March 24, 2014

Brooke Erin Duffy remembers her first meeting with Seventeen magazine. She was 12, at her grandparent’s house and totally entranced.

Duffy, an assistant professor in the School of Media and Communication at Temple University, writes about that introduction in her book “Remake Remodel: Women’s Magazines in the Digital Age.”

Indeed, I recall a flurry of emotions as I read through that early ’90s issue of “Seventeen” again and again; with the benefit of hindsight, I can identify this as a powerful cocktail of envy and inadequacy, hope and aspiration. And so began my close, albeit conflicted, relationship with women’s magazines.

Duffy’s book examines the history of women’s magazines, which were early on a safe space for women to work, she said in a phone interview with Poynter, and how they’ve transformed over time to fit into the digital world. That transformation has impacted women’s magazines in a few clear ways.

1. There are more men.

Traditionally, women’s magazines were “safe.” They gave women a place of employment and a means to support themselves, Duffy writes in her book.

Since at least the eighteenth century, women have been involved in magazine production as contributors, writers, editors, and more. In fact, the magazine business was considered one of the few acceptable career sites for women in antebellum America.

Of course, some of the voices of women in magazines were really those of men, Duffy writes, pretending to be women. And Betty Friedan, also a former editor, criticized women’s magazines and the men running them who “often depicted women in polarizing ways,” Duffy writes.

But by the late 1980s, Duffy said, there had been gains in access to top leadership positions for women in the media. By the 1990s, publishers at Vogue, Self, Mademoiselle and Vanity Fair were all female.

But as publishing has adjusted to digitization and made cuts that have hit all of print, more men are coming into women’s magazines, leaving room for fewer women, Duffy said. Of the four publications, Vogue and Self still have women who are publishers, Mademoiselle folded in 2001, and Vanity Fair’s publisher is a man.

In leadership positions and on the growing digital side of magazines, she said, there is now a stark imbalance.

In print, many women’s magazines have mostly female bylines, Duffy said. But that doesn’t always translate to their online presence.

Duffy writes in her book that the the gender imbalance happening in women’s magazines is, at this point, anecdotal, but still discernable.

Unfortunately, the shift toward digitization has the potential to undermine the leadership role of women in the industry. Thus, if it continues to be the case that digital producers (many of whom are male) exert influence over matters of content, women may get elbowed out of their leadership positions. As the dust settles at this moment of unprecedented change, the gendered hierarchies of value within the industry may be subverted.

2. There are more “consumer” voices.

Women’s magazines have always been good at creating an intimacy with readers, Duffy writes, but that intimacy is now a full-blown, mostly non-paying relationship between magazines and readers, who blog, share and participate in creating content for women’s magazines.

Duffy has students who spend long hours blogging about fashion, hoping the exposure will launch their careers. Duffy writes about several women’s magazines, including Cosmopolitan, Glamour and Ladies’ Home Journal and their use of social media and online community spaces that encourage women to create content.

In a Feb. 3 story for AdWeek, Emma Bazilian wrote about a new Instagram native advertising campaign from Teen Vogue using 10 bloggers chosen by the editorial team.

Like Condé Nast sibling pubs Lucky and Details have done with their own bloggers, Teen Vogue will have the Instalist members take part in a variety of native advertising campaigns. For a live Instagram “fashion show” from Feb. 19 to 21, the Instagrammers will wear items from Teen Vogue advertisers like 7 For All Mankind, DKNY and Sperry Top-Sider. Teen Vogue will post photos from the show in its Instagram feed. Sponsorship deals will also include print and/or digital ad components.

Duffy devotes a chapter of her book to “Inviting Audiences In,” noting there are many reasons women participate, including socialization and self-promotion. “However,” she writes, “some individuals may not be fully aware of the economic incentives underlying their participation.”

3. Content has been commercialized.

If you’re a reader of fashion magazines, you’re probably used to the ads that really look like stories but also have fine print. But as magazines have digitized, Duffy said, they’ve also increased the commercialization of their content.

“It’s become so acceptable in this industry to promote with advertisers but to increasingly create content specifically for them,” Duffy said.

She writes about tablet versions of women’s magazines that, with a tap of a photo, take readers to where they can buy the products in stories themselves, and they create sites, even shows, that directly promote products. To remain competitive, Duffy writes, magazine publishers may be more willing to tear down editorial and advertising boundaries.

“I don’t think that there’s any reluctance for them to say this is about advertising.”

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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