Growing up, Sara Peterson always had magazines in her house. “Both my grandmas got magazines too. That’s where we found all the best new ideas, from recipes to craft projects. I love how magazines help people improve their everyday lives,” Sara says. “And I love to create stories and share tips with people using words and photos.”
In her job Sara gets to do just that. As the editor-in-chief of HGTV Magazine, she oversees the second-highest-selling monthly magazine on newsstands, with a circulation of 1.3 million. The magazine, which Sara also helped launch seven years ago, was named Launch of the Year in 2012 by Advertising Age, and in 2017 was named Hottest Home Magazine by Adweek (for the third year in a row!) The publication also is an Ad Age Magazine of the Year. And with a keen attention to detail, Sara leads the team that brings to life the vibrant, glossy pages readers everywhere look forward to pulling out of the mailbox each month.
Today, the cover for the 5th Annual Paint Issue—which is one of the year’s most treasured issues by readers and HGTV fans—is revealed. Featuring the magazine’s first-ever quadruple cover (and shot in partnership with Home Depot), the pages unfold to reveal eight HGTV stars! Sara is offering I Want Her Job readers a peek at the special June issue below. She also shares advice for personalizing your home office, the importance of storytelling (with details!), and the advice that really keeps your flowers fresher for longer.
You have an impressive background as the editor-in-chief of Coastal Living and home editor of Southern Living prior to your role as editor-in-chief of HGTV Magazine. What drew you to your focus on home and lifestyle?
Decorating can be hard! I still second-guess myself when I’m picking out a rug, choosing a paint color, or shopping for new throw pillows. I want a magazine to help me. At HGTV Magazine, we’re always on the lookout for real homes full of ideas. I always want to know: Where did they put their TV? Where did they find their sofa? Why did they choose that countertop material? Seeing how other people fill up their homes is inspiring and never gets old!
You’ve been with HGTV Magazine since its launch eight years ago. How did you get involved in turning the hit network into a massive newsstand success?
My friend Maile Carpenter, editor-in-chief of Food Network Magazine, told me that Hearst was looking for an editor to launch HGTV Magazine, and eventually I got a call to come interview with Ellen Levine, the editorial director at Hearst at the time. Like a gazillion other people, I love watching HGTV. I think the shows are fun and smart and real—the perfect combo of helping and entertaining people. I thought a magazine for the network should have that same balance. I did an edit test and met several people at HGTV. As I was finishing up the edit test, I had this thought that if I didn’t get the job, I would have to watch someone else do it—and that was upsetting. So, I told Ellen how much I wanted her to choose me. That’s kind of a good thing to think about when you’re up for a job. Does it bother you to think of someone else doing it instead of you? If yes, take the job!
What is your approach to creativity?
If you need one great idea, think of 20 or 30. Then pick the one that stands out to you the most. Most ideas end up on the cutting room floor—and that’s OK!
What is a day in the life of Sara like? How much time do you spend creating, in meetings, planning articles, etc.? In other words, how do you divide your time?
Almost the whole day is meetings—half of them are creative (planning stories, three issues’ worth at a time) and half of them are administrative (looking over budgets, etc.). Lots of days I like to snack throughout the day instead of break for lunch. (That Sabra hummus/pretzel pack is a real lifesaver!)
Being creative means being collaborative at HGTV Mag—small groups of staffers and I are always gathering in our conference room to brainstorm ideas, plan room makeovers, fine-tune a shot list for a photo shoot, and review product picks for a shopping story. Almost every story starts with a visual planning board on a 5-foot-tall white foam core board. And we don’t use pushpins on our boards; we’re huge fans of washi tape around here.
What is your favorite part of your job?
Working with creative, positive, energetic people who get joy from making magazine stories. Oh, and hanging out with the HGTV stars on photo shoots is a cool perk too. Yes, Chip and Jo are nice. Yes, Property Brothers Jonathan and Drew are super tall (6 feet, 5 inches) and they goof around a lot—Jonathan more than Drew.
On the flip side, what is the most challenging aspect of your job?
Deciding how the cover should look each month. You put a whole magazine together (all those pages, all those stories!) and then you have to pick one image that represents everything inside. It’s like the magazine is a cool shop, and you have to pick just one thing to put in the shop’s window to entice people to come inside and look around. Tough call! That said, nothing feels better in magazine-land than finalizing a cover that makes you proud.
What is something about the work you do that might surprise us?
I get very involved in the little stuff, because the details can make all the difference. For example, I once read a magazine story about cooking salmon, and a tip in the story said, “Squeeze a wedge of orange on the fillet instead of lemon.” Pure genius! That one little tip made that story special. So, I care deeply about the fringe on that throw pillow on page 35. And the way the bowls are stacked on the kitchen shelf on page 75. And the eight-word caption on page 92. When I read a magazine story, I usually read the little stuff on the page first, like the captions or the callouts. Gotta keep that in mind.
