If you know anything at all about Jane Pratt, it will come as no surprise that among the expected guests at the Manhattan dinner party she's throwing next Tuesday to celebrate the launch of her new web venture, xoJane, are the Beastie Boys, Courtney Love and Michael Stipe. She's famously friends with all of them, dating back to her years as the founding editor of Sassy, which launched in 1988 when she was all of 24 years old.
There aren't that many iconic magazine people who have truly transformed the culture over the past few decades. To the most obvious, oft-cited names -- Hugh Hefner with his Playboy, Jann Wenner with his Rolling Stone, Helen Gurley Brown with her transformation of Cosmopolitan, Tina Brown with her reinvention of Vanity Fair and then The New Yorker, Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe with their Wired -- I'd add Pratt. Sassy, technically a magazine for teen girls, was one of the most influential glossy bibles of indie culture in the late '80s and early '90s. (I know tons of all-grown-up media people, both women and men, who cite their youthful reading of Sassy as a major influence on their careers. I'm one of them.)
To give you an idea of how ridiculously cool Sassy was in its heyday, one of the magazine's fashion staffers discovered 17-year-old Chloe Sevigny on the street -- she interned and modeled for the magazine as its designated "It Girl" -- years before she started acting. The magazine was deeply connected to D.I.Y. music scenes from New York to D.C. to Seattle (Kurt Cobain was a house favorite way before Nirvana blew up big). And future music-video auteur and "Being John Malkovich" director Spike Jonze was the boyish editor of Sassy's short-lived brother magazine, the awesomely-named Dirt.
Pratt herself was famous enough in the '90s that after Sassy changed hands in 1994 and she bailed (the new owners destroyed the magazine and it was dead by 1996), Fairchild ended up giving her her own eponymous title, Jane (Sassy for twentysomethings, basically, launched in 1997), which lasted for 10 years, with Pratt at the helm for the first eight.
Despite forays into other media -- including short-lived talk shows on Fox and Lifetime, and a Sirius XM radio show that continues to be broadcast -- everybody still thinks of Jane Pratt as, well, an iconic magazine editor. A part of history, in other words, not the media present or the future. With the launch next week of xoJane -- backed by San Francisco-based SAY Media, a company formed by the merger of blogging software shop Six Apart and video-advertising network VideoEgg last September -- Pratt hopes to update and transform her legacy.
An excerpt from the conversation we had yesterday afternoon:
Simon Dumenco: So the first thing I'll ask is the obvious question: What took you so damn long?! People have been expecting you to do something big on the web forever. Why now?
Jane Pratt: [laughter] Yeah. It's funny, because it must seem like I went on these, like, long vacations between like Sassy and Jane and then Jane and this, but the truth is , I've been killing myself to get this going the entire time. And other than the radio show, which of course I love doing, this has been the project that I've been gearing up for ever since I left Jane magazine. It's just taken this long for it to all come together and to have the right partner and all that stuff.
Mr. Dumenco: How did you hook up with the SAY folks?
Ms. Pratt: I had been starting to do some work with Six Apart and then they merged with VideoEgg, which meant for me that I not only got to have the publishing platform but the advertising expertise that came along with VideoEgg. So it was fortuitous timing and that 's what led to us being able to launch with ad partners. [Launch advertisers will include Cover Girl, I Can't Believe It's Not Butter and Lord & Taylor.]
Mr. Dumenco: I understand you're also going to be editorial director of the SAY Style Channel as well as running xoJane. So this is a larger job than just launching your own property.
Ms. Pratt: Yeah. Exactly. I'm super-excited about that too.
Ms. Pratt: I love Jezebel. I'm a huge fan of Jezebel. But I certainly think that there's room for all of us. One of the key points of differentiation is that I am very much about developing individual voices through having them tell their own hyper-personal revealing stories.
Mr. Dumenco: I saw that you're inviting readers to submit their own true stories, a la Sassy. [A text box on the pre-launch splash page for xoJane reads, "Hey, remember 'It Happened To Me'? Yeah, we're starting that up again. If you've got an insane story about something that happened to you, please email it to us. We'll read it, go 'holy shit,' pay you, and then feature it on xoJane.com."]
Ms. Pratt: Yeah. So in that sense, some of xoJane has the feeling of a grouping of personal blogs. And then in addition to that we're also doing bigger, more magazine-style reported pieces and so there are shoots and things that bring in more of my magazine background.
Mr. Dumenco: You know, speaking of the blog sensibility, I really think Sassy helped shape and anticipate the tone of early blogging. Sassy had such a brisk, diaristic, conversational tone, which was certainly present in the 'zine [fanzine] culture of the '80s and early '90s -- which of course Sassy covered -- but was pretty rare in glossy magazines. Sassy helped make mainstream a form and style of writing that would define early blogging.
Ms. Pratt: Yeah, I do hope that that did have some influence on the voices that you get to hear now through blogs.
Mr. Dumenco: And even as blogs professionalized, I think you can trace some of the tonal quality of the likes of early Gawker and certainly Jezebel to Sassy.
Ms. Pratt: I do feel like, with Jezebel and with a whole bunch of things that are out there, and you could even extend it maybe to something like Gawker, that I feel kind of , like, I raised them so well. [laughter]
Mr. Dumenco: Except when they're brats!
Ms. Pratt: Although sometimes they're brats, exactly. [laughter]
Mr. Dumenco: Are you still a magazine fetishist? What's your mix in terms of what you're consuming web vs. print?
Ms. Pratt: Although I love the moments when I sit down with a magazine, those are very few and far between at this point. I don't love the reading experience on my iPad. I would say most of my media consumption is on my phone right now -- most of the stuff I'm consuming is while I'm in transit.
Mr. Dumenco: How big is your team so far and how big do you see this getting between your site and the SAY Style Channel overall?
Ms. Pratt: My team is now me plus three full-time [staff], and then two others who are part-time. We're going to be building that out a little bit as we go.
Mr. Dumenco: SAY is based in San Francisco, but your team is based in New York, right?
Ms. Pratt: Yeah. In one little room.
Mr. Dumenco: And what about the non-xoJane stuff you're going to be building?
Ms. Pratt: As far as other SAY properties and teams on those, we're going to take those case by case. We haven't decided on that yet.
Mr. Dumenco: OK, Jane, one last question. Tell me about this Jane's Phone thing you're doing.
Ms. Pratt: There's a part of the site called Jane's Phone, where people can go in and look at my text messages and stuff like that . I want people to be able to hear my voicemail too, but we can't do that at this point -- I think it's a legal thing. I would like people to actually be able to access everything.
Mr. Dumenco: Continuing the idea of Jane Pratt's life as an open book?
Ms. Pratt: Uh-huh. More than it ever has been. I've been probably way too open-book for most of my career.
Mr. Dumenco: It's part of your trademark.
Ms. Pratt: Yeah.
Mr. Dumenco: So if your site was launched already, right now, give me a bit of content that you'd have already published today -- this morning -- in the Jane's Phone section. Preferably something incriminating.
Ms. Pratt: [laughter] A photo of my crow's feet with a question to my friend asking if I should get emergency Botox before the launch party on Tuesday.
Mr. Dumenco: Ha! Actually, speaking of your launch party, I'm not going to be satisfied unless we all get to see cellphone photos from that night of you in a hot tub with, like, the Beastie Boys and Courtney Love -- maybe all of you making out.
Ms. Pratt: You and me both!
Edited and condensed from a longer interview.
Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. Follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.