Why women’s mags might not be the great Satan on glossy pages

ImageHold onto your hoohahs because I am about to shock the liberal ladypants right off you: I like women’s magazines. Yes, I know that feminist blogs are existentially bound to be the mortal enemies of anything glossy that sits on a news stand. Yes, I know that there’s some egregious bullshittery within the editorial gospel of these shiny-papered organs. I know it’s easy to hate on women’s magazines.

And yet women’s magazines are the only publications where female writers aren’t massively outnumbered by male ones. They’re one of the few sectors in any industry where female authority is the norm, rather than a freakishly dickless aberration. And they’re almost the only media where things in which women are interested – fashion and beauty, but also friendship and family and sex – are treated as things a normally intelligent person might be interested in, rather than the brainfluff of vacant-headed boob carriers consigned to a section called “Lifestyle”.

Let’s take a look at Elle, because it’s the one I read most (and the one I’ve written for). Yes, actually read, not just look at the pictures: every issue, Elle carries at least four good quality features, the kind of thing you can start in an idle moment while the kettle’s boiling and find yourself still reading as your tea goes cold.

Over the last few years, they’ve run a fantastic essay about feminism by Sarah Churchwell; a series of outstanding pieces by “beauty extremist” Avril Mair, going into the kind of genuine hard work it takes to develop and maintain a fashion-class body; and wonderful discursive articles about careers, relationships and the meaning of style. Seriously, you haven’t even inflicted consensual superficial bruising on the subject of fetishwear as fashion unless you’ve read UK Elle’s article from 2011. (They also have the inevitable occasional Ultimate Celebrity Interview, but you can’t get everything right.)

When it comes to the actual fashion – the photo shoots – I think even the most passionate defender of the glossy has to acknowledge some capital-I-issues. It’s obscene that teenage models are routinely presented as avatars for an audience twice their age. It’s obscene that a starvation level body mass index is presented as a normal, desirable female look. It’s obscene that short, black, fat (and I’m talking fashion-fat here, as in size 10 or above) and disabled women are either non-existent to fashion or fetishised half to death if they do appear.

All that sucks. But get this: it sucks the same in almost every branch of the media. Wailing on women’s magazines as if they’re the only place this happens is so self-defeatingly dumb, I almost can’t bear to think about it. I mean, take one of the main purveyors of the j’accuse approach to women’s magazines: the Mail’s Liz Jones. A woman whose entire journalistic career is founded on niggling and picking at other women, and who when she’s not writing about how disgusting fat poor people are is whining about the privations of being an anorexic living in a massive barn. (CONFIDENTIAL TO LIZ: YOUR EMPLOYERS MAY NOT BE AS CONCERNED FOR YOUR WELFARE AS THEY SAY IF THEY’RE PAYING YOU TO INDULGE YOUR POTENTIALLY FATAL NEUROSES,)

Women’s magazines could be better. They could adopt a saner approach to diet and exercise. (Seriously, if you have six weeks to get a bikini body, you need to either have one to start with or think about buying a bigger bikini.) They could act like consumption isn’t a sacred rite (and maybe they will, when the advertisers finally all walk into the online sunset and readers are actually paying the paper and production costs rather than being a bought audience). They could let go of the crack-brained arguments about “having it all” or “keeping him happy”.

You know when that’s going to happen? When smart, funny women recognise that smart, funny women make women’s magazines. When readers demand better and writers push to provide it – we know they can, because of how many great women writers already work (or have worked) for women’s magazines. And please, tell me where else I get to see female performers and creators lauded on the cover just for being rocking. (Well, beautiful and rocking.) When Wired magazine – with the notionally gender neutral remit of “tech and shit” – puts a woman on the cover, she’s posed to mark her token nature in a male dominated industry, or she’s naked, or she’s just tits. WT everliving F is up with that, Wired?

So every time some chippy blogger rips into the great Satan of the glossies, as if they’re the only papery barrier between us and total emancipation, I like to take a moment to count all the other brilliant venues for women’s interest journalism. And then, after I’ve blinked, I take a chilly satisfaction in thinking of how happy that blogger would be to get – if she’s one of the very, very fortunate and talented ones – a single page of Grazia to spread her thoughts on.

Image taken from jaimelondonboy‘s Flickr stream, used under Creative Commons

An earlier version of this post appeared on The Flick

Editions of you: Roxy and magazines

For Your PleasureBefore home video made it possible to possess film, print was the only was the only to claim ownership of visuals. Roxy Music made records, but they made a world too – a freakish outgrowth of the style mags, and one built on print.

In the More Than This documentary, designer Anthony Price talks up the prestige of being a “Roxy girl”: “It was quite a benchmark of success. It was second only to a Vogue cover.” And Bryan Ferry reckons that print culture was part of the reason for Roxy’s success: “I think in Europe, people’s taste was more informed by magazines, by music newspapers, and music was analysed and talked about. In America, it was all about what was on the radio.”

