|More than news:
The work of women’s magazine editors
This paper presents the findings of an ethnographic PhD study of magazine editors in Australia that explored their understanding of their role within their workplaces and within culture. Kicking off with a summary of the thinking that preceded the study and the choice of methodology, it then summarizes the responses given by 30 women’s magazine editors to a questionnaire (developed through interviews with other editors) and discusses reactions to the editors’ statements by six key industry figures.
Are magazines in peril?
While newspaper profitability has been sliding over the last decade, until late-2007 magazines were faring better. They seemed immune from the online-shift that is troubling newspapers. Donald Krummerfeld, president of the International Federation of the Periodical Press, said in 2007 that magazines would continue to hold their ground because readers were more accepting of magazine advertising, and magazines offered readers the luxury of an ‘escape from the screen’ (Leong, 2007). Krummerfeld’s optimism was echoed by others, including media commentator Rex Hammock (2007) who used the neat phrase “As long as there are coffee tables, there will be magazines.”
However, since 2007 magazine profitability has fallen. The Audit Bureau of Circulations figures for March 2009 show that in Australia weekly magazine sales for the quarter were 15 per cent down on the March 2008 quarter. What is not yet clear, though, is whether this fall is simply a symptom of general economic contraction, or if the magazine business is suffering from deeper problems.
Most of the concern voiced about the fate of newspapers (Obama, 2009; Beecher, 2009) centres not on love of them as businesses, but on the role they play in supporting democracy. While there is outspoken support (and in some cases government bailouts) for newspapers, and given that magazine sales are now also faltering, it is timely to consider what (if anything) stands to be lost if magazines perish in the industry upheaval. The role of magazines is not as commonly articulated as the 4th estate role of newspapers, and magazines are often interpreted as being newspapers for silly people, or for doing what newspapers do, but doing it badly. The Australian’s media commentator Mark Day summed up this view calling magazines “the least credible print products” (2005). This study aimed to explore of the role that magazines play in democratic societies by asking magazine editors what they do and why.
Why do people read this trash?
In 2007 Al Gore blasted the media for its obsession with celebrity. His tirade came as Paris Hilton’s legal skirmishes pushed his Inconvenient Truth off front pages. Gore went as far as saying that gossip media was making the United States “vulnerable as a democracy to mass and continuing distraction” (Davis, 2007). The print media’s defence against this line of criticism is summed up in an idiom attributed to ex-editor of the London Sun Larry Lamb that newspapers must aim “above all to entertain” (Ketchell, 2005). This defence throws the blame for the inclusion of gossip content squarely back onto the readers for being entertained by it. By logical extension, it also accuses the readers of neglecting the housework of maintaining their democracy because of the irresistible lure of the gossip objects.
This neglect seems like madness or gross stupidity unless it is approached from a perspective that recognises that there can be good reasons for risky, or otherwise incomprehensible, behaviour. Richard Jessor (1987) has been one of the champions of this perspective within psychology. Having published much research into anti-social and risk-taking behavior, he declared that risky behaviour was “functional, purposive and instrumental towards the attainment of goals”. Applying Jessor’s logic to the media situation leads to the question: What is functional or purposive about consuming media products full of stories that have no 4th estate news value, especially these so-called ‘least credible print products’ that are said to be ‘endangering democracy’.
This question inspired me to undertake an ethnographic study of contemporary Australian women’s magazine editors. The study sought answers from the people who create the publications, about their roles within their workplaces, in the lives of their readers, and, more broadly, in shaping culture.
Delving into the literature I found relatively little, compared to the bodies of research on other media forms, but calls were being made for more studies to address the lack both within Australia (Turner, Bonner & Marshall, 2000) and internationally (Gough Yates, 2003; Holmes, 2008). What research there is was largely conducted by women’s studies scholars. In the 1970s and early 1980s text-based studies were claiming that magazines were subordinating women by perpetuating a patriarchal hegemonic framework (Ballaster, Beetham, Frazer & Hebron, 1991; McRobbie, 1978; Wolf, 1991). In contrast, Anna Gough-Yates (2003, p. 7) argued that: “such accounts of women’s magazines offer, at best, only a partial account of the industry”. Since the late 1980s discourse theory has framed most of the research that has broadened out to include evaluation of how audiences use and interpret media products (Hermes, 1995, Beetham, 1996). In 2003, Gough Yates published one of the largest studies in the field to date, a comprehensive analysis of women’s magazines in the UK in the 1990s that wove together business and cultural-impact considerations. Echoing earlier authors (Ferguson, 1983; McRobbie, 1991), Gough Yates said that what was missing from the picture was research involving the people who actually make the magazines - the editors.
