhere near the Post’s “home” in Philadelphia. “The family considers itself a curator of this record of American history,” says Slon. SerVaas seems to realize that after four decades of stewardship, a day may come when her family is no longer able or willing to continue.

On February 2, 2014, Beurt SerVaas died at the age of 94. In the weeks that followed, a pile of cards sat on a small writing table in Joan SerVaas’s office—notes she received from well-wishers after the loss. Her father’s office, decorated with antique weapons and framed photographs of him with at least three different presidents, was still completely intact, as though he might walk in, roll up his sleeves, and get back to work at any moment. Now that he’s gone, the weight of The Saturday Evening Post rests squarely on his daughter’s shoulders. She didn’t just take over a family concern; she inherited responsibility for an American institution. After all those hours digging magazines out of the archives and photographing Rockwell covers, she has come to regard the Post’s survival as a personal mission. “My father once wrote, we’re old-fashioned enough to believe much can be learned from the past, new-fashioned enough to search for ways to a better future,” she says. “I feel like this is something that needs to be preserved.”

 

Illustration by Lincoln Agnew

This article appeared in the June 2014 issue.

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