In the age of Trump, ignore women's magazines at your own peril

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Glamour magazine.
Glamour magazine.

No one can predict with certainty the direction of women's magazines, which have struggled to maintain print circulation as newsstand sales continue to fall. But if you're placing bets on a strategy that might help them flourish, look no further than Samantha Barry, the 36-year-old woman who is reinventing Condé Nast's legacy title, Glamour.

An Irish-born millennial with hard-news experience via BBC and CNN, she's using her digital expertise to drag the title into the 21st century. Part of her plan is political. She's seizing the moment to remind female readers that the big glossies have always been the best source of reporting on topics critical to women.

With Donald Trump in the White House, Republicans in control of Congress and a potential abortion-outlawing majority coming to the U.S. Supreme Court this fall, magazines that were once fairly understated about politics have decided to take a stand. Editors at top women's titles such as Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire are ramping up coverage of sexual harassment, reproductive rights and identity politics. As younger American women use digital platforms to mobilize politically, these editors know they'll have to meet readers where they're most engaged. There's a lot of money to be made there, too.

"The general public doesn't understand the appetite women in America have today for all things politics, digitally," Barry says in an interview at Condé Nast's headquarters on the 30th floor of One World Trade Center. "I could not have picked a better year to come and work at Glamour—to talk to and with women."

And she's not alone, as the biggest name in women's magazines lends credence to this industrywide shift. "At a time when our world is so politically active, it's only right that we should be as engaged and as vocal as our readers," says Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour. "I've always believed Vogue—indeed, all Condé Nast titles—should really stand for something, and right now that's more important than ever."

Since the 2016 election, Americans have shown an increased interest in politics and demand for news. But when it comes to women, that thirst has proven unquenchable. Women of either political party are more likely than men to say they're paying more attention to politics, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey. That's almost 60% of women, compared with 46% of men.

Political involvement is up among women, too—particularly among those who are young and college-educated. Almost one in three women aged 18 to 49 have attended a political event or protest since the election, the Pew report shows. And a record number of women—a whopping 516—are running for seats in Congress this November.

Glamour, Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire are looking to capitalize on this new landscape. They've all made political news coverage a priority, while some are hiring reporters with experience in political journalism and promoting their content aggressively on digital platforms. While cosmetics, celebrities and other lighter fare remain prominent, these magazines have staked a claim in the world of hard news.

"We can't be everything to everybody when it comes to political coverage," Barry says. "The two things we want to feature this year in our storytelling are how women are voting and how they're running for office."

"Women are leading the resistance, and women's magazines have been invaluable assets in covering that story."

Cosmopolitan has published features looking to educate women on how to run for office and started a "#VoteTwice" campaign encouraging them to vote in both the primaries and midterms. "Our ambition is to spur action, whether that's running for office, registering to vote or going to the polls during the midterm elections," says Editor-in-Chief Michele Promaulayko.

"Women are leading the resistance," says Stephanie Schriock, the president of Emily's List. "And women's magazines have been invaluable assets in covering that story."

The pivot toward more aggressive political coverage is also an existential imperative. Last fall, the top editors of Glamour and Elle (as well as those at Vanity Fair and Time) announced they were stepping down in the span of two weeks. Condé Nast subsequently cut dozens of jobs and decided to publish one fewer issue a year of Glamour, GQ, Allure and Architectural Digest. Ironically, the media group shuttered the print edition of Teen Vogue—the title whose sudden, unexpected political relevance established the template for what was to come. Meanwhile, Cosmopolitan's parent, New York-based Hearst Corp., cut 130 jobs in January after acquiring Rodale Inc.

Magazine print-advertising sales in the U.S. are expected to fall a further 14.5% this year; the rate of decline is expected to exceed 20% by 2020, according to Bloomberg Intelligence, citing advertising-insights firm Magna Global. The U.S. magazine market, made up of consumer and trade magazines, will bring in $28.9 billion by 2022, down from $30.2 billion in 2017, according to a recent PricewaterhouseCoopers forecast.

Still, as print sales continue to decline, digital traffic for glossies is skyrocketing. Overall, U.S. magazine publishers are estimated to grow digital circulation revenue by 3.6% by 2022, increasing it from $1.1 billion to $1.3 billion, according to PwC. The gain will push total consumer magazine revenue back into growth for a short period of time, but that's not likely to last past 2020, when the decline in total consumer magazine circulation revenue is expected to resume.

