Can women’s magazines produce meaty journalism? That was the question that got Robbie Myers, editor-in-chief of Elle for 13 years, upset enough to update her August Editor’s Letter after it had been posted online. At the core of this debate was a small British magazine that had excluded female editor-in-chiefs from a splashy “Golden Age of Print Media” cover. The incident struck a nerve, inciting a discussion (mostly among women writers) about whether journalism by and for women is too often overlooked in the magazine world.
While most other female editors-in-chief – Lucy Danziger at Self, Cindi Leive at Glamour, Anna Wintour at Vogue (obviously) – kept their heads down, laughed it off, or simply continued to produce their financially successful print juggernauts, it was Myers who got to work. Her staff created a hashtag to highlight successful journalism produced by and for women; she went on the defensive in interviews. In doing so, she’s become an evangelist of sorts, not just of Elle, but for magazines like it. So the Cut visited her office recently to find out why she got involved when others didn’t, why she thinks women’s publications aren’t taken seriously, and what can be done to fix that problem.
So we’re here to talk about #womenatlength. Was this your first hashtag?
The magazine’s? No. The staff did it. It was their brainchild. The hashtag wasn’t specifically mine.
You’ve discussed its origin, but tell me more about what you were thinking.
In terms of my response to what ran in the New Republic – even the headline, “Can Women’s Magazines Do Serious Journalism?” The question alone ghettoizes us. One, all women’s magazines aren’t the same. We have different readers, we have different complex missions. I’m not saying anything bad about any of those magazines for women, or frankly for men. Or for whomever. Don’t lump us all in the same category. Basically, if you’re saying women’s magazines don’t care about good writing, you’re saying women don’t [either], because that’s who reads women’s magazines.
Joanna Coles at Cosmo has joked about this, but why do you think you’re the only women’s editor-in-chief really talking? There’s this idea that powerful editors who run successful magazines are too busy to even worry about it.
I don’t know. There’s a lot of good writing and a lot of good women’s magazines. It’s something that we care about, and it’s something that we talk about a lot – my other editors-in-chief, my friends – because you go to the [National Magazine] Awards, and one woman’s magazine won an award, and it was in the “Women’s Magazine” category. Those [other] magazines that win, they do great journalism, they do great writing. We were nominated, in Columns and Commentary, which was great, it’s a writing category. It’s the first time in a decade; I don’t believe what women’s magazines do is so consistently inferior that, in terms of the writing categories, it’s once in a decade.
Is that a fault of the categories?
No. I was on the board for a long time. I struggled over those categories along with everyone else. I’m very sympathetic. I don’t think there has been a concerted effort to look at what many different magazines are trying to accomplish and how they serve their readers. Again, I’m not even blaming ASME. But, I think it’s generally too often what people think. It’s a default position about women’s magazines. And most of the critics don’t actually read them.
You mentioned that in your letter, that men especially don’t bother to read Elle (though women definitely read GQ or Esquire).
It might make sense to pay attention. [Many magazines] share writers. Our writers write for the New York Times, our writers write for The New Yorker, our writers write for [New York]. But there’s that idea the quality or the consistency of the work [they do for us] is somehow inferior. It’s not like they shave off half their brain to come write for a women’s magazine.
What about Amanda Hess’s point that the best long form stories often involve months and months of deep reporting, whereas women’s magazines rely more on personal experiences?
I don’t apologize for the fact that first-person narratives are something that we do well. If you look at many stories on the front page of the New York Times, there is a human being there, there is a personal narrative in there. That’s how you can open up into a bigger issue. I think it is fair to say that we do not do the same kind of “enterprise reporting” as often as some other magazines do.
Consistently with women’s magazines, there is a line that is drawn and they’re all just pushed into this pile. You have both women and men saying that they won’t take them seriously. I know what they do, they go like this – [mimes flipping through pages] – they look at the headlines and go “oh, you did a story on blank and so did everybody else.” You actually have to read it. Please don’t comment on it, in your professional capacity, unless you’ve actually read it. That’s my whole thing.
I found it interesting that this was mostly women – women who said they wanted to avoid writing for the “pink ghetto” of women’s magazines – all criticizing women’s magazines.
I don’t understand why a female reader is not a legitimate enough reader. We reach eight million women between the magazine and the website every month. That’s a lot of people who have voting power, wallet power, social power. Why wouldn’t you want to write for women?
Why do you think this idea of serious women writers avoiding magazines like Elle persists, then?
I think a lot of it is perception. I think that there are a lot of writers out there who, again, think that maybe we don’t care about the writing or care about the quality. A lot of times, it’s very interesting to me when The New York Times Magazine will do, like, a female-oriented story. They did a huge excerpt of a book that we excerpted, and our features director wrote the book.
And then it gets sort of validated in a way by a certain community of people…
Exactly, but I’m happy being validated by our readers. We are unapologetically a fashion magazine. The bulk of our content is fashion: fashion-related news, fashion-related profiles. But the word fashion means “that which is current.” That’s a great mission. I had lunch with this person recently because she bid on it in an auction and she’s this incredibly chic woman, she works in fashion, and she said she likes Elle because there’s always something to read. That’s our mission right there.
Throughout this debate, people seem to ignore that pages are limited, especially now, so if Elle’s going to continue to do beauty and fashion and fashion news, there may not always be room for a 12-page narrative.
We are unapologetically going to do that big 50-page fashion well. Because our readers love fashion, and it’s a fashion magazine. We care about the dress, but we also care about the woman in the dress. There’s nothing I like more than a really passionate accessories editor, and a really passionate books editor. They really believe in their disciplines. That idea that, in a fashion magazine, the words are an afterthought? I mean, you want everything to be good.
Yeah, as in, they would just sort of be added on at the end, or not considered by you in the same way…
Right. I mean, I think my competitors have very good magazines. And they care about many of the same things that we care about.
It also comes down to how different editors-in-chief came up through the industry. Certain editors-in-chief are primarily “market people.” Certain editors-in-chief are primarily “words people.”
I think that is very astute. The nice thing for me is that I started out at Rolling Stone, and then I went to Interview, which was so image-driven. I got to see both [sides] early on in my career. I left Rolling Stone and I had a very strong sense of wanting to right the world’s wrongs with the written word. And then I go to Interview, and there’s the idea that beauty is its own value.
Yeah, I mean, you look at The New Yorker. Well, you don’t even want to look at The New Yorker.
Yeah, exactly. But, I’ll let you say that.