Last week Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Joanna Coles took home the magazine’s first-ever National Magazine Award, a service journalism prize for “How Not to Get Pregnant.” The contraception guide itself was refreshingly honest (pulling out is “better than nothing,” it advised) — but in some ways the award seemed symbolic, an acknowledgment of the sex bible’s broader move into political and reproductive health coverage since Coles took over in 2012. This shift — and its success — is also a triumph for the ladyblog style of female media.
Even before the ASMEs, Cosmo was applauded for acting more like the feminist blogs who used to mock it. It was praised for “burnishing its feminist cred” by hiring writer Jill Filipovic and “getting serious about its reproductive rights coverage” with features editor Lori Fradkin. But feminist rap aside, the magazine was also adopting a savvy business strategy pretested by its online competitors. By the time Cosmo began publishing articles like “6 Women on their Terrifying, Infuriating Encounters With Abortion Clinic Protestors” and “To Get an Abortion in Brazil, I Lied and Said I Was Raped,” Jezebel had proven that abortion drives clicks and likes, and xoJane had demonstrated the power of the overshare, however gruesome. While the business model of print magazines compelled them to hide the serious stuff in the back, away from advertisers, blogs like Jezebel put it front and center — capitalizing on the widespread interest in the serious stuff while having fun with the fluff. These days, a buffet of light and heavy and feels and GIFs is an established formula for success, even at general-interest publications.
For that reason, there’s something vaguely condescending about some of the praise for Cosmo, like, Hey, these hot girls are pretty smart! It also elides the work of other women’s magazines, which have been publishing serious, feminist journalism about reproductive and sexual health and politics as long as I’ve been reading them. But those reported features are usually maddeningly difficult to find online, so the only people who know about them are dedicated readers and subscribers, forcing us to debate and re-debate whether women’s magazines do serious journalism or not. (They do.) Cosmo has managed to market that material beyond readers who would normally navigate to Cosmopolitan.com.
It doesn’t surprise me that the audience for stories about the personal impact of abortion policy is bigger than those for Kardashian chronicles, as Cosmo’s online editor Amy Odell told ThinkProgress. That may serve more than just Cosmo’s bottom line: For many of the young women in Cosmo’s target demographic, reproductive rights are a gateway issue to political consciousness. But I’m pleased enough by their success as a business model. It might be enough to signal to those in charge that women and their concerns (or those of anyone traditionally excluded from the decision making) don’t just belong in the so-called “pink ghetto.” It’s working in Hollywood.