Milestones: 25 Years of Susquehanna Life Magazine
Nov 21, 2018 07:00AM
Steve Bartos: How did you get the idea to start a lifestyle magazine?
Erica L. Shames: I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I graduated from high school in Manhattan in three years, and the idea to start a magazine blossomed in college.
SB: What happened?
ELS: I had just turned 17 when I left New York to attend the University of Tampa. In college, I sought out writing assignments from a lifestyle magazine called Tampa Bay Life. I loved the diversity of articles I wrote and thought, how cool would it be to someday start a lifestyle magazine.
SB: What was the next step?
ELS: After college I moved back to Manhattan and lived there for 10 years. I met my husband, Tony Massoud, in the World Trade Center, where we both worked as legal proofreaders. He was working on his Master’s and then PhD at NYU and I was working as a freelance writer. Ultimately, he was offered a teaching position at Bucknell. We visited Lewisburg on a Sunday in 1990. I remember walking around the campus and downtown, enchanted with the charm. I thought, nice place to live, what am I going to do here?
Once we moved here, I drove around the region with our 15-month-old son Justin. I saw beautiful farmland and Amish buggies. I found out about culture and history, and I witnessed a high quality of life. It seemed the perfect opportunity to start a magazine. We were the region’s first lifestyle magazine.
SB: What was it like to be a pioneer in an industry?
ELS: I remember going around to potential advertisers. ‘I don’t advertise in magazines,’ was the consistent refrain. ‘This is the area’s first magazine,’ I had to explain. ‘Take a chance.’
SB: Well, that’s interesting, because it demonstrates your entrepreneurial spirit. You’ve had to knock on a lot of doors.
ELS: There was a need to educate people about the value of advertising in a high-quality lifestyle magazine; for this area, it was a new concept. Happily, many other people were eager to support the magazine with their advertising dollars. We help brand entities as high-quality endeavors; you are the company you keep.
SB: What were some of the obstacles to starting the magazine?
ELS: In July 1992, there was no Internet. I did my research the old-fashioned way: at Bucknell University’s library I found the book, The Magazine, Everything You Need to Know to Make it in the Magazine Industry (Folio:, 1978). The author, Len Mogul, was a co-founder of National Lampoon magazine. My first job out of college was editorial assistant at National Lampoon magazine. Things had come full circle.
I had a magazine prototype made of a front cover and two-page article spreads. The goal was to convince others of the viability of my vision. I used $20,000 from our family's savings to bring out the first and second issues.
SB: Who were some of the role models in your life?
ELS: My dad, William H. Shames, was an entrepreneur. He started a company in the 1960s called Sibany Manufacturing Corp. and wrote a book, Venture Management (Free Press, 1974), about the experience. Sibany invented new products—an air conditioner the size of a shoe box; a security system called Identimation that identified users by their fingerprints; and a precursor to the cell phone called the Pocket Phone that allowed you to answer your desk phone from up to 25 miles away.
My mother taught me to love new experiences, like travel. And to challenge myself to try new things, even when it’s scary. She helped me see the world as an exciting, beautiful place full of opportunity.
SB: Did you have any mentors?
ELS: I have to say my husband Tony has been a mentor to me. Just watching him, and how he responds to certain situations, taught me there is more than one way to approach things. By the same token I believe he has learned a lot from me.
SB: So, from Tampa you went back to Manhattan for a decade. What drew you back to Manhattan?
ELS: I was eager to advance my career. I had been offered a job at the St. Petersburg Times covering the city beat, which seemed boring. In Manhattan there was more opportunity. I pursued freelance writing, first for several community newspapers, then different national magazines, and achieved a certain level of success.
SB: I think part of entrepreneurism is being willing to fail. What was your biggest failure or disappointment?
ELS: I tend to be overly optimistic. I thought the magazine would take off right away. The amount of hard work and perseverance, and blood sweat and tears, it has taken to make this magazine a success was a surprise to me.
SB: When do you feel you turned the corner?
ELS: My goal was always to make it a regional magazine—to unite a geographic proximate but disparate area of Pennsylvania. I remember picking up the summer issue, about 10 years into this odyssey, and seeing the breadth of articles, and ads from businesses in State College, Lancaster, Wilkes-Barre, south down to York. I thought, I’ve achieved my goal!
SB: So, your geographic area covers…?
ELS: Twenty-five counties now. Originally it was six counties.
SB: Wow, almost half of Pennsylvania.
ELS: We cover the middle slice of the state, up to the New York border, west to State College, south down to the Maryland border and east to Lancaster.
SB: What’s the demographic for the magazine? Who’s your readership?
ELS: Fifty-one percent female and 49 percent male. Median income is about $134,500. Median age is about 46. We do a reader survey every two years. Those statistics are important for advertisers.
