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Clash of the homemakers: Martha v Madden
Happy homemaking magazines are thriving, except for Martha's. Is there room for Chris Madden?
May 2, 2005: 6:10 PM EDT
By Krysten Crawford, CNN/Money staff writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - She's been in the lifestyle business as long as Martha Stewart.

She's sold books on how to make a bathroom into an oasis. She's hosted a television show. She's even got a collection of table lamps and pillow shams sold at a major department store.

What Chris Madden has been lacking -- besides the $182 million in annual revenues generated by her rival's company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia -- is a magazine all her own.

That changes Tuesday with the arrival on newsstands of At Home with Chris Madden from Hachette Filipacchi Media. It's one of three women's magazines that the U.S. arm of the French publishing giant is rolling out as the magazine industry continues to rebound from a severe four-year advertising slump.

A Martha Stewart Living clone? Yes and no.

As anyone who's visited a newsstand lately knows, magazines chock full of advice on how to make gardens grow and dinner parties sizzle are everywhere.

Samir Husni, a University of Mississippi journalism professor and magazine industry expert, says lifestyle magazines have been one of the fastest-growing sectors of the magazine business. O: The Oprah Magazine from Hearst Magazines, Ladies Home Journal from Meredith Corporation, and Real Simple from Time Warner, are thriving. Time Warner is also the parent of CNN/Money.

Martha Stewart Living is the only major lifestyle magazine that's struggling, with ad pages down some 62 percent in the last three years. Husni attributes the glossy's steep advertising falloff to both its namesake's highly-publicized criminal case and hubris at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.

Imperfection is cool

For years Martha Stewart Living reigned as the leader among homemaking magazines. But that dominance blinded its creators to crucial changes in the marketplace -- namely the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Since then, consumers don't care so much about achieving perfection with handmade doilies. Today, said Husni, "it's all about comfort and chicken soup for the home. They don't want to have that perfect life that Martha was preaching. You can have a hole in your couch and the whole house won't crumble."

Martha Stewart Living was slow to recognize that fundamental shift, said Husni. "The magazine had become stagnant but they were not willing to change," he said.

At the same time, Stewart's past success was drawing the attention of rivals who, partly through luck, were able to capitalize on Martha Stewart Living's complacency. "Publishers who are not known for their creativity and originality all jumped on the bandwagon," said Martin Walker, a New York magazine consultant.

It didn't help that Stewart herself landed in a heap of trouble in late 2001 when she sold her stake in ImClone Systems (Research) on the eve of a public disclosure that pummeled the company's stock price. Stewart was subsequently tried and convicted for obstructing an insider trading probe of her sale.

Stewart's personal problems and the impact they had on her magazine served as a reminder of the risks publishers run when they closely identify one person with a magazine. German magazine publisher Gruner + Jahr learned that brutal lesson when an ill-fated magazine venture with comedienne Rosie O'Donnell wound up in court.

Stewart, who's serving a 10-month sentence, is now trying to rebuild her magazine. Last week company officials promised investors that ad pages in the second quarter ending in June would be up 30 percent from a year earlier -- the first sign of growth in at least two years.

Husni, for one, thinks Martha Stewart Living now better reflects readers' quest for comfort and has a good shot at recovering. With a guaranteed circulation of 1.8 million, "it's still one of the major players in the field," noted Husni.

But can Martha Stewart Living ever dominate again? Husni, for one, doesn't think so. "There are so many lifestyle magazines," he said.

The question for Madden -- and Hachette -- is whether there's room for one more

Madden, of course, is certain there is. She says she spoke with all the major magazine publishers about a new launch before settling on Hachette. But Hachette hasn't committed fully to the project. The inaugural issue, with about 20 ad pages, is a test to gauge advertiser interest.

One prominent advertiser is JCPenney, which also sells Madden-branded home furnishings.

In her first foray into magazine publishing, Madden appears to be heeding the call for comfort, not perfection.

While there aren't any discernible holes in the coral-red sofa gracing the premiere issue, the cover screams simplicity: "33 Secrets of a Comfortable Home," "14 Simple Projects" and "Quick Change 1-Hour Room Redo."

"I'm not about showing you how to crochet a dog bed," said Madden, whose company, Chris Madden Inc., took in $2.5 million in revenues in 2004. "But I'll show you 10 chic dog beds, where you can get them and how to put them in a room."

Still, signs of Martha abound in Madden's mag.

One column, called "Reflections," conjures up memories of Martha's old column, "Remembering."  Top of page

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