Can a New Editor Save Saveur?

Sarah Gray Miller takes over the troubled but beloved food-world publication.

Sarah Gray Miller Photo: Scott Heins
Sarah Gray Miller Photo: Scott Heins
Sarah Gray Miller Photo: Scott Heins

It’s a certain kind of person who will take on a project teetering on the edge of failure. Saveur, the 25-year-old food magazine with a focus on international travel, is such a project. In 2018, owner Bonnier Corporation laid off 70 staffers across its family of publications, which includes Popular Science and Field & Stream. At Saveur — which has seen its print audience drop from 1.5 million readers in 2016 to 424,000 readers in 2019 — six employees were laid off, including editor-in-chief Adam Sachs. Earlier this year, Bonnier officially gave the editor-in-chief job to executive editor Stacy Adimando, but her tenure was also short-lived. And in August, the company named Sarah Gray Miller to the position, making her the magazine’s third editor-in-chief in less than two years.

Miller, however, may be one of the few editors who are excited by the prospect of helming a fraught publication. “I leap first, and I always have,” says the Natchez, Mississippi native in a thick Southern accent.

That’s how she approached her time as editor of the chronically unstable publication Modern Farmer, which earned an American Society of Magazine Editors award for general excellence under her three-year direction. She also benefits from having been around for the launch of Saveur in the early ’90s. “We were definitely pretty scrappy,” Miller says of that time, “but it was kind of amazing.” Below, a conversation with the newly minted editor-in-chief about how she plans to get readers interested in Saveur again and the love of food as culture that the magazine represents.

Saveur is probably one of the hardest-hit food-media brands right now. There were massive layoffs last year, and the staff has been greatly reduced. But, most important, I don’t think the food world really knows what Saveur wants to be right now. 
So it’s like, “Why would you walk into that?”

Somebody hired me to do this thing that I love to do that I’m excited about. I leap first, and I always have. I do think the reduction in frequency, down to a quarterly, makes a lot of sense for print. We don’t live in a bubble. When I spoke with [editorial director] Joe [Brown], we both agreed with this because people ask me, “Is print dead? Is print dead?” It’s absolutely not. I do think it’s a legitimizer. For me, I always say, “Oh no, it’s the haute couture line.” Marc Jacobs’s money is Marc by Marc Jacobs, not the main line.

Even so, many of the big food publications have done major pushes into digital, while Saveur’s digital footprint has shown almost no growth in the past three years. Online is where all these brands are finding a new generation of readers. 
Everyone’s got a website, got an Instagram feed. But print has a halo effect and things are often taken very seriously, and I do think it’s important not to degrade it. I think it is a mistake when it’s like, “Let’s just cut the paper, cut the paper quality.” You get to a point where you’re like, “Well, I might as well just read this online.” So a magazine should feel like the handcrafted luxury item. It should be a worthy physical product. I think about stories differently when I think about how they’re going to look on the printed page than how they’re going to look on the website.

During Stacy Adimando’s editorship, people in food media thought Saveur was looking very good, it was coming together. Has it been rough on the team to lose somebody who was there for so long and was so much a part of the past couple of years?
I think that’s rough on any team. I know that’s rough on any team. I’ve been there myself. Especially with a small team, I think anything like that is rough.

I’ve talked to people who have worked at Saveur recently in doing my research. They said they don’t feel Bonnier has necessarily been supportive, and I think that’s illustrated by the fact that the team is still so small, just five employees including yourself.
I definitely feel supported. I’m not going to go and say, “Wah, wah, give me this,” until I figure out the lay of the land. Just like I did at Modern Farmer. What is the budget? Can it be moved and shifted around in different ways? Who’s here? What do they want to do? That was one of the first things, when they said, “Well, what do you want?” I’m like, “What do you want? What do you think the magazine should be?”

You mentioned you have one open position right now. How do you plan to attract new talent? 
I think there are things you can offer people that, for the right kind of person, and it’s the kind of person who usually is happy working with me, it’s not stability. It might not be the biggest paycheck but the opportunity to have a seat at the table, to have a voice, to have that voice heard, to work as a team. I don’t love policing people. If I were out there attracting people, I’d say let’s shake things up. Let’s find a new way to do this. Let’s be as soulful and as smart as possible.

