SERVICE: A TOTAL OVERHAUL
WOMEN’S MAGAZINES ARE NARROWING THEIR EDITORIAL SCOPE TO HIT KEY AREAS OF READERS’ INTEREST.
Byline: Anne D’Innocenzio
NEW YORK — They like young celebrities who are role models, not manipulative, spouse-stealing stars. They want information-packed health articles that are not rehashes and that don’t take two hours to read. Sex tips to energize their marriages would be nice. And no stories on whiny women who mope around playing the victim — only confident personalities, thank you.
In the increasing competition for their readers’ time, editors of such women’s service magazines as McCall’s, Ladies’ Home Journal, Good Housekeeping and Redbook are trying to get more in tune with their reader, who, after a day of carpooling or a grueling day at the office, often have only a few minutes in the bathtub to call their own.
Over the past three years, many of these publications have undergone major revamping — which means fine-tuning celebrity coverage, adding stories on such controversial topics as menopause and lesbianism, and introducing more user-friendly columns.
Redbook, for example, launched two columns in its October issue — Love, which offers tips on how to refuel passion in a marriage, and Secret Self, advice on how women can pamper themselves, such as where to go for “girl getaways.”
Narrowing their editorial scope is also a top priority, with these editors vowing that with a glut of niche publications crowding the newsstands, they can’t necessarily be something for everyone.
McCall’s, under the leadership of Sally Koslow, who came on board three years ago, has eliminated travel and cut back on parenting stories. (Travel, however, continues to be included in its Primetime section, which appears six times a year and targets readers from 50 to 64.)
That has allowed McCall’s to dramatically boost its celebrity coverage. Each edition contains four celebrity features — a cover story, two shorter articles and its celebrity page, which ends each issue.
“I felt we needed a clearer identity, and I chose the entertainment direction,” said Koslow, who over the past year has made frequent appearances on E!’s gossip show.
“Look at how we stopped in our tracks when Princess Diana died,” Koslow said. “America can’t get enough. Readers are frantically overcommitted. They have 20 minutes to go through a magazine, and as much as they value great recipes, they really like a good read.”
Redbook, which has the youngest readership of the group, is focusing on women from 25 to 45 who have children under 12. That demographic also determines what celebrities it feels are right for its readers.
Editor in chief Kate White points out that Goldie Hawn, at 50, is too old for a Redbook cover story. Ashley Judd and Laura Dern, who’ve been on recent covers, are not.
The challenge to remain viable, however, is a daunting one, especially in this market, where the median age of the reader is 42 to 47 and the median income is $38,000 to $42,000, according to Mediamark Research Inc.
“To some extent they [women’s service magazines] are dinosaurs,” said Martin S. Walker, chairman of Walker Communications, a magazine consulting firm. “They are all trying to reinvent themselves, but it is very hard to appeal to a younger audience without losing their traditional readership.”
In a funny way, he added, everything a general interest magazine for women covers — even bits and pieces of everything — is also covered by niche magazines.
While editors of these magazines admit to competition from such sources as the Internet and a variety of cable TV channels, they believe that their magazines are still viable for today’s woman. They are also quick to play up the emotional connection that these other sources lack.
“Our readers view Redbook as bath-time enjoyment,” said White, whose magazine serves as the bridge between women’s service publications and women’s books such as Glamour.
“They curl up into bed with a magazine — you can’t do that with the Internet.” said White.
“Our readers have so little time with their close friends. Our magazine is like talking to a best friend,” said Myrna Blyth, editor in chief of Ladies’ Home Journal, whose November issue is its largest of the decade, and the second largest in its 114-year history. The 304-page issue included an examination of the top 200 cities for women, with Madison, Wis., rated number one.
Through November, ad pages were up 1.7 percent, according to Media Industry Newsletter. However, Blyth pointed out that ad revenue has been up by 10 percent so far this year, compared with the year-ago period.
