Review: Remake, Remodel: Women’s Magazines in the Digital Age by Brooke Erin Duffy

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Discussed in this review: Remake, Remodel: Women’s Magazines in the Digital Age by Brooke Erin Duffy; Duke University Press, 2013, 168 pages. Buy at U of Illinois P and Amazon.

Do you read women’s magazines? What exactly are they, anyway? I encounter them mainly at supermarket checkouts. The subject matter is often weight control (maybe I should not buy the chips, after all), hair, sex, or recipes. Celebrity interviews are big in women’s magazines. Not my cup of tea. But women’s magazines exist and people read them. Therefore, we should take an interest in them and learn how they are adapting in an era in which magazines in general are struggling. If you are interested in the magazine industry and women’s issues, read Brooke Erin Duffy’s book.

Duffy’s Own Love of Women’s Magazines

Duffy opens her book by recounting her experience at the age of 12 with a copy of Seventeen. She goes on to reflect how such magazines make for “a powerful cocktail of envy and inadequacy, hope and aspiration.” She tells us that over the years they have provided her with guidance on such matters as beauty and fitness. She writes frankly of her own “close, albeit conflicted, relationship with women’s magazines” and says up front that she continues to read them for advice, pleasure, and escape. She is also a serious scholar of media and a self-identified feminist, and she realizes that other women and academics regard women’s magazines as so laden with sexist stereotyping that they are positively poisonous vis-à-vis matters of gender equality and women’s advancement generally. I am of that school.

Women's Magazines
“Women’s Magazines” (Photo credit: jaimelondonboy on Flickr)

Thus, I found Duffy’s book eye-opening in that she loves a genre that I find vapid and designed for women who are vain or insecure. Duffy loves women’s magazines as a recreational reader of them and takes them seriously as a scholar.

Duffy’s Approach to the Study of Women’s Magazines

Much of the value of Duffy’s book is that many of the points she makes about the problems women’s magazines are facing in the social media age also afflict magazines in general. She points out that many are evolving from being physical objects into brands. (Interestingly, Newsweek is attempting a return to print in the hope that the venerable but creaky Newsweek brand will attract high-end subscribers). Forbes has been a leader in online branding, with mixed results.

Remake, Remodel: Women’s Magazines in the Digital Age by Brooke Erin Duffy

Duffy devotes quite a bit of space to discussing various methodologies that have been employed in the study of women’s magazines. She writes, “A likely explanation for this heightened emphasis on the cultures of media production is the fact that so many longstanding assumptions about producers—and their relationship with audiences and texts—are beginning to unravel.”

She says of her book, “Remake, Remodel draws upon political economy, cultural studies, sociology, and feminist studies to explore the changing nature of production within the women’s magazine industry.” Her study is almost as much an ethnography of a certain type of publishing as it is an examination of the future of women’s magazines. Young women contemplating careers in journalism or publishing should read this book.

Interestingly, for all her focus on the digital, Duffy also says, “I do not believe that new tools and technologies for audience communication are as revolutionary as techno-utopian discourses suggest.”

Gender in the Digital Age

One matter that Duffy addresses is: As magazines become ever more digital will gender and other social inequalities only intensify given that many tech professions are heavily male? Hard to say. After all, the old world of print magazine production was heavily male. Duffy herself points out that desktop publishing and word processing made entry and skill building for women easier. Content management systems are demystifying editorial processes. Fashionista bloggers, for example, do not need to hire large numbers of male geeks to get their content out onto the Web. And even fashion photography, once a hallmark of glossy women’s magazines, is becoming democratized (some would say devalued) with the prevalence of inexpensive digital devices. It is true that large magazines need tech-savvy staffs, but it is not clear that this will necessarily reproduce gender inequalities.

Women’s Magazines: Digital Dilemmas

Duffy makes valuable observations. One of them is that digital versions of women’s magazines have to develop strategies that enable them to maintain the interest of the audiences they already have while attracting traffic via search results and syndication. Not only do women’s magazines have to figure out how to make money from their online operations, they have to determine how to get Internet users to go to their sites in the first place.

One problem that Duffy does not really talk about is whether younger Web users have grown up without much exposure to print magazines at all or if they are actually avid magazine buyers and subscribers. What do young people think of the whole concept of “magazine”? It would have been nice if Duffy had included more information about readers as opposed to those employed in the magazine industry. As thorough as her research is, when she discusses such issues as the matter of how distinctive the “voice” of the various publications she discusses supposedly is, we never get a sense that readers today really care about such things or are even aware of them. Content is often just content. We scan it. We move on. She doesn’t really address the matter of shrinking attention spans (given the “neuro” trend in academia, that is rather surprising) and how they are affecting print magazines.

There is much food for thought in Duffy’s book. She mentions, for example, that women’s magazines have traditionally attracted purchasers and subscribers (again, think of yourself at the checkout stand) through their cover art. But whither cover art in the digital age? Duffy says that distinctive cover art has been one of the ways that women’s magazines have tried to differentiate themselves, endow themselves with cachet, and appeal to niche audiences. It is harder to do that in digital magazine format for iPad audiences for instance, as Duffy notes.