SB: That’s a very high median income for a magazine. You are really hitting an elite sweet spot. That’s interesting. Why do you think that is?
ELS: I think it has to do with the look and feel of the magazine. It was important to me to make it national-caliber. That quality has a lot to do with who we attract as advertisers as well as who reads the magazine.
SB: How many people read the magazine?
ELS: Because of our high pass-along rate, we’re read by over 50,000 people. In our reader survey we always ask, how many people besides you read your copy of Susquehanna Life magazine. Anywhere from 3 to 7 people read each copy.
SB: Did anyone openly oppose you or try to prevent you from moving forward with the magazine?
ELS: About ten years ago another group decided to start a magazine. A woman I considered a friend tricked me; she contacted me pretending her employer wanted to advertise in Susquehanna Life magazine. She requested ad rates, production schedule, marketing materials. The next thing I know I am getting emails from my advertisers saying this group is starting a magazine. Her team met with my advertisers carrying copies of Susquehanna Life saying, ‘We are starting a magazine just like Susquehanna Life, do you want to advertise in it?’
I believed what they were doing was illegal--using my publication to sell people on the idea of theirs, and confusing the marketplace. So I went to Harrisburg to consult a copyright attorney. I paid $350 to learn it wasn’t illegal, just unethical. Shame on them. You would expect that kind of behavior in a big a city, but here?
SB: What traits have led to your success with the magazine?
ELS: The ability to persevere, work hard and dream up the next step in the journey.
SB: What have been some of your favorite articles?
ELS: When I was a pre-teen I had the biggest crush on Davy Jones. One of my writers knew him and asked if I’d be interested in him interviewing him. I said yes, but only if I can be there. I remember knocking on Davy Jones’ door. He answered wearing a T-shirt, unshaven and with rumpled hair. He had dirty dishes in his sink and talked with us like we were his best friends, which is how he treated everybody. It was a memorable experience.
SB: What aspect of the magazine has evolved over the years?
ELS: About five years ago I realized there was a whole audience of people on the Internet we weren’t reaching. So, I hired a company in California to redo our website. I wanted it to be interactive, look good and allow me to change the content often, have banner advertising and allow for contests and guides. I am really pleased with how that has taken off.
SB: You mentioned Branding. And Susquehanna Life is a Brand. What’s the end game for you and for Susquehanna Life?
ELS: Susquehanna Life is recognized as a brand that delivers a high-quality written product that looks good and reads well. To monetize that branding, I am unveiling the Susquehanna Life Custom Publishing Division through which businesses and organizations can hire us to create everything from booklets and direct mail pieces to magazines, newsletters, feature articles, corporate backgrounders and guides.
SB: If I came to you as a young entrepreneur, what advice would you give me?
ELS: I would say, first go through the school of hard knocks. There is a value to having a whole bunch of jobs you can’t stand that teach you skills you don’t think you need by bosses you don’t necessarily like. Without those kinds of experiences I don’t think you will get very far because they teach you how to manage and cope with difficult people and situations.
SB: What other aspects of your professional life are important for us to know?
ELS: There have been some important milestones. I was profiled on WVIA/NE PA Business Journal’s television series about entrepreneurs, which led to WVIA hiring me to host their State of PA governmental affairs television show. It was a thrill to be on television and I tried to infuse the show with lifestyle topics!
A couple of years ago I was hired as Susquehanna University’s first Professional in Residence to teach a course on magazine publishing. That was a great experience! I’ve also spent a lot of time trying to motivate others by speaking publicly about my experience as an entrepreneur.
After being in business for a while and achieving a certain level of success it is natural to feel like you want to give back. That was behind my decision to start the Women’s Professional Partnership in 2013 as a mentoring organization. There are a lot of women with dreams, ambitions and goals who don’t know how to proceed. The culmination was an event I created with Bucknell University in 2014 called the Empowering Our Region Through Mentoring and Leadership Conference.
SB: Anything else?
ELS: You asked about success. The magazine’s success is validated by the regional, state and national awards we’ve won. Among them: Judy Christ of the Bucknell SBDC nominated me, and I was honored to be named one of PA’s Best 50 Women in Business in 2008. In 2016, Folio: named me a Top Women in Media, in the Entrepreneur category, a national award. And this year Susquehanna Life magazine won Honorable Mention in the Eddie and Ozzie Awards, the most prestigious national magazine awards program in the country. Susquehanna Life, and the experiences I’ve been privileged to have as a result of it, is truly the embodiment of a dream I had 25 years ago. That’s a great feeling.
Steve Bartos is an environmental consultant, entrepreneur and freelance writer for Medium.Com and other publications.