Hearst's Ellen Levine: An 'IQ Snob' with a 'Cosmo' Soft Spot

“What about my job turns me on?” Hearst editorial director Ellen Levine asked herself as she delivered a lecture at the Columbia Journalism School last Thursday.

“I like to be around smart people,” she said without missing a beat. Ms. Levine’s first magazine job was at Hearst’s Cosmopolitan, so it’s no surprise she knows what a “real” woman wants.

“I’m an IQ snob. I’m turned on by people who know something that I don’t know.”

Cosmo is not first known for its brainy quotient, but it does spell industry cunning. The “fun, fearless, female” brand is internationally beloved and distributed in over a hundred countries.

Like a Gucci handbag, Ms. Levine said, “You need to create an I-need-to-have-it factor, an emotional connection to the product.”

It’s a strategy that has made Hearst resilient. Ms. Levine thought the shaky economy would doom the brand new Food Network Magazine to be ignored by advertisers and readers alike. “I just thought, ‘There’s no way–I’m just going to kill myself right now,’ she said of the day in May when the market took an unexpected 1000 point plunge. “The windows were sealed, so that didn’t happen.”

“But what I didn’t realize was that a need had been created. People weren’t going out to eat anymore. They were staying home.”

Food Network Magazine was a recession life raft for Hearst, turning a healthy profit within 6 months.  “It didn’t make people feel bad. It made them feel good,” Ms. Levine said. “They would stay home and cook like a star, and entertain their neighbors. We had hit the right emotional chord.” Hearst is now launching an HGTV magazine modeled on Food Network’s success.

Now the publisher is healthy enough to spend a reported $900 million to take over Elle, Woman’s Day and Car and Driver to the family, to be purchased from Paris-based Lagardere. Under Ms. Levine, it’s safe to say the magazines will be aimed to appeal to a wider audience than, say, a class of snarky J-school students.

“In New York City the journalistic critics vomit all over Cosmo,” she said, “They miss the fact that there’s a very different demographic across the country. Reading Cosmo doesn’t mean that you have a low IQ, or that you’re not a serious person. Serious people like to laugh too.” Hearst's Ellen Levine: An 'IQ Snob' with a 'Cosmo' Soft Spot