12″ sleeves and the glossy magazines can’t define dreams and desire in the same way anymore. The music press has ground down to the NME, which seems to be more taste-chasing than taste-making, and retro-looking monthlies. With Roxy, magazines mattered.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009. Full review will appear in DVD And Blu-Ray Review.

Death Ray and Filmstar fold

Blackfish logoDeath Ray and Filmstar magazines have closed, as Blackfish Publishing splits from their parent company Rebellion. According to a press release issued by managing director Matt Bielby, the current issues of both magazines (Death Ray issue 21, and Filmstar issue 5) will be their last.

I liked Blackfish’s magazines, and I wrote for Filmstar: even among strong competition, I felt that Filmstar was an impressive title, and it’s more than self-interest that makes me sad to see it go. The editors I worked with were great, and I’m proud of the pieces I wrote for them (I’ll be adding all my film reviews to the Paperhouse archive over the next few weeks).  There are plenty of reasons why a publishing venture might not work out, but for Blackfish, it definitely wasn’t a failure of quality. Over the fold, the press release in full: Continue reading

Newspaper classifieds: don’t blame the internet (but it’s still not good)

The Media Business classifieds graphThe Media Business online classifieds bar chart

Graphs taken from The Media Business

Newspapers might be having trouble retaining their classified advertising, but Robert G Pickard on The Media Business blog reckons that’s not solely down to internet competition, and nor is it certainly fatal. He offers two graphs (above, using data from Newspaper Association of America and the Internet Advertising Bureau) to prove his point:

The Internet certainly is taking some money from newspapers, but it isn’t the worst culprit. The real competitor is direct mail and home delivery advertising that have taken much preprint and display advertising from newspapers in recent decades by delivering better household reach. That was compounded by the significant reduction in the number of large retailers in the late 1990s and 2000s. The development of the recession in 2007 and 2008 is currently playing a major role because newspaper advertising—especially classifieds—is more strongly affected by recessions than other types of advertising. But recessions come and go and there is no reason to believe that an advertising recovery will not accompany an improvement in the economy. […]

The end for newspapers is not in sight and those who think that the $50 billion industry is going to collapse and disappear within a year or two because of Internet advertising are just not paying attention close enough attention to what is really happening across media industries.

Robert G Pickard, The Media Business, “The poor connection between internet advertising and newspaper woes”

Measuring the market value isn’t an especially good way to judge the effect of online competition on print ad spending: an online listing is cheaper than one in a newspaper, so every customer who deserts print for the internet will only take a small portion of their advertising spend with them. And while Pickard is correct when he says it’s not just the internet squeezing advertising away from print, it still seems to take a mighty squint to get these figures looking good for newspapers.

Classified advertising revenue for newspapers continues to plummet dramatically according to both graphs – whether or not that revenue is being diverted to online services, newspapers still aren’t getting it, and publications who have formerly relied on their small ads can’t depend on getting them back when the recession is through.

© Sarah Ditum 2009

How to make a magazine: The September Issue

Everyone knows that Anna Wintour is imperious, dictatorial and impeccable. The trailer for this behind-the-scenes-at-Vogue documentary promises to reinforce that image. Good news for us, because the scene of her telling Oscar de la Renta what’s in and out of his catwalk show looks mighty entertaining; good news for Wintour too, because I imagine that her ferocious reputation is the most valuable thing she’s got.

But what looks most interesting – for people infatuated with journalism and publishing, anyway – is the way this film follows in detail the process of putting together an issue of a magazine. September is the big month in Vogue’s year, and Anna critiques everything in hand-stitched detail: the fonts, the message, and above all the looks.

Avast ye, Google

Pirate Bay trial ends in a guilty verdict, after the prosecution dropped half the original charges and rephrased the remainder to fit in with an understanding of how the site actually worked. It’s a qualified victory for the music industry, and the comment from the International Federation Of The Phonographic Industry (“It would have been very difficult to put on a brave face if we had lost, but this verdict sends a strong educational and deterrent message”) is wringing with relief. Guardian blogger Jack Schofield wonders if Google will be next, and is quite keen that it is: “Still, it would be interesting to see Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Eric Schmidt jailed as well.”

There’s quite a high-powered crowd of media people who seem to share Schofield’s interest:

Rupert Murdoch accused Google in a speech of “stealing copyrights.” Wall Street Journal Managing Editor Robert Thomson called Google and other aggregators “parasites or tapeworms,” charging Google and other unnamed aggregators with the crime of “encouraging promiscuity” (managing to combine fear of Google and fear of sex, in what could be a model platform for the Republican Party in 2010).

