Lesley Jane Seymour’s splendid second act

Says Lesley Jane Seymour: “The highlight of my career was creating the More Impact Awards, which celebrated women of a certain age doing MORE with their lives. Michelle Obama spoke as well as Robin Wright.” Courtesy Lesley Jane Seymour.

Lesley Jane Seymour is a heroine of ours as she must be to every woman — no, make that everyone — who went through the downsizing wrought by the digital age and lived to tell.

But digital is like the Lord: It giveth and it taketh away. The plainspoken, thoughtful Seymour, the onetime editor-in-chief of Marie Claire and the now defunct More, used social media to build her brand and platform. She’s now an expert moderator — she served up the questions at the Bruce Museum’s March “Art of Design” panel — and founder of CoveyClub, a forthcoming online networking site for women who are 40 or more and fabulous.

WAG caught up with the Larchmont resident recently as her ideas about being a writer/editor then and now were bubbling:

You lost your job as editor-in-chief of Marie Claire in 2006 and then, 10 years later, your post as editor-in-chief of More, in part because of downsizing in the digital age. What was your initial reaction on each occasion?

“Each time was different. When I left Marie Claire, readers had no way to find me. It was really a pre-digital age — pre-social media. Ten years later, I had time to build my social media following. After I left More, I had hundreds of notes from readers asking me to do something else. It’s wonderful and gratifying to see how social media keeps you from being invisible.”

So ironically, social media, the scourge of print, also enabled you to connect and reconnect with those who were outraged at More folding. How else did social media help you to reignite your career?

“I was able to poll 627 former More readers to find the research for my idea for CoveyClub, which is an online/offline platform for women who want to live their most authentic lives. Covey is a small group of birds. I wanted to be small and cozy instead of large and impersonal. 

“Social media allows me to create a 6,000-strong waiting list for the club, which will launch in the fall—with a monthly digi-zine, blog and online events. I also have started my podcast called the Covey Cast on podbean and at iTunes. It must be at least three times a week that I hear from individuals whom I don’t know who read More and tell me amazing stories about how I or the magazine influenced their lives. That would not have been possible in the past. The one-on-one connections were not possible.

“But yes, technology is killing the print publishing world. It is making it unnecessary for the advertisers to go through the print media to reach their customers. They can now reach out directly to their users. Unfortunately, the print world trained users to think all print was free when in reality it was supported by the invisible hand of advertising. For that reason, the financial bridge between consumer and content is broken. I’m trying to find a way to fix the bridge so that media can be user-supported. It’s not like readers don’t want content. It’s not like wonderful editors and artists don’t want to create it. But the bridge between the two that allows the exchange to happen is crumbling.”

You mention CoveyClub, which is designed as a networking site for women of, ahem, a certain vintage. What is it like to create your own start-up?

“Things are slow when you do it all yourself. Hilariously, all of the courses about starting your own business encourage you to give up control and hire people. I suppose younger people grapple with letting go. But I want to give up control. Alas, when you are starting up, there are no employees. More important, where the heck is the IT guy when you need him? My biggest stumbling block is having no one to delegate to. Please sign up below if you want to be delegated to. I need help.

“The reason for CoveyClub is that there is nothing out there that is intelligent and thoughtful for women our age. I want to be the place you go to learn, think and take away ideas. I will also traffic you to the right sources that are worth your time. There’s a lot of garbage out there — especially for older women — and it’s not worth wasting your time on.”

You also write that we should always be working on our brands. How did that smart philosophy help you to reinvent yourself?

“At More we spoke a lot about building your own brand. One of our big stories was a 10-page report on how to do it. People still talk about that piece. Most people know they should be working on their ‘brand’ but have no idea what that means. Millennials get it. That is what they do every day on social media. If you are not of that age, however, it can be confusing. One of the live/online seminars I’m holding will be about how to build your own brand. I will invite experts to talk about it and will offer participants real steps. It’s hard and ephemeral. But it definitely works. 

“Each of us has a unique voice and view of the world. That is the essence of the brand. However, not everyone can share that online. For extreme introverts it would be excruciatingly painful. You have to have tough skin out there. But many of us can figure out how to do it. 

‘I think being honest and telling the brutal, honest truth as often as you can, is the key to my brand. There’s so much hedging and pretending. I like to cut through the clutter with the truth.”

Do you think that fashion and women’s magazines are increasingly vulnerable to going the way of More in the digital age, or will magazines survive in print form?

“I have thought for a long time that there was too much clutter and not enough differentiation in the printed material that is out there. There is a lot of mindless copying. Things are not unique, nor do they have an unusual voice to connect with. Print is also, in the digital age, extremely expensive to create and distribute. Did you know that we did fashion photo shoots that were on pennies — $17,000 to $35,000, compared to other companies, which spent upwards of $300,000 on a shoot — but still could no longer make the financials work?

