On October 3, a hundred editors and staffers from women's
magazines gathered at Tribeca's Obeca Li to sip cocktails and discuss the state
of women's magazine journalism in the wake of the closures of Mode and
Mademoiselle. Our panel, which included two magazine editors-in-chief,
covered topics including the disparities between publications aimed at women
and men, the pressures of advertising on editorial content, and the role of
expansive narrative journalism in the traditional women's books. It was a lively
and far-ranging discussion that provoked as many questions as it resolved.
Laurie Abraham, Executive Editor, Elle magazine
Kathy Bishop, Editor-in-Chief, Mode magazine
Chandra Czape, former Deputy Articles Editor, Cosmopolitan
John Godfrey, Senior Editor, Glamour Debbie Stoller, Editor-in-Chief, Bust magazine
Rachel: In addition to being the moderator of this series, I'm also a
freelance writer and I've written for many women's magazines, including magazines
that are from people who are on our panel. So I have a very vested interest
in what we're going to talk about. It's not a good time in this country -- it's
not a very good time for the media either. Mademoiselle, a venerable
women's magazine, and Mode have just closed down.
This is a room that's filled with some of the best minds
in the magazine business, and we're here to discuss what we call the Pink Ghetto.
Despite the fact that there are so many smart women who create and work on these
magazines, many of these women are dissatisfied with the product and the focus
of the writing. Many of these women's magazine contributors feel that they don't
get respect from male editors, and also find it difficult to cross over into
marketing venues or literary venues. Still, women's magazines, on the whole,
win fewer National Magazine Awards. There's less room in these books for the
lengthy narrative journalism that usually wins these awards. And usually, when
a smart women's magazines such as Mirabella or Lear's enters the
market, it doesn't survive for very long. So I hope that with some of the issues
that we've raised will come a prescription for change. And I don't think that
women that work for a lot of different magazines get together in this summit
style very often.
Here are our panelists: John Godfrey is a Senior Editor
at Glamour; he's won a National Magazine award for Public Service. Laurie
Abraham is the Executive Editor of Elle, and herself an award-winning
journalist. Chandra Czape is the former Features Articles Editor of Cosmo.
And Debbie Stoller is the Editor-In-Chief and founder of Bust magazine,
a magazine that has been noted as part of the new wave of post-feminist magazines
that are challenging traditional women's magazine stereotypes. And Kathy Bishop
is the Editor-in-Chief of Mode magazine --
Rachel: Was the
Editor-In-Chief of Mode magazine -- sorry. She obviously has a lot to
say about the topics we'll talk about tonight! Okay, I'm going to throw out
one question, and we'll have everybody go down the line and answer it -- starting
with Laurie -- in the context of the publication that you work for. At a time
when the majority of women are concerned with same issues as their male counterparts,
how has the role of women's magazines changed today? A long time ago, the women's
magazine existed because women really lived in a different world than men-obviously
that's not the case anymore. So, the big question is: Is there still a role
for women's magazines and what is it? Should they be eye candy about that ever-popular
Laurie Abraham: You
know, I think that women read all kinds of magazines. I know I do -- and I think
that women's magazines are all different. And Elle has a role, to me,
as being the kind of magazine that you can go to if you like an eclectic mix
of pieces. If you like a little bit of fashion, with your more serious pieces
and hopefully some well-reported features. That certainly was where Mirabella
was, where I worked before. And Elle always had some of that, with better
arts coverage all along than Mirabella was ever able to pull off. I read
general interest magazines and love those for what they bring. And I also like
ours because of its eclecticism. So, I think there's a place for them.
I think there's obviously a place for them or we all wouldn't be here. We also
wouldn't be reading them. Cosmo wouldn't be the largest-selling women's
magazine, and Glamour would not be as popular as it is. And these are
not quite as serious as Elle is. I mean, I think that Elle has
much higher-caliber writing, I would say, than Cosmo or Glamour
or even Self. But there is something interesting about those magazines
that draw people in. And that's very serious because if you read Esquire
and GQ, the men's magazines -- I won't count Maxim for a second
-- I think that it's interesting that women are drawn to those. And I don't
really think that our role is to change that. I think that women are still looking
for information, they are still looking for beauty tips and help with relationships
and all those things. But I just don't think we give women as much credit anymore,
if they do want to read the pieces like the ones that run in Elle. The
problem is -- and I am interested to hear what you guys have to say too -- why
is it that Cosmo sells better than Elle? Why is that Cosmo
sells better, and Glamour sells better, and all of these a little bit
more "fluffy magazines" sell so much better to women than the more serious ones?
Or even a Vanity Fair or Mirabella.
First, women and men are different. Women do look for different things in a
magazine than men look for, just by virtue of who we are and who we aren't.
