Women’s Media Was Built on a Formula That No Longer Sells





Ladies’ Home Journal on stands in April 2014. That month, the magazine announced it was folding after 131 years of publishing.
Illustration: Getty

In January 2017, The Establishment offered readers a deal. For $125, anyone could “sponsor” an essay on the small-but-mighty feminist website, and directly contribute to the kind of thoughtful, progressive writing that The Establishment published. ($125 was the website’s standard rate for features; $500 paid for more robust, long-form reported pieces.) Sponsoring didn’t give readers any editorial control, but “by participating in the program,” the editors wrote, “you’ll gain tangible proof of how you’ve contributed to improving our world” and funding the kind of small-scale corner of the internet that gave writers room to be smart and weird.

It didn’t work. On Monday, April 15, The Establishment announced it was publishing its “very last article.” The news, while disappointing, is not surprising. So-called women’s media seems particularly vulnerable as both print and digital struggle to find pathways for reliable revenue. For a long time, women’s media did this well: garnering advertising dollars by delivering a mix of make-up, fashion, dating, sex, and/or parenting advice with an authoritative, accessible tone. But in the last few years, editors and writers have struggled to find audiences—or at least, to find audiences big enough to make advertisers happy.

This instability has been well-documented. Since 2014, Ladies’ Home Journal and Lucky have both closed; Glamour, Teen Vogue, Redbook, and Self have ceased printing physical issues and gone digital-only, and Seventeen now only prints “special issues.” In the last five years or so, the staffs at women’s magazines—including Cosmo, Elle, W, and Women’s Healthhave endured layoffs, lost resources, and now face precarious futures. In 2016, Hearst Media consolidated the fashion and beauty departments for five women’s brands at the company, and in 2018, it was reported that Condé Nast was considering selling off three titles, including Brides and W.

In 2018, The Hairpin, Rookie, and Lenny Letter all closed, and in 2016, AfterEllen was relaunched, abandoning the singular voice and perspective it cultivated for 14 years. The Frisky has been through multiple owners, and last year, its archive disappeared from the internet. Its current iteration reads as though its content was generated by bots. (A recent post headlined “5 Problems Transgender Face” includes the line: “So Trans people can transition a lot more smooth hormones, in our opinion hormones, make any transitions a lot easier it is another step, it is that next step is that you are on no hormones we are fully on testosterone.”)

When these sites shutter, we aren’t just losing a better future for writing; increasingly, we also lose the past. Hyperlinks expire, domain names lapse, and left unattended, archives can disappear overnight. xoJane, notable for its first-person essays, stopped publishing in 2016 after it was bought by Time Inc. (which itself was acquired by the Meredith Corporation in 2017). Sometime last October, former writers noticed that there is no longer a permanent archive of their work online. The xoJane URL now redirects to HelloGiggles, a website co-founded by Zooey Deschanel in 2011, and billed as “A Positive Community for Women.” (It was also bought by Time Inc. in 2015.) Perhaps fearing this, The Establishment has backed up its archive on Medium.

Like its predecessors, these publications were always interested in reporting on politics, as well as broader social and cultural issues that profoundly impact women’s lives. Glamour beefed up its coverage of women and candidates leading up to the 2016 election and in 2017, Cosmo published a guide to running for office that won a National Magazine Award. “It now seems patronizing to say that we’re only interested in shopping and fashion and lipstick,” Joanna Coles, former Cosmo editor-in-chief, told the Columbia Journalism Review in 2016.

But this nuance and reporting can get lost in a sea of endless cheeriness, and more importantly, the ad-friendly content can become prioritized over it when times are tough. When Mademoiselle closed in 2001, the New York Times wrote: “The downturn in the magazine industry has made it clear to publishers over the last few months that publications that do not bring in advertising cannot be sustained.”

Consider the outlets that are still in business: Magazines like Cosmo made a name for themselves by covering issues around women’s sexuality and lifestyles that other publications ignored—and are now largely devoted to disseminating and upholding a brand of empowerment feminism, one that tells readers the right things to buy in order to achieve some form of self-actualization. Here, women’s choices are all inherently and equally feminist, but these choices often revolve around low-stakes decisions between skin care products or clothes or a $300 indoor trampoline. Whether this originated as a marketing trend from brands or an editorial decision from magazines is almost irrelevant, as ultimately, one informs the other. In magazines and in much of modern-day advertising, the object of desire doesn’t matter, so as it long it originates from a woman. Desire is subsequently transformed into both a need and an expression of an authentic (feminist) self.

The battle over the concept of “anti-aging” illuminates this concept; in 2017, Allure said it would no longer use the term, as a way to remove the stigma around aging. It’s a move in line with Allure’s commitment to racial and size diversity in its pages—it’s meant to espouse inclusivity and acceptance to all readers. “No one is suggesting giving up retinol,” editor Michelle Lee wrote in her letter announcing the change. To do so would be disadvantageous if there are advertising dollars to be found in such products and brands. Advertisers, too, benefit from Allure’s notions of self-acceptance, as it smooths the road for them to cash in on the language of empowerment.