Describing gaps in the literature, Gough Yates (2003) went into greater detail and called for more ethnographic investigation of media practices. Several other media academics have made similar comments, including Mark Pearson (2007) and Angela McRobbie (1991).
Insider ethnography is the study of a group of people by one of the people in the group. The advantage of ethnographic research by insiders is that the intimacy, familiarity, shared vocabulary and context produces what anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1973) called “thick description” of the group being studied. As I had worked as a women’s magazine editor I was able to do this kind of study. The inclusion of 8000 words of my own autobiography paralleled the practice in ethnographic writing of autobiographic volumes or lengthy introductions that contain personal narratives. This practice persists because it “mediates a contradiction within the discipline between personal and scientific authority” (Pratt, 1986, p. 32). My autobiographic chapter not only put my own cards on the table but, used alongside editor autobiographies by Mark Dapin (2004) and Ita Buttrose (1985), it yielded questions that I put to seven WA magazine editors in the next stage of the study.
This second stage yielded transcripts of hour-long frank interviews about life as a magazine editor. The third phase of the research converted the answers from the interviews into a questionnaire completed by editors of 30 of the top 50 women’s magazines in Australia. The 50 magazines were selected on the basis of Roy Morgan Research ranking by overall magazine readership figures, culled to exclude magazines with less than 70% female readership. In the fourth phase of the study six key media figures were selected to represent a range of positions in the media industry and asked to comment on the results of the questionnaire. Their responses show that some aspects of the role and function of women’s magazine editors in Australia are hotly contested. The six were feminist scholar Anne Manne; newspaper journalist and section editor Jane Schulze; publishing company executive Nick Chan; media commentator Mark Day; media academic, journalist and blogger Margaret Simons; and MEAA Union Communications Director Jonathan Este. In order to draw the views of these stakeholders into the study they were each sent a copy of a 2500-word essay summarizing the editors’ responses to the questionnaire. The essay was arranged in seven sections and at the end of each section they were asked to write a comment.
Much of the work of conducting an ethnography is handling large swathes of information, and finding grounds for sorting and culling in order to give a fair summary of what the participants have said. While confidentiality was promised (in stages two and three) to encourage frankness, the data gathered was not evaluated on the basis of its claim to truth. (What unassailable benchmark of truth could have been used in this context?) Instead, all material was handled using an approach inspired by Foucault’s (1972) concept of the statement. It was deemed to be illustrative of what could be said from the position of editor and therefore, taken collectively, to show the parameters of what can be said from the position of editor. The comments from other key industry figures illustrate where the position of editor sits in relation to others involved in the print media industry.
Seven subject areas emerged from the early stages and were carried through to the final stage of the study where other industry stakeholders were asked to reflect on them. The following paragraphs present a summary of the editors’ responses to the questionnaire and a summary of the stakeholders’ comments. The numbers presented refer to the responses given by the editors of large circulation women’s magazines via an online questionnaire. It should be noted, though, that while the raw scores are contained in the thesis, here I refer to proportions, percentages and actual numbers interchangeably, in each instance using whichever figure most effectively communicates the shape of the data.
1. The people, the job
- Most magazine editors are female (93%) and in their 30s or 40 (83%). Some are in their 20s and some are in their 50s.
- Around half earn between $70,000 and $120,000 per year; 41% earn more; and only 10% earn less.
- Just over half of them have degrees; most of these degrees are in fields such as media and communications.
- 97% claim to have complete, or almost complete, control over the editorial content of their magazines.
- 59% said they had never been given job descriptions.