When a good woman's magazine targets health stories, for instance, it's targeted
to women. That's because the health industry itself doesn't target women. So
we have to pick up the slack in terms of a certain kind of health editorial,
which is one example of a great service area that particularly does well. So
we have to decide whether we do want the same things from a woman's magazine
and a men's magazine. And I think that we don't. At least from my perspective,
they are two different views. I think a lot has to do with the business side
of the magazine. We have to take into account how much pressure publishers,
subscribers, and readers play. And I'm not sure if Debbie finds this plays a
role in your magazine. Let me just get to the point. I think that a lot of times,
the owners of the publications are afraid to do certain things. Nobody wants
to get too dicey. There is this image of fluff, eye candy, pretty, fashion,
beauty-which is great, I love it too-where they steer away from doing the harder-edge
stories, which is what we're really talking about in many ways. It's whether
there's a role for those hard-hitting stories in women's magazines, and there
is. I think a lot of magazines do that. Glamour doesn't win a Public
Service if they're not providing that kind of service. Those kind of pieces
are hidden, in a way, in these magazines, but they're part of the mix. I just
think that we're not paying enough attention to them.
Rachel: I guess
the question is: How much do you think that fluff cover lines contribute to
I didn't get to answer the first question yet! I was just working on my answer,
can I still answer it? By the way, you guys can't see my underwear if I'm sitting
like this, can you? I also feel really dim-witted, honestly, I'm probably going
to come off really stupid and you guys are all going leave hating me. I'm going
try to not do that. I'm also going to come off sounding like a pretty old-school
feminist, because I actually do think that the experience of being female in
this culture is still substantially different from that of being male. Even
though we live in the same world, I think the social and cultural experience
of the female is different. And I've always appreciated the position that women's
magazines have taken in forming a female culture. Before women's magazines,
women didn't really have any way of feeling like they had any kind of common
culture. It's really been one of the only cultural products that is completely
devoted to women and women's issues. All the rest of the world -- I feel like
all the rest of the media's products have men at their center and women kind
of play. We're also allowed to watch and listen but I don't feel like most of
those things are aimed directly at us. Women's magazines are. So, for that reason,
they're interesting to me. One of the reasons that women's magazines get such
a hard time -- to sound like Lucretia Mott once again -- is just simply because
women's issues and concerns get short shrift in this culture. So that a magazine
like Sports Illustrated, which is about sports, isn't considered a fluffy magazine.
Sports is important because it's something that a lot of men are interested
in, whereas a magazine about fashion is considered fluff because it's fashion.
That's just my old-school opinion of it. So, I think women's magazines are important.
And I think there is a role for women's magazines and…
Rachel: So how
is fluff different? I mean, there was just this cover story of the New York
Times Business section about fluff. It was a week or two before the city
fell into chaos and it said that there's sort of this new girl order, to put
it in your (Debbie's) phrase -- women's magazines that are coming out that are
challenging stereotypes. I think what we should address is, considering that
you are a panel of women that have worked for men, how do we challenge stereotypes?
Well, one way that we [at Bust] are different from these other magazines
on this esteemed panel is that a) we don't really make very much money, and
b) we don't have very much money, and c) we still have kind of a small audience.
So we, being small and scrappy and under the radar, allows us more freedoms
than, possibly, these larger magazines do. I mean, they're dealing with millions
of subscribers and readers and they're making money. So, it's kind of a different
Rachel: One of
the things that you could talk about is that you are actually right now using
an advertising campaign to try to raise your circulation. You're up against
some of the challenges that these guys are getting into, and the idea is that
you have these pretty cutting-edge contributors…
Debbie: It's tough
because I think everybody does have a pretty clear-cut, stereotyped vision of
what women's magazines are and even among ourselves they end up feeling kind
of like a joke. Women's magazines sometimes seem like they feel afraid to tell
the entire truth. And what we've tried to do at Bust is to really tell
the truth and let women talk and act snarky, and sexy and funny, and as sassy
as they want to. And I think readers who find it enjoy that, but making that
sell to advertisers is a new task that we are just at the beginnings of learning
get John's take on our questions so far.
John: Yes, there's
a role for women's magazines today. And, case in point: the Taliban, for instance…
uh, yeah they're bad. Some of the news magazines, the newsweeklies, certainly…
TV stations-- they're really outraged, they can't believe it. "This Taliban,
wow, they really treat women like shit, don't they?" I'm proud to say that Glamour
has been covering that for quite some time, as surely as a number of other women's
magazines have been doing for quite some time. Women's magazines, because they
focus on women, as opposed to the world or the new Porsche, or computers or
whatever, have an opportunity to focus in on topics that speak to women. These
topics are always changing, of course, but because of that you cover different
things, and these things matter. And in the case of these terrorist attacks,
it's come to the forefront. The Taliban is bad, yes, and when the news outlets
say this is the first time they've heard of it, the people at Glamour,
the people at women's magazines say --Yeah, we told you that a year ago, didn't
we? And it's gratifying.
Rachel: Then why
is it that you think that so many people that create women's magazines are dissatisfied
with it? And why is it that places like GQ and places like Esquire
win more awards?
John: Are we dissatisfied?
I don't know, I mean, I'm tired at the end of the day, because we have really
high standards and my bosses kick my ass. I'm tired, but I'm not dissatisfied.
