Content counts in women’s magazines

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Former FAIRLADY editor Ann Donald was acclaimed for her integrity. She looks at these magazines today to see what has changed.

In the early years of women’s magazines in South Africa, editors had a wonderful job: markets were clearly defined (white, English or Afrikaans), competition was slight, advertisers had few alternatives, and readers were lining up in their hundreds of thousands to buy every title on the shelves.

When I joined the magazine industry in 1994 as a rookie editor on Longevity, it was drummed into me that an editor’s job was to build a solid circulation by attracting readers with relevant content, giving the publisher/sales manager an audience they could sell to advertisers.

By the time I left FAIRLADY in 2005, the pressure on editors to focus more and more on the advertisers’ needs rather than those of the readers was becoming difficult to ignore. In addition to the staple beauty and fashion pages, special sections were created specifically to appeal to advertisers – every magazine with a woman on the cover was boasting motoring pages, and prime feature space was being nicked for finance, health and other advertising-rich subjects. Still, good editorial copy could be generated, so they had a legitimate place, and for a while overt product placement was avoidable.

But as competition grew and readers disappeared, more pressure was put on editors to agree to income-generating but reader-unfriendly gimmicks, such as reverse gatefold covers and cover mounts, and to bow to the increasingly unsubtle message that advertisers’ products should have priority on the ‘What We’re Loving This Month’ type pages and elsewhere.

The situation for editors can only be more intense now. Most editors I worked with in my years in the industry did their damndest to resist this pressure, and I’m sure still do. Unlike my entry into the business, however, I have no doubt that young women entering the profession now are given a very different message about what their job is, and I’d guess it is more about the bottom line than the readers.

It’s with this background that I approached this brief to give my opinion on the current state of women’s magazines. My thoughts are a snapshot of the March issues of 11 titles, each of which I read cover to cover. The overriding impression is that they’re all toeing the same, safe line, and that marketing pressure has squashed editorial confidence.

The major selling point of a magazine is its cover, with the cover lines promoting the editorial tone and positioning of its contents. The rule is that nothing should interfere with the opportunity for a prospective buyer to see this information. Unless, of course, the content can’t be trusted to attract readers on its own merits, or is not regarded as the reason women buy magazines in the first place. This is the message that is conveyed when the cover is obscured with banners or stickers promoting the lipstick or notebook that the publisher believes will do more to sell the magazine than the reading matter.

I’m sure the ‘gifts’ work, and may even be the reason for the recent circulation increases. But the real picture is clearer when you consider that category circulation compared to a decade ago has plummeted. While reasons for diminishing sales can be attributed to social media, busy lives, the economy, or whatever, some thought should be given to the lack of differentiation between the women’s titles, and to consider what readers are not getting from them.

Inside, with almost no exceptions, I found the editorial range to be almost identical. It seems the audience of women’s magazines is interested only in looking at its own navel. The unrelentingly focus on the ‘self’ – essentially advice manuals, tweaked for slight positioning or tone variations – is fine as long as the magazine is doing it well enough to retain readers. But the Audit Bureau of Circulations’ figures suggest that many women have simply given up on the available selection.

The most obvious thing lacking in the collective offering is content that focuses on the world beyond the reader herself – articles that are provocative, mind-expanding and challenging.

It’s not only ‘worthy’ articles about politics, the environment or other current issues that are missing, but a lack of the quality of writing that takes a subject into a different realm, informed by knowledge, elevated by wit and intelligence.

For editors to do their job properly, they need publishers to invest in the best editorial content they can generate, and to be supported with a marketing budget to promote the content that sets them apart from the others in the pack.

Women’s magazines are in a powerful position to inform, influence and satisfy their readers as well as to recommend which shoes to wear this winter. To ignore this role is to miss an opportunity to be more relevant. And if a magazine is not relevant, why would I buy it – especially if I can get free sponge scourers with the next one on the shelf?

This story was first published in the May 2013 issue of The Media magazine, the digital version of which is available for free download here.

  • http://twitter.com/libertinewomen Libertine

    Hi Ann, thanks for this – great piece. Of course, am a bit biased in saying so as much of what you argue for is what we’re trying to do at Libertine! We launched in the UK in April this year (iPad and print) and the reaction we’ve had certainly proves a frustration with what’s currently in the ‘women’s interest’ section – particularly where science and tech are concerned.

    Of course, our challenge will be sustaining the quality in the face of pressure from advertisers, whose content unfortunately often undermines the positive messages in the editorial. This is why we’re actively looking to alternative business models – events, retail and the like – so that this doesn’t happen. It’s early days, so watch this space!

    Debbi
    Editor
    Libertine
    interestedwomen.com

  • Shannon

    Respect Ann. You drummed into me, as a young department editor (beauty ed) starting out, why good editorial content was the single most important element in the magazine. In beauty this required in-depth knowledge of the industry and vast experience. I still believe that my best story was written when you were at the helm – ‘Message on the Bottle’. I remember you saying that the content of the magazine that we worked on should last the reader the entire month. Beauty advertisers valued good quality copy and coverage but I don’t know whether this still plays a role with pretty pictures and dumbed down copy being the trend.

  • watchesandmore

    Thank you…..magazines I bought when I was younger have changed so much in the last 25 years….why do editors feel they need to dumb down the content?

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