The Big Money, Death a la carte

For people who publish the news, Murdoch and Thomson don’t seem to read an awful lot of it: the track record of efforts to prosecute the sharing of copyrighted information is supremely lousy. Taking down file-sharing individuals and facilitating websites hasn’t stopped other individuals and new websites from using the same technology (and more ferociously), and since text is even easier to copy and transmit than music and movies, it’s even less likely that squeezing a search engine will have any permanent effect.

And what about that “educational message” the IFPI was so pleased with? The hope of copyright holders is to teach their potential audience that everything they read, see or hear has to be paid for: it’s an incredibly mean message and one that’s totally opposed to the nature of culture and information. Like almost everyone, I’ve exchanged CDs and mixtapes, loaned books and DVDs, shared newspapers – because when something is exciting or important, you want to share it. There’s an obvious quantitative difference in digital reproduction, but qualitatively, it feels like sharing and not stealing. By trying to stick a price on everything, copyright holders risk sucking the value out of their own product.

Drowning in a sea of tits and anal tears

Maxim has shut down, less than a month after the closure of Arena. Back in early March, Brian Schofield (Arena contributing editor) made this analysis of the problems for men’s magazines, putting the slump down to the frantic imitation of the tits-and-goals mens’ weeklies: “joining the younger lads’ titles in a suicide charge into grubby oblivion, to be munched up by the new weekly grot-mags Nuts and Zoo – and, of course, by the simple fact that exposed breasts are quite easy to find for free on the internet.” (My newsagent keeps Nuts and Zoo on the top shelf with the authentic stroke mags, and everyone knows how well they’re doing.)

On the Media Show this week, Condé Nast’s UK managing director Nicholas Coleridge kicked the weak content of the mens’ glossies into tiny little bits:

In the end there were six articles that appeared in the lads’ magazines. This was the formula. You had softporn pictures. You had ‘Highstreet Honeys’, which was when people sent in pictures of their girlfriends, and in fact it was rather early user-generated copy that appeared in the magazines. And what I always think of as ‘Sharks And Nazis’, which were articles about deep-sea fishing – there were an incredible number of them – and articles that had a Nazi connection. A little bit of sport, and medical abnormalities – a tremendous number of pictures of medical abnormalities appeared in the lads’ magazines. And I think people simply felt, ‘god, I’ve seen this, I’ve seen this.’ […] I think in the end, they were rather bad magazines.

It’s worth remembering that Condé Nast has just invested in the UK launch of Wired – which, while not exactly a mens’ mag, is a magazine with a largely male readership (I’d guess) and, importantly, a heavy commitment to original features – so Coleridge’s faith in content is all over his business strategy. In the same segment of the Media Show, James Brown claimed that lack of diversity had murderered the mens’ market, but a lot of the homgeneity was self-inflicted: publishers assumed that whatever was popular was the same as what their readers wanted, without preserving the qualities that originally made people love the magazine (at one time, I used to read FHM mostly because they had a killer caption writer who hid something funny on every page). Just because it’s what the people want doesn’t mean it’s what your audience wants.

Eye blinks

Back before Christmas, Ian Hislop gave an interview to the Simon Mayo show while he doing the rounds promoting the Private Eye annual, and he said a lot of the same things about his publication as Terence Eden did in this comment. The Eye is fortnightly so they have time to decide what’s important rather than being forced to follow the saturation cycle of 24-hour news. The cartoons and gossip draw readers in, but the investigative reporting (In The Back and Rotten Boroughs especially) are the meat of the mag. And it’s a strange and successful combination: Anthony Sampson’s description of the Eye is a really good account of what makes it such a scrappy and admirable institution:

One oddball paper has appeared almost impervious to the hazards and pressures. The fortnightly Private Eye, which was established 40 years ago, looked the most ephemeral of all, with its shoddy newsprint, makeshift headlines and gossipy items. But it survived enemies and libel suits and maintained its eccentric style under only two editors, Richard Ingrams and Ian Hislop, with its bohemian offices in Soho and fortnightly lunches at the Coach And Horses. It was not dependent on big advertisers or big business interests, and it retained its crucial ingredient: it was close to the curiosity and conversation of its readers.

Who Runs This Place?, p. 239

Who Runs This Place? is five years old, so Sampson doesn’t have as much to say about the online threat to papers as a similar writer would now, but I’ve often admired the determinedly aloof strategy of the Eye on the net. They don’t give away their content for free, and despite slight year-on-year drops, they’ve remained the top-selling current affairs title. That’s impressive.

Not everything about the magazine is so inspiring, though. In the Mayo interview, Hislop seemed slightly confounded when asked about MMR. Unlike another commenter (who’s working on a nice webcomic if you click through), the Eye‘s credulous coverage of  Wakefield didn’t put me off the magazine entirely, although it did knock my trust in their other campaigns and causes. Hislop’s line in the interview (audio via Black Triangle) is that the Eye‘s medical correspondent believes there’s no link, there were questions that needed to be asked, there’s nothing else the magazine can add to the debate, and he’s not sorry about the line they took.