As far as the awards, I think the GQ, the Esquire, the New
Yorker, they'll give 7,000 or 8,000 words to a story about the flu epidemic
of 1917, and we won't. I mean, it's just fact, and we're not gonna go there.
We have a circulation of 2 million, a readership of 12 million, and we're not
going spend 15 pages of edit on something that's really obscure. I love those
stories and I read those stories - but it's just not gonna happen. Why doesn't
Porsche have an SUV? They just don't, it's not part of the DNA.
but, the fact is, is that Glamour is a cash cow for Conde Nast. And the
majority of the advertising pays for other magazines like the New Yorker
to win those awards, correct?
John: That's correct.
I don't know that for a fact, I don't see the ledgers, but I've heard similar
things. I don't know what that means. We have a big umbrella at Glamour,
we do a little bit of everything and women are voting with their checkbooks,
I mean, with their pocketbooks. They go buy it on the newsstand, and something's
Rachel: So, I
mean, how do the advertisers affect the stories that are printed?
Not nearly as much as people think, I have to say. I have nothing to do with
the fashion and beauty part of the magazine so I have to say that the advertising
impinges more seriously on those parts. But with the parts I do work on, occasionally
there may be a page question but other than that it's not a big deal. Because
I'm in Features, I want more pages in Features. And our magazine is driven advertising-wise
by the fashion coverage and the fashion advertising that is assumed to flow
from that coverage. So I would be happy to get, in my own parochial view, fewer
pages of fashion and more features. And that's somewhat of a battle at my magazine
because it was started by a fashion photographer. So our level of fashion coverage
is fairly set. But this idea that advertisers are looming large in our consciousness
is really not the issue. It's how ambitious we choose to be -- how much we try
to push the formula as individual editors within the limits. I mean, if you
guys are editors, then you know, you make choices all the time about which story
you're gonna take down to the editor-in-chief. I'm the executive editor, so
I choose stories and say that I think we should do this differently -- it's
not what we usually do but I really like this idea. So it's more work, and it's
work at that more subtle level.
I'll give you an example. There are some women in our audience who recently
did a piece for us, and it was at Mode -- I don't know if everybody knows, but
it's a magazine geared towards plus size or larger women. And one of the criticisms
that we've had over the years is that we don't show large enough women. Well,
that's because advertisers don't want to see them. And so you have this charming
little conundrum of a magazine geared towards a certain audience, and advertisers
not supporting that audience even though they're supposed to. The point in question
is that we're doing a piece in our September issue on fat discrimination. Part
of the thinking was: where would we find women who were sort of in that smaller-sized
ballpark, but satisfy the story? This is crazy, you can see how totally nutty
and kooky this is. But this is the reality of what we were doing then; this
is just one small sample -- should we get a size 12 person, or should we get
a 14? We really need that 14 person not the size 22 which would probably be
a more obvious story. But part of that was because the fashion people, they
were coming onboard slowly, and they didn't want to see larger women. It's scary.
Laurie: That is
really interesting to me, and I'm sure there are other, more pernicious examples
people could give. To tell you the truth, what I do now is just write it off.
I see what I can do, and I write off the fact that we are doing a certain amount
of fashion coverage that's set. I try to make incursions where I can in getting
more pages, but I ignore it. I have to tell my friends -- You should read Elle,
we do have good stories! There's a friend who just called me from Chicago after
the World Trade Center, a very good friend of mine who hasn't read Elle,
and I said, "I've been working on this World Trade Center package, it's really
given me a focus, and I'm really enjoying it" -- if you can say that - "but
it's given me some funnel for what I'm feeling." And she said, "God, what's
Elle gonna do about the World Trade Center?" I told her to read the magazine!
And she said, "I can't get past how thin your models are." And I was like, "Really?
I never see it."
Chandra: I have
to say that the whole time that I've worked in women's magazines, and this was
because I was always in the Articles Department -- I never really had any pressures
from advertising at all. Very rarely would we hear, "That's too sexy to go in
the front of the book." Advertisers don't want sexy, and Cosmo can get
really sexy in the front of the book, and that would be kind of upsetting. But
I wasn't in Beauty or Fashion. I think that's an entirely different animal.
