Tuesday, January 08, 2019 1:00 am
Women's magazines struggle to adapt
Lavanya Ramanathan | Washington Post
In late November, Glamour came to the same conclusion reached by so many other women's magazines these days: After 80 years in mailboxes and grocery store checkouts, it will stop publishing its glossy monthly, ending with the January issue. For Glamour, print is officially dead, the inexorable “pivot to digital” now complete.
Teen Vogue, a junior version of the fashion bible, was already there. Self, purveyor of 1,000 ways to say goodbye to your back fat, disappeared from the racks in 2017. Seventeen, once a lifestyle primer for high school girls everywhere, now will publish only special issues, and Redbook, one of the “seven sisters” of magazines for suburban housewives, is high-tailing it to the web as well.
The magazine industry as a whole has been belt-tightening for years thanks to a print advertising famine, eliminating costly paper copies while trying to establish a beachhead on the internet. Yet women's publications somehow feel much more endangered than the rest, especially now that even the woke online upstarts that once aimed to replace them – sites like the Hairpin, Rookie and the Toast – are themselves turning off the lights.
From Ladies' Home Journal (still hanging in there, but downgraded to a quarterly) to email-based Lenny Letter (extinguished this fall, after a wild three years), these publications helped mold tastes, define mainstream feminism (as well as femininity) and give talented female journalists a leg up into high-flying media careers. Their demise feels like a loss – but is it?
For generations, women's magazines filled a complex cultural niche, adopting the voice of a concerned big sister to chide women into keeping up with the current hemlines – but also the current headlines. One Sassy cover touted a piece explaining why Israelis and Palestinians would never achieve peace and another on why women really ought to pout more. Jane told women how to wear jeans to work without getting fired. You could read a somber article about abusive boyfriends, or kill time with a quiz about your flirting style.
The glossies were relatable, visually pleasing and useful all at once – a tactile, addictive habit.
“You could tear out the page and say, 'This is the haircut I'm going to bring to my hairdresser,'” says Lisa Pecot-Hébert, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School. “There was just something about a glossy, to read and engage with.”
Even if you didn't subscribe, dog-eared copies of Marie Claire and Good Housekeeping and Seventeen found their way to you – at the doctor's office, at a friend's apartment, in a middle school classroom. For every copy of a thick glossy that landed in a mailbox, there was usually not one but several readers.
It was the homemaking magazines, beginning with McCall's and the Ladies' Home Journal in the late 1800s, that spurred the craze for women's tips and advice. Glamour, initially a Hollywood gossip rag, followed in 1939. Seventeen, which offered the same formula for the not-quite-yet-a-woman set, dispatched its first issue in 1944. Cosmopolitan homed in on a female audience in 1965, when Helen Gurley Brown took the helm of the dusty literary magazine and unveiled a brand intertwined with sex and feminism; among the first stories she edited was one about the pill.
“At a time when mainstream media didn't pay attention to issues that mattered to women, they were a place that could bring attention to those things,” says Harriet Brown, a Syracuse University magazine journalism professor whose own career took her, briefly, to Redbook.
In 1966, Glamour was the first fashion magazine to feature a black woman, Katiti Kironde, as the cover model, a gesture toward inclusion amid the civil rights movement. In 1976, dozens of editors of women's and teen magazines agreed to cover the Equal Rights Amendment, with stories that would reach their collective 60 million readers. In the 1990s, Self launched the now-ubiquitous pink ribbon campaign to raise awareness of breast cancer. And back when you could still clutch the miniature Teen Vogue in your hands, the magazine delivered one of the most talked-about op-eds of the 2016 election, entitled “Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America.”
In their heyday, these publications also offered a pipeline for the nation's best women journalists. Joan Didion worked for Vogue in the 1960s. Susan Orlean and Gloria Steinem wrote for Glamour. Good Housekeeping published Betty Friedan, who used her word count to ... not-so-subtly eviscerate women's magazines. These publications gave us iconic editors such as Brown and Anna Wintour, not to mention a sea of lesser-known ladybosses.
Thumb through old issues of women's magazines, says Katie Sanders, a freelance journalist who writes for several women's magazines, “and you see how a woman's role in history is not only changing, but how Glamour and some of the other women's magazines were driving that change.”
Their formula is also everywhere these days.
What women's magazines once delivered to readers from New York to Topeka, Kansas, to Sacramento, California – the girlfriend-style advice, the gospels of orgasms and equal pay, the reminders to always be dieting – can now be found online, from the #fitspo posts on Instagram to junior-feminist sites like Jezebel, which has elbowed in on coverage of pop culture, #MeToo and the workplace. Makeup bloggers and YouTube influencers now dictate the Next Big Lipstick Color and how to get that no-makeup makeup look. Culinary sites like Food52 have cornered what the lady rags used to call “cookery,” with none of the gendered notions about who does the cooking. And low-stakes, cheerfully unscientific personality quizzes? Now, there's BuzzFeed for that.
And, of course, some of stuff you once loved can be found online under the same old banners of yore, as legacy titles try to find new life as web products.
Cosmo's website lures more than 19 million unique visitors a month, according to comScore, and Glamour can attract more than 6 million. The old brands are drawing YouTube followers with original videos.
But some fear for what will be lost in the transition.
“This whole industry is on a wild roller-coaster ride,” says Harriet Brown. She's skeptical of the assumption that print magazines are doomed.
“I guess in the stock market they call it 'a correction,'” she says. “There's a lot of overlap. In a different media climate, maybe they could survive, but this one won't support it.”