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Can Women's Magazines Do Serious Journalism?

Some people don't think so...

Frank Perry/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, the feminist Internet exploded with censure for the British quarterly Port Magazine. The magazine’s transgression? Publishing a cover story about “A New Golden Age” of print media and featuring six white, male editors. It provided visual evidence for what many of us in journalism know to be true: The editors-in-chief of the so-called “thought-leader” publications overwhelmingly have been, and remain, white dudes.

But on second glance, something else stuck out. While five out of six of those editors edit general interest publications (the industry term for mags that aren’t directed at a specific gender), a men’s magazine, GQ, was included, while no women’s magazine editors made the cut. In fairness, Port editor-in-chief Dan Crowe—a male of the Caucasian persuasion himself—told Gawker’s Nitasha Tiku that he asked Vogue editor Anna Wintour to participate in the shoot and she declined.

When I asked Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Joanna Coles about the Port article, she assumed that the writer “asked Janice Min, of The Hollywood Reporter, Foreign Policy's Susan Glasser, and Gillian de Bono of the FT's How to Spend It, and they were too busy editing to pull out the Thom Browne and pose for his cover." Crowe didn’t ask other female editors in Wintour’s—or any other’s stead—because, as he put it, “unfortunately these are not the people editing” truly excellent magazines. This reveals another pernicious assumption: that what women’s magazines publish is not as influential or important as what men’s and general interest magazines publish. How and when did this assumption arise?

Indeed, Crowe isn’t the only person to feel this way. The American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME)—the main organization for magazine journalists in the U.S.—has only regularly nominated women’s magazines at their annual National Magazine Awards (NMA) in a few writing categories over the past three decades: personal service, essays, and public interest. This represents only three writing categories out of a possible eight (going by 2013 categories—the writing awards aren’t exactly the same every year).

Not a single women’s magazine has been nominated for profile writing in more than a decade, while GQ and Esquire have received multiple nominations. (Men’s Journal even got one). What’s more, women’s magazines have received zero ASME nominations for reporting in the past 30 years and zero ASME nominations for fiction in the past 20 years. (This is not because women’s magazines weren’t publishing pieces that qualified in those categories; they were—more on that in a minute). And though Elle and Vogue both have excellent literary and film criticism, neither has received a nomination in the “essays and criticism” category in the past decade.1 (Neither have any other women’s magazines, by the way. You have to go back to 1999, when the now-defunct Mirabella got one.) While Elle got a nod for columns and commentary in 2013, no other women’s magazine had been nominated in the past decade in that category.

When I asked ASME chief executive Sid Holt about the disproportion, he said, via email, “Literary journalism is not central to women's magazines' editorial mission—which is one reason these magazines are rarely nominated in these categories.” He also adds that no one questions the editorial strength of women’s magazines, pointing out that Glamour was magazine of the year in 2010. He says that he can’t comment on the judges’ decisions, but that there’s no discrepancy among the judges. “There are far more judges from women's magazines than from any other magazine category,” Holt says. “Women's-magazine editors are assigned to every literary journalism judging group.” 

Still, there are formal distinctions that put women’s journalism in a different camp. Women’s magazines are considered for a “general excellence” award in their own separate category—“service and fashion magazines”—while men’s magazines like GQ and Esquire are considered in the general interest category. The segregation has been justified by the nature of the business. As ASME chief executive Sid Holt has previously said, “there’s no men’s category—that’s not the way the magazine business works, as a trip to any newsstand will show—and [men’s magazines] compete against other magazines in the same category for readers and advertisers.” But given the inability of women’s magazines to compete in the more broadly prestigious categories, it seems like separate is not equal.

The message from the arbiters is clear: Women’s magazines just aren’t up to snuff.

There are two issues at play here. One explanation for this assumption is that the type of “serious” journalism that women’s magazines do—an article about the Chinese marriage crisis in Marie Claire, a profile of political brothers Julian and Joaquin Castro in Vogue, a piece about how to spot an ovarian cyst in Cosmo—isn’t respected as much as the “serious” journalism in men’s magazines. This is supported by the sense among female journalists that they’ll limit their career trajectories if they go too far in a woman-oriented direction. Janet Reitman, who writes for Rolling Stone and has written for GQ and Men’s Journal, refuses to write for women’s magazines. When she appeared on the Longform podcast in 2012, she explained it this way: “I was never going to be a ‘chick’ you know, doing ‘chick stories.’ … The reality is, and continues to be, that the women who write those stories are ghettoized into the women's magazine ghetto.” Elizabeth Gilbert, who made her name writing for GQ before she became a best-selling author, expressed a similar sentiment to the Rumpus: “I gave a lot of speeches in bars about how much better the men’s magazines were than the women’s magazines.” The irony, she continued, is that “they’re not. You open up the men’s magazines and there’s talking about shoes too.”

Or look at the articles curated by Longform since 2010 for more evidence of the esteem gap: Elle makes a single appearance, Vogue makes two (one of which was a Joan Didion article from 1961), Marie Claire appears four times, and Cosmopolitan does not come up at all. By contrast, 111 different Esquire articles were flagged as worthy, as were 163 GQ articles. Longform co-founder Max Linsky explained the disparity to me this way. “My impression is that the 2k-word, general interest storytelling criteria does not often overlap with what women's magazines publish. Part of that impression comes from how we find stories—for example, out of the thousands of submissions we've gotten over the last three years, only a handful have been for stories published in women's magazines.”