Debbie: I don't
think we ever felt specific pressures from individualize advertisers. One time
we used "fuck" in the magazine and they went ballistic, but it's more of an
overall thinking. It's more like -- let's remember who's paying whose bread
and butter! That's the challenge I find myself facing now, as Editor and Founder
of Bust. And it's really pretty scary because up until now, we've been
able to fund the magazine through small companies who get the magazine, women-owned
companies or sex toy companies who have no problem with our content and are
happy to support us. That's worked and that's been really fun. But as we grow
to the next level, we need to get a wider, you know, larger advertising support,
and we're starting to make those calls now. Some of the responses we get are
difficult for me as an editor to figure out. And sometimes when I hear the ad
sales girls say, "Well, they won't advertise with us because they don't like
that we write about vibrators." My first instinct is, "Well, fuck them." And
I get on my high horse,"Well, you know, the fact is that vibrators don't hurt
anybody and this gives women pleasure the same way that those half-naked babes
in Maxim give men pleasure. Why can't we write about this, it doesn't hurt anybody
and da da da da da…"And then I was like, "Well, maybe we should put it in the
back and make the picture a little smaller"…but then I'm like, "But no, then
I'm really giving in!" And then I'm like, "But no, then I'm not gonna be able
to do the magazine at all!" But then "Who cares? You'll be doing what you want
to do!" It's really hard. It's difficult and it's really difficult as a women's
magazine editor to really do what you want to do and go out there and try to
get large financial support for it. Everybody here might have a different reason,
but, like I said earlier, as an old-school feminist, I feel like we're still
living in a sexist society and it's harder to get those things across. The same
kind of language used in a women's magazine, the same kind of story, will be
considered way more offensive than the exact same thing in Maxim written
by a man. I just really think so. You can publish an issue of Esquire
magazine with someone like Sam Donaldson on the cover. But you know, imagine
that the female equivalent of Sam Donaldson was on the cover of a women's magazine-it
would just never happen.
John: You don't
see Esquire running Sam Donaldson on the cover anymore. They can't do it. And
the idea that men's magazines are different than women's-GQ and Esquire are
different. The rest are mimicking women's magazines. So, you know, it's not
so cheeky over there anymore.
Debbie: I actually
don't agree. I know that men's magazines are becoming as base and raunchy as
they want to be, but I think that the formula that they follow is the opposite
of women's magazines, most women's magazines. I feel that most women's magazines
sell products -- there's a level of selling products. The magazine promises
to tell you all the things you need to know to be okay. And it's always flooded
with this anxious feeling like I've got to do all these things and I can't even
think about worrying about my heel skin. And it turns out that that's not moist
enough either. You know? As if I'm never really gonna be happy until I do that.
And men's magazines are the opposite. I think men's magazines are sell products
by making men think that they're way more attractive than they are. They really
buff up men's egos.
of you said you think there's differences in the psychology of women and men.
And you're right. But women seem to respond more to the "Fix it" attitude, and
men, they'll respond to "I'm great."
John: Well, I'm
not wearing any makeup tonight! This whole sexist mentality, I think that's
interesting. When I read GQand
Esquire -- I think Esquire's a brilliant magazine -- I go there
to escape, to read about stuff I'm not gonna get anywhere else, to have a laugh.
It's a really mellow experience. You know, I can see the Duraflame log over
there, a little glass of wine -- it's very nice. And I think there's a certain
aspect of women's magazines where the message is: I have to get this, I have
to have that, I have to buy that -- the beauty and fashion stuff. I don't have
much involvement with it, I don't deal with it at all. so I don't study that,
I'm no expert at it. But I know that when I read Esquire, sometimes I'll
look at the fashion section and go, "Oh, that's interesting," but mostly I just
flip through it and get to the interesting profile of Jon Stewart or something
like that. It's not about fixing anything, really. Maybe I should be fixing
stuff, but it's not -- I don't care.
Rachel: I love
Esquire for the articles. Playboy too. There's a perception that
what we're doing is good to distinguish ourselves, good for the mix, good to
create a niche, but what's really selling those ads? It's that 8 pages of hardcore
beauty copy. It's that 50 pages of fashion.
I think it's true it's the only way that we can find ad dollars is from fashion
and beauty companies. And it seems like that still is the main place that women's
magazines go to. What I've tried to do with Bust
is to take the opposite strategy of what I see is being taken in most women's
magazines -- try to make a magazine that actually makes women feel good about
themselves. Not by presenting positive role models, which is one strategy that
some women's magazines have: "You should read this… oh, these are great women,"
but just by giving you stuff that's funny and talks about everything and is
honest. And makes you feel like you have pride. And the little things that the
fashion magazines do. But it also means that we don't spend very much time on
fashion or beauty at all because, in my life, I think that stuff is cool and
fun, but it takes away this much of my brain, and a lot more of my brain is
devoted to things like knitting and completely other things. But I do think
there's a tradition of getting money from fashion and beauty advertisers, but
they want to cover fashion and beauty.
Debbie: One magazine
that I think did a really good job of breaking that hold is Wired magazine,
which sort of came in with this idea that they could sell consumer technology
and fashion and car ads in the same issue. It's almost sort of taking that "break
the whole model"?? of a magazine like that and tying it to the women's magazine
model, which it seems to me that you're gonna make an attempt to do and I really
look forward to seeing what happens.
I think the other question is: what topics are taboo? What can you absolutely
not write stories about?
Chandra: I think
what happens is that we're almost too positive. We skip telling about when things
are bad for you. We don't really want to tell you that the only way to lose
weight is to work out more and eat less. Or that really you have to work out
5 times a week to actually lose weight. We say, "Make it simple, make it easy."
But then are tentative to tell the whole truth, and the whole picture. "And
you can do it!" We're almost too empowering sometimes.
