At work with: Steven Slon, The Saturday Evening Post

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Best known for its Norman Rockwell covers of the early 20th century, US stalwart the Saturday Evening Post has just marked its 200th year with a special issue. Current editorial director Steven Slon recalls his first piece for the magazine, explains its contemporary format, and pulls out some of the major stories from its unique archive. 

The Saturday Evening Post first appeared in 1821, and aside from a brief hiatus in the late 1970s has been published ever since. Its heyday was the 1920s—1960s, when it grew to become one of the most influential magazines for the American middle classes.

Steve Slon lives in Florida and has worked on many of the largest publications in the US, including AARP Magazine and Mens’s Health.

Tell us about your typical Monday morning.
This morning I was up around 7, and as usual, the first order of business was heading straight for the Nespresso machine. My usual dose: two shots of espresso, each with foamed milk on top and dash of sugar. Next, I went out for a bike ride (Apologies to the snowbound, but winter is outdoor weather in Florida. If it’s any consolation, summer is brutal).

There’s a nice 7-mile route along the cart path of an abandoned golf course nearby. Along the way, lots of wildlife, including ospreys, herons, egrets and ibis and the occasional sandhill crane, and rarer still, an alligator sunning itself on the side of a lake, plus these gigantic green and sometimes orange iguanas, which scurry away in a panic as you ride by. This has been my go-to cardio workout most days during the pandemic– outdoors, away from people, safe — ever since my local gym closed.

After a shower and some stretching, I take a look at my day planner, into which I’d jotted notes on Friday and over the weekend about upcoming projects and a general to-do list. Without this planning tool, I’d be lost. So many small details!

Describe the state of your desk and what you can see in your office
In effect, I’ve been working from home for years. As I mentioned above, I’m based in Florida and our headquarters are in Indianapolis. Prior to the pandemic, I would travel there one week each month. But, it’s all been remote work since last March.

My desk tends to get cluttered, but I keep an area free – just enough space to see my computer screen and have room for pen and paper. Imagine a swimmer’s breast stroke as I brush all the accumulated bills, notes, assorted masks, and publications, to the sides every day or two.

The view: The blank gray wall of my neighbor’s house. Good not to have distractions, right? Between my house and the wall is a nondescript small tree. Last year, a pair of doves nested in the tree and had babies. I would watch the mother feed the chicks sometimes and the mama dove would eye me back, suspiciously it seemed, through the window.

Are you feeling optimistic about 2021?
In 2020, I was feeling highly optimistic about 2021, thinking about travel, life going back to normal, the coming vaccine. Now, even though I’ve had the inoculation, I’m a little less optimistic. Not enough people are getting the vaccine quickly enough. We’re still going to need masks for the foreseeable future. And, we’d been hoping to get to Italy this summer to see our kids and grandkid, but travel abroad is not yet possible.

On the plus side, ad sales are starting to bounce back after a below-average year. Our January issue was one of the strongest of the year in ad revenue and January, as most of the readers of this column will know, is usually one of the weakest for ad sales.

Which magazine do you first remember? Which magazine matters to you the most right now?
Without a doubt, Mad magazine. The irreverence was shocking. And thrilling! Mad tore up everything, movies, TV (“Mission Ridiculous”), and especially advertising. It was a great awakening. I actually raided my piggy bank and stuffed $5 cash into an envelope for a three year subscription in about 1960. Miraculously it was fulfilled.

I later became a fan of the New Yorker. My parents subscribed. A kid gets into it slowly. For a period of time, you check out the cartoons. As reading skills improve, maybe you dabble in the Talk of the Town. Later, you find yourself blown away by a 20,000 word piece on tomatoes.

As for other magazines that matter, I subscribe to Smithsonian and I used to love Esquire when David Granger was editor. Bob Love is doing a great job with AARP magazine (where I used to be Editor-in-chief). But I’d say The Atlantic is doing the best of all of them in telling the story and framing the politics of America today.

Describe your magazine in three words.
Sorry, need six! Celebrating America, Past, Present and Future

Do you recall first seeing the Saturday Evening Post?
My parents didn’t subscribe, so I don’t recall a specific issue, although I was certainly aware of it. However, I sold one of my first articles to the Saturday Evening Post.

This was in 1979. The article was about patenting. The editor who wrote back to say they were buying it was named Patrick Perry. Imagine my surprise, in 2010, visiting the Indianapolis office for the first time and meeting Patrick. Pat today is the executive editor and, to put it simply, the magazine would not be able to function without him.