I think that’s a pile of balls, and poisonous balls at that. And it’s something that I could tolerate, just about, as an error of over-enthusiastic criticism; but it’s consistent with an alarmingly suspicious attitude to statistics. “A lot of the medical experts who said it [MMR] is absolutely safe were statistitians reviewing other papers by experts which they hadn’t done themselves”, says Hislop, as if that discredits their work. (Here’s Ben Goldacre explaining what meta-analysis is, how it works and why it’s important.) Recently, the author of the Eye‘s Medicine Balls column, MD, has adopted a sympathetic line on complementary medicine in the NHS:

A year-long pilot scheme in Northern Ireland found impressive health benefits for patients offered complementary therapies, so why were it’s findings not released for more than a year? […] The trial wasn’t randomised or controlled […] The fact that the Northern Ireland health board hasn’t released the results in a big fanfare suggests it just doesn’t have the money to extend the service.

Private Eye, “Medicine Balls”, no. 1231

The best way for CAM to get NHS funding is to produce conclusive trial evidence, and the NHS now has a vast GP research database that can be used for randomised observational studies of “real-life” patients, rather than the more artificial environment of controlled trials.

Private Eye, “Medicine Balls”, no. 1232

There’s a typical leap of Eye logic in the first column: despite the obvious positive interpretation (the study hasn’t been pimped to the press because it’s not a proper study), MD suggests that it’s been suppressed to limit expenses. Then in the second column, written in defense of the first after critics like David Colquhoun took a big swing at MD in the letters page, MD proposes something that sounds a bit like a study because it would mean drawing information from a large body of research, but is probably more like mining for anecdotes.

So, if the Eye‘s attitude is that self-reported experience rates above peer-reviewed cumulative data for deciding NHS funding, and there’s no editorial appetite for self-criticism over the MMR debacle, how much confidence are we supposed to have in their investigative work? If I want critical reporting of a medical story, I’m better off looking to the Badscience bloggers

The Eye‘s strategy of holding the internet at a critical distance has worked out ok for them so far, but the increasingly spaced-out alignment of the small ads suggests that they’re taking some of the same hit that’s injured the local press. The Eye is insulated from internet competition – for advertising and for content – to a certain degree by the strong reader community Sampson recognised. But it can’t survive by treating the internet as a refuge of scandal and plagiarism like it does now. It’s true that every magazine has ups and downs over 50 years, but the Eye seems to be  hitting a down patch and not attending to some serious threats at the same time. And if the Eye goes on the blink, who’ll be left to scoop up the rotten boroughs and PFI disasters?

Mags not dying, just a bit poorly

Magculture linked to a Salon feature arguing that the magazine isn’t doomed, it’s just been badly mishandled. According to the writer (Gabriel Sherman), publishers aggressively launched titles during the “bubble years” (is that we’re calling the last decade now?) to exploit new advertising markets, but without cultivating the standards that build lasting readerships:

a closer look at the types of magazines that have closed reveals a more nuanced and, in many respects, hopeful portrait of the magazine business. According to a list compiled by Advertising Age, titles that have shut down in the past year come from the shelter, technology, travel, luxury, and teen categories. The reason for each category’s challenges are obvious, from a meltdown in the housing sector to teenagers’ wholesale abandonment of print for Facebook and Twitter.

As someone who’s pretty keen for people to carry on buying magazines so that some of the magazines will hopefully pay me to write for them, I don’t feel totally consoled by the suggestion that it’s ‘just’ the teenagers who are deserting the news-stands: if teenagers aren’t buying mags now, then what’s going to make them start in time to replace the older readers who’ll be dying off? And similarly, it’s possible that the tech audience is just out at the front of a movement into reading online, and the recession is masking a much more permanent shift.

Still, the failed mags gibbeted by Advertising Age do seem to have been mostly aimed at conspicuous consumers, and the fact that so many were diffusion titles – jimmying an established brand into a new marketplace – backs up Sherman’s thesis. And obviously, I’d really like this part to be true:

the current downturn can be good for publishers. Magazines still offer an unsurpassed ability to marry literary ambitions with deep reporting, photography, and visual design. In this new media age, people talk about the importance of transforming readers into “communities.” Magazines have never had a community problem. Great magazines have built enduring relationships with their readers that Facebook and Tumblr still aspire to. But in a race to grow their businesses, publishers put advertising first and editorial excellence second.

Magazines still retain emotional capital, and publishers need to remember that they’re not in the advertising-delivery business. If a magazine can speak directly to the reader, advertising dollars will follow. Titles launched to capitalize on a booming market segment will never survive over the long haul.