Debbie: To me,
anything that's not completely authentic is taboo. So we try not to put something
in that's just kind of women's magazine-y or what people want to be hearing
from us. It's not effective if you don't actually believe in it. Even an item
of clothing, if we would never wear it or ever consider spending that kind of
money for it, we will not do it. And so basically everything else is open. We'll
write about feeling really insecure or we'll write about, I don't know, feeling
dirty or whatever. As long as it feels authentic.
Debbie: I know
something that's taboo for John['s magazine], because one of your writers called
me about this quote that I had given them. They called me and asked, "What should
women do in bed to make sure that they come first?" And I said, well, one of
the things they should do is really believe that they have as much of a right
to orgasm in bed as men do. Because men really believe in their inherent right
to that. I mean, men will go to all kinds of lengths-they'll dress up like babies
with diapers on, they'll cover themselves in baby oill--whatever it takes, men
will do to have an orgasm. And she called me and she was like, "Well, we can't
really run that thing about the babies in the diapers."
Laurie: I have
another risqué Glamour story, though I sort of changed it. I wrote a
story for Glamour -- my first relationship story, as they're known. First
and last. And I quoted from my best friend all through school who's from Cleveland,
Ohio like I am. The story was something about reviving your sex life. And she
told me that she and her husband had sex -- they had been married like, 8 years
-- they had sex 5 times a week. And so I wanted to put this in, but it was edited
out and it was actually changed to 3 times a week! Because the editor couldn't
believe a married couple, married for 8 years, was having sex 5 times a week.
John: No, no,
we have a very thorough research department…
Laurie: A problem
of a lot of women's magazines have is that they rely on composite characters.
This happens to any magazine that deals in these relationship stories, which
involve interviewing a lot of people. They always do composites, they always
take out information that is disconcerting. And that's the way it works. So
if you're doing that kind of story, that's what you do. It's not good, because
I feel like it reads like Teflon. You know it's a lie. You don't know exactly
how it's a lie, but you feel like it's a lie. We luckily don't do those kind
of stories -- just because it's not part of our mix. I mean, I'm not saying
it makes me any better, it's just how the magazine started. It's hard, those
John: I've heard
stories of those stories, and I tell you, the solution these days at Glamour
isn't to come up with a quote you really like and then find a way to attach
it to somebody. No, our solution is to get on the phone and call some more people
until you get a good quote.
Rachel: But that's
another version of the same thing!
John: No, I don't
see a lot of women's magazine copy that says keep that quote TK -- as if we're
going to fill in this point with a point we've already made, and we're going
to get the right quote for it. I mean, that's really what you're talking about.
To say, in those relationship stories, that there are certain things that are
taboo, that are off-limits -- I mean, despite all this stuff, I think what's
going on here is we as readers, as more literary people, have the desire for
more ambitious stories, and the fact is, our magazines can't support that. But
that's what we all lament. But that's not the fundamental issue if you care
about your reader. That's why we have the New Yorker, you know -- there
are magazines that do that stuff. The fundamental issue is how we lie about
sex and how we lie about how women live. I mean, I do feel we engage in a certain
amount of lying. But, I do feel that women's magazines, and I do feel the new
men's magazines -- I don't know, I don't really read them -- do the same thing.
It is a little troubling, you know, I'm not doing anything major about it in
my life to change it, but it's troubling.
Rachel: Then why
aren't you doing anything major about it to change it?
I don't have to do that kind of article, that's one thing.
Laurie: It's not
advertisers, it's fear. We're in a really bad market. I think people are just
afraid of standing up for something and saying no, we can't do it this way.
You know, particularly a lot of these magazines are really lead by one personality
that's like a figurehead…
Rachel: I think
now we really leading into a new world which women's magazines are lead by celebrities.
I mean, the most popular and successful magazines right now are Oprah's new
magazine and Rosie's -- she ran a picture of herself with no makeup, fat or
overweight or whatever you call it. With a staph infection on her hand! It was
like a glove bandage. That was a pretty big deal. I'm wondering whether that
was the power of her celebrity that allows her to do that.
Chandra: I know
that at places that I've worked at before, like Cosmo and Glamour
and YM -- even though they're monthly magazines -- you really don't have
that much time. Sometimes, 3 days before we have to ship a piece, we've completely
started fresh with it. We work like newspapers, it's ridiculous sometimes. What
happens is that we pick, you know, "The Surprising 6 Signs That He's Into You."
We come up with those, in-house, just as Laurie was saying. Then we reject all
of the ones that an actual guy came up with! They aren't fresh enough -- they're
the ones that really do exist and we've heard them before because they're true.
Then we have to come up with these new, fresh ones to please our editor, or
we are going to be there at 5:00 in the morning rewriting the story. This is
what happens when you're a Senior Editor. You have to write the story.
we first started out, it was such a big deal to make your statement. Like, you
didn't want to do anything that would dent it. Here we were dealing with people's
self-esteem in a very significant way. We didn't want to take a chance. Why
are we doing the same old crap that we've read since we were seventeen? Part
of it is because there's a fear of involvement, and I think that's where the
conservatism of the industry steps in. That's where media buyers come in. It's
a much more conservative industry than I realized.