Describing their work, the editors said it involved: journalistic tasks (such as choosing stories, commissioning, writing and subbing); managing budgets; and promoting their magazines. Most said their work also included project management (coordinating staff, photo shoots, schedules etc) and just over half said they were involved in corporate decision making. The six industry figures responded that this summary of the role matched their expectations.
2. Instinct and editorial independence
When asked what influences, other than their own personal choices, shaped the voice of their magazines, all the editors cited concern for the readers’ interests. Most added “the mix of stories” and “the core focus or theme of the magazines”. In addition:
- 75% said they were influenced by the views of journalistic colleagues, and 62% by other colleagues including sales and admin staff.
- Only 25% said they were ‘not at all’ influenced by what their boss or publisher thought.
- Only 13% said they were ‘not at all’ influenced by how stories or features may impact on advertisers.
These last two figures, while small, are interesting when juxtaposed with the 97% who claimed to have almost or complete control over editorial content. It highlights the difference between being influenced by a boss and being controlled by a boss, and flies in the face of the persistent argument that editors are pawns of their patriarchal overlords. To pursue this point, while much has been said (Herman & Chomsky, 1988; Hamilton & Maddison, 2007) about the manipulation of the media by publishers, 90% of the editors said they had never been asked to push a political line.
More than two-thirds of the editors said that they matched their readership’s demographics by age, gender and income demographics and because of their interests, but only just over one-third said they based assumptions about their readers’ interests on their own interests. This is odd given that publishing houses often promote editors as people who understand their readerships because they are part of them (Gough Yates, 2003). The low figure for editors’ reliance on their personal understanding of their readerships could be explained by the finding that 78% reported that their company commissioned or conducted research on their readers’ interests, implying that assumptions about what readers want aren’t necessary. (This contrasted with the editors of smaller circulation magazines in stage two who said that little or no market research was done). But despite what they did or didn’t know about their readers interests, 97% of the stage three editors, said their editorial choices were ‘sometimes’ or ‘a lot’ influenced by their own personal interests - this indicates that most editors are happy to use their magazines as vehicles to explore and publicise topics they find interesting.
Responding to this, Chan and Simons both pointed out that there wasn’t necessarily a contradiction between being influenced by something and having control over decision making. Day made a similar point, noting that: “No matter how ‘free’ they are to make decisions, smart editors will canvass those around them for opinions.” This raises questions about whether editors are pressured via more subtle means embedded in corporate culture of their publishing houses, or if they are genuinely free to pursue their own interests as long as their magazines are selling well.
While I made no mention in the summary essay of the “sixth sense” (Ferguson, 1983) or “instinctive knowledge” (Gough Yates, 2003) that editors are said to magically possess, it was raised spontaneously by four of the industry figures: by Chan in the context that editors have an “ability to understand their readership, usually through instinct”; by Este conflating basing editorial choices on their own interests with going on “instincts when coming up with stories”; by Schulze stating that “gut feel for what is newsworthy” would be a critical element of content choice; and by Day, who said that market research was only a tool to make editors “feel confident he/she is on the right track”.
Simons also delved into psychological realms, questioning the influence of advertisers on editorial decision making. While 87% of the editors admitted that they took impact on advertisers into consideration, Simons argued that it was “much more influential than these figures in isolation suggest”. She added that some of this influence operated on a “semi-conscious level” to do with confusion or association of readers’ interests with the contents of the advertisements in the publication. Este also suggested subtle perceptive powers, saying editors “will not usually need overt instruction” to know what their boss’s thoughts are.
Looking at more concrete professional skills, Schulze raised the issue of “knowledge” in the context of editors’ awareness of sales figures associated with previous use of various celebrity images; Manne raised the logic of maintaining readership via “accuracy” in representation of the readers’ views and behaviours; and Chan mentioned “direct feedback and research” as contributors (along with instinct) to editors’ understanding of their readerships.
Advertorial is the industry term used for articles run in a publication that are either paid for directly by an advertiser or run to appease or impress an advertiser. They are run in a clear majority of high circulation women’s magazines, and about half of the editors consider advertorial to be a contentious topic.
