A woman at a desk kin a office with magazine covers on the wall.

Kate Lewis at Amherst

Major: European studies

Outside class: She was on staff at the feminist magazine Madness, This and guested on a radio show called Guinea Pigs Amok with her friend Meredith (Kahn) Rollins ’93, former editor-in-chief at Redbook, a Hearst magazine.

Favorite place on campus: Frost Library, the periodicals room. She says: “Remember how magazines were on those long sticks then?” For a change of scene, she hung out at the UMass library too.

Campus job: Dishwasher at Val, breakfast shift

Hardest class: Economics 101, which she dropped. “I was so out of my depth,” she says. “I had never had that school experience before, of having to admit full defeat.”

Study abroad: Oxford

Thesis title: “The Empire in England: The Imperial Connection in William Thackeray’s The Newcomes

Just because Kate (Westerbeck) Lewis ’94 studied at Oxford doesn’t oblige me to quote the Oxford English Dictionary. But when you write a profile of one of today’s real visionaries in the magazine world—she’s the chief content officer at Hearst, overseeing 25 titles, including Cosmopolitan, Esquire and Good Housekeeping—and then you run that profile in a magazine for an alumni body in which 80 percent hold advanced degrees, with lots of them professors themselves, you’d better confront the ivory-tower vs. popular-press snobbery head-on. And you’d better go to a venerated source.

Lewis, who has a lavish sense of humor and whose motto is “Enter smiling,” would relish the snooty OED entry for the noun form of magazine. It cites Alexander Pope, who haughtily lumps magazines in with “all the Grub-street race.” It quotes the critic F.R. Leavis on a Joseph Conrad novel: “Conrad must here stand convicted of borrowing the arts of the magazine-writer.” It also decrees that the word magazine “(rather than periodical) typically indicates that the intended audience is not specifically academic.”

Might there be a soupçon of judginess in that last one, a signaling of lesser pedigree? Maybe I’m being paranoid (being a magazine writer and all), for there are loftier definitions out there too: Did you know, for instance, that magazine once meant a country rich in natural products? It can also refer to a ship that supplies provisions, a locale to cache arms or a portable receptacle for objects of value. The word itself comes from the French magasin, meaning a warehouse or shop—whether brick and mortar, paper and ink, or pixels and code, each magazine displays articles and invites browsing.

When you think of which ones you’ve happily browsed over your lifetime, maybe you flash on Mad (oh, those movie parodies—Star Bores and Inadiaper Jones!) or GQ or Ebony or National Geographic. You may mourn all the magazines that have succumbed in recent years (RIP, Details, Spin, Gourmet). You may worry about the future of magazines, and wonder how the form has adapted (or not) to the digital age.

Kate Lewis forges and finesses this future every day. The delivery mechanism of magazines is radically changing, but the secret is to tap the power of the magazine brand across any platform. That’s what she told Samir Husni (a.k.a. “Mr. Magazine”), director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi School of Journalism and New Media: “You can have a brand be executed across any of the places that we publish and be pretty darned successful in those places, with the right ambition.”

To that end, her topmost mission is to integrate print and digital teams, and have them do a Spock mind-meld about magazine content. It’s all about paying scrupulous attention to the metrics, but also about producing delight, which can’t be measured. At Hearst, they’re trying to convert robust monthly titles like Elle, Popular Mechanics and O, the Oprah Magazine into a pleasure-sparking daily routine for readers. “From months to moments,” to quote Troy Young, Lewis’ boss and the president of Hearst Magazines.

A group of people around a boardroom looking at pages of a magazine
A magazine is both an indulgence and a utility. “It is a gift you give yourself.”

Many good reads remain, to be sure, and Lewis is not convinced that young people have canceled print (her teenage daughter and her friends are “highly engaged” by the magazines Lewis brings home). But video is now imperative to the Hearst magazine experience. In 2017, a 26,000-square-foot multimedia studio was opened onsite at New York’s Hearst Tower, and in 2019, another went up in Santa Monica, Calif., partly to make it convenient to film Hollywood celebrities. Last year, Hearst produced 150 videos per week. Drive to the Road & Track site, for instance, and you can watch how 3-D printed car parts are made. Elle goes behind the scenes on its cover shoot with Beyoncé, photographed by her friend, Queen & Slim director Melina Matsoukas. On the Delish site, you can click on “Julia Tries Everything,” in which editor Julia Smith samples the full menu at chains such as The Cheesecake Factory and Red Lobster.

Besides videos, Hearst sites showcase polls and quizzes (i.e., “Which Lorelai Gilmore Quote Should Be Your Mantra?”—the most G-rated one I could find in Cosmo). E-commerce has spiked on Lewis’ watch, with the magazine sites offering one-click ways to buy recommended products. This creates another revenue stream, aside from advertising. Lewis is also experimenting with “micro-membership” subscriptions, asking readers to pay for premium online content, such as Charlie Pierce’s politics blog for Esquire and the weekly acne newsletter from Cosmo.