Ladies’ Home Journal has slightly reduced its celebrity coverage and instead has expanded its beauty and health pages, including articles on such subjects as treatments for diabetes and natural remedies to cure certain illnesses.
Learning reader preferences has also become a key priority. Results have sometimes produced surprises. Redbook, for example, conducted a “Tell Us About Your Life” survey in June. White said she was surprised to see that the average age of the magazine’s newsstand reader who responded to the survey was only 34. The average age of subscribers was 37. The results also revealed that readers were frustrated about the lack of time they had for their marriage and themselves.
Last spring, Ladies’ Home Journal conducted a comprehensive survey to find out about their readers’ lives — their successes and their challenges.
It was in partnership with DYG Inc., a social-science research firm.
The first findings were published in September, the second part in November. The findings revealed that 61 percent of readers are unhappy about their weight, with 53 percent yearning to be thin. It also showed that about 66 percent of the respondents said they are lonely — noting that unlike their mothers, they have no sense of community or belonging. Koslow noted those findings will help shape future stories.
She noted, “Women don’t feel so victimized. They want their achievements celebrated.” That confirmed Koslow’s hunch that women don’t want to read stories about women who play the victim.
“More and more, women want stories that admire their strength and give them information,” she said.
To make their articles more exciting, many of the magazines over the past two or three years have changed their stable of writers, hiring top newspaper journalists for freelance assignments. For example, Good Housekeeping now uses Roxanne Roberts and Tamara Jones, both of the Washington Post, and also taps columnists Peggy Noonan and Liz Smith. It now attacks such issues as perimenopause, lesbianism and gun control.
“The issue is how do you move this baby into the next century,” said Levine.”We knew we needed to raise the bar….The stories had been safer.” She said the strategy has worked. Through November, ad pages were up by 17.9 percent, according to the MIN.
Redbook has now decided to limit its celebrity features to actual interviews with the subject, rather than “write-arounds.” White believes that such an approach offers the reader a more upfront, personal look at the celebrity.
As for its news features, it has done stories on the increase in drunk driving and on the prevention of osteoporosis, and its December issue will include a major guide on maternity leaves.
At the same time, these editors are also mindful that their readers don’t have a lot of time. That’s why they are filling their pages with bite-size items and lots of visuals, such as graphs and charts. Consequently, McCall’s has cut its articles down to a maximum of 1,800 words instead of 2,500, and no articles jump to the back of the book, Koslow said.
Under White’s leadership, Redbook cut back on essays in favor of more informational pieces. She’s expanded its Red Alert section, which features short items on health, beauty and fashion, to about 16 pages from six.
Good Housekeeping, which runs the Good Housekeeping Institute, a laboratory that tests product claims in its advertising, now wants to capitalize on its niche. Over the past two years, it has expanded its scope to testing editorial claims. Now, each item that’s tested carries a stamp of approval.
Reaching out to the younger readers without turning off loyal ones is tricky.
“We are pointedly concentrating on 45 and under,” said McCall’s Koslow, who added that she has been able to retain the older reader with articles on such topics as preventative approaches to illness.
McCalls added that the magazine has also seen growth in readership in women from 18 to 25 years old. From spring ’95 to spring ’97, readership among that group has increased 25 percent to 1.3 million, according to MRI. Overall readership for McCall’s is 16 million.
When it comes to her older readers, White, however, isn’t reluctant to let go.
“What we see is that our older readers are recognizing more and more that it is not the magazine that is growing with them,” said White, who noted she gets angry letters every month criticizing some of the articles, especially on sex.
For example, the October issue featured an article entitled: “Seven Places He Really Loves to Be Touched.” In November, there’s an article entitled: “Sexual Peaks: How to Make the Most of Yours.”
“They [the older readers] don’t like the sex articles, but younger women see it as a glue to their marriage,” she said. “But our goal is not to be a magazine for her and her mother — at some point, you do outgrow the magazine.”