While a clear majority of advertorial is labelled as such, just over half is written by journalistic rather than advertising/marketing staff. In addition, most editors work on finding newsworthy angles for advertorial and most editors speak to sales staff in order to either approve contractual promises of advertorial or because sales staff are encouraging the editors to write client-friendly copy.
The scope for conflict about advertorial was illustrated by figures that indicated that editors had power but could be overruled by their bosses. While 65% of the editors said that advertorial could only be contractually promised with their consent, only about half of the editors said they were always able to refuse to run advertorial - leaving about half not always able to refuse. Despite this, only a quarter of the editors said they thought that advertorial was damaging to their magazines in the long term.
Four of the stakeholder respondents: Manne, Chan, Este and Schulze voiced their opinion that clear labeling was important. The stakeholders also pointed out that being forced to run advertorial does not sit well with having “editorial freedom” (Manne), “editorial purity” (Day) or “integrity” (Este). Manne referred to advertorial as “dubious”, and Chan and Este said advertorial would always be contentious. These views echo the disdain for advertorial voiced by Hirst and Patching (2007) and flagged by Gough Yates (2003, p. 135), who said advertorial “had traditionally been viewed as ‘tacky’ ”.
Este also acknowledged that “special advertising projects” (advertorial) could be worthwhile and “not pure pulp”, but he also used the same foreboding terminology as Hirst and Patching (2007), saying that journalists should not be “compelled to compromise their integrity by being asked to act as covert marketing agents”. By wording it like this, Este avoids direct criticism of magazine editors who write and run advertorial. Schulze’s statement also allows leeway for journalists who write advertorial, while maintaining a principled position about how it is handled, in saying that “if the copy is clearly labeled it didn’t matter who wrote it.”
Executive Chan stressed that editors should have a major say in whether a publication runs advertorial or not, but have “very little say” in the content, unless the content is “misleading, deceptive or inappropriate for the magazine brand”. This juxtaposes nicely with Simon’s point that this calls into question the claim that most editors have “complete control” over the content of their magazines. Day posited that editors may run advertorial, despite their dislike of it, because they are “sufficiently savvy about the real world to understand the need for strong revenue”.
4. Cultural creatives or journalists?
Around two-thirds of editors found their work artistically satisfying, and the same proportion did not restrict how much of their own ‘voice’ was in their publications. Whereas just over half of the editors said their ‘voice’ was discernable in their copy, three quarters said that their magazines had a ‘voice’ discernable from their own.
A clear majority of magazine editors said they considered themselves to be journalists, and that the journalistic code of ethics applied to their work. But their sense of distance from journalism was reflected by the 81% who said their work was substantially different from newspaper work and the half who said their work was not well understood by journalists in other media. The sense of difference was confirmed by the two-thirds who said that the magazine community was separate from the journalistic community, and the three-quarters who said the magazine community was a subset of the journalistic community.
Despite their ambiguous relationship with journalism as a profession, 94% of editors expressed contentment with their jobs (that runs counter to Day’s (2005) view of magazines as inferior media products) and said that they would not prefer to be working in hard-news media. In addition, 84% said that they shared camaraderie with other magazine editors.
Asked about how their perceptions of the role of editor had changed over time, the majority deemed the job to be less glamorous but more interesting, creative and draining than expected. About half said it was about the same as they had expected in terms of ‘fun’ and a further 39% said it was more fun. The draining aspect should not to be taken lightly, though, with 62% claiming to be at risk of burnout.
Asked about downsides to their work, the most common responses were to do with administrative work and dealing with advertising. Favourite aspects of the job included pride in the magazines, creativity, and dealing with people, including colleagues, contacts and readers. Overall, the editors gave more positive than negative responses to the job satisfaction questions.
Only two of the industry respondents commented on the creativity and satisfaction components of this section: Chan said he thought editing was both creative and satisfying; and Este lamented that, by extension, the data meant that a third of the editors were not creatively/artistically satisfied by their work.
