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An Ounce of Prevention . . . : . . . is worth big bucks. The little health magazine that started nearly 50 years ago is now the 14th-largest magazine in the country--just ahead of Playboy.

May 31, 1999|MARTIN LASDEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There's a dark little story to be told about how, 28 years ago, Jerome Irving Rodale, the founder of Prevention magazine, died on "The Dick Cavett Show." He was 72 at the time, and one of the last things he told Cavett was how sure he was that he'd live to 100 through a proper diet and regular exercise. Then, without warning, he slumped over in his chair, dead from a heart attack.

Television history was made that day--history that Rodale, of course, would have preferred to forgo. Yet, in a way, this self-appointed guru, who was widely regarded as a health-food nut, has managed to have the last laugh on his detractors.

The little magazine that he started, the granddaddy of all consumer health publications, based in Emmaus, Pa., celebrates its 50th birthday next year. And as the 14th-largest magazine in the country--just ahead of Playboy, with more than 3 million paid subscribers--it is by far the most widely read health magazine in the United States. Among health magazines geared toward both sexes, Prevention's nearest competitor is Health, which has an audience that's only about a third the size.

How to account for the phenomenal success of this unpretentious, Reader's Digest-sized magazine, a mainstay of grocery and drugstore checkout counters?

For one thing, because Rodale was so far ahead of his time (he coined the term "organic food" back in the 1940s, when the dangers of pesticides were hardly acknowledged), the magazine he left behind was able to make a name for itself long before there was any real competition. And it's a name that continues to be aggressively promoted. In fact, not too long ago Prevention partnered with NBC to do health-related segments on the weekend edition of the network's "Today" show.

There's also the magazine's "Healthy Lifestyle" truck--an 18-wheeler emblazoned with the Prevention logo, which is touring the country right now, providing consumers with free one-on-one health assessments at prearranged stops.

But, without doubt, Prevention's success is most critically tied to its practical "news-you-can-use" approach to diet and exercise, and what's generally referred to as alternative medicine. As Publisher Stephen P. Giannetti observes, "If we're doing a story on calcium, we'll not only tell you how much you need, but we'll actually take you up and down the aisles of a supermarket to show you what to eat.

"We are a 'You can do it and we'll show you how to do it' publication," Giannetti says.

On the Cutting-Edge of Medical Information

Prevention has been willing to go out on a limb occasionally when the medical establishment seemed less than unequivocal. Back in the 1950s, for example, Prevention was one of the first magazines to warn against the hazards of skin cancer and sun exposure. In 1954, Prevention advised its readers to eat more fish to prevent heart disease. Much more recently, the magazine issued osteoporosis screening guidelines that were similar to ones later embraced by the National Osteoporosis Foundation. And, again out in front of the curve, Prevention recommended three years ago that all women over 40 get mammograms while medical experts were debating the merits of that advice. Prevention's current editor in chief is Anne Alexander, hired two years ago to reinvigorate the publication while remaining faithful to Rodale's original vision. It's a delicate balancing act.

"I'm 34 years old," she says. "And I read with the eye of a 34-year-old. Which means I want quick, sharp, scannable information."

Thus, under her tenure, the number of shorter articles--from 200 to 400 words--has increased. And there are lots more "entry points," as she calls them, in each issue--captions, sidebars, charts and other devices to draw the reader in. She's also introduced a number of new departments to the magazine. Among them are "Walking Fit," "Weight Loss News," "Home Remedies" and "Caring for Mom and Dad." And although almost 80% of Prevention's readers are women, Alexander argues that because her readers often serve as information gatekeepers for their families, it's important to keep on top of male-related topics as well, such as how to prevent prostate cancer.

"This is a very sophisticated operation," she says, noting that there are five full-time researchers on staff and other researchers. Alexander also encourages her staff writers to keep abreast of medical studies that have yet to be publicized.

Last August, Prevention had its bestselling issue ever. Which strongly suggests that Alexander is doing something right. But for those who are inclined to throw stones, one obvious criticism to be made is that the short articles militate against a full understanding of complex issues. Also, the advice that's given sometimes borders on the banal. (On managing stress, for example, a Prevention article recently observed that "humor seems to inoculate you against anxiety.")

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