Over the 200 years, the magazine has covered some defining moments in world history. Can you highlight some examples?
The sheer longevity of the publication means that it had a role in covering quite a few of those moments. In the 19th century, when the Post was a broadsheet, it covered Napoleon’s death, the Alamo, Queen Victoria’s coronation, the gold rush, Dred Scott, John Brown.

At the end of the Civil War, we published an amazing piece dictated by a Union bugler who witnessed Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox firsthand. We also covered Lincoln’s assassination in a piece that appeared a mere week after the event – record time in those days! There’s plenty more: fiction by Edgar Allen Poe, articles by Mark Twain, a profile of an elderly, deaf Beethoven — so shy he would only perform in a private room, separated from his audience.

In 1899, the magazine got a new owner in Cyrus Curtis and, with the guidance of a brilliant editor, George Horace Lorimer, remade itself as a modern magazine, complete with cover art that would come to define the publication in the 20th century.

There’s Norman Rockwell, of course. Lorimer discovered the 22 -year- old artist in 1916 and immediately bought three of his paintings. Rockwell would go on to paint 321 covers, but there were dozens of other illustrators represented in the Post over the years. (Subscribers can view all of our past issues in flip-book form, but we frequently surface collections of cover art in front of the paywall for all to appreciate.)

Lorimer believed its readers should be well-rounded, so fiction became a centerpiece. In 1903, the Post published The Call of the Wild by then-unknown Jack London. Over the years, the magazine published such names as Ray Bradbury, Agatha Christie, William Faulkner, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Kurt Vonnegut, and Dorothy Parker. We continue the tradition to this day, running new fiction in every issue and holding an annual fiction writing contest to discover tomorrow’s great writers.

As for the magazine’s most influential stories, among the top 10 is certainly Jack Alexander’s 1941 article: “Alcoholics Anonymous: Freed Slaves of Drink, Now They Free Others.” Prior to this, AA was a small, obscure organization, but the story struck a nerve, legitimizing AA and turning it into the international powerhouse it is today.

Our longevity, and the depth of the magazine’s reporting means that we can frame contemporary events a part of larger trends or cycles. For example, we covered the 2008 recession, pointing out that it was part of a history of boom and bust in American financial institutions, rather than a one-off event. More recently, in a regular column, Post Perspective, we were able to talk about the current pandemic in the context of 1918’s flu epidemic.

There’s so much more: in-depth profiles of mid century celebrities like Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart; the behind-the-scenes machinations of Branch Rickey to sign Jackie Robinson and integrate baseball; our wartime coverage, in which we had reporters on the beach at D-Day; in-depth coverage of the Kennedy assassination…I could go on.

The traditions of the magazine are both a wonderful legacy but also, perhaps, a burden. What is the mission of today’s magazine?
Our mission in brief:  The Saturday Evening Post has chronicled American history in the making — reflecting the distinctive characteristics and values that define the American way.

Why is this important? At the turn of the century, America was not in any sense a “United” States. There were pockets of immigration all over, people speaking different languages, there were different cultures. And remember travel was difficult at the time. The average person may not have gone 20 miles from home in a lifetime. So, the Post gave this picture of America, partly through its covers, its portraits, its illustrations by Rockwell and others, a picture of America that people could relate to and say “yes, that’s who we are.”

Now you could call this legacy a burden, since it goes against the grain of today’s trend toward verticality in publishing. But, to me, this role is more vital than ever with the country as divided as it is. As an editor, it’s also liberating to have a larger playground, if you will. Instead of writing about how to obtain ‘rock hard abs’ as we used to do over and over at Men’s Health (I challenge you to try to make that interesting each time!) or ‘back-country powder skiing’ as a typical narrow-focused ski publication must do today, the Saturday Evening Post is thinking about the broader questions, such as ‘What is America today? Where are we going? How can we be better citizens?’

Share some highlights from the current issue of the magazine that are representative of its modern positioning
We’re not just about history, but we’re also engaged with pop culture, trends, travel, health and more. In our Jan/Feb issue, aside from our reporting on our own 200th anniversary, we featured an article by a poker player on the nature of luck and how professional players think about it.

For our March/April issue, an article ‘Senior Stoners’ points to the growing trend of cannabis consumption by boomers. Pot is not just for kids anymore.

What’s going to be the highlight of this coming week for you?
We’re planning a big fiction issue for May/June, featuring a mix of excerpts and full-length stories from our archive – Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Vonnegut and more. So, I’m clearing the decks for a monster file being put together of all the best works. I’ll be spending this week whittling it down to fit in our roughly 25-page well. We’ll also link to a full length version of each of the excerpted stories online.

There’s also the cover to think about, some personnel matters, display copy for all our departments, and the list goes on!

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