Linsky puts his finger on the other possible issue (and perhaps the more troubling one, because there’s no one but the magazine’s themselves to blame): that women’s magazines don’t publish as much of the highbrow, meaty longform work and fiction. We crunched the available numbers in some recent issues of Harper’s Bazaar, and its longest features (excluding a "Greatest Hits" package) were still under 4,000 words.2 (Cosmo, it should be noted, ran a 5,000-word piece about domestic violence in its May issue.) By comparison, from 2006 to today, Esquire regularly published articles in the 5,000- to 8,000-word range. When it comes to subject matter, it is true that men’s magazines publish more stories about subjects of global import—fracking, Bin Laden, Benghazi—subjects you’d be hard pressed to find regularly in a women’s magazine. And these days, women’s magazines barely publish fiction at all.

This wasn’t always the case, according to Jennifer Scanlon, the author of Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown. In the early twentieth century, women’s magazines “featured not only ‘serious’ fiction but also nonfiction, poetry and art,” Scanlon says in an email. The magazines were also bigger, according to Mary Ellen Zuckerman’s A History of Popular Women’s Magazines in the United States, 1792-1995. “They carried lengthy articles on a broad range of social, political and cultural topics.” Dorothy Parker—one of the country’s highest-paid critics and humorists in the 1920s—wrote for Ladies Home Journal. Mademoiselle published cutting-edge fiction from not just Truman Capote, William Faulkner, and Carson McCullers, but also Albert Camus, Tennessee Williams, and Robert Penn Warren. Virginia Woolf wrote for British Vogue and a six-part series for Good Housekeeping.

The move toward more middlebrow content started around Dorothy Parker’s day, but the shift away from literary fiction and nonfiction took several decades, Scanlon says. Advertising, more than anything else, explains the change. “Ads, which had been at the back of the magazine, moved forward and became integrated into the magazines’ content,” says Scanlon. “With that came a shift in thinking from the magazine as a vehicle of culture to a vehicle of consumer culture.”

Certainly, modern men’s magazines are wildly consumerist as well. I’ve seen many thousand dollar watches and plenty of frivolous grilling accoutrements featured; it’s probably hard to quantify which magazines are hawking more stuff these days. But by the time GQ and Playboy—among the earliest forerunners of today’s lad mags—came along in the 1950s, they were defining themselves as arbiters of serious journalism; the women’s magazines, by comparison, were no longer associated with cerebral work. At the moment when male-oriented magazine arose, they were staking a claim to seriousness; women’s magazines, it can be argued, were moving away from it.

There are other possibilities for the shift. Women’s magazines might have stopped publishing more literary fare not just because of the encroachment of ads, but also because their readers weren’t interested. After all, the women’s magazine most associated with highbrow fiction—Mademoisellewent out of business in 2001, long before the Internet upended the magazine business. One could also argue that women’s magazines don’t cover the same ground as the men’s magazines and other frequent NMA winners like The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and Harper’s not because they’re unserious, but because those subjects are so amply covered already.

But whatever the ultimate reason for the sidelining of women’s journalism, it’s ultimately just plain lazy to exclude women’s journalism from the upper echelons. Lesley Jane Seymour, the editor-in-chief of More, points out in an email that women’s magazines “simply crush” men’s magazines in terms of circulation and ad bases, which are real metrics of influence. As for the lack of ASME awards going to women, Seymour says, “There is a prejudice out there that keeps being perpetuated, that somehow ‘women’s’ content is not valuable or ‘up to’ that of what men's magazines have been doing. That somehow women's magazines don’t do investigative journalism or balanced journalism (More, among others, does both).”

Cosmopolitan’s Joanna Coles had no on-the-record comments about the NMAs, but she wasn’t bothered by the Port cover. Coles hadn’t heard of the magazine until I sent her a link, but when she saw it, she assumed the author of the piece was fishing for a job from New York editor Adam Moss. “When British editors or writers do stories like this they are punting for a job in New York,” Coles says. “The fact the Port editor didn't put James Bennet on there from The Atlantic makes me think he definitely wants to work in New York and not D.C.” So, there’s one final explanation for the Port cover: career advancement.

All it seems that journalists who write for women’s magazines can do is to keep pushing back against this persistent and not entirely correct assumption that the work done by women’s magazines is insufficiently important. I’m part of the problem, usually leading with my work in Bloomberg Businessweek, New York, or The New Republic when I want to impress. So I’ll start with my bio.

Jessica Grose is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, Glamour and Women’s Health.

Delphine Rodrik contributed to the reporting of this piece.

  1. Karen Durbin and Ben Dickinson have been at Elle for years, Vogue literary critic Megan O’Grady has been a Nieman Fellowship winner, and recent Vogue addition, cultural critic Nathan Heller, was nominated for an NMA when he was at Slate.

  2. We looked at Harper’s Bazaar articles starting in 2005.

This piece has been corrected. It originally stated that Elle had not published any features over 4,000 words since 2010. In fact, it has published several that run above that word count. We regret the error.