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At Post, old new again

Jeff Nilsson talks about the history of The Saturday Evening Post while standing in the museum at its offices in Indianapolis.

AP photo

A collection of The Saturday Evening Post magazines on display in the publication’s offices in Indianapolis. The nation’s oldest magazine is changing its look and its approach to broaden its appeal beyond its mostly older readers.

AP photo

INDIANAPOLIS — The Saturday Evening Post, a centuries-old publication that helped make illustrator Norman Rockwell a household name and showcased some of America’s greatest 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 said.

But industry experts say the Post — which traces its origins to Benjamin Franklin, though it had a 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,” said Samir A. Husni, who publishes a 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 Web site and a profile on the social-networking site Facebook, Husni said those efforts could shatter the habits of longtime readers without 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 said.

And Husni warned 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 older than 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.

Maureen Mercho, chief operating officer for the Post, said ad sales had dropped due to the recession, prompting the magazine to look for ways to broaden its base. “That … pushed us” to do the redesign, she said.

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 said 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 said the relaunch will increase awareness of the magazine.

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

“America’s going through seismic changes. We want to make sure the Post keeps up with (that),” she said.

To complement the magazine, the Post has relaunched its Web site, 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 Web site offered retrospectives on the 1979 Iranian uprisings.

The Post also has begun a yearslong effort to digitize its historical content and offer it online.

“The key is keeping your hand on the pulse of what Americans are interested in,” SerVaas said. “We’re trying to … 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, said 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 ads, human interest features, fiction, poetry and cartoons. Through the decades, the Post has printed work from such authors as C.S. Lewis, Agatha Christie, William Saroyan, Rudyard Kipling, John Steinbeck, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

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