NEW YORK, March 20 — In spring 2013, Joanna Demkiewicz, a journalism student at the University of Missouri, went to hear the long-time Esquire writer Mike Sager talk about his new book, Next Wave: America’s New Generation of Great Literary Journalists. The collection, which Sager had edited, celebrates 19 underappreciated young writers. But there was a problem.
“I looked around, and almost the entire room was filled with women,” Demkiewicz said. “And then someone raised her hand and said, ‘Why are there only three women in this collection’?”
Sager argued that his parameters — writers under 40, no first-person essays — had limited the number of women. “Female researchers came up with the initial list,” he said. The room was unconvinced. Eventually, he stopped protesting and issued a challenge: “Why don’t you guys do something about this?”
After the panel, Demkiewicz, a book publicist, and her friend Kaylen Ralph, a stylist, marched up to Sager. “We’re not buying your book,” Demkiewicz said. “But we are starting a magazine.” Sager gave them his card and told them if they were serious, he would help.
The two women modelled their magazine after Esquire, an “unapologetic men’s magazine that has put out some of the best long form in the game”, Ralph said.
“We challenged ourselves to create the woman’s version of that,” she added.
The result was The Riveter, an online and quarterly print magazine featuring narrative journalism by women. Demkiewicz and Ralph funded the first year of the magazine through Kickstarter. Sager helped with publicity and hired them to edit his next book — a collection devoted to female journalists. The sixth issue will be published this month.
The Riveter has company. At least five new publications with women at the helm have started since 2010, running deeply reported articles on culture, politics and style that are often several thousand words. The magazines seek to redefine how women are portrayed in print, and who might want to read stories by and about them.
“Good reporting is just good reporting,” Ralph said. “Yes, it’s by women. But it should be read by everyone.”
The underrepresentation of women in journalism has been well publicised, largely because of the VIDA Count, an annual statistical roundup. According to the organisation’s most recent statistics, about 70 percent of bylines in The New Yorker and The Atlantic were men in 2015. About 55 per cent of The New Republic’s bylines were those of men (a marked improvement from about 80 per cent in 2011). Few women make it to the “reporting” or “feature writing” finals of the National Magazine Awards.
“If I want to pursue a topic that skews feminine, my options for where I can publish the piece are automatically limited,” said Jillian Goodman, 30, the founder of Mary Review, a female-produced magazine, which raised US$27,000 (RM119,758) on Kickstarter and published its first issue last fall. “It just blows my mind how hard it is to get certain outlets to listen.”
The founders of The Establishment, an online magazine for feminist voices, had the same concerns. “What about people with marginalised identities who want to write about whales or baseball or the Fibonacci sequence?” said Kelley Calkins, a founder. “Where are they going to be respected and taken seriously in the way that straight white dudes are?”
Before starting The Establishment in 2015, Calkins, 29, and her co-founders, Nikki Gloudeman, 32, and Katie Tandy, 33, had helped a male entrepreneur who wanted to start an online feminist magazine called Ravishly. They said there were problems from the beginning, from the questionable name of the publication to an uncomfortable work environment.
Shauna Stark, 63, a former Intel executive who left corporate America in the 1980s because she found it sexist, encouraged them to quit. “These women represented an opportunity where I could put my money where my mouth was,” said Stark, who invested US$1 million in The Establishment. Today, the magazine has about a million unique monthly visitors, about 30 per cent to 35 per cent of which are men, according to Google Analytics.
Goodman, who calls Mary Review a publication “by women, for everyone,” also has a male readership of about 30 per cent. “I want to believe that men will read a story about conflict in Ukraine that happens to be about women,” she said, “or a story about culture clashes in modern Kurdistan that happens to be focused on a woman. It would be both depressing and shocking to me if that were categorically not the case.”
A male audience of 30 per cent isn’t bad, considering that the traditional women’s magazine Cosmopolitan has a male audience of only 15 per cent, and Elle has 12 per cent, according to market research firm GfK Global. In contrast, Esquire’s readership is almost 39 per cent female.
Goodman hates that “women read men’s magazines but not vice versa.” Recently, Cosmopolitan, once known for offering tips on how to please men, has “built a reputation for producing really smart, well-reported, sharp, valuable stories,” she said, and Teen Vogue has run stories on President Donald Trump and sexism and the position of Vice President Mike Pence on reproductive rights.
But women’s glossies generally don’t cover topics as broadly and deeply as other publications. “In most women’s magazines,” Demkiewicz said, “fashion, beauty and sex topics are recycled, over and over.”
Penny Martin, editor of The Gentlewoman, a biannual magazine based in Britain, said she helped start the publication in 2010 to provide an alternative to “anti-intellectualising” women’s magazines, which “were always covering the same five Jennifers”. Though the magazine reports on fashion, you are more likely to find a 5,000-word oral history about the radical 1989 Maison Martin Margiela fashion show than you would an article on “celebrities with very thin arms and very big handbags,” Martin said. Cover models are as likely to be about women like Angela Lansbury, Zadie Smith or the fashion photographer Inez Van Lamsweerde (wearing a fake moustache and beard) as they are about megastars.
Gravitas, which began publishing in 2014 and covers professional women in Sarasota and the Tampa Bay Area in Florida, eschews models altogether. “I use successful women so we can show what success really looks like,” said Jules Lewis Gibson, 47, the magazine’s founder and owner. “Real women shop at Macy’s, Nordstrom and Marshalls. They’re not wearing Gucci couture to the grocery store.”
Qimmah Saafir, an African-American journalist in her mid-30s, has written for a number of women’s magazines but rarely sees herself reflected in their pages. In 2015, she raised US$37,000 on Kickstarter to start Hannah Magazine, a biannual publication billed as “an unapologetic celebration of and safe space for black women.” The inaugural issue of Hannah includes an interview with singer Alice Smith, a series of meditations on new motherhood and an essay on how to grieve for black artists like Prince and shooting victims who died in 2016 .
“Nude is the default mode for pantyhose and undergarments, but whose nude is that?” Saafir asked. “It’s the same thing with media.” In her experience, black women appear as special features in magazines for white women. “It sounds crazy,” she said, “but we’ve been so used to just having one thing for all of us. And we’re all so different.” — The New York Times