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Do We Need Women’s News?

The Lily, a website for women readers produced by The Washington Post, raises new questions about a very popular media genre.

Chaloner Woods/Getty Images

What, exactly, is “women’s news?” Flipping through women’s magazines and clicking on women’s blogs, you’re pointed to fashion, sex, and childrearing. You learn that women must ensure their “wellness” levels are off the chart, lest they risk being not well enough, and that women, unlike men, are not powerful, but empowered. When it comes to politics, you are told that women’s issues are reproductive rights, gender discrimination, paid family leave, and sexual assault. Issues like foreign policy and the tax code—not so much.

If the news often confines women’s issues to a pink ghetto, it can be even more condescending to young women. Take Bryan Goldberg, who in 2013 started Bustle, a news site for millennial women. When building the site, Goldberg stated that he envisioned Bustle as a response to the “many popular new media properties [that] have launched, most aiming to attract men,” like Politico. It was high time, Goldberg said, for a “high-revenue” site that “puts world news and politics alongside beauty tips.” And that is what Goldberg has done. Bustle is extremely popular, racking up 31.2 million unique viewers in February alone, according to comScore, and presenting an enticing model for other news organizations to emulate.

This week, The Washington Post launched The Lily, a publication that is directed at millennial women. It is named after the first American newspaper for women launched by Amelia Bloomer in 1849. The site, which is hosted on Medium, mainly consists of Post stories that editors think will appeal to young women. It also includes original content, such as a personal essay by Post columnist Margaret Sullivan on advice from her mother that helped Sullivan to break multiple glass ceilings.

Amy King, The Lily’s editor-in-chief, told me that she expects to have a mix of original pieces as well as curated Post content. “We want to reach an audience that we are not serving as much as we could be at The Washington Post, focusing on millennial women,” King said. “The Lily is a way to put that content together and point it at the audience.” The site’s editorial mission is to “empower with news and information and promote inclusivity by exposing diverse voices.”

Greater focus on the issues facing millennial women is most welcome. Young women accrue more student debt than their male counterparts, and student debt is one of the factors driving more young adults to live in their parents’ homes. Women make less money than men, while millennials as a whole make 20 percent less than their parents did at their age (more than one in five millennial women live in poverty). This is why Bernie Sanders, who espoused sweeping solutions to these issues, especially when it came to health care, minimum wage, and student debt, was especially popular among young women in the 2016 Democratic primary. Polling shows that young women and people of color are the groups most likely to support aggressive government intervention to improve everyday life.

The Washington Post

So far, these issues don’t seem to be the focus of The Lily. The site’s verticals read like a corporate marketing listicle: Issues, Empowerment, Work & Money, Wellness, Discover, and First Person. While there are pieces on the Bill Cosby trial and civilian deaths in Syria, many of the articles focus on self-help. There are tips on how to have a productive work day, how to save enough money to buy a house, and how to reach certain financial milestones in your twenties. Under Wellness, the lead article on Thursday was a guide to fixing your workplace posture. The advice in these pieces can be self-evident: To afford a home, millennials are told to “reduce your rent” (by moving back in with their parents) and to “make more money” (by asking for a raise or taking on a side job).

There is little indication that the problems millennial women face are structural. Or that the brand of feminism it often champions—what you could call trickle-down feminism—has not worked for millions of women. Telling women to “make more money” isn’t much of a solution.

A news site, of course, can choose to publish whatever content it wants. But what is revealing about The Lily is that the original source of much of its content comes from one of the more sophisticated news outlets in the country. When I asked King why she thought young women would want to read The Lily rather than go straight to the Post, she said, “A lot of it is awareness. A lot of people aren’t aware of The Washington Post content.”