Nancy, editor of the Jersey Monthly: One thing I noticed is when
you were all talking about fighting the truths of what's going to sell your
magazine. I think, after the falling of the World Trade Center, that people's
ability to consume and be concerned with only the most frivolous part of life,
i.e. what they buy, is sort of dissipating and now there's a certain level of
political awareness. So that, when I look forward to next year, I think I'm
going to suddenly be able to change some of the things that I'll be covering
in the magazine. There may be a place for the sort of articles that I haven't
been able to cover before. And I was going to ask you if you anticipate that
as well in your magazines for next year.
I've heard that, during war and times of terrible tragedy, certain vices continue
to sell well -- like cigarettes, alcohol, and magazines. I know for Bust, we've
stayed away from political stuff because I think other magazines do a really
good job of that, and we just try to give pleasure. Now I'm more likely to print
those kind of stories. But on the other hand, I do think that people are still
going to turn to magazines as an escape, for some sort of comfort. A more serious
tone is going to be reflected in the magazine, but people still might like it
just for what it gives.
John: Page Six
went away for about 3 or 4 days -- it's back. I think that magazines of all
stripes have a responsibility to deal with it, to cover the World Trade Center
tragedy, to cover the Taliban, what have you. But it's not going to eliminate
other stuff. It's part of the mix -- it's part of who we are now -- we can't
deny that. If we deny that, we're doing our readers a disservice. I think it
will be part of it. It's not gonna dominate or overwhelm this industry.
Debbie: If we
don't write about "The 6 Secret Ways Men Like You," it means the terrorists
Janet, a magazine writer:
How can you attract serious journalists and writers to women's magazines, to
do these kind of stories?
John: The way
to attract great writers is to be a great editor, pay them a good wage, and
stick to your guns, have strong journalistic ethics-I don't know how to respond
other than that. It's how I've always attracted good writers, hopefully great
writers and I'm not going to stop now. I don't know why it should be any different
at a woman's magazine than it would be at Esquire, I really don't. Maybe it
has been in the past, maybe it is at a lot of places-I don't see there's any
reason there should be.
Debbie: My answer
is kind of fucked up. But we've been really lucky at Bust because people know
that we are willing to print stuff that other women's magazines aren't. A lot
of people have offered to write pieces for us -- like in the issue I'm working
on now, there's someone who's traveling really far away and pitched this story
to me. And I was like, "I can't pay for your traveling expenses, I don't think
you're gonna want to write this for us." And he was like "No, I really want
to write it for you because I know you're gonna let me write it the way I want
to write it." We're lucky, we can get some really great people who are willing
to write for us. For them, the trade-off is that then, unfortunately, they don't
get paid very much, and that sucks too. They write it for us because they can
do what they want but then we can't -- it's almost insulting what we can afford,
at this point, to pay them.
Kirstin, a freelancer
from Brooklyn: I want to write for those more serious, 1917-flu-epidemic
type of markets. But every time I open up The Atlantic, Harper's
or the New Yorker, the vast majority of contributors are men and let's
face it, it's really hard as a woman to try to write for those magazines and
the stewardship and encouragement is missing. My question is, would Western
civilization collapse if you were to put in a longer feature? I did talk to
an editor here tonight, and she was saying, you know, that the reasoning is,
people won't buy it -- but they're already buying it!
experiencing a ghetto as a woman, trying to go into The Atlantic or Harper's
-- that's worrisome. Are you saying it's because you contact them and you're
saying you write for women's magazines? Or is it the stories that you're suggesting
Kirstin: I look
every week at who's contributing. And in the New Yorker, it's 10-15 contributors
every week, 2 or 3 of which are women. And so, I can't help but think, if this
is not a men's magazine, why aren't there more women contributing?
It's hard to be a man trying break into Harper's! But I'm not saying
it's not somewhat harder being a woman. I think some of the women writing for
the New Yorker in the past were doing definitely more female articles. And now
that's dissipated somewhat. And there's this network of men who know each other
from Ivy League institutions, (there are a few women that go there too) and
they work their way in. I mean, it's a bitch. But basically, freelance writing
is a bitch and if you want to do it, you either have to care about something
so much that you're willing to write a lot of query letters. When I was freelancing,
I would spend three weeks writing a query letter. And then you can maybe get
one of those magazines to look at your stuff. But, the trade-off is -- and I'm
not saying it's fair-but the trade-off is then you occasionally get to write
something you care about. And it's hard, it's a hard business, freelance writing.
And it doesn't pay well.
Jennifer Ann from Chickclick,
Senior Editor: My question is about your pseudo-lying on sex stories
-- what about interfacing more with your readers and getting their true stories?
Do you have an opportunity through your online extensions of your magazine brand
to really open into a dialogue with your readers and reflect the issues, in
a dialogue that they're having with other readers?
Chandra: At Cosmo
we did, but not as much as I think we should have. The online helps immensely,
because it's much faster obviously and there is reader feedback, but I don't
think we take advantage of that enough. We tend to -- and not the editors, we
have freelance writers who usually write our stories -- they tend to interview
their friends, and their friends, for the most part, live in New York City,
usually, or the Tri-State area. So I don't feel like we're getting to the reader.