The goal is to get you to linger longer and give more love to the brand. Or, as Lewis puts it: “Our mission is to stop the scroll.”

Her own quarter-century career has scrolled from the print-only epoch to our current change-or-choke era. She has been in the business since graduating from Amherst in 1994 (cum laude), starting as an art assistant at Vanity Fair, rising to hold several managing editor spots (Women’s Sport & Fitness and Mademoiselle before they folded and, for a decade, Self). She worked at the top level of Condé Nast human resources and later became editorial director of Say Media, the digital publishing platform.

The best thing about my job is the opportunity to reinvent the magazine as we know it.”

When she began at Vanity Fair, they were closing the first Hollywood issue, with the relatively unknown Uma Thurman and Nicole Kidman on the cover, and Dominick Dunne famously covered the O.J. Simpson trial over seven issues. “1995 was an incredible year, the golden age of magazines, and my five years at Vanity Fair shaped my life,” says Lewis. “But, actually, I think being in this industry at the not-golden-age is far more interesting. Because the best thing about my job now is the opportunity to reinvent the magazine as we know it.”

And this opportunity has gone to someone who annexed many opportunities throughout her career. To crunch her résumé: she knows print, she knows online and she knows how to hire the people who can make them work together. The numbers bear out her success. Lewis signed on at Hearst in 2014, soon becoming its editorial director of digital media. By the time she was promoted (in August 2018) to mastermind all content, digital and print, the number of monthly unique visitors within all its digital media had more than tripled.

I spent a ridiculously fun day with Lewis at the glass-diamond-motif Hearst Tower in midtown Manhattan, built in 2006, which perches atop William Randolph Hearst’s original 1928 stone structure. The mashup architecture is a pretty blatant pictogram for old-meets-new. Consider just a few of those 25 magazines, with 300 international editions, that lie in Lewis’ portfolio: some are decades old (Road & Track started in 1947, Country Living in 1978) and some are well over a century old (Good Housekeeping launched in 1885, and Town & Country in 1846). She also shepherds online spinoffs, like Cosmo Latina, and shiny new acquisitions, like Airbnb magazine and the YouTube channel platform Clevver. Plus, she’s hitting refresh on the titles Hearst acquired when it bought the Rodale publishing company, including Men’s Health, Women’s Health and Prevention.

Oxford English Dictionary aside, Lewis defends her own definitions. A magazine is both an indulgence and a utility, she likes to say. Also this: “It is a gift you give yourself.”

A woman sitting on a couch in an office
“The professors I gravitated to were the ones who took me outside of what is conventional.”

How She Does What She Does

Where she reads: On the subway between Brooklyn and Manhattan. Her assistant prints out notable published Hearst magazine articles for her each day. “I love the anonymity of it,” she told Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global of reading on the train. “No colleagues, no family, just me and a bunch of strangers. It’s a reset.”

How she handles the demands of the job: “Once a week, I write down everything on a to-do list and then throw it out,” she said in a talk at the 2018 American Magazine Media
Conference. “Whatever I can remember must be important. If you fall off the list, sorry.”

Management style: “I try to manage with compassion,” Lewis said in the same conference. “Often people who seem optimistic and even smiley are perceived as not being gritty or tough enough to manage. I really want to fly in the face of that.”

What her colleagues say of her: “At her heart is joy, her genuine joy at others’ success,” said Cosmopolitan editor Jessica Pels at the 2019 Matrix Awards, when Lewis was an honoree. “She doesn’t just make better content or better editors, but better people.”

When Katherine Cody Westerbeck was growing up in Manhattan, she walked past a dozen newsstands on her way to The Brearley School, a private girls’ school on the Upper East Side. She scooped up Cricket and Ranger Rick early on, later shifting to Seventeen, Mademoiselle, Glamour, Vanity Fair and more. She was that kid, the one who collaged birthday cards from scraps cut from her magazine stack, and kitted up fake Vogue covers, a friend’s face swapped in for the model’s pouty stare.

Vogue veers into Lewis’ story in several ways, starting with Priscilla Grant, its managing editor back then and one of her mother’s best friends. “Growing up, I wanted to be Priscilla,” Lewis told me. “So that was sort of how this all started. I loved magazines; I collected them. The job Priscilla did sounded like what I wanted to do. From age 11, I thought: I will work in magazines.”

Lewis is an only child, and both parents had media-related careers. Penelope B. Roberts, her late mother, was a copy writer and creative director at advertising agencies including Grey and J. Walter Thompson. She often embedded her daughter in her work, which had a durable impact on Lewis: “In retrospect, I now realize how revolutionary this was, that she let me come to her office—I liked to pretend I was her secretary—and to many, many commercial shoots.” Roberts wrote a series of TV commercials for Post Raisin Bran and Vaseline Intensive Care Lotion, among other products. “Being the kid on the set was very cool,” Lewis recalls.

