Kathleen Fleury was named editor-in-chief of Down East magazine last month. Fleury grew up on Cousin’s Island in Yarmouth, went to Middlebury College in Vermont and then worked in the publishing industry in New York before returning to Maine to work for the magazine. Down East has 38 employees and a circulation of about 90,000.
Q: New York City is the center of the publishing universe. Why did you leave to return to Maine?
A: I felt like it was affecting my health. It was not the right pace for me, but it was a dilemma in that I wanted to stay in publishing and there were like three jobs in Maine in publishing that I wanted to get. This was one of them. This job is what I wanted to be when I grew up, and not tons of people can say that. I love publishing and I love the combination of writing and design and communications and interpersonal skills. And I also equally love Maine. It’s really in my bones. It sounds corny, but my soul seems at peace here. It’s just the way I want to live my life.
Q: These are not great times for the printed word. How does the magazine navigate tough times for the print media?
A: A few years ago, the obituary for print media was written, but it’s not run yet because it’s not dying. The essentials are very strong and we’ve been around since 1954 and we’re important to people, with the identity of Maine and the way they connect to Maine. I am very optimistic about publishing’s future and I think print media will be around for a long time. This is actually an exciting time to be in publishing.
Q: How so?
A: Putting together a magazine is a balancing act all the time. You have lots of different values, including authenticity, and we try to find the stories that really bring the uniqueness of Maine to the world. We can transport people, whether they’re in Portland and are transported to Aroostook County, or are from out of state and are transported to Maine. We really do love Maine. We’re passionate about it. While it is lighthouses and lobsters, it’s a whole lot more that’s nuanced and lovely and also sometimes ugly.
One of the best movies I’ve seen is called “The September Issue.” It’s set at Vogue magazine and (Vogue editor-in-chief) Anna Wintour says, “We are not a magazine. We are fashion.” That’s somewhat how I approach things: We are a magazine, but we are also Maine.
Q: Do you anticipate a major change under your leadership?
A: Our team has been so collaborative that the magazine really shows all of us. I don’t see too many changes in the pages, but I do think as the first female editor, that’s a different perspective. I’m also a parent and – I guess I’ll say it – a millennial. I’m really proud of that. Being a parent and a woman and a millennial will give me a different perspective and a different way forward. Obviously, digital is changing the publishing landscape. Down East’s brand is so strong, it’s really synonymous with Maine, and we have that distinction with only a few other companies in the state, and that gives us a great platform.
Q: How is technology changing Down East?
A: The processes for putting a magazine together are so different now. The digital photography is totally different from 15 years ago, and the impact is not only on the operations side, but people access our brands now in completely different ways. One of the founders of Buzzfeed said people are consuming media now not like they’re in a library, but like they’re in a Paris café, taking a sip of coffee and reading a snippet and then saying hi to a friend. That’s a whole new landscape. But people still give our magazine as a gift and we still get handwritten letters every week.
It’s also changing how we connect with readers. To have a relationship with your readers that social media allows for is so terrific. Our readers are why we are what we are today. People have viewed us as an authority on Maine for 60 years and to be able to communicate with them and hear their perspective, that’s so lucky and makes our jobs – to create a magazine that they want to read – easier. I think the tablets are obviously a game-changing technology, but we haven’t seen it play out yet. We have a digital edition and we’ll see where it goes. I’m excited to be at the helm right now. My focus is to bring that mystique and experience of Maine to the world and to translate what we’ve done in 60 years at the magazine to other formats, while maintaining a really strong print magazine.
Q: There are sometimes downsides to technology, though. Down East was involved in a controversy recently when it came to light that some utility poles and power lines were Photoshopped out of a cover photo. Was that your decision?
A: That was done when Paul Doiron (now editor emeritus) was editor-in-chief, but our philosophies are pretty similar. We have several core values at the magazine and one is authenticity and another is beauty, and it’s really important to balance those core values. We try to be very conservative in our use of Photoshop. But it’s standard magazine protocol, and this is one of the differences between magazines and newspapers. It’s been an informative debate and we take it seriously. We were trying to create a dream-like cover, and that cover was meant to convey a feeling and I feel like we did that. But it was great to get the feedback and that tells me we’re important to people.
Q: So many people come to Maine for a weekend. How do you spend your weekends in Maine?
A: My life is my job and that is great. I don’t have an 8 to 5 job, I have a 24/7 job. This morning I went to my daughter’s music class near Rockport and stopped in at my favorite place to have breakfast, with great blueberry pancakes. Right now, my partner and daughter are taking a hike. And tomorrow we’ll go on a hayride and apple picking. That’s kind of a typical weekend, and sometimes we’ll get down to Portland and drop our daughter with the grandparents and we’ll go out to eat. I’m kind of passionate about food, and what’s going on in the Maine food scene is just amazing. To be able to experience it and then to write about it is even better. To be able to be at Popham Beach with Ella is so fun and makes me appreciate what so many people love about Maine – it’s not just the places, but the people and the philosophy and the acceptance. Maine is magical to kids – to Ella, apple picking is the best thing we could possibly do.
Duane Doolittle (who founded the magazine) called Maine “our parcel of Earth.” I like to refer to it that way and to remember how our parcel of Earth is so special.