Those who study the recent history of magazines will find much of value. I had not realized that in the early years of the Web, magazines thought of their websites as simply another way for consumers to purchase new subscriptions of the print version of the magazine or to renew their existing print subscriptions. (That is true even now of some literary journals, sadly.)

The section on fashion bloggers is fascinating. Duffy shows the disdain in which the traditionalists at women’s magazines hold the bloggers—and suggests that the editors-in-chief of those publications see their own importance eroding as the “nonprofessionals” gain in influence.

The World of Work at Women’s Magazines

Duffy conveys the stresses and strains of working for women’s magazines (not necessarily “at,” given that many writers for them are freelancers), saying that “the work culture for producers is simultaneously intensifying and becoming more precarious.” It is a pity that she does not address, except in a cursory fashion, the exploitative system of (usually unpaid) internships that many women’s magazines have historically relied on. Her book was written before Condé Nast announced the end of its internship program as of 2014 partly due to the bad publicity resulting from lawsuits brought by former interns. It is particularly unfortunate she does not discuss the issue, given that Condé Nast and its operations are a major focus of her book.

What About Libraries?

Duffy does not discuss at all the role school and public libraries play in enculturating girls and young woman to the world of women’s magazines. For example, I vaguely recall that in my high school library in the 1980s, Seventeen was one of the magazines available on the periodical shelves. Do publishers of women’s magazines regard librarians as cultural mediators to be wooed? Are women’s magazine well represented in the online offerings of public libraries? Do they drive hard bargains with database companies, or is that a relatively insignificant market for them? Duffy does not mention libraries much, which is probably as much reflection on the marginality of libraries in the media landscape these days as it is of her book.

Other Weaknesses of the Book

One major weakness of the book is that you have to be exceedingly interested in job titles and the organizational structures of women’s magazines for it to hold your interest. For example, one of the major interviewees for Duffy’s book was Martha Nelson who, up until October 2013, was Time Inc. Editor-in-Chief. Nelson is quoted on the matter of branding and how magazines are adapting to the digital age. Apparently, she did not excel at those matters given that she was ousted.

Another weakness of the book is that events have somewhat overtaken it. Yet, to her credit, Duffy shows some prescience in her book about the “church/state” issues. She even interviewed a Time staffer who talked about commercial pressures from advertisers. Very telling, given the recent appointment of Norman Pearlstine as chief content officer for Time, Inc. and the announcement that editors will now report to the business side.

Duffy spends a great deal of time discussing the culture of print versus digital and quotes many people firmly grounded in the world of print magazines. But the fact is, their views, however deeply held, are simply not going to matter much in coming years, and that is probably just as well given the need for women’s magazines to reflect changing demographics if they are to remain relevant. As I read many of the quotes from the interviews Duffy conducted, I kept thinking, “Look, I know it must have been cool to work for a big-time fashion magazine in New York in such a publication’s heyday, but life goes on.”

Additionally, Duffy devotes a great deal of space in her book to making the extremely obvious argument that publishers tend to choose as employees individuals who are multi-talented. Of course, they do. That is true in most professions: tech, librarianship, etc. No great insight here. Similarly, many of the workplace tensions she describes, gender or otherwise, are not unique to women’s magazines. They are par for the course in most white-collar settings. Marketing people annoy everybody. Like we didn’t know that?

The book also feels somewhat dated in that it seems to argue that most people come to digital magazine websites via Google search results and consume the content of women’s magazines they find because it has been syndicated. I wonder if that is actually still the case, given the rise of social media. I know that at least for myself, I go to content of The New Yorker, for example, almost exclusively via links in Twitter. Likewise, once on a website I came to via Twitter, I am not all that likely to click on syndicated content linked to on it. I tend to read the story linked to from Twitter and then go right back to Twitter. Of course, my own experience is hardly indicative of the media habits of the entire female reading public.

The “convergence” framework that Duffy employs to discuss the way women’s magazines survive in a multi-platform world felt quite forced at times. It didn’t add much to the book and seemed like a catch-all receptacle to force all her ideas into. It also isn’t clear if she thinks if what she says applies specifically to women’s magazines or magazines, period. Most magazines are struggling these days, after all. I assume the problems she details apply to other genres, but it would have been interesting if she had compared women’s magazines to magazines traditionally associated with men, such as those about sports, hunting, gizmos, etc.

Duffy also seems to think it is a huge wrench for print reporters and editors to have to acquire web skills and social media prowess. Actually, many of them do so with aplomb and enthusiasm, as witness the fact that some of the most popular Twitter accounts and blogs are maintained by journalists employed by long-established media players. Indeed, some have made such names for themselves in social media venues that they are sometimes better known for that activity than they are for their association with the mainstream media outlets that employ them. Many are even joining media start-ups.

Possible Audiences for This Book

Who should read this book? Academics in such fields as media studies and history, women’s studies and women’s history, those who work in digital and print media, fashion bloggers and those in publishing should read it. Many may find Duffy’s comment that even the very word “publishing” is on its way out in some circles sobering.

A good book for those interested in issues of gender and media and print versus digital matters. I did not learn anything startlingly new from it, but it was useful reading.