Promalayko and Barry say the rise of digital is, in part, due to the success of their online political content.

With a print circulation of 14.9 million, Cosmopolitan is the best-selling young women's magazine. Online, the brand drew an all-time high of 26 million unique visitors in May, and its political content has reached more than 3 million readers on the website this year, according to a company representative. Glamour, which has a print circulation of 8.7 million, has raked in more than 11 million unique monthly visitors and 5% month-over-month growth in total engaged minutes. The brand's social platforms, which together total more than 15 million unique followers, have experienced similar growth this year.

Glamour's exclusive interview with Cynthia Nixon, the former "Sex in the City" star running for governor of New York, drew four times as many total minutes spent than the website's 2018 average. Meanwhile, a profile of black women running for office in Alabama saw 79% more unique visitors and 95% more minutes spent online than the average.

Indeed, by broadening their reporting to include politics, and especially issues important to minority women, big glossies are moving into territory that Essence and Ebony, magazines largely geared toward black Americans, have occupied for years.

"We're seeing a more diverse representation in content," says Amy Aronson, a professor at Fordham University and author of "Taking Liberties: Early American Women's Magazines and Their Readers." She added that "these magazines have historically been white-dominated, but there's a greater push to reflect multiracialism and other forms of diversity."

"Teen girls are so much smarter than anyone gives them credit for."

Magazine digital and social channels are drawing younger audiences, and America's youth are the most active participants in online political discourse—whether connecting with local officials, using political hashtags or looking up nearby rallies, according to Pew. When it comes to young female readers, pushing political content on digital platforms is the not-so-secret ingredient for success.

Teen Vogue was one of the first titles to draw attention for having successfully reached young women on digital platforms during the 2016 election. Policy wonks and media junkies expressed surprise when an opinion piece, "Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America," dominated the news cycle with more than 1.4 million unique views.

Teen Vogue has seen increased engagement, particularly with content on sexual health, reproductive rights and gun reform. More than one third of Teen Vogue's top performing content in 2017 was under the "News and Politics" vertical, according to a company representative. The brand's social media channels now reach 12 million. An op-ed on the post-Parkland teen gun-control movement became the top-performing Teen Vogue digital cover story of all time.

"Teen girls are so much smarter than anyone gives them credit for," says Phillip Picardi, Teen Vogue's digital editorial director, in an interview. "We've seen an immense resonance of political coverage with our audience."

While women's magazines are moving to where they think the money is, analysts say digital has yet to prove a bankable savior. In the interim, the legacy glossies are looking to diversify revenue streams in untraditional ways. Cosmopolitan has launched a jewelry collection and subscription box service and partnered with Amazon.com Inc. to introduce Amazon SmileCodes to magazine pages, so readers can purchase items instantly. At Glamour, Barry says she's working on building out brand "experiences," such as the magazine's annual Women of the Year award ceremony.

But while the magazines bet on digital via bolder, progressive political voices, some question their ability to avoid blowback from the right.

"In today's moment—the Trump era, the #MeToo moment—a lot of magazines are going further to the left," Aronson says. "Historically, it has always been the case that magazines that have reached younger women have been more progressive. And the digital magazine appeals to younger women."

It's true that some 70% of millennial women identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party, a recent Pew report showed. But among all age groups, only 56% of women are registered Democrats, and 37% are registered Republican. And while the political behavior of white married women tends to be geared toward furthering husband and family interests, younger, single women are more likely to align with those of other women, showed a 2017 study from Oregon State University.

Barry says she's committed to telling the stories of both liberal and conservative women. To this end, Glamour has hired local reporters in communities across the country to cover topics that include how the NRA has mobilized women or the experience of migrant girls at government facilities. "The onus is on Glamour to not be a silo for people's opinion," she says. She added that Glamour's September issue will feature writing from prominent Republican women.

However, neither Cosmopolitan nor Glamour will compromise coverage advocating for women's reproductive rights—an issue both magazines have championed throughout their histories. Schriock of Emily's List, which has raised over $250 million for pro-choice Democratic candidates, says women's magazines have functioned as a valuable asset in giving these campaigns visibility. Glamour's Barry says that, when it comes to reproductive rights, her magazine's position is non-negotiable.

"That is something we have a firm view on," she says.

-- Bloomberg News

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