This might very well be true. But The Lily is also repackaging content—and thereby getting more clicks out of it—in ways that do not flatter its audience. For instance, some of the repurposed Post articles are shortened. Consider this piece on the fashion icon Lyn Slater: The original story runs at 824 words, while The Lily’s version is a mere 430. Here are the first two paragraphs of the Post story:

Like many women, Lyn Slater was not thrilled when she started experiencing the physical signs of age. But she was even less happy about the “solutions” she saw: the anti-aging serums, the dying of hair, even the rhetoric. “Retirement,” for example. “It means that you kind of fade into the background. You retire, and you dress very comfortably, and you’re taking care of grandchildren. The antidote our culture has come up with — anti-aging — it’s like we’re against aging.”

Instead of going with that narrative, the 63-year-old Fordham University professor of social work turned to a realm that has long been associated with the young: fashion. By most objective standards she has conquered it. Her Instagram account — largely comprising photos of herself in striking couture — has over 200,000 followers, with some photos garnering over 50,000 likes. Her blog has fans from around the world. She has modeled for Valentino Eyewear, Mango and Uniqlo, and in February she signed with Elite Models London.

And here are the first two paragraphs of The Lily story:

Like many models, Lyn Slater has lots of fans. On Instagram, she has 20,000 followers, with some of her photos getting over 50,000 likes. Her blog has readers from all over the world. She has worked with Valentino Eyewear, Mango and Uniqlo.

Unlike many models, Slater is a 63-year-old professor of social work at Fordham University.

King told me the reasoning behind this was that they “want the story to appear well on whatever platform it’s going on.” But it’s hard to escape the impression that Post editors think that young women simply cannot read as well.

In the press release for the new site, King states that the stories will “range from the latest on the health-care battle to a profile on a professor-turned-style icon,” which she hopes will “start important discussions and debate.” But when I searched for pieces on health care, I came up with just three articles: a photo essay about trans women in Lima, an explainer about the battle to defund Planned Parenthood, and a third piece on a new web site that allows people to mail their body to the GOP if they die. These were all repurposed from Post articles, which prompts the question: Why these articles? Why is the Post’s excellent reporting on the GOP Senate crafting a massive health care bill in utmost secrecy, one that will allow states to waive essential health benefits for women, not included? Such changes could allow insurers to once again consider pregnancy, rape, and domestic abuse pre-existing conditions, issues that are extremely pertinent to young women.

Because it is a part-time aggregator, The Lily cannot publish everything the Post does. But perhaps this is the problem: The whole concept of women’s media seems to narrow, rather than expand, what is considered a millennial woman’s issue. It fails to acknowledge the fact that issues like welfare, minimum wage, foreign policy, and health care are all inextricably intertwined with gender issues.

These problems are not exclusive to The Lily. The corporatization of “feminist” media is nothing new. And the media’s presumption has always been that the serious news reader is a male one. The acclaim that Teen Vogue has generated with its increased political coverage over the last year betrays a demoralizing undertone: Can you believe that teen girls care about serious issues? The problem flows two ways—“women’s news” is often not considered sufficiently meaty enough for the world of male journalists, while more general issues are seen to be of insufficient import for women. In The Lily’s case, the decision to create a separate space for millennial women only bolsters the idea, intentionally or not, that they are less intelligent and less curious than the rest of the Post’s readers.

This is certainly not to make the case against all women’s publications. At their best, women’s media pushes back against gendered stereotyping. Take a site like Jezebel, which has been successful at both raising the journalistic esteem of what are usually considered “women’s issues,” while also expanding the notion of the subjects women are interested in reading about. The idea that it is bad to photoshop women to look like sexy aliens on the cover of magazines is pretty much taken for granted these days. But Jezebel arguably jump-started that conversation a decade ago when it generated enormous controversy by publishing an unretouched cover photo of Faith Hill alongside the photoshopped one. Then there is the range of issues that Jezebel publishes, including articles on affirmative action, police shootings of black people, and ISIS.

Jezebel works because the site has always insisted that serious news and women’s news are, in fact, the same thing. It’s well past time for the rest of the mainstream media to do the same.