This study set out to explore the cultural function and potential value of magazines in the face of industry upheaval and of clear enunciation of the value of hard news/newspaper journalism. If magazines are measured by the same standards as newspapers are measured they will clearly be found lacking, and so this study asked editors about the other functions magazines might serve. The problem with measuring magazines by the standards of journalism is illustrated here. Media commentator Day, as mentioned earlier, publicly hates some magazines. He echoed those sentiments here, calling some (specifically named) women’s magazines “comics” and saying their authors/editors “should be ashamed of themselves, whether they think they’re involved in journalism or not”; and he claimed that these editors had “long since jettisoned any journalistic rules or ethics”. Manne made a similar comment, saying “obsession with celebrity ... legitimately undermines our respect for the editors as serious journalists”; and Schulze made a similar point, questioning the research practices of magazine writers and comparing them unfavorably with what, she claimed, was the usual practice of newspaper journalists.
Este, representing the journalism union, was unequivocal in saying that “magazine journalists are still journalists”, although, he flagged the acrimony between newspaper writers (such as Schulze and Day) and magazine writers saying: “There is nothing inferior about magazines per se, although many in the newspaper business may try to give that impression!” He then goes further, however, and sides with the newspaper writers, in judging magazines by the standards of traditional newspaper journalism and saying that magazine writers who abandon “research, narrative sense, flair, accuracy [... or] ethics ...are likely to end up with an inferior product.” Whereas magazine executive Chan referred to editors as journalists, he invoked a different yardstick and said the audience’s decision to “buy it or not” was an “honest” measure of quality.
It is interesting to juxtapose Day’s comment about some magazines containing “made-up trash - the figment of a writer’s fervid imagination, [that] they seek to justify ... because a large audience laps it up” with Chan’s statement that editing “draws on one’s creativity” and is an “honest business [... because] your audience will buy it or not”. While the subject matter of these two statements is similar, the opinions they express about audience assessment of products are diametrically opposed. This kind of difference of opinion indicates the value of research about reader behaviour, such as Hermes (1995) and McRobbie’s (1996). Day’s comment was reminiscent of the early feminist magazine researchers who Hermes accused of “holier than thou moralism ...[and of speaking] on behalf of others who are, implicitly, thought to be unable to see for themselves how bad such media texts as women’s magazines are” (p. 1).
Simons addressed this area of contention, saying that some magazine content “is fiction, not journalism” but she goes further and suggests that this fiction may serve serious purposes. In her book The Content Makers (2007) she argued that celebrity reporting may play a similar role to the morality plays of old. This connects with Pinkola Estes’s (1992, p.14) claim that “stories are medicine ...embedded with instructions which guide us about the complexities of life.” Pinkola Estes was speaking about folk tales and their tellers, but in the light of Simon’s comment it is possible to equate women’s magazine editors (who select and create the content of their magazines in order to nurture and inspire their readers) with the old-fashioned storytellers and their cultural role.
Most editors (nearly 90%) said that they thought their readers were curious about them as editors but only two-thirds thought that their jobs gave them celebrity status. Asked about more specific aspects of celebrity treatment, just less than half said they were invited to events (not just to report on them) and only a third said other media reported their attendance at the events. These responses indicate that while celebrity treatment is part of life for some magazine editors, it is not universally part of the job.
Adding more detail about how editors react to this treatment, one-third said they enjoyed attending events in the role of editor while two-thirds said they were indifferent about it. Considering the convention of including the editor’s photo and letter at the front of the magazine, more than three-quarters of the editors said it made them feel more personally responsible for the content of the magazine than if they were not there.
Responses to this section by the key media figures were fairly brief and the dominant theme was lack of surprise. Chan noted that more than 75% of the editors claimed the appearance of their photo and letter at the front of the magazine made them feel more personally responsible, and expressed surprise that not all editors felt personally responsible. This may be a misreading of the data, however, as the remaining 25% may feel personally responsible with or without the photo and letter. Este commented on this statistic as well, saying it was good that the letters served as a personal guarantee of quality. He also offered up publicity fatigue as an explanation for the editors’ ambivalence towards celebrity treatment.