“I believe that we are going down to two brands in each category (a high and a low) and then deep pockets of print in the ‘enthusiast’ areas — like cars, cigars, sports, etc. But readers have to realize that if they want a print product, they will have to no longer view it as ‘free.’ The industry created a consumer with expectations that are now outdated.

“There will be magazines but fewer of them. Think of the horses you see in Central Park or the radio you listen to on your commute to work. Not the center of the world anymore, but with a reduced place. Not the whole pizza, but a slice.”

We’ll pose to you the question we posed at the Bruce Museum’s “Art of Design” panel you moderated: Are we in danger of being dumbed down by digital?

“Yes, there is a lot of dumbed down digital. That is because people have taken the same formula for print (free content supported by ads) onto digital. What that means is that click bait dominates. Click bait creates clicks, which is what advertisers want. (Luckily, they are now finally moving more toward engagement but the click game has been why everything is junky.)  

“As I say in all my presentations for CoveyClub is the reason why it’s a club and the reason why I want the reader to pay something to enter is so I don’t have to resort to running the best clicked headline at More, which was “Burn Fat Faster.” To keep up with our clicks, I had to order up a story to match the headline every 6 months. This is not reporting news. It is filling clicks. I would rather have better engagement and fewer clicks and create a real community. That is the CoveyClub goal. The hard part has been finding what readers will pay for. I’m working on that right now..”

There are editors who really prefer to be writers and editors who prefer the editing process. What kind of editor were/are you?

“I’m both a writer and an editor. I love to connect through words. But I realize that I don’t have all of the answers to everything. Assigning pieces to people with expertise or a better voice or insight is an unusual combination that I intend to follow. I don’t want to be a blogger for that reason. I don’t have something to say about everything. I’m not a guru. So CoveyClub will be a mix of my voice and others. 

“I want to find the best voice for everything. Nonetheless, I love to write and report. I’m naturally curious about everything. Wanting to continue learning and contributing to society is a hallmark of CoveyClub members. We are not done —no matter what our ages.”

Editors of women’s and fashion magazines are often glamorous. How would you describe your style and how do you achieve it?

“Well, I used to be glamorous — because that is what the job demanded. I’m amazed at how I love to dress down now. Not putting on makeup every day is wonderful. And it makes you less fussy about the aging process. You don’t notice every line and wrinkle (which seem to appear over night).  

“I love fashion — always have. That’s why I began my career at Women’s Wear Daily. I can recall every moment in my life by what I wore. But when your job is to sit down at your dining room table every day, there is no point in putting on your Spanx and a shift dress. I’m on the lookout now for great casual wear. You can see my efforts with all the videos I’ve made with Leslie Hsu of Leslie’s Finds on the CoveyClub Facebook page. She is helping me redress myself for my new life. I’ve sold most of my designer stuff on The RealReal. But a lot still hangs in my closet unused.

“I still believe that if you don’t look great, you don’t feel great. One influences the other. And it’s cheaper than a shrink. Finding your personal style can be an issue when you reinvent. We will cover reinventing your personal style on CoveyClub.”

What one writer from any period in history would you have loved to have had at one of your publications?

“Margaret Mead was among the famous writers at Redbook. Not when I ran it, of course. But I loved the idea that these big, famous thinkers thought highly enough of women’s magazines to take time out to pen stories for them.

“Women’s magazines have always been given short shrift by the male-dominated magazine business. They are written off as dumbed down and unimportant. This was particularly the case when it came to winning prizes at the male-dominated American Society of Magazine Editors. It was constantly astonishing how stories we did over and over in the women’s books, when purloined by the men’s magazines, were suddenly award-worthy. I recall once when a men’s magazine about outdoor life published a piece about a woman getting raped on a trail and was huzzah-ed for ‘stepping out’ and doing something so worthy. We’d been writing about these things — and more — for years. 

“When I ran Marie Claire and 9/11 happened, our readers knew about the Taliban already because we’d done stories about it. But we were shunted off as ‘women’s stuff.’ I always thought of fashion magazines as sports magazines for men. Sports magazines always won accolades and awards from men. They never got that fashion was our sport. And that a lot of us were doing amazing content. 

“Was there some dumb stuff? Yeah. But so there was dummy stuff for men, too.

“I intend to find those same important writers again for CoveyClub.”

What’s your next horizon?

“We love Larchmont where we moved 22 years ago, two days after my daughter was born.  But now, my husband and I kind of rattle around in a beautiful three-story home by ourselves. JJ is settled in New York and Lake is in Boston. We are not snow/ice people so we are thinking of where to go where we can be warm. Not sure of what that means yet.”

For more, visit facebook.com/coveyclub/ and coveycast.podbean.com/.

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