HGTV Magazine Editor-in-Chief Sara Peterson grew up in Holdrege, Nebraska. Her mom and youngest sister still live in Grand Island, and she has family in Funk, where she stopped in March to see the annual sandhill crane migration.
Peterson, 44, earned a Bachelor of Arts in English literature from Texas Christian University in 1996. Before her current job, she worked on the staff of several magazines, including Family Life, Redbook, Southern Living and Coastal Living.
Peterson’s publication is on solid footing in the magazine market. It boasts 10.4 million total adult readers, and it’s the third best-selling monthly magazine on newsstands. HGTV Magazine is particularly strong among women; roughly 70 percent — 7.3 million — of its readers are female.
In a recent interview with The World-Herald, Peterson shared how she wound up in New York, what she loves about her job and some behind-the-scenes info about the popular magazine.
What made you choose the magazine industry? My two grandmas read a lot of magazines and subscribed to magazines. Both of them were always trying recipes and sending each other recipes from Good Housekeeping. Everybody had a magazine rack in the living room by your most comfortable chair. I just saw the women in my family really enjoy and learn from these magazines. I just thought it was so great, the storytelling of magazines. I wanted to subscribe myself. Seventeen was my first magazine, and I kept every single one of them. I loved magazines from an early, early age.
Why HGTV? I got a call from friends, people I knew at Hearst, telling me how the company wanted to start up HGTV Magazine. It sounded really exciting. I thought to myself, “Well, I can either take this job and do it, or I’ll have to watch someone else take this job and do it.” I started to think about that and knew I wanted to try it myself. So I came back to New York in 2010 and worked on a prototype and launch issue. It launched in October 2011.
What is the reaction when you say you are from Nebraska? I think people in New York are genuinely surprised when I say Nebraska. It’s an unusual answer. The most common response is, “Oh, I drove through there once.”
You and your dog, mutt-a-poo Mia, share an apartment in Manhattan and you have a house in Sag Harbor, New York. What are you working on there? I have my project fixer-upper house. I love that. Like real life, I’m fixing up one room at a time. I renovated my kitchen last year. Since Sag Harbor is near the ocean, I decided on whites, grays and blues throughout the house, with pops of color.
How would you describe your home? My home is a constant playground of colors and patterns. I like to change out accessories a lot. I would say my personal style is a mix of fun modern colorful pieces with old flea market finds. I love old and new things. I love old signs. I have a problem buying too many old signs or things with words on them. That’s my favorite thing.
As a national magazine, how do you find the houses you feature? I would say it’s good old-fashioned networking. Our editors are very good at keeping in touch with people they know and designers, people who are interested in homes who own shops or people who own home stores. You just get out and ask people you know. Social media has made it easier to scout homes across the country from your desk. There are a lot of great people who are doing amazing things to their home and are posting it on Instragram or blogging. You kind of just have to ask around. One house will lead to another house.
What is trending right now in home design, and how do you find that out? We have market editors; we go to a lot of home shows all over the country. That’s where a lot of colors, patterns and different trends pop up. We have seen, of course, the open floor plan is still popular. We’ve seen more use of black paint than ever. It’s really, really popular. On walls, on trim work, floors, people are painting their doors and molding and window trims black.
How would you describe the Midwestern design style? Even though I live in New York City, I still think of myself as a Midwesterner. I think Midwesterners like their homes to feel very comfortable, warm and welcoming with plenty of personal touches, like family photos and special pieces of furniture passed down in the family. And Midwesterners are exceptionally good at decorating their homes for the seasons — from wreaths to throw pillows. My mom is always changing up the accessories and flowers on her mantel and dining table. I love that — I think a lot of Midwesterners have a special knack for that kind of creative, DIY, quick-change decorating!
What is the most popular segment in the magazine? It’s the high-low list. It’s super popular. And the house tours. We get told all the time, “I like the lower priced one better.” That is very satisfying. That is a huge mission for HGTV Magazine. We strongly believe that everybody can be their own decorator, and you can have amazing style on any budget. That column really proves that.
How far in advance do you work? We’re usually working three months in advance on an issue. Sometimes a year in advance on some homes. Let’s say we’re decorating for the holidays, and we want to shoot a real Christmas tree. We’ll photograph in December or January, and we’ll feature it in the magazine the following December. Pumpkins are a hard thing to get, too, out of season. We like to do the fall stories sometimes a year in advance.
Do you have a favorite designer from the HGTV family? They’re all our favorites. Property Brothers were just getting started on their show on HGTV when the magazine launched. We have a special relationship with those guys. I’m always super impressed with how much talent HGTV always finds. That’s so fun to see and great for the magazines because we constantly have new people, designers and renovators to work with.
How has social media changed the looks of houses across the country? People have access to more national stores and can see more design trends no matter where you live. Each pocket of the country has a different look. We have a popular column, called Copy the Curb Appeal. That’s another column that we go all over the country and we feature four houses in a neighborhood. It’s always really fascinating to see what paint colors people use and what flowers and plants they have in their yards.
As the editor-in-chief, are you able to write at all? I do write my editor page. I like to change out the photos on that. I like to take different pictures, use different backgrounds, put different things on that page because I want readers to get ideas from that page. This year, I’m doing different wallpaper backgrounds behind me.
What is your goal for the magazine? If I’m doing my job, every page of the magazine gives readers ideas that they can do with their homes. I want people to sit on the couch and relax and flip through the magazine. They can see a wide variety of different styles and they can see real people in the magazine. We want to feature people and talk to them about the story of their home. We don’t feature only one kind of style of a home.
What is the reaction you want from people who read the magazine? I really want people say that it makes them happy and makes them smile. You feel like there are lots of ideas you can do. That’s the No. 1 compliment, “Oh, I looked through the magazine and I found so many ideas I can do and afford. I can DIY that, make that or I can buy that.” They feel empowered, and this is accessible to me. A lot of people ask what color their front door should be.
You said you have a really fun job. What do you love most about it? I always find it so fascinating to see how people mix things together. That’s one of my favorite parts of my job. It’s really fun to look at other people’s houses. That’s why we go to open houses. That’s why we watch HGTV. That’s why we walk our dogs at night when the curtains are open, so we can see their living room style. It’s really fun to see what other people are doing. That’s how you get the best ideas.
What’s an easy fix for people? I love easy ways to change things out. We really focus on accessories — pillows, affordable art, lamps, even rugs. That is very affordable to do and you feel like the room is all new without remodeling. You don’t have to call a contractor. We love paint and pillows so much.
Most print publications are struggling to build or maintain their audience. How has that affected your job and your magazine? Yes, many magazines are selling fewer copies on the newsstand than they used to. But at the same time, people who love magazines really love them. So I stay focused on the positive (see — I told you I’m very Midwestern!). HGTV Magazine has more than one million subscribers, and we are the third bestselling magazine in America.
Your mom, Pat, is a retired high school English teacher. What does she think of your job? My mom is the quintessential HGTV viewer and reader. She is my personal go-to one-person focus group a lot for the magazine. She tells me definitely what she thinks of the cover image and some of the story ideas. I ask her every month what she liked best and what she liked least.