Likewise, Lewis has brought her own children to work (Olivia, age 15, and Samuel, 13) and is thrilled that her son, who is such a car lover that his folks got him an apprenticeship at a local mechanic shop, inhales the copies of Car and Driver and Road & Track she hauls home for him. She is married to Jacob Lewis, who had a long career at The New Yorker (as managing editor) and Condé Nast and is now a media consultant and startup adviser. The couple first met on the phone, when each was a lowly assistant to an editor and they had to book a meeting between their bosses.

Lewis’ dad, Colin L. Westerbeck Jr. ’63, wrote for many magazines—he did a cooking column for Esquire, and the legendary New Yorker critic Pauline Kael nominated him to head the National Society of Film Critics—before he switched his focus to photography. He was the curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, and later taught film and photography at UCLA and the University of Southern California. He has also written books on photographers such as Irving Penn and Joel Meyerowitz.

Because of him, “I have a really deep knowledge of photography,” says Lewis. “I grew up going to galleries and knowing my dad’s photographer friends.” It’s clear that her parents’ professions bred a certain sensibility, which Lewis then grafted onto her own career. “Both of my parents are definitely influences on me,” she says. “Because, you know, photography is the medium of magazines and advertising is the revenue of magazines.”

A woman in an office sitting in front of a desk

Lewis’ parents divorced when she was 11; she spent some summers with her dad in Chicago, and chose to take her junior year in high school there. Her senior year at Amherst, she was relaxing with an issue of Vogue (Priscilla Grant had left by then) and read a piece about how divorce ruins families. She felt emboldened to send a letter to the editor. The message? Divorce saved her family. “We should allow people to love each other and create families in whatever way they can,” she wrote. “We cannot bend everyone to one mold.”

Roberts was a Mount Holyoke alumna and, as a kid, Lewis attended reunions and visited her parents’ friends in Western Massachusetts. She applied to various colleges, but in the end Amherst just felt right. “I had roots there, which was helpful, but I also didn’t feel like I was going to my dad’s place, which was helpful, because it had changed so much,” says Lewis, citing coeducation. “Amherst was the right size for me and the right level of seriousness. I wasn’t a tremendously outspoken student at Brearley, but I knew how to be ambitious and how to be in school with ambitious kids. I liked that Amherst helped raise me up.”

Lewis became a European studies major and spent her junior year at Oxford, which inspired her thesis on William Thackeray’s The Newcomes: the OED asserts that it’s the first novel to ever use the term capitalism. At Amherst, she especially savored a logic class with philosophy professor Alex George, a creative writing course with English professor Judith Frank (in whose classroom “ideas were just pinging off the walls”) and a watercolor course with fine arts professor Carl Schmalz, where the class would drive around the Valley in quest of a promising tree, then stop and paint it en plein air. “Professor Schmalz taught me to delight in the practice itself—and to really see.”

She adds, “The teachers I gravitated to were the ones who took me outside of what is conventional.”

That’s a Kate Lewis pattern: pushing past the conventional and being who she is, without pretention. Her favorite celebrity is Taylor Swift, for instance, but her favorite book is the esoteric novel Possession, by A.S. Byatt. As for going her own way, in the spring of her senior year at Amherst, she headed to a job fair in New York. There, she landed an interview at Condé Nast. When she arrived for the interview, dressed in a dark suit, she was dismayed to see that all the other candidates had on dark suits, too. She called her mom, asked if it was alright to use the emergency credit card, got the nod, sped to Lord & Taylor and bought a bright red suit. She got the job.

Two decades later she told Women’s Wear Daily: “I still believe in that red suit approach.”

A woman standing in front of a glass wall

Cover time. Lewis is fast-walking in silver GREATS sneakers to consult on proposed fall print covers. This is a priority, for reader connection, for branding, for revenue: “The cover is the event,” as she likes to say.

House Beautiful editor Joanna Saltz points to printed versions tacked on the wall. This is for the kitchen-themed issue, with some shots emphasizing pale-colored walls, others dark. Lewis lingers and selects the version with prominent windows, sunlight pouring into the shot. “The hallmark of your brand is the lighting, and this one has the warmest lighting,” says Lewis. “The black paint one looks too bachelor pad-y.” At Esquire, she mulls over the cover portrait choices of comedian John Mulaney, dressed in a suit, his face in an array of arch expressions. In one, he’s chewing a slice of pizza ironically, if that’s possible. “I love the pizza one, but it’s maybe too distracting,” she says. That shot doesn’t make the cover, but it becomes the opener for the feature.