6. Pushing barrows
When the editors were asked if they had ever promoted products or services through their magazines for personal reasons, such as getting discounts on goods or to secure tickets to events, 90% said ‘no’. The number of editors prepared to admit to pushing ideas, themes and causes was higher, as 60% said ‘yes’.
This raises the question: what stops editors from filling their magazines with causes and opinions that they feel passionate about? ‘The need to prioritize stories of interest to the readership that may not interest the editor’ was ticked by 90% of the editors. This implies a sense of detachment and distinction between the editors’ interests and the readerships’ interests that is curious in the light of earlier responses where most editors claimed to be part of their readerships by age, gender and income demographics and by interests. Paradoxically, it seems that editors see themselves as being simultaneously part of and not part of their readerships, or it could be that readerships are defined by more than just simple demographics and that editors are aware that they are catering for audiences defined by particular common interests.
Most editors said ‘the character of the magazine’ held them back from filling their publications with personal raves. On the flipside, only 10% said they needed to be cautious about offending or discouraging advertisers. While this number is small, it indicates a cognizance of potential financial consequences among, at least, some editors.
The questionnaire asked the editors what they sought to offer their readers. More than half ticked the following:
- Inspiration to aspire
- Information about new and unusual products they could buy
- Escapism from the daily grind
- Information about things to do and places to go
- Education about other people in their community
- Pride and/or contentment in where they live
- A sense of safety
Asked to add other things that magazines provide they suggested:
- Information about community services
- Education about where they are
- Information so they can carry on great water cooler conversations (community bonding)
- Health information
- Financial advice
- Visual pleasure
- Humour, competitions and puzzles
- A chance to win life-changing prizes
Most of the responses from the six media figures described the editors’ work in the coldly commercial context of the readership (sales figures) and advertisers (whom they can’t afford to offend). No attention was paid by the six to the possible existence of altruistic motives in the editors’ clearly stated aims of providing emotional support and encouragement to readers - other than Manne’s statement that it was an “interesting” way of reading women’s magazines “which conflicts with the more dour Woman’s studies reading of them” and Simons’ comment that it was “interesting” to see words like ‘aspire’ and ‘succour’ mentioned.
Picking up on the figure of 90% of editors who said readers’ interests limited their barrow pushing, Schulze said that editors could only push barrows that “readers want pushed” and Chan said it wouldn’t be “tolerated by readers ... if it was not in sync with the target readership”. Day echoed this, saying that freedom to express opinions was not “one-size-fits-all”, adding that it was dictated by the readership, and only possible in tightly nichéd publications (where the readership presumably shares those views). These three statements downplay the potential for editors to change the views of their readerships by implying that they can only echo opinions already held.
Three of the six media respondents expressed familiarity with support of causes in women’s magazines, with Schulze and Manne mentioning promotion of breast cancer awareness, and describing it as appropriate because of its resonance with female readerships, and Este adding that he sees the support of causes as one of the bases of sound journalism.
Este picked up on the 10% of editors who said they had used editorial power to secure discounts, tickets or goods, saying that he believed it to be more widespread but that discussion about it was suppressed by the shame and censure within the journalistic community surrounding “actively solicited payola”. This connected with comments from two of the editors interviewed earlier in the study who offered that it would be very easy to use their position for personal gain but that they felt it would be unethical to do so.
7. Cultural change agents
When the editors were asked whether they sought to report on and/or influence culture, two-thirds of them said that if they could only do one of those two things it would be to influence culture rather than to report on it.
When the magazine editors were asked how they thought they influenced culture, two-thirds said that it was by framing certain social movements in a positive light. Just over half said they had given marketing support to fledgling businesses; just under half said that they had imported styles and ideas from overseas; and just less than a third said their cultural activism was achieved through subtext throughout their publications. This low response for ‘subtext’ is interesting, because much of the past discussion about magazine content has been based on the presumption that there is subtext. Other possible mechanisms for achieving social change suggested by the editors were: raising awareness of health and social problems; and providing positive reinforcement to people who are living socially co-operative lives.
When the editors were asked on which issues they were promoting cultural change, 20 of the 30 responded. The issues they raised can be categorized into: generalised benevolent sentiments; issues that require state or federal political action; issues that require community or local government action; and issues that require individual action including encouraging readers to become political activists.