I think we try, we want to, but because in a lot of these women's magazines
you don't require then to say their first and last name and where they are from.
The writers are desperate to turn in good quotes, they have to get these perfect
quotes, and they're like, well, should I get one from the typical woman who
is living in Indiana-where I'm from. Or is it easier where I know more people?
So we don't get the feedback from the readers because it takes a lot more work.
you just require fact-checking? It seems to me that these writers should go
out and find us. Get on the net, interview people-
ideally yes, of course.
A: Why don't you
seek out, or don't you care to seek out, journalists who can do this?
I think the really good journalists get frustrated writing for women's magazines.
Why should they spend their life writing Seven Tips For Greater Sex? It may
be something you do sometimes to pay the bills or something, and it may have
its certain payoffs -- maybe you learn something, right? But I mean, come on,
this cannot be the height of someone's journalistic career.
A: What about
the other stories, serious stories?
I don't; think any of this applies to serious stories. And I want to make this
point. If you're doing a reported piece, it's different. I feel like there's
this formulaic thing that goes on with the relationship stories, because the
only way we get around it is by doing first-person essays. So it's one person's
voice, speaking about sex, and so, you know, maybe she lies about her own life.
But it has a little bit more authenticity maybe. So if you do these round-up
pieces about people's relationships, you get in this trap. People say boring
stuff, they're inarticulate! Maybe people in New York are wittier, I don't know.
But if you're dealing in that format, you have that problem.
A: Hi, I'm a Managing
Editor at Harper's Bazaar. I think one of the challenges is that advertisers
fail people by not having a lot communication with the editors. They're going
out and selling ads very similar to what works, at Glamour, at Vogue,
at magazines that are successful. And advertisers can afford to be conservative
because it works. Maybe we're all tired of reading about the same things, but
there's still a reader out in Kentucky or Oregon who's gonna pay to buy that
magazine, and the advertisers know that and they bank on it. And I'm just curious,
for the Editors-In-Chief up there in particular: do you have a lot of communication
with the advertising people on how they sell the magazine in particular? Are
you getting the real perceptions of the advertisers, what they might actually
be scared to take a risk on? Because I know in my experience, a lot of times
an editor has said, "We can't do that, the advertisers won't like it." But sometimes
you've got to actually take that risk.
Debbie: I'm right
now at Bust trying, really trying, to get an Ad Sales person to ask people
who turn us down what their problem is. Because I think we tend to second-guess
too much what they're upset about. It's important to really engage, even if
you're not gonna make the sale, just to find out really clearly what it is that
they're averse to. Because I think there is that problem of giving a self-fulfilling
prophecy or undercutting ourselves. But I also am feeling kind of energized
by this group and thinking back to my original mission with Bust magazine.
And you know, I think about things like the success of stuff like the Vagina
Monologues and even Sex In The City -- I don't know if you guys like it or not.
(I do!) These are things that started really small and then people really start
to show up en masse. The Vagina Monologues were at Madison Square Garden! Who
would've thunk it? So maybe we all just have to hold our ground and just hang
in there. We as women are really ready for a huge fucking change in women's
magazines. And somehow the change won't happen yet. This is going to make me
sound like a moronic idealist, but maybe there is a way to just hang in there.
Like I said, it seems like the people who read our magazine are weary of that
stuff. Maybe eventually if more and more people come on board, we'll be able
to convince the advertisers that they're wrong. I've always thought the advertisers
don't inherently have a morality. They just want to sell their products. And
they don't want to advertise in you because the readers are going be turned
off to see their products there. Maybe we can convince them that people are
really into this, and then that's where they're going to put their money. I
But the reality is that they actually do wield a lot of power, and their influence
is very specific. An advertiser will get a sense that they need to go in 'X'
direction and this is the image that they want to portray that month. I mean,
it's kind of whimsical like that. And the ad department will have sold space
that's fashion or teen-oriented, thinking specifics. And then they come back
and suddenly it's like, "Well, can't you just shift it a little bit so that
it fits this new idea of what this advertiser had in mind? That's where it gets
scary. And, you know, a lot of times you'll come up with an editorial line-up,
but the ad department, they'll start to sell it, but they don't even have quite
an in-depth understanding of what it is that they're selling. And part of that
is because the article hasn't even come in yet. You know, and you don't know.
I mean, unless you're the type of publication that says, "I want X, Y and Z
in this article and if you don't get it don't come back here," you think that
maybe your writer will have to discover something and maybe it will take a new
direction and will be lead by the piece. You know, surprise. So, that's where
it get confusing. The ad department says "Sell this," but they don't really
know what the content is about. And sometimes there is a struggle -- I hate
to say it but I've experienced it -- there is a struggle of trying to make both
Debbie: I'm just
thinking, look at what they've done to us. I think that what you all did at
Mode was completely awesome and worthy of so much respect. But do different-sized
women really need different magazines? I hang out with women of a variety of
Kathy: If they
want to dress and look great (and I like to), they do need it. They don't have
products out there directed towards them.
it be possible to have a fashion magazine that has stuff for women of a variety
that's the goal. I think that's the future and maybe that's what Rosie and Oprah
are leaning toward and maybe that will happen.
point of contention with women's magazines is that the idea of age. One of the
big differences between Glamour and Esquire is that the average
age of the Esquire reader is almost 10 years older than the average Glamour
reader. How old is your average reader, and to what extent do you feel the pressure
to dumb-down? Are these youth pressures rather than gender pressures?