Zuri Rice, head of video development and content strategy, flags down Lewis to show her a new Men’s Health workout video of Tom Ellis, star of the Fox drama Lucifer. It’s a big hit, having garnered 3,000 comments so far. One gets a big gut laugh from Lewis: “Even the Lord of hell makes time to work out. What’s your excuse?” She gives me an enthusiastic tour of the Good Housekeeping testing labs, all beakers and sinks and kitchen ranges, and I spy someone purposefully sullying fabric to see how various stain removers work. Then she takes me inside the recreated club room of William Randolph Hearst, surreal with thick carpets and bucolic paintings.

In Lewis’ office, a dozen staffers have gathered for AKA, as in Ask Kate Anything, which is just what it sounds like: a freewheeling forum to discuss ideas to make Hearst better and get Lewis’ thoughts. They sit in a circle. Green couch, blue chairs, several playful pillows (one says, in needlepoint, “Suck It Up, Buttercup”). I spot a moody Cindy Sherman photo on the wall, and another shot of Lewis and Oprah Winfrey, posed against a huge O fashioned from scarlet and white roses. A plate of extravagant chocolate chip cookies, from a Good Housekeeping recipe, glows at center table. Lewis starts with an icebreaker, asking each staffer what superpower they most covet. One says mind-reading. “Me too,” replies Lewis, “as long as you can turn it off!!” Brian Underwood, beauty director of O, The Oprah Magazine, name-checks the movie Carrie: “I want it to be telekinesis, but I’m not interested in ruining anyone’s prom,” and Lewis lets out a rich laugh.

One staffer asks about Hearst’s editorial video strategy, and she talks of ramping up video series, like the hit “Bestie Picks Bae” from Seventeen, in which a teen helps their best friend find a “before anyone else” romantic partner. Another staffer asks for advice about career pivots within the magazine world, and Lewis recalls why she switched over to human resources: “I didn’t want to be a managing editor forever, or even editor-in-chief, and this made me look into other buckets. My advice is to say yes to everything, learn everything. That also helps clarify what you want.”

She talks of ramping up video series, like “Bestie Picks Bae” from Seventeen.

Next, Lewis shares her own current obsession: How can today’s magazine world maximize great feature stories? She focuses on two she just read, “How to Go to Rehab,” in Cosmopolitan, and “The Manconomy Is Cynical and Exploitative and It’s Going to Save Us All,” about all the products, podcasts and programs on the woke male, from Men’s Health. “The Cosmo piece was extraordinary, very thoughtful and emotive,” she says. “The Men’s Health piece was witty and self-deprecating. Both were perfect for their brands, their readers. But I made the mistake of reading both features online, rather than in print, and the impact of each translated terribly to the web.”

And then Lewis challenged everyone there to think big on how to levitate the online feature experience for Hearst readers. Should the design be more bite-sized? Could the photography be more kinetic?

As I left that day, Lewis plied me with leftover cookies and a leaning tower of magazine issues. On my Amtrak ride home, as the magnificently windowed city and the feathery Connecticut marshes rolled by, I entered into that state of delectation singular to the reading of a fresh magazine. To cite the poet Ben Jonson, from that Oxford English Dictionary entry: “What Magazine, or treasurie of blisse?”

I flipped glossy pages, sank into sumptuous photography, became enlightened on many things slight and substantial, imagined an improved life: that Benjamin Moore Fairmont green mentioned in HGTV magazine would be perfect for an accent wall in our home, and how splendid of Esquire to make known Michael Gandolfini, James’ son, who will play Tony in the upcoming Sopranos prequel.

Most everyone else on the train was fixed on their screens, and you could hear a faint susurration of keyboard taps. It wasn’t like my print immersion was superior, necessarily—just resonant in a different way, a vintage way. Later, I felt just as happy watching “Song Association” videos on, in which great vocalists have to sing a lyric suggested by a certain keyword (shout-out to Tiwa Savage crooning Prince’s “Kiss”). At the site for O, the Oprah Magazine, I watched a video of Harlem high school girls visiting the Hearst offices—when Michelle Obama herself made a surprise appearance. They teared up. I teared up. It was glorious.

The point of being a magazine devotee today, it seemed, was to be progressive about presentation. Print and screen could both qualify for that “treasurie of blisse,” and you could honor the heart and history of magazines as they were and as they will be. Kate Lewis had certainly gotten through to me, and I recalled some of the words she’d spoken from her office, with its high, wide and clear view of the world: “In this business, all I hold sacred, all the best practices I know, will be gone tomorrow. What will carry us through is abundant ambition and abundant open-mindedness.”

Katharine Whittemore is Amherst magazine’s senior writer. She profiled Jeanne Lambrew ’89 in the Winter 2020 issue.

Photos by Beth Perkins