To have a publication as enormous as HGTV Magazine on your shoulders, you must feel a massive responsibility to your publisher, the network, your advertisers and your readers. What does this pressure feel like to you, and what are some ways you navigate this responsibility?
If pressure mounts, I try to ignore it! Seriously, if I start focusing too much on financial pressure or advertising dollars, that doesn’t help anybody—and it certainly doesn’t help the creative process, and I think of myself as a captain of the creative process for my team.
It’s much more productive to obsess about the readers, and to ask myself if I’m giving them enough in each issue. They paid good money for the magazine; they should get a lot! Sometimes I play a little movie in my head about a reader getting their HGTV Magazine in the mail and being glad to see it. They sit on their sofa and flip through it—maybe there’s a glass of wine in their hand. They like the colors, and the ideas, and the pictures in the magazine. They dog-ear a few pages because they see something they want to buy or try. They look relaxed and happy, and they’re engaged with every page. That’s the picture of success to me.
What is an area of your business that is particularly exciting at the moment?
We just launched a weekly newsletter, written by the editors, that gives subscribers bonus content. We share what we’re buying, DIYing, and styling each week. Fun!
Your 5th Annual Paint Issue drops today. What makes this issue particularly special to you? What can readers expect to see in the pages this year?
Our June Paint Issue is (literally) one of our biggest issues this year so far, and we feature 74 paint colors in it. One of my favorite features ever is in this issue, a story called “Paint Everything!” It’s about how to make over your living room with paint projects. We love all things paint at HGTV Mag because painting is something anyone can do—you don’t have to hire a pro or spend a lot of money to get major results. Another highlight: The issue has our first-ever quadruple cover featuring eight HGTV stars—just opening the issue is an experience!
Speaking of paint, what is your current favorite paint color and why?
Always and forever BLUE! It goes with everything. But there’s no way I can pick just one favorite, so I’ll offer up a few: Hale Navy by Benjamin Moore, Parma Gray by Farrow & Ball, Distance by Sherwin-Williams.
What is something every chic businesswoman should have in her office? What about her home office?
Hmmm, sounds obvious, but I think every woman should have a favorite pen in a color she loves (mine are all blue, even the pencils). Just a little feel-good thing. And I’d say that even if you don’t have a separate room for a “home office,” try to fit a desk somewhere in your home that’s just for you—it’s not the dining table or the kitchen island. It’s your desk and no one else’s. My home desk is in front of a window in my living room. My friend has a desk in her walk-in closet. We just did a story in the magazine that suggested using a desk as your nightstand. One drawer for nighttime stuff, like lip balm, and one drawer for office supplies.
What is something you want to learn more about?
Gardening. When I worked at Southern Living, I was around a lot of gardeners, and I wish I had soaked up more of their knowledge. You never meet a gardener who isn’t smart.
What advice do you have for others who want to work in magazines or for a home and lifestyle publication – whether print or online?
Whether you work in print or digital, including video and social media, remember that you’re telling your story visually. It’s crucial to make sure your words and your visuals align and make sense. This is harder than it seems! I love words, but I can tell you that pictures really tell your story. Also: Stick with subjects and brands that you really do like.
Early in my career, I interviewed for a staff writer job at a celebrity magazine because I wanted a new job and I wanted to write more, and the person interviewing me asked (rightly so) why I liked celebrities and why I wanted to write about them. I stumbled over the answer, and I didn’t get the job. I learned that I didn’t want to just write. I wanted to write about topics that interested me the most. Good lesson!
I’d love to have coffee with:
My mom. Every day. She lives in Nebraska, where I grew up, and I always want to see her more often.
The books on my nightstand are:
I have several, plus a Nook. I’m usually reading a few books at once, because there’s day reading, weekday reading, weeknight reading, etc., and I like to have options. On my nightstand: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman; Save Me the Plums by Ruth Reichl; The Road to Character by David Brooks; Alternate Side by Anna Quindlen; Prater Violet by Christopher Isherwood
My current favorite saying, or mantra, is:
“Keep going!” Simple, and it works in just about every situation.
My favorite way to spend my day off is:
To not plan anything and have no set schedule. Like: I might just wander through Central Park aimlessly—what a treat!
One lesson I’ve learned lately is:
Fresh-cut flowers really do last longer in a vase if you re-snip the bottom of the stems every day.
I can’t live without:
TV or ice cream (preferably at the same time).
I feel my best when:
I make it the whole way through a hot yoga class.
Being creative means being collaborative at HGTV Mag—small groups of staffers and I are always gathering in our conference room to brainstorm ideas, plan room makeovers, fine-tune a shot list for a photo shoot, and review product picks for a shopping story.