Debbie: At Bust,
our average age of reader is 26, but they're really smart and so we try to put
a lot of words in there that even they don't understand! No, no, we assume that
they're smart and totally make it as smart as possible, I believe.
John: I'm not
on the marketing side, but all the numbers that I've seen and all the things
I've heard is that the magic number is right around 30. And we go about 10 years
younger and about 10 years older and that's really our focus. I didn't know
that about Esquire but I believe it.
Debbie: I'm almost
39, and I also like a lot of dumb things as 39-year-old, so I have to dumb it
down for me.
Chandra: I don't
think it's any different. Cosmo's for 18-30 year old women, roughly.
A bigger seller on college campuses, so, a 22-year-old woman is the target audience.
And I think it is pretty similar for the other women's magazines.
average age is 30.
Cheryl Alkon, I was the Editor for Gurl.com (for teen girls.) And my question
is that, if you all work in women's magazines, and you talk about them so negatively,
why do you stay with them?
John: I like
Chandra: And you
know what? Everyone here does. Of course, Debbie, you know, she's singular.
Laurie: I was
talking to John, and he does like his magazine. I think my magazine does a lot
of good pieces. My ambition is to run big issues that have a lot of advertising
like the big fashion months in March and September and a couple months around
there. We've had 5,000 words and more pieces that we've run, and I'm hoping
we can run one 8,000-word piece that really unpacks. It would have to be the
perfect piece for us. I think we do a lot of good writing or I wouldn't be able
to stay there. And I'm sure everyone else feels the same way. You don't love
every element of your magazine and you're partial to the one you work on, but
the ambivalence is sort of intrinsic to living.
John: I just want
to say one thing. In my time at Glamour, I've yet to have a top editor
say, "Could you make this a little bit dumber?" Maybe that's your perception
of certain areas that don't appeal to you. There are sections of the book that
I've never read because, they just well-the makeup tips, I'm not likely to read,
it's just not interesting to me. My challenge is to try to make it smarter and
I constantly make it smarter. I don't feel like anyone at Glamour wants
to make this a dumb magazine. I just don't see it.
Debbie: But, since
we started out with this, I think that some of the stuff that even we as women
hate about women's magazines, is part of our own self-hatred as women. Because
at Bust I'll write about some t-shirt that I think is really cool. And
my writers go, "No, don't write about that, that's so horrible! How can you
do that? You're just being like all the other guys!" And well, I personally
love Allure because it doesn't even pretend that it's about anything
except the most frivolous things. And it's so honest about it that I really
enjoy that. But I think that being educated is one form of pleasure that we
experience as women. I think decorating ourselves, if you're that kind of a
chick, can be another form of pleasure. I don't think that writing about fashion
is necessarily dumb. Like I said, I don't think it's any dumber than writing
about sports. I don't really like sports. But I think we need to be careful
about that. I want to create a female culture that we all can really be proud
of and I think it's gonna incorporate a lot more maybe than we even think.
Rachel: But one
of things that we said that this was going to be a prescription. So maybe we
can say a few things we want to keep in mind.
Stick with the journalism; don't take any short cuts; don't make shit up. That's
Kathy: On the
same score, I'm actually very surprised sometimes by the level of reporting
that goes on in a story. And I think I have been interested particularly in
writers who are purely brought up in the women's magazine world. So when a story
requires reporting, do the reporting. I mean, that ups the level for everybody.
I don't think we should rely on one source when we can get three. And since
it is paying your way, and you are doing those, you can't apply the same level
of journalism on a story like that to a big feature reporting story. That's
one take on writers.
Debbie: My three
things are: Don't give up the fight; just try to stay true to yourself and tell
the truth, 'cause I think it's gonna help make things better for everyone.
Chandra: I would
have to agree with what John says on credibility. I think the Editor-In-Chief
can do a huge change by requiring fact-checking on all quotes. Also, picking
quality experts who won't budge. And I think that we can vote with our pocketbooks.
Like she said, we can buy Bust and buy the magazines that show the advertisers
who we support. And, we know a lot of women buy Esquire and GQ
and I think that says a lot too. But if we keep reading, then we'll keep putting
it out exactly the same.
Laurie: Sex and
death and work -- all of life, and everything can be fit in there. And if you
can do narratives that approach all those areas, then…good.
Rachel: One last
thing for all of you: go back to your Editor-In-Chief and challenge them on
one story a month. If we all do that, we can make a change. So that's one little,
practical thing you can do. Just walk away from here and challenge one story.
If we all do it together, how can they fight us?