When you ran Modern Farmer, the magazine took on some very serious subjects, like farming in Japanese internment camps and migrant farmworkers. Can potential Saveur readers expect those types of stories under your leadership?
No and yes. I say no because some of it was hardcore journalism, but we also did our fair share of lifestyle stuff, for sure. I guess the difference is the time to craft something. What you can’t do in print is breaking news, but at the same time, the quarterly format allows us to devote time to bigger stories and cover them with real soul. When Saveur was launched, I think people had fallen into this shorthand of “It’s a food-and-travel magazine.” That’s not what I heard the founding editors talking about.

What was their vision for the magazine?
They were talking about food as an expression of a place, of a people, of a culture. I think now, God, probably even more than ever, that feels not just relevant but needed. When everything is shot in studio, it’s not just the recipe that feels disconnected from it, it’s literally that the photographs are often disconnected from an actual place. I think it was that sense of connectivity. They did understand that America has a food culture. It wasn’t all highfalutin French and Italian. I think that’s incredibly relevant.

But at the same time, issue to issue, four issues a year, it’s really hard to keep people’s attention. How can Saveur become more relevant when there’s so much noise in the food space?
It’s a great question. When I think about, like, Bon Appetit’s digital presence, there are so many resources poured into that. It’s amazing what they’re able to do. It’s not like I’m saying that’s my model for what I want to do. But I think we’ve all been there when something small and upstart-y breaks through the noise. I’m not just talking about magazines; I’m not even talking about media. It’s an invention. I’ve always had a hard time being the editor-in-chief. My editor’s letters, I’ve always called it “Get down on the floor and roll around with your readers,” because I’m one of them. Everywhere I’ve worked, I’ve considered myself [to be]. My boss is actually my reader. I’m the consumer of this, and I’m the first one to say, “I don’t get that headline. I’m not making that.”

How much of a grace period do you think you have to turn Saveur around?
That’s the kind of question I do not ask myself. This is going to sound so dumb, but I swear this is the kind of stuff I would do for free. I love this stuff. I don’t think about it that way. I think about it like, “Whoa, I have the opportunity to come back to this place where I started.” I can’t tell you that I have a master plan. I’m starting this very much the way I started at Country Living — a very different magazine, but when I got there, I went back to the archives and I looked at what it was doing when it launched in the ’70s. I had this moment where I was like, “Everything they were doing back then is so relevant now.”

Going back through our issues, I realize our reader is obsessed with food: someone who sees the world food-first, that food has this great ability to help cultures understand each other and that it brings people together. I think it’s also what’s lovely about it, because people do want things that feel real. It’s an analog experience.

Why should people be excited about Saveur again? Why do you think right now is the time people shouldn’t be thinking, Uh-oh, there’s been another change, but, I can’t wait to pick up the next issue?
I don’t think people should count us out. This isn’t the first time I’ve walked into something that existed for a long time and got people excited about it. I plan to do it again. I think sometimes when people talk about Saveur, it’s encased in a tomb. It’s this relic that we have to look up to because of its history and its past. Well, having been there, being so old that I was there the first time around, that’s not the way they were acting. They were breaking the rules. They were shaking things up, showing the actual hands of the person who cooked [something], with age on those hands, dirt underneath those fingernails, showing food exactly as it came out of the oven. Making (1) the argument that America had a food culture but (2) that Americans would be interested in food from elsewhere.

Saveur is not the magazine that’s ever going to say, “Here’s how to feed a family of five in five minutes for five dollars a person.” It’s just not. I think there are different food magazines that cover different things. I think this is the place for someone who’s interested in going a little deeper with it, someone who cares, and a lot of people do, about the authentic way to make something. If you want to know the right way — not the shortcut, not the disembodied thing, but the real way to make it — and then understand where it comes from and its role in a culture, then I think Saveur is the place to go for that.

Can a New Editor Save Saveur?