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Pop Quiz: Jennifer Armstrong

jennifera.jpgToday I chat with one of the editors of Sirens Magazine, a magazine concept that’s now online that I hope has a bright, happy future ahead of it. She has spent the past four years writing for Entertainment Weekly magazine, where she’s currently a correspondent. She also has experience overseeing editorial functions—she spent two years as managing editor of a group of home décor trade magazines. And before that, she spent more than five years as a news reporter at various local newspapers in California and Chicago.
How did you come into your job at Entertainment Weekly?
Well, my career was definitely not the standard path–I wouldn’t recommend this as a step-by-step plan to EW. I was a local newspaper reporter in California and Chicago for about five years, covering city council meetings and haranguing local politicians and the like. Then, after one too many stories about opposition to a new mall, I left that for the glamorous world of trade magazines. I had always wanted to be in magazines, and I was in the suburbs of Chicago, so that meant becoming managing editor of a group of home decor trade mags (Accessory Merchandising and Residential Lighting!). It was a great gig, actually–writing about pretty things all day and learning every aspect of magazine publishing along the way. Then I finally decided to go after the big dream of consumer mags, so I quit my job and moved to New York. I got a temp job copyediting Conde Nast’s web sites, shoved my resume at anyone too polite to shove it back, and eventually got it to the publisher of Real Simple via an acquaintance. She passed it onto Time Inc. HR and had enough pull to get me a real live interview. I mentioned EW as my favorite Time Inc. magazine, and it just so happened that a spot opened up for an assistant. Four interviews and a writing test later, poof, my dreams were coming true. Since then I’ve worked my way up to staff writer … I hate to get all gushy, but this place has made things possible I didn’t even know to dream of when I was dreaming back in my newspaper days. I knew no one when I got to New York and had no idea how to do what I wanted to do, so I feel really lucky. Oh my god, I just gave an annoying Reese Witherspoon acceptance speech.


When and why did you start Sirens magazine?
My business partner, Heather Wood, and I have been tossing around the idea for quite some time–a good two years. It started when we were hanging at the Barnes & Noble in Union Square in New York brainstorming freelance ideas–and though all of our story concepts were woman-centric, they weren’t really right for mainstream women’s mags. It’s not that we feel like makeup, fashion, sex, relationships, and entertainment aren’t important–in fact, we don’t think they get the thought-provoking treatment they deserve. These things MEAN something to our lives … and we’d rather explore what that meaning is than tell you AGAIN how to apply lipgloss or give a blowjob. Women these days know the basics already–we simply wanted to see more exploration of WHY we care about certain things, and why maybe we shouldn’t care so much about other things. So we kept a running list of those ideas, and eventually got the bug to start our own magazine. While we were figuring out how the heck to do that, Heather moved to Los Angeles and got a job at Citysearch.com. It was about a year ago that she came to visit me in New York and we had the brainstorm to launch as a website. The idea gained momentum the second that happened. She used her web connections to corral us an astoundingly great designer, Jack Taylor, who believed in our vision and has been with us for every photo concept and font change since.
What future do you see for it?
Basically, we want to keep building our audience. The web is such a vibrant place for writing these days–we’d like to grow into a sort-of Salon with a distinctly feminine viewpoint. We’ve been blessed with some amazing writers so far–my hilarious EW colleague Whitney Pastorek, novelists Jami Attenberg and Nic Kelman, our ridiculously savvy political editor, Allison Hantschel, who publishes first-draft.com. We’re really focusing on getting thought-provoking pieces by strong writers–we have a piece by Anna Chlumsky, who starred in “My Girl,” an essay about peaking at 10 excerpted from a book called “Before the Mortgage”; an essay from one of our favorite writers, Laren Stover, who wrote “The Bohemian Manifesto”; and something about our own relationship to mainstream women’s magazines. We also need new writers, please! We need fresh voices constantly … and we only have so much of our own personal lives we’re willing to exploit in essay form!
What are you doing to further it?
We’re working hard to get our weekly updates up and telling our subscribers (it’s free! just click on the ‘subscribe’ link at the bottom of any page!) about the new stories with our e-newsletter. (Thank god I have “Grey’s Anatomy” to keep me sane while I update the site and call Heather about 93 times every Sunday evening.) We’re handing out a lot of business cards and begging everyone we know to tell everyone they know … it’s amazing to see the effect this has. I realize this is Web 101 kind of stuff, but it’s still incredible. We’re trying to get publicity (like this!), which is interesting–being on the other side of the PR wall when I spend most of my life fending off publicists at work. The great thing is that we love what we’re doing so much that we’re dying to tell people. And readers are truly responding, which gets us through the “Why the hell are we doing this?” moments. As we sell ads and make more money, we’ll launch more significant efforts, like web ad campaigns and partnerships. What’s cool is to see that two writers who never had the least intention of becoming entrepreneurs–and who can barely pay their own rent–can become mini media mavens.
Why do you think there is a lack of good content in women’s magazines?
There ARE good ones–don’t get me wrong (see below). But the best way to sell ads, traditionally, has been to make women feel bad about themselves so they’ll buy stuff to make them feel better. And to essentially engage in product placement–constantly putting the new beauty remedies and fashion lines into editorial. Instead, we’re taking what is, essentially, an EW-style approach: EW is built on offering honest, snarky, entertaining commentary on pop culture. If we started puffing up everything, no one would come to us for our opinion anymore. We’re doing something similar with Sirens: offering our own take on the major areas in women’s lives–from beauty, fashion, and sex, to health, politics, and literature. We hope to build a loyal following based on that. Men’s magazines like Details and GQ pull it off–why can’t we?
Content-wise, which magazines do you think do bring the best stuff?
We’re fans of Elle, which comes as close as anything to that Details/GQ thing … though it’s very fashion-focused, which inherently means there’s a lot less meaty content if you aren’t interested in the fashion business (which they do a stellar job of covering). And Allure, man … there is simply no reason to get any other magazine if you’re interested in beauty stuff (which we both are, to our financial detriment). They know exactly what they do, and do it perfectly. We’re also not about to argue with Glamour’s National Magazine Awards. They definitely do their thing well, though they’re clearly more into how-tos and Dos and Don’ts, which is NOT our thing. We also love stuff like O and Real Simple, which makes us different from like no one in America. But wow, do those guys deliver intelligent approaches to very specific visions. I’m sure Oprah will be psyched to know we think she’s doing a good job.

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