NEW YORK — Sighs of relief, both over the ones taking over and the one who is leaving.

That was the reaction Thursday morning of staffers at In Style and People on hearing the long-expected news that Martha Nelson, managing editor of In Style, will succeed Carol Wallace as managing editor at People. Charla Lawhon, executive editor at In Style, will take over Nelson’s job at In Style. The appointments are effective April 1.

Staffers at In Style were pleased one of their own is moving up to the top chair, while many of the People staff were relieved they soon will see the back of Wallace. While recognized as very smart, the common view is that she is a nightmare to work with. Nelson, on the other hand, is considered by many to be a dream boss.

The changes come at a critical time in magazine publishing and both People and In Style have been severely affected. As reported, In Style’s ad pages dove 11.8 percent in March 2002 compared with March 2001, to 260.3 from 295, but the decline was smaller than some of its competitors.

Yet insiders at both titles don’t expect any major upheavals — at least in the short term. As Cindy Weber Cleary, In Style’s fashion news director, said, “For now, if it ain’t broke, why change it? I don’t see a reason for her [Lawhon] to make radical changes. She’ll want to make some changes and put her stamp on it.”

The question is when that will happen and how much latitude Lawhon will have to tinker with the In Style formula. Nelson faces many of same challenges as she steps into Wallace’s shoes at the juggernaut that has been People. She also is moving from the love-and-kisses world of the monthly In Style to the more cut-throat attitude of the weekly People. While Nelson was at People before helping to found In Style, she doesn’t have Wallace’s hard news background.

But many of those questions weren’t even raised Thursday as staffers were told of the appointments. The mood at In Style Thursday was upbeat, as editors were relieved the top job wasn’t given to an outsider. “People like Charla. She’s a known quantity, not an unknown,” said one staffer. And of course, the fact that she’s worked with everybody there makes the editors feel their jobs are pretty secure.

“If I could name the person to succeed Martha, it’s Charla,” Cleary said. “She [Charla] has overseen the startups of all the international editions and is a very visual person. She doesn’t know the fashion industry inside out, but she’s a quick learner. She’s going to Europe [for the shows]. She’s very low-key and easy-going.”

Lawhon was part of the original team of editors during In Style’s test period at Time Inc., and was named deputy editor of In Style in March 1994. She became executive editor in December, 1998. Earlier, she was managing editor of Metropolitan Home.

While not necessary known as a visionary, sources said Lawhon is hard-working, a great schmoozer with advertisers and charming. And editors don’t appear to be too worried about the editorial product — even if some of them consider putting In Style together each month a no-brainer. “It kind of runs on auto pilot,” said one insider.

“By choosing Charla, it says to Martha that ‘we love what you do and want to keep the staff in tact,”‘ said Charla Krupp, a contributing editor to In Style. “I have the impression she [Charla] will want to keep things as they are, and why not? It’s smooth sailing. Charla is extremely organized, very together and totally efficient. She’s a great businesswoman and she has a real sense of style, especially in the home area.”

The mood was harder to read at People. It’s widely acknowledged that under Wallace’s leadership, People achieved its highest paid circulation in its 28-year-history: an average of 3.7 million copies. But observers said Wallace was an extremely difficult boss.

“A friend of mine’s at People and I think there’s muted ecstasy there,” said one Time Inc. staffer. “A lot of people felt Carol was a really difficult person to work for, and Martha is perceived as a great boss.”

“No one has a nice word to stay about [Carol]. She rules by intimidation and mockery. She was a good editor, but was not pleasant to be around. She’s not comfortable with people. She doesn’t have any social skills,” said a former People editor.

Insiders believe Nelson will have no problem adjusting to the weekly People pace, but she’ll have more of an adjustment to hard news. Nelson is considered smart and driven, cutting her vacations short and constantly in touch via e-mail.

“She can adapt herself to whatever she needs to do,” Krupp said. “If anyone can make People more elegant, it’ll be Martha. She’s really great with people. She brings major talent together and notices talent. She’s not afraid to have great minds around her and knows how to motivate people. She can look at a layout and make a tiny change, and make it so elegant.”

John Huey, editorial director of Time Inc., and Norman Pearlstine, editor in chief of Time Inc., broke the news to editors Thursday morning with a champagne meeting. Although the building was buzzing with rumors on Wednesday, most editors didn’t hear about the announcement until they read it Thursday morning.

Like all the fashion magazines, In Style has had a trying first quarter, with advertising pages off 17.12 percent. The magazine, which was launched in 1994 with a 500,000 rate base, has grown to 1.4 million and rivals Vogue in ad pages.

In addition to editing the magazine, Nelson has served as as executive producer of eight In Style TV specials, which have aired on Lifetime, ABC and NBC. Under her watch, In Style has launched three international editions, in Germany, Australia and the United Kingdom. In addition, was launched in October 2000.

Sources said Nelson wasn’t thrilled to be returning to People, where she had previously served as assistant managing editor before founding In Style, but had no choice in the matter. Nelson said that wasn’t true.

“I had a choice in the matter,” Nelson told WWD. “Believe me, Norman [Pearlstine] and John [Huey] would never put an editor in a magazine who isn’t passionate about the work. In order to do People, you have to be excited about it. I was very excited about it. I’ve had other opportunities and I stayed at In Style. I love the magazine and founded the magazine. But for the first time, this is irresistible. This is an opportunity to speak to a huge audience.” People’s rate base is 3.25 million.

“I’m excited about chasing hard news. I’m excited about going back there. I know what’s required and know the pace and what it’s going to take. The only reason I can do it with a real sense of confidence is I know how great the team is.”

Nelson cited People’s Sept. 11 issue which they turned around in 24 hours. “If ever there was an example of personal best for a magazine staff, that was it,” said Nelson.

Nelson said she’s not taking over until April 1, so she expects there will be a smooth transition. “The goal is to have a seamless transition at People and In Style. I have some time to talk to some of the people at People. I know some of the people since I worked there before. It’s a big staff, but I know the key players and I’m very comfortable with it.”

She said she’s not planning to take any of her In Style editors with her.

Asked if she’ll make any immediate changes in the fashion coverage, she said, “Obviously I’ll take a good look at that coverage, as I will at every area of the magazine. I’ll always look at it, but it’s not something I’ll single out. I’m thinking hard about People’s enormous strength and power and how to build on that success.”

After founding a magazine that’s extremely friendly to celebrities, how does Nelson feel about editing People, which is tougher on celebrities?

“People is a magazine devoted to news. News about celebrities’ lives. That’s what People does best. We’re going to keep doing it.” Are the celebrity relationships with People any different than they were eight years ago when she was there? “It’s about the same. It’s a love-hate relationship,” said Nelson.

For her part, Lawhon told WWD it was too soon to talk about any changes she’ll make in In Style. “Martha and I are of the same mind about the magazine. I’ve been working with her and for her the last nine years. The magazine is doing the right thing. We’re still the baby on the block in this category, and there’s a lot of ways to evolve it, and to keep moving forward.”

Lawhon said she’s not planning any changes in the staff. “I love the group. We’ve been working together for many years. There are no changes planned in terms of staff. The staff is quite used to me.”

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