As women’s media outlets close or struggle to stay alive, national newspapers have tried to occupy some of that space and ended up with dull, tired explanatory journalism that many readers, who have grown up on the internet, well-versed in the topics of intersectional feminism and equality, don’t necessarily need. In 2017, the New York Times hired Jessica Bennett as its dedicated Gender Editor, shortly after the Washington Post launched The Lily, which the paper itself described as “a new publication for millennial women.” Cosmo and other women’s media led the way for this shift, having moved discussions of women’s issues to the mainstream decades before. But The Lily and the Times’s gender coverage has struggled to take shape and figure out exactly what it’s supposed to be doing and who it’s supposed to be talking to. Recently, Bennett’s “Gender Letter” became a twice-weekly email newsletter rebranded as “In Her Words,” written instead by Maya Salam. A recent “In Her Words” headline read: “What Is Toxic Masculinity?”—a far cry from the in-depth intersectional feminism that formed The Establishment’s foundations.

As these new women-focused verticals launch, branding seems to play an outsized role in women’s media. The promise of good branding—the right message at the right time—sometimes seems to outweigh the value of the journalism produced. Glamour, which faced a round of layoffs earlier this month, according to WWD, hired a new editor-in-chief to help the magazine perform better online. In 2017, pundits and readers fawned over Teen Vogue’s supposed political awakening (when in fact, the magazine and others have long reported on the ways laws and policy affect teen girls’ lives), and under then-editor-in-chief Elaine Welteroth, beefed up coverage of social issues, especially as they affect young people. Neither, it seems, on its own, was enough to save the magazines from ceasing print publication.

Perhaps, for this reason, digital outlets have also fallen on hard times. The Hairpin, like its sister site The Awl, notoriously resisted the idea that its brand needed to be simply defined. The Hairpin was a women’s website the way The Toast was a women’s website, the way that Rookie was a website for teen girls—they acknowledged that women and girls can be interested in anything, care about anything, be weird as hell or insanely smart or very dumb (sometimes all at once). Instead, they focused on publishing long, nuanced, and discursive essays about women’s lived experience.

These experiences do not fit so neatly into any sort of feminist doctrine and are incompatible with today’s advertising and marketing trends. In her letter explaining why the Rookie was closing, founder Tavi Gevinson wrote about how the website once made money through partnerships, but the further down the rabbit hole she went, the less sense it made to her:

At different times, two other companies were responsible for getting Rookie ads and brand partnerships. Sometimes brands came to us or we would approach ones we liked directly. We also sold books, t-shirts, and posters. Also in that time, it was possible for Rookie’s audience to grow organically, which means not without any luck/hustling/strategy whatsoever, but without spending money on jobs or services that most companies do for very obvious reasons: audience growth, business development, reader engagement, marketing. Now that I know what those jobs entail, I would not call them devil’s work or even necessary evils. They require understanding people in ways that I do not and using your brain in ways that I can’t.

When the Awl closed along with The Hairpin, a similar narrative emerged (per Crain’s New York):

“The Awl Network has always been financially precarious—as most indie publishers are,” the site’s publisher, Michael Macher, wrote in an email. “We did recognize a trend, however, and collectively came to the conclusion that this marks a natural end for The Awl and The Hairpin.” 

The trend was the growing difficulty the publication had in securing ads through direct deals with advertisers.

Smaller, niche websites used to be an easier sell to advertisers, even the ones that sported monthly traffic numbers that today, in the world of publishers that have made virality their primary mission, would be considered chump change. That same problem was echoed by The Establishment in their farewell letter published on Monday. “Would you believe that it’s difficult to monetize intersectional feminist media?” the editors rhetorically asked. “We’ve tried we’ve tried just about everything,” they added, but “finding a sustainable revenue model is a Sisyphean feat.”

The Hairpin, Rookie, The Establishment, and others never set out to be best at the SEO-juicing game; they never pretended to know exactly what matte concealers or jade rollers or fuzzy slippers (or anything else) that readers needed to be happier or smarter. All the same, they were still some of the smartest and joyous places on the internet. That’s what drew people to read about them in the first place.

If building a website on such a model failed, it’s in part because that sort of writing is also expensive: it’s not breaking news and reversed-engineered listicles, and it requires more editing and excavating on the writer’s behalf. To say women’s media is dying tells an incomplete story; it is hurting because the industry’s dependence on driving traffic to advertising-friendly content means there are fewer homes for weird, deeply felt, truthful stories about our lives, and a pressure to tell stories that fit into specific molds. We’re worse off for it.



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