- The generalised benevolent sentiments included: tolerance, generosity, fairness, respect for the disabled, valuing motherhood, national pride, and active citizenship.
- Social causes requiring government action included: access to dental health care, tougher sentences for people who abuse animals, paid maternity leave, fair trade, fighting against domestic violence, strengthening communities to prevent child abuse, making communities more child-friendly, supporting young talent and considering the role of parents in the workforce.
- Causes that require action by individuals included: organ donation, the way people perceive food in their daily lives, the kind of foods people buy and prepare, how people travel, and how they behave in relation to marriage, weddings and family relationships. This cluster also included an editorial campaign being run by one of the magazines that encouraged readers to become activists on issues related to their environments, their schools, their communities, the friends and families and to animals and wildlife. It also included health-related issues, including breastfeeding, exercise, healthy eating, weight loss, preventative healthcare and lifestyle change to improve health.
Determining whether these causes and qualities are deemed virtuous because they are promoted by magazines or whether they are promoted by magazines because they are virtuous was beyond the scope of this study, but these responses at least provide a clear statement of intent on the part of the editors that differs from the usual journalistic mission.
With the exception of Chan, the industry figures did not accept the idea that magazine editors see themselves, and function, as cultural change agents and they offered a number of different lines of resistance to it. Simons raised the point that advertising may limit editor activism, in that editors may not be able to promote issues that directly oppose the interests of their advertisers. Este expressed surprise at the editors’ preference for influencing rather than reflecting culture, but suggested that it is “hip to be on message” with climate change and poverty, thanks to celebrity alignment with these issues. His inference seems to be not that editors are seeking to influence culture but that they are keen to be seen as ‘hip’. Manne called for more research to test whether editors were deluded in their sense of achievement on these issues and accused them of possibly being “somewhat Pollyannaish”. These representations of editors as deluded Pollyannas and wannabe hipsters contrasts sharply with Ferguson’s (1983) vision of women’s magazine editors as wise women guiding femininity and culture.
Day took a typical journalistic position of disassociating the act of journalism from specific potential impacts on readers, saying “Everything we write influences someone, somewhere. You just never know who and how.” In doing that on the part of an inclusive “we”, he neatly disempowers the editors and places them in the Pollyanna position proposed by Manne. Schulze refused to allow the editors the potential of any real power by referring to her previous comment that editors could only push barrows that readers ‘wanted’ pushed. This puts them in the position of following culture rather than influencing it and again it challenges their self-perception. In contrast, Chan looked pragmatically at a combination of factors, including the frequency of publication (and consequent focus on issues rather than news), editors’ aims to inspire, entertain and inform, and “the power and ability of magazines to create a community of readers” and said that it was inevitable that magazine editorial would shape cultural change.
It is difficult to distil an ethnography down into a single pithy line, as the richness of the data (that is the central point of value in an ethnography), is diminished with each contraction of the text. That said, I believe this study illuminates the position of women’s magazine editor as someone who is responsible for editorial decisions but also enmeshed in a workplace where input from others needs to be (and is) taken into account. Advertorial is a topic often negotiated within workplaces, while overt political direction is rarely given. Given the choice about what to include in their magazines, editors are obsessive about their readers and prioritize their audience’s needs over almost everything else. The editors were also upfront about topics they are promoting cultural change on. While they work activist content into all parts of their magazines, most editors deny using subtext. Others in the industry challenged the idea that magazine editors are cultural change agents, indicating that the editors are either deluded or being successfully subversive. The study also unearthed odd perceptions about magazine editors possessing a sixth-sense that enables them to intuit what their readers want. A disturbing addendum to the data presented here is that the study also documented comments from editors and others noting that editors commonly lost their jobs when their intuition failed. This seems unfair and may well contribute to the stress and risk of burnout reported by most editors.
In addition to flagging that this study is potentially a valuable resource for other researchers looking for insight into magazine production processes, I hope that this paper might inspire journalism educators to consider the skill sets required by editors and to start incorporating more discussions about the role of magazines into their courses.
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