How women’s magazines are surviving the digital age

By Sofiya Ballin
SMC communications

The influx and influence of digital media is forcing iconic women’s magazines to allow their financial interests to shape editorial content, according to a new book by Brooke Erin Duffy, assistant professor in the School of Media and Communication.

Assistant Professor Brooke Duffy's reveals the digital age is forcing the unholy marriage of advertising and editorial in some women's magazines.
Assistant Professor Brooke Erin Duffy’s research reveals the unholy marriage of advertising and editorial in some women’s magazines.

Remake, Remodel: Women’s Magazines in the Digital Age, is the result of three years of research and is a project that began as her doctoral dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania.

“There’s so much literature looking at women’s magazines in terms of the audience or how women’s magazine images affect women in adverse ways,” says Duffy. “What hasn’t been looked at recently is the production of women’s magazines.”

According to Duffy, digitization is changing women’s magazines beyond tablets and timelines. It’s forcing some publications to reach for a lifeline.

“Magazine producers are struggling to keep up,” she says. “At this moment, they’re much more willing to accept explicit and implicit pressures from advertising, and that really shapes the content.”

Church and state
Duffy discovered how magazines are changing behind the scenes and how these changes affect magazine producers and the content within the publication. Her research showed that, though there has been a history of separating advertising and editorial departments, the line has become increasingly blurred.

“I expected to find a level of uneasiness about this with the senior managers but it was with a lot of the younger people who had just been in the industry for a few years,” she says. “They had the expectation that there was a higher level of creative or editorial autonomy.”

During the ’80s women held leadership positions at the highest levels within magazine companies. And just a few years ago, Hearst and TIME were both run by women. However, now that magazines are working to become brands, this demographic is beginning to change.

“I found that they were making hiring decisions based upon assumptions about technological proficiency. This skewed younger and, perhaps more importantly, male.” she says. “It was interesting from a work perspective to think about how the production culture of women’s magazines may be re-gendered but also to think as a consumer: are these men dictating the content?”

Duffy believes the influx of men being hired is due to digital media, there is now a higher demand for design specialists and search engine optimization (SEO) professionals, fields that are dominated by men.

A lifelong passion
A quick glance around Duffy’s Annenberg Hall office reveals her love for printed glossies extends far beyond research. A stack of women’s magazines peek out of an organizer in her office.

“My basement is ridiculous,” she admits. “I’ve saved every subscription since 2003.”

Magazines that vary from ElleInStyle, Glamour, SELF, Shape and Marie Claire complete her list of subscriptions. It’s a passion that began when she flipped open her first Seventeen magazine at her grandmother’s house. However, a lot has changed since then.

“As I’m reading them it’s uncomfortable because I’ve studied the political economies of these magazines and the impact of stereotypical representations of women,” she says. “There’s this tension in me that I think is helpful for this project. I was able to go in there with respect to the text and the profession and still have a critical eye.”

Duffy also points out that the changes in demographics go beyond the magazine spreads and could affect societal constructs for better or worse.

“Typically we hear of women’s magazines and we think magazines for women. One of the arguments I make is that it’s important to think of these as magazines of women,” she says. “They’re created by a lot of women and so I see studying this as a larger way to understanding changing work cultures in the digital age with a focus on how we may be reinforcing gender hierarchies.”

Entering the field
Students will be facing an industry in the midst of adjustment and with that will come major changes.

“Anyone looking to break into one of the media or creative industries is going to confront the same sort of challenges that individuals working in the magazine industry are facing:  the rise of digital media and the pressure to ‘think across platforms,’ the tension between creativity and constraint, and more precarious working conditions,” Duffy says.

The issues facing women’s magazines are not only affecting print publications but any field that has found itself challenged by the rise of digitization.

“This book points to the implications of these changes for the rest of us—as consumers of media content,” she says. “The issues I explore through the lens of the women’s magazine industry—including those related to interactive content and commercialization—are symptomatic of larger trends across today’s rapidly changing media landscape.”